What is it like to be America's First Family? In this wonderfully engaging book, Bonnie Angelo, Time correspondent and acclaimed author of First Mothers, probes two hundred years of American history to tell the story of real life within the White House walls—how presidents, their wives, children, and extended families worked to create a home in an imposing national monument while attempting to keep their private lives from the public domain.
First Families chronicles exhilarating moments as well as dark days at the nation's most famous address, with fascinating, behind-the-headline accounts of picture-book weddings, gossipy love affairs, rollicking children, domestic squabbles, and tragic deaths. From activist wives Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton to reluctant occupants Bess Truman and Jacqueline Kennedy, to those such as Mary Todd Lincoln, Dolley Madison, and madcap debutante Alice Roosevelt, who embraced their new address and status, here is an unforgettable human portrait of our First Families and how they coped, stumbled, or thrived in the national spotlight.
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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
First FamiliesThe Impact of the White House on Their Lives
Stepping into History
Washington sparkled like anicicleafterablizzard roared in as the 1961 inaugural celebrations were beginning. On any other day a snowstorm would have paralyzed the city, but on this day it was an opportunity to show the resilience, fortitude, and jaunty spirit of the New Frontier. At the White House the near-endless inaugural parade straggled by the presidential reviewing stand, the trumpeters in the marching bands struggling to make their fingers and the valves function in the brutal cold-while trying, like the thousands who lined Pennsylvania Avenue, to catch a glimpse of the new President and his wife.
Never in its long history had the White House welcomed a presidential couple as storybook young and glamorous as John Fitzgerald and Jacqueline Kennedy. He was forty-three, the youngest elected President; she was thirty-one, mother of an infant son and three-year-old daughter. Together they made a family who would beguile the nation. The new President, whose mop of sandy hair was the cartoonists' delight, wore-or at least carried-a top hat, in deference to tradition and the hatmakers union; the new First Lady instantly set a new threshold of chic, from her pillbox hat-copies would be in department storeswithin days-to her old-fashioned fur muff and fur-trimmed ankle boots.
At the inaugural ball that evening Jackie was a generation apart from Mamie Eisenhower's full-skirted, sequin-studded gowns. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was sophisticated elegance in a stalk of white silk softened by a cape of fluttering chiffon. She owned the night; it was her debut as a megastar, and she infused the White House with a magic she would never lose.
Theirs was the ultimate changeover at the Executive Mansion. In the finest presidential tradition, the transition was courteous and circumspect, even though Kennedy knew that Ike considered him a young whippersnapper and Eisenhower was aware that Kennedy viewed him as a symbol of the past. As the youngest couple arrived, the then-oldest President and his wife, the much admired Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, were departing after eight happy, conventional years. They were an aging army couple retiring to their Gettysburg farm, giving way to a growing family that required a nursery.
The Eisenhowers represented success born of bedrock middle-American beginnings, the comfort of the familiar, a nation basking in good times. The Kennedys brought a sweeping reordering to the White House-a new era and a new generation; a change of political party, of style, of goals; the dashing war hero replacing the legendary general who had masterminded victory. In a matter of hours the White House would have to adapt to those differences.
Both the incoming and departing First Ladies felt some reluctance on Inauguration Day. Mamie, lighthearted, sociable, a popular favorite, was sorry to leave the home she and Ike had lived in longer than any of the thirty in their thirty-seven years of marriage, the beautiful house she had made her own, with its well-trained staff to do her bidding and a social life she had enjoyed to the fullest. She had made it a second home for her grandchildren, who lived close by, and the regular meeting place for her canasta group. From her first day as First Lady, Mamie, the five-star general's wife, was not intimidated by the White House.
Jackie entered her new life in the White House with a sense of dread, a fear that she would be caged, that her children would be harassed, their childhood spoiled. With her elite pursuits and standoffish manner, she had been targeted as a campaign liability. Already she had learned that she could not even control her own name: she wished to be "Jacqueline" outside her select circle of family and friends, but she had become "Jackie" to all. She disliked "First Lady" asatitle-"Itsoundslikeasaddlehorse," sheprotested-but nonetheless she was tagged "First Lady." Later she reflected, "I felt as if I had just turned into a piece of public property."
That was only a slight exaggeration. From the moment a new First Lady crosses the North Portico and enters the White House on Inauguration Day she becomes a public figure, whether she likes it or not. The White House is at the juncture of its family's personal lives, their private joys and sorrows, and the life of the nation they represent; family moments and historic events are intertwined.
In addition to managing her children and the inescapable day-today planning, the First Lady is required to be chatelaine of the world-famous mansion and is expected to appear supportive of her husband-or at least not damaging-as he wrestles with the world's most powerful position. The White House is a home, a museum, an institution, a symbol-and for the families who live there, it is both a palace and a prison.
Even Hillary Rodham Clinton, a lawyer long involved with public issues and for twelve years a governor's wife, was taken aback by all her new position entailed. "I don't think anyone is prepared for the whole role that comes with being First Lady," she said in retrospect. "It is not a 'job'-it is an intense, overwhelming experience. There is no guidebook to tell you what to do."
Literally overnight, the new First Lady wakes up to find herself a different person, one she may not recognize or wish to be. Without her consent she is transformed from private helpmeet into a front-page figure. She quickly learns that in return for its many perks and four-star services, the White House makes its own demands on its residents; while it enhances their status it curtails their lives and imposes unwanted duties. Even before the inauguration, Jacqueline Kennedy had received invitations to attend almost three hundred events and more than a thousand requests to lend her name to every kind of organization. She declined almost all, which, her staff director, Letitia Baldrige, well remembers, led to anger and pressure.
Excerpted from First Families by Bonnie Angelo Copyright © 2007 by Bonnie Angelo. Excerpted by permission.
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