Taft, Helen Herron (1861–1943)
Taft, Helen Herron (1861–1943)
American first lady (1909–13), the primary force behind her husband's political career, whose influence in the White House was cut short by a debilitating stroke from which she never fully recovered. Name variations: Mrs. William Howard Taft; Nellie Taft. Born on June 2, 1861, in Cincinnati, Ohio; died on May 22, 1943, in Washington, D.C.; fourth of eleven children of John Williamson Herron (a lawyer) and Harriet (Collins) Herron; graduated from Miss Nourse's School; attended the University of Cincinnati; married William Howard Taft (1857–1930, 27th president of the United States), on June 19, 1886, in Cincinnati, Ohio; children: Robert Alphonso Taft (1889–1953, a senator from Ohio); Helen Herron Taft Manning (1891–1987, president of Bryn Mawr College); Charles Phelps Taft (1897–1983, a lawyer, civic leader, and mayor of Cincinnati).
To call Helen Herron Taft purposeful would not begin to do her justice. Many believe that it was her energy, motivation, and drive that propelled her husband into the presidency. Her plans began to take shape when she was just 17. After visiting the White House with her father, who at one time had been a law partner of Rutherford B. Hayes, she vowed that if she gave up plans to enter a convent and decided instead to get married, it would be to a man who would be president. William Howard Taft, as it turned out, was just that fellow.
Helen Herron Taft, known as Nellie, was born in 1861 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of John Williamson Herron and Harriet Collins Herron . Although she grew up in a family of eleven children, Helen was educated at a private girls' school where she studied languages and literature. Long hours were also spent practicing at the family piano. As a young woman, she longed for independence, but found career choices limited. Church work did not appeal, and a brief stint as a teacher was frustrating because the boys were so difficult to discipline. She considered a musical career, but questioned the depth of her talent. To bring meaning into what she thought might be too "frivolous" a life, she and a couple of friends established a Sunday afternoon salon to foster "brilliant discussion of topics intellectual and economic." Invited to attend was Helen's latest beau William Taft, a young attorney whom she had recently met at a sledding party.
William was an ardent suitor, but Helen turned down two of his proposals, complaining that he did not adequately value her opinions. After convincing her that he found her smarter, and prettier, than any other woman he knew, they finally married in June 1886. Returning to Cincinnati after a 100-day honeymoon, they settled into a new home, where first child Robert was born. William was appointed solicitor general in 1890 and a federal circuit judge in 1892. Helen had two more children, Helen and Charles, but found her life of quiet domesticity almost unbearable. She put her spare energy and musical talent into organizing and managing the Cincinnati Orchestra Association.
Another political door finally opened in 1899, when President William McKinley asked William Taft to head a commission to the Philippines. When her husband waffled, Helen urged him to accept. Eager for adventure, she packed up the children for what turned out to be a four-year stint, culminating in William's appointment as governor-general of the Philippines. Diplomatic duties, entertaining, and two world tours provided more than adequate training for the White House duties to come. In 1904, an invitation to William to join Theodore Roosevelt's Cabinet as secretary of war brought the Tafts back to the United States.
William was not enthralled with the political arena. He longed instead for a position on the Supreme Court, but Helen had made her opposition clear when Roosevelt mentioned the possibility of such an appointment while the Tafts were still in the Philippines. When another vacancy on the court appeared in 1906, Helen lost no time in arranging a meeting with Roosevelt to discuss her husband's future. Although it is not known exactly what took place behind closed doors, Roosevelt came away with a clear picture of "why the court appointment was not desired." William was hand picked by Roosevelt to run for the presidency on the Republican ticket in 1908; that November, he easily defeated William Jennings Bryan. On inauguration day, Helen Taft, in an unprecedented move, rode next to her husband in the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Since Roosevelt had already left Washington, the seat was vacant, and in every respect belonged to her.
Although Helen claimed that her active involvement in her husband's career ended when he became president, she continued to influence his decisions, especially at the beginning of his term. Often sitting in on important political discussions, she also accompanied him on political trips and golf outings. Their relationship was once described as that of "two men who are intimate chums." Helen additionally involved herself in every detail of managing the executive mansion. With hopes of economizing, she replaced the White House steward with a competent housekeeper. She insisted on comparison shopping and scrutinized every expenditure. Helen managed the Tafts' personal budget so well that after four years she had managed to set aside $100,000 for the family bank account.
Ironically, two months into her tenure as first lady, Helen suffered a stroke which affected the left side of her face and her speech. She never fully recovered, and her effectiveness was greatly diminished. With her husband's help, she learned to talk again, although her speech remained somewhat impaired. Eldest daughter Helen Herron Taft Manning acted as White House hostess during her mother's year-long recuperation.
After leaving the White House in 1913, the Tafts moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where William took a position as a law professor at Yale University. In 1921, his lifetime dream was finally realized when Warren G. Harding appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court. William served nine years before his death in 1930. Helen survived her husband by 13 years, enjoying a fairly active retirement. She died at age 82 and was buried next to her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.
By far the most well received and permanent of Helen Taft's contributions to her nation was her plan to enhance Potomac Park with the planting of 3,500 cherry trees, which were donated by the mayor of Tokyo. The trees were planted in a design copied from Manila's Luneta, an oval drive with a bandstand at either end, serving as the city's meeting place. To this day, the annual blooming of the cherry blossoms lures tourists to the U.S. capital from around the world, a lasting memorial to Helen Herron Taft.
Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies. NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Melick, Arden David. Wives of the Presidents. Maplewood, NJ: Hammond, 1977.
Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.
William Howard Taft Papers, Library of Congress.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts