First Lady Michelle Obama meets with Melania Trump for tea in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House, Nov. 10, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
Michelle Obama hosted a “tea and tour” meeting today with Melania Trump, after the latter accepted the invitation of the former, to discuss living in the White House and public expectations faced by presidential spouses, and any secrets that may have been passed down since 1908, when this traditional ritual between First Ladies began. The first time it took place was a transition that couldn’t be friendlier – between a president-elect who’d been the anointed successor of his predecessor.
Not so their wives.
Not only had the newly-elected William Howard Taft served as incumbent President Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of War but they had become genuine friends.
That was never the case with their wives, Edith Roosevelt and Helen “Nellie” Taft.
The iciness was all too evident on the tour, which took place on December 11, 1908. Edith Roosevelt found Nellie Taft to be too aggressive and ambitious, while Nellie Taft found Edith Roosevelt to be an elitist snob. Read the whole story in their picture together below, in the photo gallery that follows this brief historical overview.
Abigail Adams, (left) depicted as Vice President’s wife in an engraving of a reception, was a friend and close observer of her predecessor Martha Washington.
In 1797, during the first such transition, when outgoing first First Lady Martha Washington was turning over the presidential mansion in Philadelphia (the nation’s second temporary capital city, before the permanent capital city of Washington was established) to Abigail Adams, there was no such event, the latter skipping the inaugural ceremony of her husband John Adams, and remaining home in Massachusetts.
Abigail Adams, a close friend of Martha Washington, was nevertheless familiar with the presidential mansion, always in attendance at the first First Lady’s social gatherings.
During the presidency’s first century, many president’s wives did not serve as the public hostess, live in the presidential residence or were even alive when their husbands were elected. Abigail Adams was the first to live in the White House but her husband’s successor, Thomas Jefferson, was a widower.
A depiction of the White House burning, 1814.
The wife of the next president, Dolley Madison, fled the White House because it was burned by invading British troops during the War of 1812, and her successor Elizabeth Monroe didn’t even have a rebuilt house to occupy for several months. Beset by epilepsy and severe arthritis she gave no tour to successor Louisa Adams in 1824.
In 1828 and 1836, respectively, Jackson and Van Buren were elected as widowers. In 1841, Harrison died before his wife could arrive in Washington. Tyler inherited the presidency but his wife Letitia was paralyzed by a stroke and died a year and a half later.
Julia Tyler and Sarah Polk: night and day.
Some form of the First Ladies tour, however, did take place two days before James K. Polk was inaugurated.
On March 2, 1845, he and his wife Sarah Polk were invited by First Lady Julia Tyler and her husband, President John Tyler to join the last dinner for all the outgoing Cabinet members and their wives.
Few succeeding First Ladies were more radically dissimilar. Julia Tyler was the 24 year old New York socialite who eloped with the widowed President Tyler in June 1844 who so loved to dance that a series of “Julia Waltzes” were named for her. Before leaving her position, she held a “Grand Finale Ball” for three thousand guests with endless champagne. “Sahara Sarah” Polk was a rigid Methodist who banned both dancing and liquor. Learning that Mrs. Polk turned down a congressional appropriation to refurnish the White House, Mrs. Tyler declared her to be “monstrously small.”
Incoming First Ladies from 1848 to 1869 got no tea and tour.
Then came a dry spell. In 1849, Mrs. Taylor didn’t join her husband at the Polk dinner. In 1850 and 1853 Mrs. Fillmore and Mrs. Pierce both delayed coming to the White House. Buchanan was a bachelor. Eliza Johnson arrived in 1865 after Mary Lincoln left. With President Andrew Johnson openly hostile to his successor, Julia Grant got no tour in 1869.
The White House luncheon hastily organized and hosted by outgoing First Lady Julia Grant (back to viewer) for her successor Lucy Hayes (seated at left, talking to Mrs. Grant).
One outgoing First Lady had a chance to talk about White House life with her successor and show her about a bit, when partisan expediency revived the custom of the outgoing First Couple hosting a private dinner for the incoming First Couple was revived in 1877.
