I decided to combine Valentine’s Day and President’s Day for this article. Much has been written about the affairs of famous men, especially presidents, but it’s nice to take a look at some special moments in the courtships and marriages of our first families. I’ve selected 14 presidential couples to feature in this issue without regard to political affiliations.
George Washington was the highest ranking officer of the Virginia Provincial troops and he’d made a name for himself fighting the French in the western territories, but he was not at the same social or economic level as Martha Dandridge Custis, the wealthy young widow of Daniel Custis. Martha was quite taken by Washington who was tall and poised. Washington found her attractive and agreeable in addition to the social status and wealth their union would offer him. After their marriage, Martha moved to Mt. Vernon with her two surviving children from her first marriage. It was a step down from her home, but she did not seem to mind. While Washington led the continental Army during the American Revolution, she spent her winters with George in Valley Forge. According to excerpts from correspondences of his fellow officers, the Washingtons had great affection for each other and were often considered a couple to be emulated. Their marriage was described as one that got stronger as time passed. They corresponded often during the war. Their letters were said to be affectionate. Martha burned them after her husband’s death to protect their privacy.
John and Abigail Adams had one of the most storied marriages of the first families, but their first meeting was anything, but successful. Adams went with his friend Richard to the home of Reverend William Smith the father of three daughters. Richard was interested in dating Abigail’s older sister, Mary. The day went well for Richard, but was a disaster for Adams. Adams thought the Smith girls, including 15 year old Abigail, were without wit or charm and Reverend and Mrs. Smith did not care for the brash 24 year old lawyer John Adams. During the next three years Adams would return many times to the Smith’s home with Richard while Richard courted Mary whom he eventually married. John and Abigail shared a love of books and often engaged in serious discussions. They married shortly before his 29th birthday and shared a 50 year marriage which produced five children, and withstood a revolution, long separations, and a challenging presidency. They wrote thousands of letters to each other during their lifetime. Almost 2,000 letters still exist which reveal their deep abiding love for each other.
James Madison claimed to have fallen in love with the beautiful widow Dolley Payne the first time he saw her walking down a street in Philadelphia. They met when he was 43 and she was 26. James was quiet, but Dolley was vivacious and popular. Despite their differences, The Madisons had a marriage on-lookers described as loving and stronger as time went on.
When Andrew Jackson first met Rachel whom he considered to be the love of his life, she was in an unhappy and abusive marriage. He eventually helped her break free from her husband and eloped with her, but her Virginia divorce had not been properly filed by her husband and was not valid. The scandal that ensued during Jackson’s election proved too much for Rachel who fell ill and passed away one month after her husband’s victory. Jackson reportedly refused to believe she was really dead and insisted blankets be kept near her body in case she woke up and felt cold. She was buried on Christmas Eve in the shoes and gown she had purchased for his inauguration ball.
William Taft was smitten with his future wife, Helen, but she refused his first marriage proposal. He didn’t give up and she eventually agreed to marry him. During Taft’s presidency, Helen had a seizure which left her unable to speak. Taft cared for her during her illness and helped her regain her ability to speak.
Grace Goodhue was a teacher at a deaf school living in a rooming house adjacent to the rooming house of Calvin Coolidge a young lawyer. She first saw her future husband through an open bathroom window. She was outside gardening and Coolidge was shaving wearing a top hat which made her laugh. Coolidge looked out, tipped his hat and went back to shaving. They were properly introduced soon after. Coolidge’s family adored Grace who was gregarious and easy going. The Goodhue’s thought Calvin was dull and believed their daughter could do better. What they failed to realize was that Calvin and Grace felt they completed each other and were deeply in love. Despite many attempts by her parents to break them up, Calvin and Grace married in 1905 and were together until his sudden death by heart attack in 1933.
