05 May NELLIE TAFT’S MANY FIRST LADY SURROGATES #14. HER SISTERS AND HER DAUGHTER SUBSTITUTED FOR MRS. TAFT DURING NELLIE’S WHITE HOUSE ILLNESS.
Helen (Nellie) Taft was the wife of President William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States (1909-1913). While a teenager Nellie and her family were White House guests of President Rutherford and First Lady Lucy Hayes during the Christmas/New Year celebrations of 1877-8. John Herron, Helen Taft’s father, was a close friend of the president. From that moment sixteen year old Nellie was determined to reappear in the White House, not as a guest, but as its chatelaine.
She plotted to select a husband with the requisite education, ability, breeding and ambition to become president. If his ambition or strategy were lacking, Nellie would provide these. Her choice of marital partner was Cincinnati attorney Will Taft.
During their marriage whenever Will’s interest drifted towards the goal of a seat on the federal court bench, Nellie adeptly corrected her husband’s sights and steered him towards the White House. Of all the presidential wives during the 227 years of American history, Mrs. Taft was probably the one most desirous of the title, First Lady of the United States.
Tragic indeed was the severe stroke that felled this first lady on May 17, 1909, ten short weeks after Taft’s Inauguration. Nellie’s greatest neurologic damage was to the faculty most treasured – her speech. This disability dogged Nellie during her entire White House tenure. Initially she was unable to speak at all, later her verbal articulation continued to be impaired. A second, less severe, stroke on May 13, 1911, delayed her full recovery.
Consequently, Mrs. Taft to a great extent was unable to fulfill her cherished first lady responsibilities: social hostess; ceremonial companion of the president; and most importantly protector, emotional supporter, and political advisor of her husband.
Carl Anthony wrote: “Roosevelt had Senator Henry Cabot Lodge as a political confidant and sounding board. Will had Nellie. She was his ultimate protector and remained vigilantly defensive of him, ever on the lookout for threats, real or perceived, to his political success.” Out of kind regard for his wife’s disability Will Taft protected her from political, administrative, and policy discussions during most of his one-term presidency.
The greatest stress and distraction that President Taft experienced and that ultimately damaged his administration was due to Mrs. Taft’s condition.
Nellie Herron Taft was the fifth born of eight siblings, six daughters and two sons. Five of the sisters were very close, and three alternated as surrogates for First Lady Helen during much of her early convalescence. Eleanor More, Jennie Anderson, and Lucy Laughlin served as hostesses for White House social and ceremonial functions. Sister Eleanor immediately substituted for Nellie at a prescheduled White House dinner the night of the first stroke. A fourth sister, Maria Herron, sped to her sibling’s bedside in Washington after the second stroke.
Another surrogate who filled in as hostess was the Taft’s daughter, Helen Herron Taft Manning. The intelligent, accomplished, and pleasant Helen was a student at Bryn Mawr College when her mother took ill. She took a leave from college of near two years duration while Nellie convalesced.
Helen Manning went on to have an important academic career. She became Dean of Bryn Mawr in her middle twenties and was a celebrated professor of history. Moreover she assisted her mother when Nellie, bored as the wife of law professor Will Taft, wrote her autobiography.
Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Nellie Taft. The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006)