Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era

Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era

by Carl Sferrazza Anthony


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On the morning of William Howard Taft's inauguration, Nellie Taft publicly expressed that theirs would be a joint presidency by shattering precedent and demanding that she ride alongside her husband down Pennsylvania Avenue, a tradition previously held for the outgoing president. In an era before Eleanor Roosevelt, this progressive First Lady was an advocate for higher education and partial suffrage for women, and initiated legislation to improve working conditions for federal employees. She smoked, drank, and gambled without regard to societal judgment, and she freely broke racial and class boundaries.

Drawing from previously unpublished diaries, a lifetime of love letters between Will and Nellie, and detailed family correspondence and recollections, critically acclaimed presidential family historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony develops a riveting portrait of Nellie Taft as one of the strongest links in the series of women — from Abigail Adams to Hillary Rodham Clinton — often critically declared "copresidents."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060513832
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/21/2006
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 528,661
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.89(d)

About the Author

Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the author of nine books, is considered the nation's expert on the subject of presidential wives and families. He has written extensively for publications, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair, American Heritage, Smithsonian, and Town & Country, and also writes screenplays. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

Nellie Taft

The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era
By Carl Anthony

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Carl Anthony
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060513837

Chapter One

First Lady of the Land (1861-1878)

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.


"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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Prop2gether on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a Taft relation, this book became a "necessary" read for me. Fortunately, Nellie Taft was a lot more interesting than I understood her to be, and there's much more to her life than being the First Lady who brought the cherry trees to Washington.
carterchristian1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
LIke most of the LibraryThing and Amazon reviewers I too read Anthony's biography of Florence Harding and must acknowledge it. Perhaps the Harding book stands out in the reviewers mind because as Anthony described her she is a far more unconventional a figure as is Nellie, more controversial, and more interesting. Maybe it is "ragtime" versus "flapper" period. Nellie is more conventional.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book provides insight into the journey of self actualization by a women that in some ways was ahead of her times, and in other ways was a solid member of Victorian era America, This is an excellent book detailing the relationship of Nellie and William Howard Taft with the Roosevelts, especially the relationship with Alice Roosevelt.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TOverton More than 1 year ago
How's your history? Or is your political history up to par? It doesn't have to be to enjoy stepping into a life from another time. In Carl Sferrazza Anthony's "Nellie Taft" the political atmosphere at the beginning of the 20th century comes alive. Anthony manages to transport the reader back to just then. The players, Teddy Roosevelt, his daughter Alice, Nellie, William Howard Taft, Nellie's children, a little history of the Philippines, the Japanese cherry blossoms, how to rise to ultimate political power and finally more goals achieved take the reader smoothly through until books end. I felt that I came to know all these figures as if I had worn their shoes myself. Research for this writing was obviously well done. This author enjoys his work. Before finishing "Nellie" I ordered another by Anthony, "Florence Harding", wife of a later US President. Well, what about Nellie? Just one tough cookie, a dedicated wife. She wanted the White House, Will wanted the Supreme Court. She gets there but doesn't get to revel as she may have wished. Though quite good with cards she was dealt one that no one would ever wish for. There is no stiff drink that can remove some burdens. Did her life go out in smoke? Well.she lived life to the fullest before it was all over. She really did a lot. She did it. And every Spring ahead, if you wish to pick one, visit Washington, D.C. and salute Nellie and with her you will salute Washington. This was a great book. I recommend highly. Get started.