Coolidge, Grace Goodhue (1879–1957)
Coolidge, Grace Goodhue (1879–1957)
First lady of the U.S., from 1923 to 1929, who became a popular cultural leader and a symbol of American womanhood during the Jazz Age. Born Grace Anne Goodhue on January 3, 1879, in Burlington, Vermont; died on July 8, 1957, in Northampton, Massachusetts; daughter of Lemira Goodhue and Andrew Issachar Goodhue (an engineer and steamboat inspector); married Calvin Coolidge, on October 4, 1905; children: John Coolidge (b. 1906); Calvin Coolidge, Jr. (1908–1924).
During the 20th century, Grace Goodhue Coolidge, one of the most glamorous and popular first ladies of the United States, complemented well the thrifty, stern public image of Calvin Coolidge, encouraged and promoted the artistic life of Washington, D.C., and gave her charitable energies to the education of the deaf.
Born January 3, 1879, Grace Anne Goodhue was the only child in a middle-class Vermont family. "Never was a babe more tenderly loved and cared for than I," she wrote. Her father Andrew Goodhue worked as an engineer and later as an inspector of steamboats. He was, said Grace, her mother Lemira Goodhue 's constant companion. With few children nearby for playmates, Grace learned to cook and sew at an early age under Lemira's tutelage. She went to local schools, graduated from Burlington (Vermont) High School in 1897, then attended the University of Vermont, where she started a chapter of Pi Beta Phi, then a woman's fraternity. Following her graduation in 1902, Grace began training at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. "I thought," she later recalled, "that I should like to learn to teach little deaf children when I grew up." At the Clarke School, she was fascinated with "this highly specialized teaching" that stressed lip-reading. Her lifelong interest in the deaf had begun.
During her second year of teaching at the Clarke School, Grace inadvertently glimpsed through a window and beheld a young lawyer, Calvin Coolidge, shaving, clad only in his union suit and a hat. Her laughter attracted his attention. A mutual friend arranged a meeting between Grace and Calvin, who was already locally famous as a man who said as little as possible. One friend quipped that since she had been able to teach the deaf to hear, Grace Goodhue might now be able to teach the mute to speak.
The courtship proceeded slowly, but Grace and Calvin soon found common interests despite
their very different temperaments, and Calvin proposed. Though Grace's mother opposed the marriage, she gave in because of the determination of the young couple. They were married on October 4, 1905, in a small ceremony in the Coolidge home in Burlington. After a brief honeymoon in Canada, they returned to Northampton to set up their new home. Grace left her job at the Clarke School, regarding it her duty, as she said in her recollections, to make adjustments that would "contribute to efficiency and permanency."
The Coolidges had two sons: John, born in 1906, and Calvin, Jr., born in 1908. During the ten years after their wedding, Grace adapted to Calvin's political ambitions as a rising figure in Massachusetts Republican politics. For the most part, she was not seen on the hustings. When she sought to attend one of her husband's speeches, he discouraged her. Instead, Grace Coolidge raised her children, did charitable work for the Congregational Church, and spent much time working with Pi Beta Phi. She attended the national conventions of what was now a sorority and was chosen vice-president for the eastern seaboard region in 1915. Meanwhile, her husband was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1918. Despite Grace's low profile, their friends agreed that she was one of Calvin's greatest political assets. Her charm and intelligence had already impressed observers of the state's political scene.
She was a practical woman with high ideals, a warm-hearted woman with common sense, a woman with rare charm and good will.
Events soon carried Grace Coolidge onto a wider stage. The Republican Party nominated Calvin to run for vice president in 1920. When Warren G. Harding was elected president, the Republican victory sent Grace Coolidge to Washington, D.C., as the wife of the vice president in March 1921. Though Grace was on friendly terms with the new first lady, Florence K. Harding , the two women were not close. But Washington society warmed to the Coolidges quickly, and they soon found themselves at the center of a busy social life. They lived in the Willard Hotel where Grace received visitors every Wednesday afternoon. As the wife of the vice president, she in turn presided over the weekly meetings of The Ladies of the Senate, a group that gave the wives of senators an opportunity for social occasions and enabled them to do charitable good works.
During the summer of 1923, President Harding suffered a heart attack; he died on August 2. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as president early in the morning of August 3, and Grace Coolidge was now the first lady. She recalled "a sense of detachment—this was I and yet not I, this was the wife of the President of the United States and she took precedence over me."
By 1923, the institution of the first lady had not yet developed into its modern form. Presidential wives were not expected to endorse a social program or identify themselves with a national problem. In the case of both Edith Bolling Wilson , wife of Woodrow Wilson, and Florence Harding, these first ladies had not been popular figures or social leaders in Washington. As motion pictures and the mass media became more influential during the early 1920s, curiosity about the presidency and the White House grew. Despite her lack of previous experience, Grace Coolidge had a natural charm and appeal to the public that soon translated into a growing popularity. Fascination with her personal style raised interest in the first lady to levels that made her a national celebrity.
In the White House, Grace supervised a staff of 18 domestic servants. She had only one personal secretary to handle all the mail that she received. Laura Harlan held the post until October 1925. Mary Randolph succeeded her and stayed until the end of the president's term in March 1929. Randolph's memoir, Presidents and First Ladies, is an excellent source about Grace Coolidge. Despite her new fame, Grace continued to correspond with the friends she had made in Pi Beta Phi, even though most of her mail received a routine acknowledgement from her secretary. An apprehensive Grace took to her new role with the help of her husband who instructed her to avoid talking politics and dancing in public. When press stories appeared that she had learned horseback riding, Calvin warned her to eschew trying anything new. She proved to be a gracious White House host with an ability to put nervous guests at ease quickly. When a clerk in a Washington store once asked her: "Did anyone ever tell you before that you look like Mrs. Coolidge?" Grace answered "yes," but remembered that she said so "with never a smile."