Harry Truman first met Elizabeth “Bess” Wallace when their Missouri kindergarten classes participated in a dancing program. The Trumans were a modest farming family, but Bess’s maternal grandparents were the wealthy owners of a flour mill. Throughout elementary school and high school, Harry and Bess saw each other at school events, but were separated by their social status. When Bess was 18, her alcoholic father committed suicide and the scandal ruined her family. Her mother and grandparents held high hopes that Bess would marry well and lessen the stigma of her father’s suicide. Bess and Harry met as adults when He returned a pie plate to Mrs. Wallace for a relative. Bess answered the door and they began a decade long courtship. After their marriage, Bess insisted they move in with her mother. Harry was never good enough for Mrs. Wallace who continued to refer to him as Farmer Truman even after he was elected president. Despite their challenges, the Trumans had a long and happy marriage.
Claudia Alta Taylor is rumored to have received her nickname “Lady Bird” from a nursemaid who referred to her as “purty as a ladybird.” She met the young Congressional aide at an Austin social event. Lyndon Johnson invited her to have breakfast at his hotel the next morning. She accepted and they spent the day together. Johnson proposed that evening, but she did not take him seriously. After he returned to Washington, he wrote letters and called her frequently to try to convince her he was serious. He returned to Texas with an ultimatum. Lady Bird admired his energy and commitment to helping the poor, so they drove to San Antonio and were married with two witnesses present. Johnson placed a $2.50 ring on her finger from Sears, Roebuck. The Johnsons were married from 1934 until Lyndon’s death in 1973.
Much has been written about the 53 year marriage of Richard and Pat Nixon including allegations of abuse after he resigned. They met while trying out for parts in the play, Dark Shadows. For Richard, it was love at first sight, but Pat was cautious and he spent the next two years wooing her. They married in 1940. Nixon was often accused of neglecting his wife when they were at public events, but privately Nixon was an attentive husband. He wrote her endearing love letters during their courtship and throughout their marriage. In 1942, he wrote to Pat, “I am certainly not the Romeo type…I may not say much when I am with you—but all of me loves you all the time.” He was devastated after her death from cancer in 1993 and died nine months later.
Jimmy Carter was a 21 year old recent graduate from the Naval Academy at Annapolis when he married the girl next door, 18 year old Eleanor Rosalynn Smith. Carter’s mother was a nurse and she actually delivered Rosalynn and later brought her three year old son Jimmy over to meet his new neighbor. Jimmy and Rosalynn didn’t begin dating until he was a cadet at Annapolis. After their first date, he went home and told his mother he was certain Rosalynn was the girl he wanted to marry. He proposed a year later only to be turned down, but she accepted his second proposal and they wed in 1946. The Carter’s celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary in July 2018.
After Ronald Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman divorced, he met a young actress named Nancy Davis. Davis who had been wrongfully targeted by the McCarthy commission for un-American activities sought advice from Reagan because he was the president of the screen actors’ guild. The mistake was easily rectified, but Ron and Nancy continued to see each other and married in 1952. The Reagans were inseparable and so devoted that people closest to them often felt excluded. They would maintain that closeness during their 52 years of marriage. After his death, Nancy published some of his love letters.
George H.W. Bush and Barbara Pierce met at a dance in Connecticut a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 17 and she was 16. George spotted her and begged a friend to introduce them. Barbara was often quoted as saying of George when they met “He was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on…I couldn’t even breathe when he was in the room.” They were engaged 18 months later, but separated by the war. They corresponded regularly and George carried her letters with him at all times. When his plane was shot down in 1944, the letters were destroyed. The next year, Barbara dropped out of Smith College to marry George. George and his beloved “Bar” were married for 73 years and he died less than a year after her passing.
George W. Bush met Laura Welch at a barbecue where they had been set up by another couple. George and Laura hit it off and he asked her to go miniature golfing the next day with their friends. Three months later, they were married. George and Laura will celebrate their 42nd wedding anniversary this year.
Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson met when he was a summer intern at the law firm where she worked. Michelle was assigned as his mentor. Barack was immediately smitten and asked her out. Michelle was wary of dating someone at the firm and wanted to focus on her career. Barack even offered to resign and she finally relented. He took her for ice cream at Baskin Robbins on their first date and they shared their first kiss while sitting on the curb out front. A plaque at Dorchester and East 53rd Street in Chicago commemorates the event. After 26 years of what seems like a fairy tale marriage to outsiders, Michelle insists their relationship thrives because they value and respect each other enough to do the work it takes to be married.
Sources used for this article: