Thursday, March 31, 2016

Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era, by Carl Sferrazza Anthony

This week I'm reviewing a biography I managed to stumble across at the used bookstore about Nellie Taft, First Lady and wife of President and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (and Cincinnati son) William Howard Taft. I have been interested in Nellie Taft for a while after reading Goodwin's text, The Bully Pulpit in which Nellie was briefly described and she seemed like an incredibly fascinating person. Conventional would never be an adjective you could apply to Nellie during the entirety of her life and in an era when most women of her social class were expected to be wives and mothers, Nellie was driven by a desire to be much, much more. Personally I rather like this book because it offers insight into the life of one of the most vivacious First Ladies.

I'll begin with a criticism I had of the book's organization, which was one of my main concerns with the text. The book is divided into twenty chapters and a full nine of those deal with her life before becoming first lady. It begins with her childhood in Cincinnati, as well as her frustrations with the enforced idleness her class and gender brought upon her, and her rebellion expressed in a variety of ways. We then follow her as she marries Will Taft and directs his career, pushing him away from the court and towards more executive positions such as governor of the Philippines and Secretary of War. This culminates in her pushing Will and manipulating Theodore Roosevelt to achieve her ultimate ambition: the White House. Another eight chapters are spent going over the four years the Tafts spent in the White House, a combination of triumph and tragedy with the final betrayal of Roosevelt. Finally the last thirty years of Nellie's life are covered in three very brief chapters.

Personally I feel like this didn't place a lot of emphasis on Nellie's achievements after being First Lady, acting as a proponent of social reform and a frequent world traveler after Will died in 1930. Especially considering this is a book and Anthony could easily have dedicated more space to those subjects. The result makes the last thirty years of Nellie's life pass as a bit of a whirlwind. Certainly Nellie was an individual blessed with an abundance of energy and seemed to approach everything with extreme gusto, but it seems a discredit to her later years to briefly gloss over them compared to everything else. But this is ultimately a personal quibble of mine and in no way detracts from the value of the book overall.

When Nellie Taft was described to me in Bully Pulpit it was as a sort of late nineteenth century rebel. Born to an impoverished upper class family in Cincinnati, Nellie was sent to the very best schools and received a proper upbringing. However, the expectation for upper class white women at the time was marriage and motherhood, with perhaps a series of teas, luncheons, and light charity work. Nellie, however, was someone who simply could not stand the prospect of doing little to nothing and was constantly driven to seek more from her life. This resulted in her rebelling in a variety of ways.

There was of course the traditional teenage rebellion in drugs, alcohol, and gambling, Nellie developed a taste for beer and liquor, was described as an extremely good card player, and was a lifetime smoker of cigarettes. (Especially rebellious considering it wasn't ''acceptable'' for women to smoke before then Twenties.) However, her rebellion also took a far more creative path as well. Wishing to not be a financial burden to her parents, Nellie tried at various times to be a professional musician and writer, without much success, but also worked as a schoolteacher for a period of time. Although tame by today's standards, this was absolutely shocking and Nellie's mother was actually concerned Nellie might drive suitors away by being a working girl. Nellie also established salons with her friends, discussing a variety of topics which is how she met William Taft. Although she rejected him multiple times, she eventually consented to agree to marry him because he respected her as an intellectual and her demand to be an equal partner with him in all things, rather than subordinate.

For most of their marriage Nellie would be Will's greatest adviser and would help steer his career towards the White House. A significant exception is when Will took a slight detour working on the circuit courts and leaving Nellie for long periods of time in Cincinnati. Not one to remain idle, Nellie helped found and organize the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, still an important institution in Cincinnati today and equal to the orchestras of cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. When Will was appointed Governor of the Philippines, Nellie reveled in the position and used her influence in a variety of ways. And when she goes to the Philippines, this is where I give Nellie a ton of credit.

Unlike a majority of people of her class and background, Nellie is willing to work with and cooperate with the local cultures instead of trying to dominate. Wherever she'd go Nellie would try the food, talk with the locals, try to learn the language, and treated everyone with dignity and respect. Now of course, Nellie's egalitarianism did not extend to everyone. Anthony admits that Nellie had an extreme class prejudice and preferred to hobnob with the monied, landed, and educated class rather than the poor working class. But, where she differs from contemporaries, as Anthony points out, is that Nellie welcomes people regardless of race, creed, or gender so long as they're the right class, and makes an effort to integrate all ceremonies and events in the Philippines. Her willingness to work with local Filipino elites puts her ahead of many Americans who viewed the world with the racism endemic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her decision later on to include black servants at the White House, something not tolerated previously, is also a significant step forward.

Something that Anthony emphasizes is that Nellie uses her position both as wife of the governor and later First Lady to bring about social reform. In the Philippines Nellie promoted natal care programs which went a long way towards reducing infant mortality on the islands. As First Lady Nellie worked to improve working conditions for federal employees, many of whom were trapped in substandard buildings with poor light and ventilation. In addition she worked to create the park on the bank of the Potomac River where the Jefferson Memorial currently stands and was influential in beginning the planting of thousands of cherry trees in Washington, D.C. which are a major tourist attraction to this day. And in a variety of other matters, large and small, Nellie used her considerable influence with Will to bring about positive change as the First Lady, often inundated with letters from people seeking her help.

The real tragedy of all of this is that Nellie did not get to enjoy being First Lady terribly much at all. After all, Will's real ambition was the Supreme Court and it was only at Nellie's insistence that Will ran as a candidate at all. Unfortunately in May of 1909, just a few months into their four year tenure at the White House, Nellie suffered a stroke and lost control of both the right side of her body and the ability to speak. Although she eventually recovered and continued to live a full and active life, it greatly curtailed her ability to act as the First Lady and enjoy the power and privilege that came with the position. Will was emotionally devastated and left bereft of the person who had been his chief supporter and confidante for decades. Coupled with the ordinary stress of being president, Will overate constantly and fretted, reaching almost four hundred pounds which would have a long term effect on his health. And in the latter half of his administration, the Tafts dealt with the specter of a resurgent Roosevelt, which would eventually make the election of 1912 one of the bitterest in American History. However, Nellie found purpose again after leaving the White House, finally indulging herself with all of the pleasures she so often had to deny when making due with Will's salary. In her last years Nellie was a frequent world traveler, despite being over seventy years old, and remained extremely vivacious.

I will make a few comments on some other things in the book, although I'm aware I've let this post go for quite some time as it is so I'll try to keep it brief. As a Cincinnatian myself, I take an inordinate amount of pride in my city and I find it rather interesting that while Anthony says Nellie was quick to defend Cincinnati against anyone who might speak disparagingly of it, she certainly did her damndest to get the hell away from Cincinnati for the rest of her life, to the point of putting off seeing her own grandchildren because it'd mean coming to Cincinnati. Anthony also states very strenuously that Nellie was certainly not an alcoholic during her life, despite her great love of wine, beer, and liquor. Personally I feel like Anthony doth protest too much considering Nellie seems to go into great detail about what she was drinking later in life in letters to her son, Charlie. Certainly alcoholism would be a foible of Nellie's character, but it doesn't detract from her other good qualities.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book because Nellie Taft is a fascinating example of a woman rebelling against societal norms and using power and influence to bring about social change, sometimes subverting those societal norms she's rebelling against. Although not the most famous of First Ladies, she's a great example and something all future First Ladies (or perhaps I should say First Spouses) should aspire to exceed. Despite its flaws, I highly recommend this book and encourage everyone to go out and read it.

- Kalpar

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