Since the election of Republican presidential candidate Rutherford Hayes was in dispute, fellow Republican President Ulysses Grant arranged for him to be secretly sworn in as his successor before inauguration day, since it fell on a Sunday, and religious observation then prevented the ceremony from taking place that day – yet would leave the nation without a chief executive since Grant’s term officially ended at noon on March 4, 1877. Lucy Hayes attended the dinner with Julia Grant as her host.
Mrs. Grant’s enthusiasm about life in the White House, however, proved a bit too exuberant for her successor. During Hayes’s public inaugural ceremony on Monday, Mrs. Grant decided at the last minute to host a luncheon for Mrs. Hayes, even though she was no longer technically First Lady. She lingered for hours, hating the idea of having to leave.
Lucretia Garfield, seated at far left, on the 1881 Inaugural Parade stand, her predecessor Lucy Hayes at far right.
In 1881, Lucy Hayes and her husband hosted a dinner for her Ohio friend and successor Lucretia Garfield and her husband. Garfield was assassinated, succeeded by widower Chester Arthur.
In March 1885, Arthur’s sister and hostess Molly McElroy, however, hosted a transition dinner and tour of the White House for the incoming bachelor President Grover Cleveland and his sister and hostess Rose Cleveland.
Cleveland married in 1886 and lost his re-election campaign two years later. The night before the March 4, 1889 inaugural, however, Frances Cleveland hosted a White House dinner for he man who won and his wife, Benjamin and Caroline Harrison. Cleveland won the White House again in 1892 but, of course, his wife knew the place already.
Outgoing President and First Lady Grover Cleveland (second from left) and Frances Cleveland (far right) hosted a White House dinner for their successors Benjamin Harrison (second from right) and Caroline Harrison (far left).
Her successor Ida McKinley skipped the 1897 dinner Mrs, Cleveland hosted for president-elected William McKinley the night before the inaugural. Following McKinley’s September 1901 assassination, as he lay in state in the East Room, his successor’s wife Edith Roosevelt made a brief visit to his widow but Mrs. McKinley was in condition to show her successor around.
So it was, following Taft’s 1908 election that Edith Roosevelt made some history. She’d taken considerable pride in the renovations she’d overseen to what was officially declared “the White House” during her husband’s presidency.
The greatest change was the creation of the West Wing to serve as the executive offices, thus making the second floor entirely the domain of the presidential family. Although more Victorian in her reluctance to assume too great a public role, Edith Roosevelt was well aware of the challenges facing those expected to assume responsibility for a presidential household that was both private and public. So, despite her dislike of Mrs. Taft, she invited her come look around and started a presidential tradition.
First Lady Nellie Taft unexpectedly encountered her predecessor Edith Roosevelt at the railroad depot in New York 1912. Their transition meeting took place on December 11, 1908.On that day, Mrs. Roosevelt slipped her arm into Mrs. Taft’s and guided her through the public state rooms as well as the private family quarters. After lunch, as they entered the Green Room, nervous Nellie quipped in a whisper loud enough for Edith to hear, “I would have put that table over there.” Mrs. Roosevelt wrapped her dagger in the aristocratic tone of her voice and placid smile. “It is merely the case of the setting sun, but the sun must at least set with dignity and self respect.’They were soon joined by the president’s celebrity daughter, “Princess Alice” Roosevelt Longworth, who sized up her stepmother’s replacement. Once Mrs. Taft left, Princess Alice tucked in her chin, bulged her eyes, and cracked up the First Lady with a spot-on impersonation of Mrs. Taft. “This, my dears, is what is coming after you!”
On Monday, March 3, 1913, Nellie Taft (left) invited Ellen Wilson to the White House and alleviated her successor’s anxieties (she’d had a crying jag before coming to the White House), with details about transportation, domestic staff salaries, government greenhouses providing flowers for events, the Marine Band providing entertainment and how they could even take federally-salaried staff with them on their summer vacations.
