The President of the United States must host many functions, and social events go smoother if he has a gracious hostess at his side.
In addition to being the wife and mother of the family, the First Lady is expected to decorate with good taste and to entertain flawlessly. In modern times, she is also expected to give support to her husband through public appearances and to support charitable or social causes.
But what’s a chief executive to do if he’s a widower—or even worse, a bachelor?
What happens when there’s no First Lady?
He asks someone else to fill that role, of course, usually a relative, but sometimes a close friend.
Thomas Jefferson was the first president to have that problem. He was widowed nineteen years before he took the oath of office as president. His marriage had produced six children, only two of whom—Martha and Mary—lived to adulthood.
Martha, known as Patsy, red-haired like her father, married Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr.
|Martha Jefferson Randolph|
Molly died in 1804, but Patsy returned to the White House the following year to act as hostess. Her eighth child, James Madison Randolph was the first child to be born there.
When his daughters were not available to help him out, President Jefferson relied on Dolley Madison, whose husband was at that time Secretary of State, to act as hostess at White House functions. This was good practice for Dolley’s later duties as First Lady.
Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, died a few months before her husband took office in 1829. While he was in the White House, Emily Donelson, the wife of Rachel’s nephew Andrew Donelson, served as hostess in the executive mansion. Emily had one child at the time of the inauguration and gave birth to three more in the White House.
|Angelica Singleton Van Buren|
Martin Van Buren was a widower with four sons when he became president. After his son Abraham married Angelica Singleton, she began receiving guests at White House functions with her father-in-law.
James Buchanan became president at age 65, and he was a bachelor. His niece and legal ward, Harriet Lane, took over the duties of First Lady at the age of 26. Lovely, clever, and poised, she made a wonderful hostess in the pre-Civil War years.
Chester A. Arthur, who took office in 1881, had been widowed a year before. He did not have an official hostess, but his younger sister, Mary Arthur McElroy, went with him to Washington to take care of his young daughter, Nellie, and her own two daughters. Mary sometimes stood in receiving lines with her brother, but she was never in the spotlight. The Arthur administration was the only one that never had a First Lady or a designated surrogate.
Of course, if you are a bachelor president, as was Grover Cleveland, you can take a more creative way to fill the vacancy and marry a woman who will become the First Lady.
When he was first elected, Cleveland’s younger sister Rose acted as his hostess. But when Cleveland became the first—and only—president to be married in the White House, his bride took over her duties with alacrity. Frances Folsom Cleveland was 21, and Grover was 48 when they married.
|Frances Folsom Cleveland|
This is only a glimpse of some women who performed social duties at the White House when there was no official First Lady. There is much more to their lives, of course, but today we honor them for standing in the gap.
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