Surely America’s First Ladies are a pretty conventional bunch, right? After all, when you're the president's wife, everyone looks to you as a symbol of grace and loyalty. But as it turns out, not every First Lady in history was all that graceful. Underneath the veneer of respectability, some presidential wives have been, well, downright weird. From having a highly paid personal astrologer on speed dial to keeping pet cows on the lawn, the habits of these First Ladies sound stranger than fiction...
Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady from 1933 until her husband's death in 1945. He was the nation’s longest-serving commander-in-chief and so Eleanor held the position of First Lady longer than any other woman.
But what truly surprises us is how she was a major advertising star during her time in the White House.
In 2017 The Washington Post went so far as to call Mrs. Roosevelt a “magnet for marketers.”
The publication also pointed out how she endorsed a diverse range of products, including “hot dog buns, mattresses, and air travel.” This caused much controversy at the time, as people felt this was an improper pursuit for a president’s wife. But it turned out that she donated the bulk of her earnings to charity. An advertising star, indeed!
President Warren G. Harding entered the White House in 1921 and so his wife Florence became First Lady.
She was a subscriber to a range of strange beliefs. For example, we’re told that she began each morning with an attentive reading of her horoscope. Only then would she organize her plans for the day ahead. And sometimes, these plans involved another controversial belief.
Mrs. Harding's penchant for the controversial medical practice of homeopathy definitely turned heads back in the day.
In his 1998 biography of Florence Harding, Carl Sferrazza Anthony revealed that she had a homeopath appointed to the position of White House medic. When Harding fell ill, this quack diagnosed food poisoning. But actually, it was a dangerous heart condition, and it killed Harding in 1923.
Abraham Lincoln’s First Lady, Mary, was stricken by the loss of two of their children. Edward, born in 1846, died aged three, probably of tuberculosis.
Willie died during Lincoln’s presidency in 1862 aged 11, likely of typhoid. These two untimely deaths shook Mary to her core. Grief-stricken, she turned to the mysterious practice of spiritualism.
Mrs. Lincoln resorted to holding seances at the White House; it’s even said that the President attended one of them.
Hiring various spiritualists and mediums, her aim was to make contact with her dead children in the spirit world. Eventually, the First Lady claimed that their ghosts started to visit her regularly in her White House bedroom.
Founding Father James Madison entered the White House in 1809 for his two-term presidency with Dolley Madison as his First Lady. Boisterous and personable, Dolley Madison may have lacked the decorum some people thought a First Lady should possess.
Habits like gambling on horses and card-playing were thought to be inappropriate activities for a president’s spouse, but Dolley loved them... and other controversial activities.
Shockingly, Mrs. Madison was allegedly partial to a quick sniff of snuff.
Non-profit organization Encyclopedia Virginia claimed that one of Madison’s silver snuff boxes was engraved with her initials, “DPM.” It points out that snuff, or powdered tobacco, was popular in some circles in the 19th century. Sniffing the substance was a shortcut to a serious nicotine hit.
Mary “Mamie” Eisenhower moved into the White House in 1953 after her husband won the previous year’s election on the Republican ticket. After a St.Valentine’s Day engagement in 1916, the couple married the following July.
By all accounts, like Dwight D., Mrs. Eisenhower was a popular occupant of the White House, even with her somewhat unusual passion.
Eisenhower was renowned for what the White House website describes as “her outgoing manner… and her obvious pride in husband and home.” But she did have one habit that sets her apart from other First Ladies.
She enjoyed playing the electric organ. As far as we know, she was and remains the only presidential spouse to do so.
Many would agree that Jackie Kennedy holds the distinction of being the most effortlessly stylish presidential wife ever to call the White House home. Of course, it wasn’t all expensive couture and high living during her time as First Lady.
After all, she had to endure the appalling ordeal of seeing her husband assassinated in 1963.
Kennedy’s shopping habits were far beyond the norm, with her spending sprees extending to tens of thousands of dollars. A 1999 article in The Observer newspaper pointed out the excesses of her retail habit.
It said, “Her spending became so manic it even attracted public criticism from her first husband, President John F. Kennedy.” According to an account by author Truman Capote who accompanied her on one such shopping trip, “she seemed dazed, hypnotized.” A sexist rumor, or the truth? We may never know.
“KUY9532.” Any guesses as to what that cryptic string of letters and numbers represents?
Believe it or not, they’re the call I.D. that the Federal Communications Commission assigned to First Lady Betty Ford for her CB radio use. On a more personal note, when she was broadcasting, Ford used the cute handle “First Mama.” Her interest in CB radio may have even had a political impact.
Betty Ford went on to use CB radio to support her husband during his attempt to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1976.
So CB radio seems to have been an effective political campaigning tool, although maybe not that effective; Ford went on to lose the actual presidential election to Jimmy Carter.
Louisa Adams accompanied John Quincy Adams when he moved into the White House in 1825 for his single presidential term. She was the sixth First Lady and the first not born in the U.S.
Her birthplace was London, England, and she had an English mother and an American father. Adams first met his future wife on a visit to London when he was just 12 years old. Still, he couldn't have known where her diverse interests would take his future wife.
The Adams’ wedding came in 1797 in London, where the groom was a diplomat. It would be another four years before the couple made it back to America, the first visit to the country for Louisa.
Once in the White House, she developed a bizarre pastime. She cultivated silkworms in the gardens, using the thread they produced in her sewing projects. We can be sure her hobby was unique among presidential wives.
Ronald Reagan won the election of 1980 and when he entered the White House for the first of his eventual two presidential terms the next year, Nancy, at the time his wife of nearly 30 years, was at his side. A Hollywood actor like her husband, Nancy shunned the frugality of her predecessors in the White House (the Carters) and spent some $800,000 on a presidential mansion makeover.
We wonder if she knew even then what her future held...
You see, apart from enjoying a glamorous Hollywood lifestyle, Mrs. Reagan had another passion: astrology.
Rarely a day went by without her consulting the stars to decide on everything from the timings of important meetings to her husband’s cancer surgery. She even had her own astrologer, Joan Quigley, who was paid thousands per month for her insights. According to History Collection, the First Lady would consult Quigley by telephone up to three times a day.
Yes, Jackie's back! Jacqueline Lee Bouvier had enjoyed a gilded childhood split between luxurious homes in Manhattan and East Hampton in Long Island.
After an education at elite schools, she was dubbed Debutante of the Year in 1948. But even with all these blessings, Jackie O. still questioned her future. So, she referred to a rather unusual astrological source.
Most of us regard Jackie Kennedy as a symbol of beauty and grace, but the fact that she consulted the I Ching to find out what the future held perhaps betrays certain insecurities on her part.
Many would regard this ancient Chinese form of soothsaying with frank skepticism, but Mrs. Kennedy seems to have found something of value in its mystic power.
Lady Bird Taylor married Lyndon B. Johnson in San Antonio, Texas, in 1934, and they appeared to have an ever closer relationship than it seemed.
She entered the White House with her husband in 1963 amid the tragic circumstances of President Kennedy’s assassination. This propelled her husband into the Oval Office from his position as Vice President. But Lady Bird had already given her husband another executive power.
That extra position of power was the unofficial “Buyer of the First Lady’s apparel.” Yes, President Johnson bought Lady Bird’s outfits for her.
A 1999 article in Texas Monthly magazine quoted Les Carpenter, a presidential aide to Johnson. He said, “Rather than her choose her own clothes, he chose them for her.” And he continued, “She always acted like they were the prettiest things she ever saw, whether she thought so or not.” That sounds like loyalty above and beyond the call of duty.
Mary Todd Lincoln wasn't only a dedicated spiritualist. Like some other First Ladies who followed her, she eventually garnered an undesirable reputation as a spendthrift.
First, it was her wardrobe. She’s said to have taken Empress Eugenie of France as an exemplar of the kind of clothes she wanted, and such couture did not come cheap, resulting in cruel jibes in the press.
Her next spending spree was a makeover for her new presidential home. There was a $20,000 government fund for this which previous White House residents had left untouched, but Mrs. Lincoln wasn't about to let the money go unspent!
She managed to spend the whole lot during a two-week shopping trip to Philadelphia and New York. She's been criticized for centuries for her spending habits, though some historians speculate that Mrs. Lincoln's behavior may have come from undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
Remember how Florence Harding preferred homeopathy to medicine? Well, that wasn't her only quirk.
During Florence’s time in the White House, the 18th amendment to the constitution applied. That was the law that banned alcohol – you know, the law that sent beer drinkers underground? Well, they weren't the only ones who chanced an alcoholic drink now and then...
As a good president’s wife, Florence naturally upheld the strictures of prohibition. All White House social occasions were liquor-free.
Or almost all. When the President was entertaining his close circle of cronies for private card games the laws were apparently suspended. It seems that Mrs. Harding was prepared to countenance this. Indeed, she even mixed drinks for the party – although it’s said that not a drop passed her lips.
Ellen Wilson entered the White House with her husband, Woodrow Wilson, in 1913. Sadly her time as First Lady was all too short, as she died of kidney disease in 1914.
She’d lived in the presidential mansion for just 17 months. Despite this brief incumbency, she’s remembered for her efforts to improve the slum housing of Washington where many lower-class citizens were forced to live.
