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First lady of the United States

Elizabeth Monroe

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

History came alive on the distaff side last Monday night, as Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan talked about the nine first ladies born in New York State. Kaplan, a longtime resident of this area, author and prominent member of the Three Village Historical Society, combined her appreciation for history and art with delicious details from the lives of the nine women to make a delightful and informative evening at the Setauket Neighborhood House.

So who are those women?

Some of them we can tick off readily: Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan. Others are shrouded in more distant history. They are the wives of Presidents Monroe, Van Buren, Tyler, Cleveland and Fillmore.

Here is an example of one of Kaplan’s anecdotes about these women. Elizabeth Monroe, born of an aristocratic Loyalist family in 1768, who disregarded the disapproval of her father to go ahead and marry the patriot James Monroe, is generally credited with saving the life of Madame de Lafayette. The wife of the French hero of the American Revolution was incarcerated as a result of her aristocratic heritage during the Reign of Terror and about to be guillotined, as had been her grandmother, mother and sister before her. At the time, Monroe was the ambassador to France, but was unable to officially intercede. Elizabeth Monroe, not bound by diplomatic constraints, acted on her own and publicly went to visit Mme. Lafayette in prison, promising to return each day. Not wanting an appearance of conflict with America, the French authorities released Mme. Lafayette the next day.

When Monroe became president, did the American public appreciate his wife? They did not, as Kaplan reported. She was far too elegant and aristocratic for American tastes.

Tyler’s wife, Julia Gardiner, born on Gardiner’s Island, was known a bit infamously as the “rose of Long Island” and was called “madam presidentress,” the term “first lady” not having been coined until much later. Gardiner was Tyler’s second wife, and she attracted a lot of attention by being the first to marry a sitting president and for being 30 years younger than him. Tyler’s eldest daughter was five years older than her stepmother.

And so the stories unfolded, Kaplan keeping her audience totally engaged for well over an hour. Martin Van Buren, the first president to be born after American independence, and the only president to speak English as a second language, married his childhood sweetheart, Hannah Hoes. She spoke Dutch at home with her husband and was his first cousin once removed. Millard Fillmore married Abigail Powers, a schoolteacher. Both were upstate New Yorkers.

Grover Cleveland, who served two terms, but not consecutively, married Frances Folsom, a woman 22 years younger. A bachelor when he entered office, he married the daughter of a close friend. He had looked after her as executor of his friend, Oscar Folsom’s, estate and simply waited until she was old enough before they married. At 21, Frances was the youngest first lady, and she was well-liked. She is appreciated for having started kindergarten in schools.

The other first ladies are well known to us. Eleanor Roosevelt is credited as the most influential and active first lady in our history. The longest-serving first lady, as wife of four-term president Franklin Roosevelt, she went on to a public life of her own. Jackie Kennedy became an American idol and is known for her cultural efforts and redecorating the White House. Barbara Bush, with her forthright style, her constant loyalty and support of her family, and refusal to dye her hair when her husband became president, was always a more popular figure than he. And Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s second wife, was a diminutive and elegant first lady whose life was dedicated to protecting her husband after the assassination attempt that wounded him and his press secretary.

They are fascinating women and we can claim them as our own.