I’m posting this picture for no particular reason other than that it features Grace Coolidge’s infectious smile and the president also with a rare relaxed and smiling mien. (I believe this was just prior to her flicking some whipped cream into his face). Taken June 3, 1926 at “a garden party.”
In an interesting photo dated Sep. 26, 1924, president and Mrs. Coolidge are standing in front of the Executive Office Building with two somewhat incongruous guests – Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
Just a quick note to report that Grace Coolidge gets a spot on thedailybeast.com’s scrupulously nonpartisan listing of the 10 best-dressed First Ladies. Or maybe that IS a sly dig at Ronald Reagan’s deficits when they say that “red became a signature color of the Reagan years” ?
What was Calvin Coolidge like as a dad? For one thing, as running for office and holding office were his (only) hobbies, he was often absent, particularly in his Boston years, when he commuted home to Northampton on weekends. When he did spend time with his boys, he was apt to imbue them with the spirit of thrift and discipline. Thus, when walking past the Northampton bank where John and Calvin Jr. had their savings accounts, he would remind them, “Boys, listen here a minute and maybe you can hear your money working for you.”
There is little question that Coolidge was of the stern-yet-kind father variety portrayed in period movies. Raised on 19th-century notions of child rearing, he expected prompt obedience from his boys, resorting to the occasional cuff to the ears when they were misbehaving, but largely ruling by direction and precept rather than force. Placing great value on education, he closely scrutinized their reports and made tart observations when they were doing less well than they could have.
But his strictness was generally tempered with humor. An anecdote related in Ishbell Ross’ biography of Grace Coolidge relates one incident where Calvin Jr. was on the receiving end of his father’s impish humor:
The Coolidges sometimes went to Rahar’s Inn in Northampton for Sunday supper, where Calvin had taken his meals for seven years before his marriage. The boys considered this a treat. They had the run of the place and here young Calvin had his first encounter with a finger bowl. A thin slice of lemon floated on the water. He looked up at his father and inquired about its purpose.
“To drink,” said his father solemnly. Calvin picked it up and drank, until his mother explained the true function of the bowl.
Another episode related by Grace Coolidge concerned a lesson in thrift. The family had spent a night with Mr. and Mrs. Stearns at their Swampscott residence. There, Mr. Coolidge overheard Mr. Stearns asking young Calvin about a gift of five dollars, which he had sent him as a birthday gift and which the boy had neglected to acknowledge.
“All the way to Poland Springs the following day, his father questioned Calvin about what he had done with the money. After we arrived and had been shown to our romms young Calvin was seated at a desk, given a pencil and paper, and bidden to write down all the things he could remember for which he had spent his five dollars. At dinner time he had not made much headway.
The following day was an uncomfortably hot Sunday. We attended service in the chapel. The visiting minister had a long sermon. There was no air stirring. I do not believe that many who were in the congregation followed the discourse closely. After we had left the church and were walking back to the hotel, my husband turned to me and asked, “Mammy, what was the sermon about?” “Mercy,” I said, “don’t ask me!” Turning to the boys, he asked, “John, what was the sermon about?” “I don’t know,” was the answer. Then it was Calvin’s turn. The question was repeated. The boy squirmed uncomfortably and said he didn’t remember. “Yes, you do, too,” his father told him and kept at it until, with a resigned shrug, his son murmured, “Aw, spending money!”
Oct. 4 is the wedding date of Calvin Coolidge and Grace Goodhue; this year marks the 105th anniversary of that 1905 event.
The couple was married in Burlington, Vermont, in a modest ceremony that Grace Coolidge’s biographer Ishbel Ross contrasts with the Vermont society wedding of that same day between Ralph Pulitzer and socialite Fredericka Webb. It was a rainy day, but Calvin is quoted as having said, “I don’t care anything about the rain so long as I get the girl.” Local interest in the wedding was concentrated on the bride; no one suspected that the reticent, somewhat tense red-haired man beside her was destined to be president.
After the ceremony, the couple left the house, which had been beautifully decorated in autumnal leaves and seasonal flowers, behind them as they “motored” to their honeymoon destination, Montreal. Famously, the honeymoon, scheduled for two weeks, was cut to one week at the request of the groom. His wife agreed, when she could see that he was anxious to get home, not least because he was getting low in funds after the expenses of the wedding. Later, Grace related that “he made the amusing explanation that he was in a hurry to get back to Northampton in order to show off his prize” when it more truthfully was “his first political campaign which drew him.”
Incidentally, in running for the School Board, Coolidge suffered one of only two defeats he experienced in his political career. When a friend remarked to him that he had voted for his opponent because he felt the school committeemen should have children in the public schools, Coolidge replied: “Might give me time.”
There’s a charming blog post over at the Salvaged Grace blog, about beautiful Sea Island off the Georgia Coast south of Savannah. This is one of Georgia’s barrier islands, also known as the Golden Isles.
The Coolidge connection to Sea (and Sapelo) island is as follows: Industrialist Howard Earle Coffin, a founder of the Hudson Motor Car Company, had previously acquired Sapelo Island as a private retreat. Then, Coffin began buying tracts of land on St. Simon’s island, and later purchased all of what was then Long Island, before renaming it Sea Island. Envisioning early on that the automotive revolution would transform the previously fairly inaccessible Georgia coast into a tourist destination, Coffin built 20 miles of roads, repaired and improved the causeway to the island, then enlisted designer Addison Mizner, known for his “Spanish Colonial Revival” style work in Palm Beach and Boca Raton, for the Cloister hotel and thus began the development of Sea Island into a resort that today is still owned by the descendants of Coffin’s cousin.
Coolidge visited the newly opened Cloister hotel during the 1928 holiday season. With his wife, he also had been a guest at Coffin’s private retreat on Sapelo Island, joining his host and other guests on hunting and fishing outings. Apparently, he went hunting for only the second time in his life on Sapelo Island and was elated when he bagged three pheasants and two wild turkeys which he carried home personally. Coffin had rebuilt and extended the island’s south-end mansion into one of the most palatial homes on the coast; it became known as The Big House. During the Coolidges’ 1928 stay at the mansion, their portraits were painted by Salisbury.
Pictures courtesy of Georgia’s Virtual Vault
Over at the delightful The Aesthete Cooks blog, I spotted a very nice entry featuring a recipe for Coffee Soufflé submitted by First Lady Grace Coolidge for a 1924 cookbook. The author notes that Grace Coolidge considered herself fairly helpless in the kitchen, which prompts me to add an anecdote told by her biographer Ishbel Ross in Grace Coolidge and her Era:
Although much has been written about the domestic skills of Mrs. Coolidge, her most devastating critic was Calvin. In fact, her pies and biscuits figured among his stock jokes in the early days of their marriage. He was apt to drop one of her biscuits on the floor and stamp his foot to emphasize the thud. His wry comments before guests on pie crust that resembled cement failed to douse his wife’s bright spirits.
“Don’t you think the road commissioner would be willing to pay my wife something for her pie crust recipe?” he asked two of her friends from Clarke School after he had urged her to serve them some of her pie. “Only those who have been placed in a similar position can imagine my feelings as I sat and watched them eat that dreadful pie, my husband also looking on with an inward glee of which I alone was aware,” Mrs. Coolidge later recalled. “At last the final morsel was consumed amid loyal exclamations of approval.”
While the later president comes across as somewhat mean-spirited in this episode, Ross points out that in the Coolidge family, the kidding went both ways, and that no one more readily made fun of Calvin, or went so far in mimicking him, than did his wife.
The position of First Lady, while unsalaried and without any official duties, is nonetheless a highly visible one, and its functions have evolved over time beyond the classic one of being the hostess of the White House.
In recent decades, we’ve become accustomed to seeing First Ladies adopt socially relevant causes and lend their charm and prestige to these non-partisan and non-divisive causes. Thus, Lady Bird Johnson adopted the causes of environmental protection and beautification of especially the nation’s capital; Pat Nixon promoted volunteerism; Betty Ford entered potentially divisive waters by championing women’s rights; Rosalynn Carter adopted mental disbilities as her cause; Nancy Reagan worked for drug awareness; Laura Bush advocated literacy, and Michelle Obama is emphasizing helping women balance career and family.
In Calvin and Grace Coolidge’s day, the role of First Lady was not yet as publicly visible as today. Her primary and customary role as hostess was one she filled with exemplary grace, easily complementing her retiring and introverted husband.
The one cause she adopted, in a quiet way, was her interest in the deaf. At the age of 23, she enrolled at the Clarke Institute for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. Here she learned lip reading, and the didactic necessities of working with and teaching deaf children. She began her work there by teaching primary children, and later taught in the intermediate school.
It was during her three years at Clarke that Grace Goodhue, as she was then, met Calvin Coolidge – her first encounter having a humorous touch, as reported by her biographer Ishbel Ross:
“One day as Grace was watering the flowers (…) she chanced to look up at the Weir House and saw a strange spectacle. A man stood at the window, shaving. Grace stared, for undeniably he wore a hat, and also apparently his union suit. She burst out laughing, then turned away and continued sprinkling the flowers. The man was Calvin Coolidge and he had heard the hearty laughter that was to become a familiar part of his future life.”
In her years in the White House, Grace Coolidge never forgot her interest in the cause of deaf people and while she did not publicly plead their cause or lent backing to the needs or demands of private institutions, she frequently mentioned the deaf, especially deaf children, at private and official functions, quietly spreading the word. Her concern for the special needs of the deaf undoubtedly caused her husband to give special heed to such programs that would affect the well-being of the handicapped. Shortly before the Coolidges left the White House, a group of wealthy and influential friends and backers, among them Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, philanthropist Edward S. Harkness, and publisher Cyrus H.K. Curtis, offered the president $2,000,000 to fund a memorial library or to use as he saw fit. Characteristically modest, the president declined the offer, and, no doubt thanks to the efforts of the First Lady, the full amount, a very substantial sum for the times, was used to fund the Clarke School.
In the final years of her life, she worked with her numerous private and political contacts to support a centennial development program for the school. As Ishbel Ross recounts, this was all done very quietly and after her death in 1957, fellow trustee Senator John F. Kennedy would comment:
“As a fellow trustee of Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, I have a strong personal recollection of her untiring devotion and labors throughout her life to this most worthy cause… Since her days in the White House she continued to epitomize the qualities of graciousness, charm and modesty which marked her as an ideal First Lady of the Land.”
Admittedly a poor excuse for a blog post, but I’m always pleased to find Coolidge images. All images courtesy of the Digital Collections of the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.
Over at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library & Museum blog, an interesting post reminds us of Coolidge’s progressive (for his time) views on women’s suffrage. The 19th Amendment, giving women the right and privilege of voting was ratified in August of 1920, after the Tennessee legislature had ratified the amendment by a one-vote margin, making the Volunteer State the nation’s 36th to pass the amendment. Coolidge had long been in favor of women’s suffrage.
Check out the blog post, and the accompanying picture showing then-Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace (who cast her first vote in a Federal election in November of 1920 – presumably for the Republican ticket that included her husband as vice-presidential running mate to Warren G. Harding) at the ballot box in Northampton, Mass. It would be interesting to see what share of the women’s vote Harding/Coolidge and Coolidge/Dawes received in 1920 and 1924, respectively.