Ellen Wilson died as First Lady in 1914 and President Wilson remarried a year later to Edith Bolling Galt, thus she had no tour. After Florence Harding’s husband was elected in 1920, Edith Wilson (left) invited her for the “tea and tour” in early December. It did not go well. First, Florence Harding (right) said she’d come with her friend Evalyn McLean, a public critic of the WIlsons. Edith said no. Florence arrived, veil on face, glasses over veil and spoken loudly and effusively as they sat for tea. Edith claimed she could hardly “stem the torrent” of Florence’s talking. Deciding she would not conduct the tour, Edith called the housekeeper as soon as she could. Two hours later, she heard the loud voice of Mrs. Harding on the ground floor, imperiously directing the kitchen staff.
When she arrived back at the White House on August 11, 1923, following the burial of her husband in Ohio, the now-widowed Florence Harding was welcomed on the steps of the North Portico by her successor, the new First Lady Grace Coolidge. Before Mrs. Harding got to work on sorting and packing her late husband’s papers, a portion of which she burned to protect his reputation, she and Social Secretary Laura Harlan gave Mrs. Coolidge a tour of the family living quarters. On August 17, Mrs. Harding vacated the mansion for occupancy by the Coolidges.
Pictured here on March 4, 1929, driving together to the inauguration, the last day Grace Coolidge (left) served as First Lady and the first day for her successor Lou Hoover. Already close friends for the previous eight years (Coolidge had been Harding’s Vice President and Hoover had been Secretary of Commerce to both Harding and Coolidge), Mrs. Hoover was frequently in the White House and already familiar with the layout and running of it.
Lou Hoover rides with Eleanor Roosevelt to FDR’s March inauguration. Days earlier, bitter that her husband had been beaten by FDR, a cool Mrs. Hoover showed her old friend Mrs. Roosevelt through the White House. When Eleanor asked to see the kitchens, Lou said she’d never gone there – and didn’t intend to do so now. Mrs. Roosevelt went through the swinging doors and looked it over herself.
Eleanor Roosevelt leaving the White House after her tour with Lou Hoover. She walked to and from there from her nearby hotel, shocking the staff as an independent act that defied tradition.
Bess Truman (far left) at FDR’s fourth inaugural ceremony, January 20, 1945, was given a tour of the family quarters by Eleanor Roosevelt (far right) after his April funeral, a day before the widowed First Lady vacated the mansion. She later quipped that she was relieved to see that Mrs. Roosevelt’s closets were as messy as her own.
A happy Bess Truman after showing her friend and successor Mamie Eisenhower around the recently rebuilt White House, December 1952. Described by reporters there that day as having a “little Ethel Merman on the side,” Mamie offered some sassy play with the press, telling them her coat was “real mink – of course.” After she was gone, Bess rolled her eyes and warned they’d be seeing “lots of pink” in the new regime.
Behind their smiles, there was resentment. Goaded by reporters to give them a date when she would tour the incoming First Lady around the house, outgoing First Lady Mamie Eisenhower asked her to come – right from the hospital where she’d given birth by cesarian section. Weak, her doctors insisted that Jackie Kennedy be pushed around in a wheelchair, Having no intention of doing so herself and wanting to take her through the rooms alone, Mamie had the chair hidden until Jackie asked for it. She never asked for it and trudged through the whole place, depressed at the fact that Mamie had a dentist’s chair installed in a small closet and had double-TV sets cut out through portholes in the wall.
Holding her young son, Jacqueline Kennedy rides with her successor Lady Bird Johnson and President Johnson to the US Capitol Building for services honoring her assassinated husband. Before she moved out of the White House on December 7, 1963, however, Mrs. Kennedy conducted Mrs, Johnson on a full tour of the White House, in preparation of the latter’s family taking occupant. When she arrived, Mrs. Johnson found that Mrs. Kennedy had left her a bouquet with a note: “Remember, you will be happy here.”