Clearly, Mrs. Wilson was not a shrinking violet.
Before her husband was elected, burglars had broken into various homes in the neighborhood where they lived. Woodrow was often away on political business, so Ellen decided to take action. She bought a gun, made sure she was a competent shot, and kept it close at hand while she slept. We don’t know if she continued this habit in the White House. Perhaps security was tight enough to reassure her.
Andrew Johnson was inaugurated as the 17th president in 1865 and he was joined in the White House by his wife Eliza. The two had married as teenagers in 1827 – he was 18 and she 17.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Eliza was not an enthusiast for the social duties expected of a First Lady. She tended to leave all of that to her daughter, Martha Patterson. Instead, she spent her time on a less lady-like passion.
Eliza introduced some livestock to the White House in the shape of two cows. The beasts were to be seen munching contentedly on the lush turf of the White House lawn.
Of course, there was a benefit from having dairy cattle on hand – daily fresh milk. The animals must also have lent a certain rural charm to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s urban setting.
Ida McKinley became First Lady in 1897 when her husband William succeeded to the White House for his single presidential term. The two were wed in 1871 when the President-to-be had held the position of Stark County, Ohio, prosecutor.
Their marriage was brought to an abrupt and tragic end in 1901 when President McKinley was assassinated. Before that, though, Mrs. McKinley endured her own struggles.
The First Lady was unlucky enough to suffer from poor health during her time in the White House. She was often confined to a bed, so she had time on her hands, and she eventually found a way to fill it: crocheting.
That’s hardly an extraordinary habit. But what is extraordinary is the fact that she crocheted as many as 4,000 pairs of slippers while living in the White House!
Lou Henry Hoover moved into the White House in 1929 when her husband Herbert was inaugurated as the 31st president. The two had met at Leland Stanford University in California and married in 1899.
Shortly after their wedding the pair headed abroad to China. It would be the start of many years of world travel to destinations as diverse as Siberia, Egypt, and Japan. Herbert’s work as a mining engineer dictated their itinerary. Their adventures led them to some trouble, though.
It was actually at their first post-wedding destination, China, where things got a little too adventurous. Along with about 800 Americans and Europeans, they found themselves besieged in the city of Tientsin by some 30,000 angry militants.
This was during the Boxer Rebellion against foreign influence. Seemingly undeterred by the real danger, Lou occupied herself by transporting supplies to the defensive lines by bicycle. The siege was eventually lifted after 45 days with both Hoovers unscathed.
Harry S. Truman won the presidential election of 1944 and moved into the White House with his wife Elizabeth “Bess” Truman the next year.
The pair first met in fifth grade in Independence, Missouri, and continued their education together right through to high school. Harry left America to fight in France during WWI and the two were married in 1919 after his safe return. Even after their reunion, though, all wasn't well with Bess.
It seems that Bess Truman was not an enthusiastic First Lady. At any rate, she didn’t appear to enjoy living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue much.
According to the White House website, she disliked the lack of privacy afforded by the presidential mansion. Neither did she find Washington to her taste, even complaining bitterly about the dry cleaners in the city. But she found a solution to that gripe: she sent her laundry nearly 1,000 miles away to Kansas City, her hometown.
Julia Gardiner married President John Tyler in 1844 during his term in the White House. Tyler had been Vice President when his predecessor William Henry Harrison died in 1841.
He was the first man to become president in those circumstances and his political opponents cruelly dubbed him “His Accidency” according to the White House website. But if you were to ask Julia, she'd probably say that her husband's newfound role was no accident...
You see, Julia very much believed in supernatural powers. President Tyler’s first wife Letitia died in 1842, the year after she’d become First Lady.
When Tyler wed Julia, 30 years his junior, he became the first President to marry while in office. Her time as First Lady was to last a mere eight months. She was quirky, to say the least, and her faith in all things magic led to a belief that she had supernatural abilities. According to History Collection, she believed she could call up specters and that she had the ability to float in the air!
Lucy Hayes’ spell as First Lady started after her husband Rutherford B. Hayes won the election of 1876 to become the 19th president.
Her husband was a Cincinnati lawyer when they met and the two married in 1852. She was a popular First Lady thanks to her charitable work combined with what Encyclopedia Britannica described as her “simplicity and good sense." These qualities also served her well in another part of her life.
Mrs. Hayes' "good sense" went on to earn her a somewhat derogatory nickname – “Lemonade Lucy.”
The nickname arose from her banning alcohol from the White House altogether. Some found this measure admirable while others saw it as lamentable. In any case, her husband apparently believed that the measure was actually a vote-winner.