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Nothing in my life reaches the climax of human bliss I felt
when, as a girl of sixteen, I was entertained at the White House.
-- HELEN "NELLIE" HERRON TAFT
"To write about one's childhood," Nellie Taft cautiously stated in her memoirs, "is not easy." First she explained she didn't have any memories that were "sufficiently 'early' to have any special value." Then, when she admitted to having a "score" of childhood stories, she decided that they were "hardly worth relating." In what she attempted to pass off as self-deprecation, her reason for keeping her childhood to herself was that it was "quite commonplace."
A superficial glance at her early years would suggest privilege and comfort. It was deceiving. In fact, it was so "not easy" for her to turn back that she kept her childhood to herself. It was in those early years that all the conflicting emotions, ambitions, insecurities, and self-definitions that characterized her as a public figure were set. As always, it began with her parents.
Her father was a brilliant lawyer who could probably have been electedPresident had his wife "allowed" him to pursue a path to that office as his best friend and a college friend both successfully did. After John had completed the folly of one term as a state senator, Harriet Herron would not relent in her opposition to his taking any further public service posts until five of their six daughters were married off. John's later stint as a U.S. district attorney lasted only four years. Otherwise, his life was spent working to support the vision she had for herself and her daughters as being part of the Cincinnati upper class. Nothing was more important to John Herron than keeping Harriet Herron happy, and nothing was more important to her than keeping up appearances -- despite the anxiety it created over their financial stability. Yet even when she was living the life she thought was best, Harriet would complain. The day after Christmas one year, she wrote that "John is spending it at his office where most of his holidays are spent, engaged in the usual problem of making ends meet at the close of the year."
John was born on May 10, 1827, in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. His great-grandfather, Francis Herron, had emigrated from County Wexford, Ireland, ninety-seven years earlier, settling in the Pequa Valley, so any trace of a brogue had long faded from the family. John's father, Francis, died when he was fourteen, but the son dutifully made frequent visits from Ohio to his mother, the former Jane Wills, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, until her death in 1877.
Attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he became president of the Theta Pi fraternity, John befriended Benjamin Harrison (as President of the United States, it was Harrison who would name Herron to the only appointed public office he held, that of district attorney). A loyal alumnus, he would serve as chairman of the university's board of trustees for fifty years, cultivate potential faculty to build its prestige, and preside over its founding-day celebration. That a woman's gymnasium was later named for him was ironic in light of his belief that "women should never sweat; they might perspire a little bit, become a trifle moist, but never sweat." Of all his daughters it would be Nellie who consistently defied such old-fashioned notions and eventually did so in such dramatic fashion as to seem to be proving a point to him about women's capabilities.
After reading for the law, Herron leased office space in Cincinnati and opened a sole practice. Unable to afford the rent alone, on January 8, 1850, he took in another young attorney with whom he began a lifelong bond. It was a friendship that would prove decisive in shaping the direction of Nellie's ambitions. Herron was a man "of good habits, education, and mind--a good fellow, by accounts and by appearance," according to the diary of his new friend, Rutherford B. Hayes. The duo helped found Cincinnati's Literary Society, and when "Ruddy" was dating Lucy Webb, he even had her stand a "cross-examination" by Herron, who had guessed correctly that they were engaged. "I am inclined to think he is in the same interesting predicament," Hayes surmised, regarding John's lady friend Harriet Collins.
John and Harriet married on March 7, 1854, in the Cleveland home of her brother, William Collins. Lawyer, banker, and later director of the Lake Shore Railroad and East Cleveland Railroad, Willie had come to Ohio to pursue business opportunities a year before with Harriet, their brother Isaac, and widowed mother Maria Clinton. They had migrated from the family seat of Lowville in western New York where, as descendants of the town's founders, they had been the recognized social leaders. Harriet had been born there on September 15, 1833, when her father, Elijah, was forty-seven years old.
The great-great-grandson of a Bramford, England, immigrant, Elijah Collins had been a Democratic congressman from New York's twentieth district, a seat his son Willie later held, both serving one term each (1823-25 and 1847-49, respectively), long enough to earn the title of "honorable." While Willie would become a Republican when that party ran its first presidential candidate (1856), Isaac remained a Democrat, even serving as a delegate to the convention that nominated Samuel Tilden, who ran against Hayes. A Yale graduate, he later became a judge.
Elijah's death had left the family in genteel poverty. In an era when a girl's status was defined by her father's prestige, it was especially hard for fifteen-year-old Harriet. She soon found refuge in heraldry. Her maternal grandfather, Isaac Clinton, was a Revolutionary War hero and minister. Through her grandmother Charity Welles, however, Harriet boasted an astonishing ancestry of Saxon, Celtic, Nordic, Gallic, Roman, and even biblical kings, saints, and nobility, documented in medieval church records and ancient castle guides ...
Excerpted from Nellie Taft by Carl Anthony Copyright © 2006 by Carl Anthony. Excerpted by permission.
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