One of the smoothest First Lady transitions took place in December 1968, when Lady Bird Johnson gave the tea and tour for her old Senate wife colleague Pat Nixon; they’re seen here reviewing the floor plans of the mansion with Chief Usher J.B. West.
The suddenness of her husband’s resignation on August 8, 1974 prevented outgoing First Lady Pat Nixon from giving a tour to her friend and successor Betty Ford. As the Fords escorted the Nixons to the helicopter that would lift them away from the White House forever, Pat Nixon whispered an aside to her successor about the red carpet rolled out for them to walk down. She’d see so many of them in the years to come, said Mrs. Nixon “that you’ll come to hate them.”
Since Mrs. Nixon was unable to tour her through the family quarts, Betty Ford was shown around by the Chief Usher Rex Scouten and curator Clem Conger, seen here with her in what was Tricia Nixon’s bedroom and would be used as Susan Ford’s bedroom.
The Carters and Fords pose together under the canopy awning leading out onto the White House south lawn, following a tour by Betty Ford for Rosalynn Carter, November 22, 1976. Depressed at her husband’s loss to Carter, Betty Ford did not have much enthusiasm for leading around his wife. In later years they became extremely close friends and Mrs, Ford even asked Mrs. Carter to deliver her eulogy.
Rosalynn Carter’s November 1980 tour of the White House for her successor Nancy Reagan proved even more difficult than Betty Ford’s had been for her. Mrs. Reagan claimed that Mrs. Carter did not show her all of the family rooms, considering them still too private since her family was still living there. Afterwards, a story gripped the press claiming that Nancy Reagan had asked to have a wall removed in the Lincoln Bedroom and wondered if the Carters could move out a little early, so she could get a head start on decorating.
In what was the latest scheduled tea and tour, Nancy Reagan led her successor Barbara Bush all through the White House on January 11, 1989, nine days before the inaugural. Since Mrs. Reagan met her in the upstairs hall and not outside, the press assumed that no tour was going to be given. Upon request – so she could give her maid a good idea of where she would be working and living – Nancy Reagan led Barbara Bush even into the laundry rooms and upstairs servants’ kitchen. When the picture of the two women was released, it was dubbed “Battle of the Plaids.”
Even though her husband was beaten for a second term by her successor’s husband, Barbara Bush proved upbeat and warm in welcoming Hillary Clinton for the tea and tour in November 1992. As they passed the press, she warned her to “steer clear of this crowd.” Upstairs, she took her into the small sitting room in the southwest corner of the second floor that was traditionally used by First Ladies and pointed out the perfect view one had from there right into the Oval Office.
It was perhaps the warmest transition tea and tour ever conducted by an outgoing First Lady and her incoming successor, On December 18,2000, after the disputed election of her husband had been settled Laura Bush arrived to be welcomed by Hillary Clinton – once the locked doors of her secure limo could finally be opened. The press, looking to create a story had already claimed that Laura arrived late – when, in fact, it was Hillary who had been delayed. As they went through the entire house, Hillary recalled some of her happiest times in the different rooms and halls. Laura found her “gracious and forthcoming. She gave her some advice and recalled her regrets that she’d taken a controversial office in the West Wing and also passing up an invitation from Jackie Kennedy Onassis to the ballet because of her work schedule – and Jackie ended up dying shortly thereafter. After Hillary showed her tomatoes she grew on the parapet of the solarium on the top floor because “you just can’t get good tomatoes” – and Laura ended up doing the same thing.
In late November 2008, Michelle Obama was warmly welcomed by Laura Bush for her tea and tour, the outgoing First Lady recalling stories she knew about her mother-in-law Barbara Bush’s tour in 1992 for Hillary Clinton. She invited Mrs. Obama to come back for follow-up visits with her daughter and mother, who would be also moving into the White House. On a subsequent visit, the two Bush daughters were there to greet and talk through life there with the two Obama daughters.
Categories: First Ladies
Tags: Edith Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Julia Tyler, Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Nancy Reagan, Nellie Taft