Secrets Of America's First Ladies

It isn't all that strange for political scandals to erupt in the White House, but it is a bit strange for the first lady to be involved. The secret stories about these first ladies are often kept tightly guarded by the president, the press, and the women themselves. Yet, that hasn't kept the women of the White House from leading lives that are just as eventful and intriguing as those of the men in the Oval Office. In many cases, their squeaky clean public images are not reflective of how these first ladies actually lived.

Some of these women have served as the president's closest adviser and confidante, and at least one of them is known to have essentially filled in for her husband. Some first ladies have helped construct policy, while others have enacted literal construction projects. Though the public life of a first lady is always on display, these women have found unique ways to carve out their personal lives behind the scenes, and some have allowed themselves to play a supporting role in public, despite being far more involved in politics than their appearances suggested.

  • Eleanor Roosevelt is best remembered for her political activism as a champion for minorities and the poor. But behind her activism and aristocratic veneer, her marriage to President Roosevelt was a highly complicated relationship. While her husband carried out a long-term affair with his secretary, Lucy Mercer, Eleanor had her own ongoing liaison with Associated Press reporter Lorena Hickok, whom she met during an interview in 1932.

    The two immediately clicked and began a long, extremely close friendship with exceedingly romantic overtones. They were so close, in fact, that Hickok eventually acknowledged that she was too close to her subject to remain impartial, resigning from the AP and spending much of her time with Eleanor. Their relationship has been preserved through their many letters, which can be found in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

  • Nancy Reagan's Astrological Obsession
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    Ronald Reagan's presidency was filled with about as much drama as an eight-year term could hold. Following the 1981 attempt on President Reagan's life, a stressed-out Nancy Reagan began consulting famed astrologer, Joan Quigley. Gossip columnists were quick to play up the story, although the White House issued statements saying that Nancy's interest in astrology was merely a hobby. Nevertheless, several Reagan confidantes have revealed that Nancy's interest went far beyond that of a hobby.

    Quigley herself has said that Nancy's consultations ran the gamut from mundane matters of every day life, to Cold War Politics, to timing when State of the Union addresses would occur. According to Quigley's sister, Nancy would listen "religiously" to the astrologer's advice. Which, frankly, is exactly what a Cancer with a Sun in their Fifth House would do.

  • Was Edith Wilson The First Female President?
    Photo: Wikipedia Commons

    Without doubt, Edith was an important presence on her husband Woodrow Wilson's cabinet, but after her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, she refused to cede control to the vice president and Wilson's staff. As her husband's "steward," Edith effectively ran the executive branch of the administration for seventeen months, until the end of Wilson's term in 1921. Although Edith Wilson didn't have the title, her political maneuvers arguably made her the first female president of the United States.

  • Elizabeth Monroe's Bad Attitude And The Strange Illness That Caused It
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    Elizabeth Monroe was not well-regarded in Washington society - her father had been a British Loyalist, and her exclusion of spouses at White House dinners was seen as being too European for the newborn democratic nation. Plus, Elizabeth was considered snobbish and condescending and was only rarely seen in public.

    What her critics didn't know, though, was that she suffered from a mysterious ailment that caused her to fall to the floor, unconscious, at unpredictable times. Elizabeth may have suffered from epilepsy or narcolepsy, known at the time simply as "the falling sickness." Nevertheless, it sounds like a pretty good excuse for being in a bad mood all the time. 

  • Mary Todd Lincoln's Scandalous Shopping Habit
    Photo: Jim Surkamp / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Abraham Lincoln's neurotic and high-strung wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was nicknamed "The Hellcat" by Lincoln's staff. Mary Todd was infamous for her violent temper, emotional outbursts, and generally outrageous behavior. But maybe her most damaging contribution to Lincoln's public image was her compulsive shopping habit.

    In Mary Todd's defense, she had a lot going on at home, including the tragic death of her 11-year-old son, William. And years after her husband's assassination, she even spent a few months in a mental hospital. However, at a time when the nation was in dire financial straits due to the outrageous costs of the Civil War, perhaps Mary Todd could have spent taxpayer money on something a bit more practical than 300 pairs of gloves

  • Martha Jefferson Randolph Was The Keeper Of Thomas Jefferson's Darkest Secrets
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    Martha Jefferson Randolph Was The Keeper Of Thomas Jefferson's Darkest Secrets

    Widower Thomas Jefferson invited his accomplished daughter, Martha, to the White House when he was elected president in 1800, and Martha readily accepted her beloved father's offer in hope of escaping her own difficult marriage.

    Although Martha was a perfect hostess for Jefferson, she also held another more complicated role: Martha shared a maternal grandfather with Jefferson's slave mistress, Sally Hemings, making her the aunt of the six children Jefferson fathered with Hemings. This was a dangerous secret that, if revealed, had the potential to destroy Jefferson's career. Martha stayed quiet on the subject, denying it privately and never acknowledging it publicly.