Family tragedy struck the Coolidges during their first year in the White House. Their younger son Calvin became ill from an infected blister and his condition soon worsened. Antibiotics had not yet been discovered, and blood poisoning set in. He died on July 7, 1924, and his parents never fully recovered from their loss. His father later said that the presidency meant little to him after young Calvin died. His mother composed a poem about the loss five years later that now appears in her memoirs. In part it reads:
You, my son,
Have shown me God.
Your kiss upon my cheek
Has made me feel the gentle touch
Of Him who leads us on.
With little time for private grieving, the Coolidge victory in the 1924 campaign gave the couple another four years in the White House. During those years, Grace, who especially enjoyed music and the theater, did much to promote the fine arts. Her goal, she said, was "to gather a company of people who knew and appreciated the best in music." She had Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Russian composer and pianist, play three times at the White House for one of her many musicales to which as many as 300 guests were invited. The tenor John McCormack also sang on these occasions. Grace attended operas and plays in Washington avidly and was a special fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.
In dress and appearance, Grace Coolidge was more glamorous than most of her immediate predecessors as first lady. She wore large stylish hats and conservative, soft dresses. A portrait of her in a long red dress with her collie Rob Roy at her side captured her slim figure and shining hair. It now hangs in the White House. President Coolidge encouraged his wife to dress well, and she soon became a fashion leader for women of the time.
Grace devoted a good deal of her time to improving the physical appearance of the White House. The building, not refurbished for a quarter of a century, needed renovation. The work was done in 1927 while the Coolidges lived at Dupont Circle. The first lady added period furniture from the time that the White House was first constructed, and she had other furnishings, pictures, and china installed from previous administrations. She asked the public to send in rare pieces of period furniture for exhibition in the White House and also encouraged beautification plans for Washington, D.C.
Her interest in the education of the deaf remained strong. Helen Keller , the most famous blind, deaf, and mute American of that time visited her at the White House. Toward the end of the Coolidge presidency, the president and first lady, who believed in the lip-reading techniques rather than sign language, lent their names to a $2 million fund-raising campaign for the Clarke School's endowment. By the time they left the White House, the goal had been achieved.
Grace Coolidge did not discuss public business with her husband. When asked to intercede with the government, she told each petitioner to take their case up with the president directly. What she knew about events, she said in her autobiography, came from the daily papers and other sources of information open to everybody. This would explain her surprise, along with that of the nation, in the summer of 1927. By then, both of the Coolidges were in uncertain health, and the president worried whether his wife could survive another four years in the White House. At their vacation retreat in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the president issued a terse statement to the press on August 2, 1927: "I do not choose to run for President in 1928." Grace learned of the decision only after it was announced. To those who expressed dismay that she had not been consulted, she remarked in her memoirs that she was "rather proud of the fact that after nearly a quarter of a century of marriage, my husband feels free to make his decisions and act upon them without consulting me or giving me advance information concerning them."
Making way for their successors, President Herbert Hoover and Lou Henry Hoover , the Coolidges left Washington when the president's term ended on March 4, 1929, and returned to their home in Northampton. "Gone were the men of the Secret Service," she said, "the aides, the valet, the maid, and we were homeward bound." The public remained curious about the Coolidges. "As many tourists pass our door as drove through the spacious grounds of the White House," she wrote. During the next four years, the Coolidges traveled and lived quietly in their retirement. She composed several autobiographical articles about her White House experiences and published more of her poems. On January 5, 1933, Grace went upstairs to call Calvin for lunch and came down to tell his secretary that her husband was dead.
During the next 24 years, Grace Coolidge pursued an extensive round of charitable work. She was a member of the board of trustees of Mercersburg Academy where the Coolidge boys had been educated. She continued her work with the deaf when she became president of the board of the Clarke School in 1935. With the onset of World War II, she raised money for children refugees from Germany and Holland, and she was active in civil defense, Red Cross, and warbond sales between 1942 and 1945. She maintained a special love for baseball, listening faithfully to the broadcasts of the Boston Red Sox games and following the strategy of a game closely. When she went to Fenway Park or to games in Washington, she impressed majorleague players with her knowledge of the sport. Grace Coolidge died on July 8, 1957, of the effects of old age on her weakened heart. Her ashes were buried in Plymouth, Vermont.
All first ladies are to some degree political celebrities. To that demanding and public position, Grace Coolidge brought a winning combination of good humor and personal style that made her a popular favorite during the 1920s when media coverage of the White House became more intense. Within the limits that her husband set for her, she used her influence to act as a symbol of fashion and patron of the arts to the nation. Few first ladies have been more admired during their days in the White House.
Caroli, Betty. First Ladies. Oxford University Press, 1986.
Coolidge, Calvin. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. Cosmopolitan, 1929.
McCoy, Donald R. "Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge," in Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, eds., Notable American Women. Harvard University Press, 1980, pp. 162–163.
Randolph, Mary. Presidents and First Ladies. D. Appleton, 1936.
Ross, Ishbel. Grace Coolidge and Her Era. Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, 1988 (paperback reprint of original edition published by Dodd, Mead, 1962).
Wikander, Lawrence E., and Robert H. Ferrell, eds. Grace Coolidge: An Autobiography. High Plains Publishing, 1992.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives and Their Power, 1789–1961. NY: William Morrow, 1990.
Gutin, Myra G. The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century. Greenwood, 1989.
Lewis L. Gould , Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor in American History, University of Texas at Austin, Texas