First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents

First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents

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by Bonnie Angelo

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Bonnie Angelo, a veteran reporter and writer for Time, has captured the daily lives, thoughts, and feelings of the remarkable women who played such a large role in developing the characters of the modern American presidents. From formidably aristocratic Sara Delano Roosevelt to diehard Democrat Martha Truman, champion athlete Dorothy Bush, and hard-living


Bonnie Angelo, a veteran reporter and writer for Time, has captured the daily lives, thoughts, and feelings of the remarkable women who played such a large role in developing the characters of the modern American presidents. From formidably aristocratic Sara Delano Roosevelt to diehard Democrat Martha Truman, champion athlete Dorothy Bush, and hard-living Virginia Clinton Kelley, Angelo blends these women's stories with the texture of their lives and with colorful details of their times. First Mothers is an in-depth look at the special mother-son relationships that nurtured and helped propel the last twelve American presidents to the pinnacle of power.

Editorial Reviews

Fresh and unique insight that is simply and gracefully written.
—Hugh Sidney
Helen Thomas
Bonnie Angelo has written a superb book depicting and defining the profound influence of mothers on so many presidents. Angelo found the key to presidential personalities and ambitions — their mothers. Her book is beautifully written and long needed.
Hugh Sidey
First Mothers offers fresh and unique insight that is simply and gracefully written. A mother's hand shapes and inspires presidents — and those who would be — more than any other force, and by so doing carries this grand republic along. —Time
Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Through new research, Bonnie Angelo has assembled a fresh and enlightening perspective on that most primary of all human relationships — motherhood. First Mothers gives us the human beings, in their attributes and deficiencies with an understanding narrative voice.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Presidents are born, not made, right? On the contrary, claims Angelo, a veteran Time correspondent, who makes it clear that it's the cut of the apron and the strength of its strings that turn a son into a president. The 11 first mothers included in this illuminating and irresistibly readable book--every presidential mother from Sarah Delano Roosevelt on--all instilled in their sons supreme confidence and (with the exception of Sara Roosevelt) an awareness of social issues. Drawing on letters, interviews (including those with Presidents Ford, Carter and Bush) and historical evidence, Angelo paints vivid portraits of these "indomitable American women" whose gumption and drive to see their sons succeed were (with the exception of Virginia Clinton Kelley) very much steeped in what Tocqueville described as a 19th-century spirit of independence. In fact, while all these women were "highly individualistic," Angelo points out how much they had in common: all of them married late, and most of their marriages were marked by terrible trials and tragedies. Angelo explains that she started with the story of FDR's mother because his presidency marked "the beginning of contemporary America and the modern presidency, the prize that now can be won only by men of supreme self-assurance who are willing to withstand the grinding process and microscopic examination." While telling their individual histories, Angelo also draws fascinating parallels that indicate how the grounded philosophy and fighting spirit of the mother became that of the son (e.g., Lillian Gordy Carter learned from her father to treat blacks with care--an attitude that was decried by their neighbors but had an enormous impact on Jimmy Carter's presidential focus on equality). 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Lane Zachary. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
According to journalist Angelo (Time magazine), mothers have served as the "wellspring of confidence, toughness, and resilience" necessary to the success of the last 11 presidents--from FDR to Bill Clinton--and this collection of thumbnail biographies has a relentlessly upbeat tone. Fun-loving and much-married Virginia Clinton Kelley takes the biggest hit: the author holds her responsible for Clinton's "personal character," which, she remarks, "is flawed." Richard Nixon's character, on the other hand, is not described as "flawed" but as "complex." His mother gets off scot-free, although Hannah Nixon never kissed or hugged her children (just as well, according to her son, who described the custom as "nauseating"), nor did she ever tell any of them that she loved them. But, Angelo concludes, the profound bond between mother and son "requir[ed] no reassurance through word or touch." A different analyst might have explored this relationship more trenchantly. This book will attract a lay audience, not a scholarly one.--Cynthia Harrison, George Washington Univ., Washington, DC Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
All-to-brief if tantalizing bios of the mothers of 11 presidents, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to William Jefferson Clinton. Less about the mothers themselves than their relationships to their famous sons, this collection whets the appetite for more information about these First Moms. Veteran Time correspondent Angelo includes information from personal interviews with three former presidents, as well as the siblings, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren of seven others, to add a fresh dimension to often well-worked material. The mothers, like their sons, offer distinct contrasts: the privileged and redoubtable Sara Roosevelt vs. the pioneering Martha Truman (who survived Indian raids on the frontier and spent three years in a Union"detention camp" during the Civil War); the undemonstrative, self-effacing Hannah Nixon balanced against the feisty and outspoken Lillian Carter; the wellborn and athletic Dorothy Bush set against the flashy Virginia Clinton Kelley (whose interest in sports stopped at the racetrack). Keeping the pseudo-psychology to a minimum, Angelo nevertheless finds many similarities among these women, not the least of which is devotion to and ambitions for their children—often the presidential son in particular. Although most of the mothers suffered tragedy or hardship in their lifetimes, virtually all were intelligent, opinionated, concerned about social issues, and generally optimistic about life. And lastly, almost all were"daddy's girls," devoted to their own fathers and equally cherished in return. That, Angelo speculates, built up a self-confidence that they were able to pass on to their own children. The author also introducesthefuture First Ladies as the prospective brides were brought home to mother. Some relationships worked better than others, but Virginia Kelley's straight-faced comment is a keeper:"for me, Hillary has been a growth experience." Some provocative glimpses, but not much more. (16 pp. b&w photos, not seen)

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First Mothers
The Women Who Shaped the Presidents

Chapter One

To the Manner Born

A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success.
--Sigmund Freud

A Restless young Franklin Roosevelt, under strict quarantine for scarlet fever in the Groton school infirmary, was startled by the scraping sound against the red brick wall, followed by a gloved tap on the window'and then the apparition of his mother, the regal Sara Delano Roosevelt, peering into the room. She was perched on a workman's ladder, risking her safety and shattering her dignity to circumvent the no-visitors edict.

From that precarious roost, she talked with him each day and even read to him. When she learned of his illness she had rushed home from Europe to comfort him; from the day he was born her son had been her total concern.

When he was a student at Harvard, she rented an apartment in Boston to oversee his social life. When he and his young wife needed a larger house, she provided it. When he was stricken with polio, she pampered and cosseted him, against his wishes. When he was president, she schemed to bring the White House up to her standards. And when he was contemplating divorce, she threatened (so it was whispered) to cut off his funds from the family fortune. Whether Franklin wished it or not, Sara Roosevelt was determined to do what she deemed best for him. Not that she always won. After all, she had shaped this son in her own mold'confident, determined, and pleasantlystubborn when it came to getting his own way.

From the beginning she and her husband, James Roosevelt, created a world of privilege and principle, a secure little universe in which Franklin could grow up on the family estate at Hyde Park, covering hundreds of acres in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley. Shielded by his family's position, he was exposed to only a small circle of family, servants, the local gentry, and a few deferential shopkeepers in the village that bordered on Roosevelt land. The values and lifestyle of his parents were emblems of the world of a disappearing landed aristocracy.

At first their relatives in the other branch of the family'the Republican Roosevelts'regarded Sara and James as an odd couple. It is unlikely that Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, whose son Teddy was away at Harvard, had harbored any intention of matchmaking when she invited her daughter's good friend "Sallie" Delano to a dinner party that included, among other guests, cousin James, a widower of fifty-one, a rather formal man with muttonchop whiskers'and a son Sara's age. Sara was twenty-five, tall and graceful at five-foot-ten, and world-traveled. By the end of the evening, Sara had accepted an invitation to visit him at Springwood, his country home, properly chaperoned, of course.

In May 1880 Sara arrived at Springwood; Hyde Park was abloom, and before the visit ended, so was love. Years later Sara wrote a nostalgic letter to her son, then the governor of New York:

Darling Son:

Just 51 years yesterday, the 7th, I came to visit. If I had not come then, I should now be "old Miss Delano" after a rather sad life!

That Sara was still unmarried when she met James was astonishing. She was one of the five "beautiful Delano sisters," as New York society called them, daughters of another family in the Hudson Valley aristocracy. Numerous young men paid court to her, only to be rejected as not suitable by her father, Warren Delano II. (One such was Stanford White, a budding architect whom she found charming, but her father did not, ordering her to return his flowers with a cold letter that would end the friendship. Warren Delano was a good judge of character, at least when it came to this young man, who became a great architect'and a notorious womanizer who, in the great scandal of the times, was killed by a jealous husband.)

When Sara fell in love with James Roosevelt, she chose'perhaps subconsciously'a man who was very much like the father she adored, a protective man, a gentleman of substance. When James proposed, her answer was a prompt yes. Then came the awkward moment when he had to ask his old friend and contemporary Delano for his daughter's hand in marriage. James gently reminded the reluctant Warren that when he married Sara's mother he was almost twice her age. With that, he won the point and the maiden. Only six months after their first introduction, Sara and James were wed under a canopy of flowers at Algonac, the Delano estate across the Hudson, downriver from Hyde Park.

From that day forward, theirs was a happy life. A year after that first visit to Springwood, Sara was pregnant. She was a healthy young woman of twenty-seven, yet her labor was long'more than twenty-four hours'and harrowing. When the pain became more than her body could endure, the doctor administered chloroform, in much too great an amount. She lost consciousness. When the baby was finally delivered, he was limp, blue, and unresponsive. Only when the doctor desperately breathed into the tiny, quiet mouth did the infant begin to breathe. "It was nearly fatal to us both," Sara recalled as the son she had almost lost became president. Happily, mother and child came through the ordeal in good shape: "At quarter to nine," the relieved father recorded in his diary that evening, "my Sallie had a splendid large baby boy. He weighs 10 lbs., without clothes." To the new mother's eye, he was "at the very outset, plump, pink, and nice."

Sara Roosevelt was never pregnant again. Perhaps the near-death experience was too frightening to risk repeating. Or perhaps she was so confident that hers was the perfect child, there was really no need to...

First Mothers
The Women Who Shaped the Presidents
. Copyright © by Bonnie Angelo. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are saying about this

Helen Thomas
A superb book depicting and defining the profound influence of mothers on so many presidents.
—(Helen Thomas, UPI White House Bureau Chief)
Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Fresh and enlightening perspectives.
—(Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author of FIrst Ladies)

Meet the Author

Bonnie Angelo is the author of First Mothers. During her more than twenty-five years with Time magazine, she has reported on the White House and has covered newsmakers and events across America and the world. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland, and New York City.

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First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent history of Mother's of our presidents. I give this as a gift to young mothers.
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