Helen “Nellie” Taft (1861-1943), who died 75 years ago this month, was an altogether unconventional First Lady. Not only was she the first First Lady to take on many of the responsibilities we now associate with the role, but she did it all while doling out political advice to her husband, President William Howard Taft, raising their three children and battling back from a debilitating illness. In celebration of her life and legacy, let’s talk a little about Nellie Taft!
Helen “Nellie” Herron was born June 2, 1861 in Cincinnati to John and Harriet Herron. She was the fourth of eleven children they would have, though not all would survive to adulthood. Strong-willed, curious and prone to bouts of anxiety and depression, Nellie documented her childhood and early adulthood in a series of diaries that allow us to know quite a bit about her during those years. We know that she struggled between desires for independence and security. Watching her father overwork himself at a job he disliked to afford their family’s lifestyle taught her that both were important but not always in agreement. We know that she wanted to either support herself through teaching and music or to marry a man who could be president – those were the only two lifestyles she believed possible for someone with her ambition. We know she found the men she dated patronizing and boring, right up until she began dating local boy Will Taft in the mid-1880s, several years after meeting him in 1879 at a sledding party.
Will Taft was the only man Nellie knew who she reasonably envisioned could be president; he had the right family connections and a good education. After their marriage in 1886, he served in increasingly impressive positions in both the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations. There was just one problem – Will Taft did not want to be president. While he acknowledged he’d probably be good at it, his heart was in the judicial branch. Will was passionate about his work in law that would someday deliver him to the Chief Justice seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The idea of campaigning for the presidency repulsed him. Nevertheless, Nellie and Theodore Roosevelt, one of Will’s closest friends, used their influence to persuade him to be Roosevelt’s successor within the Republican Party and he secured the party nomination in June of 1908. Once elected, he and Nellie moved into the White House in March of 1909.
Nellie was ecstatic to be First Lady. Not only did she give her husband advice on a variety of political issues, leading him to sometimes refer to her as “the real President,” but she also immediately began accomplishing “firsts.” She was the first First Lady to ride alongside her husband in the inaugural parade, the first to openly associate with a national public policy organization (the National Civic Federation), the first to directly intervene on behalf of Americans who wrote to her (including helping women be appointed to federal jobs) and was even the first to learn how to drive. Her most famous accomplishment, though, has to be the hundreds of Japanese cherry trees she secured from the Japanese government. These trees were planted along the Potomac River, and continue to be a major Washington, D.C. attraction to this day.
The Jefferson Memorial framed by cherry trees in bloom, present day.
The Taft family posed for this photo to commemorate Will and Nellie’s silver anniversary in June 1911.
Will Taft had only been in office for two months when Nellie suffered what would be the first of several strokes. While on a Potomac River cruise on May 17, 1909, she suddenly collapsed. The White House reported the incident as a case of heat exhaustion, but to Nellie, Will, their children and staffers, it was obviously more than that. She lost her ability to speak as well as mobility in her right arm and leg. Within three days she was able to make audible sounds, but she would forever speak with at least a slight speech impediment. Will Taft was devastated personally and professionally. Not only was his beloved wife ill, but he was also without her political council while she recovered. Nellie was finally able to fully return to public life and her First Lady duties at their silver anniversary party in June 1911. It was a spectacle of silver decorations and hundreds of electric lights that was the most anticipated celebration in D.C. that year.
Will lost the 1912 presidential election, at least in part thanks to his now-estranged friend Theodore Roosevelt running on a third party platform. Even on her way out of the White House, Nellie accomplished two more firsts. She was the first incumbent First Lady to attend the opposing party’s convention, which she did in 1912, and in 1914 she became the first First Lady to publish her memoirs. She fell in love with going to the theater, doted on her grandchildren and took up new interests like studying Colonial architecture. Will achieved his dream of being Chief Justice when he was sworn in to the Supreme Court in July 1921, but we have no record of how Nellie felt about it. When Will died on March 8, 1930, Nellie wore her lack of sentimentality about it like a badge of honor. She donated most of his clothes and belongings almost immediately, rarely spoke of him publically and dedicated most of the rest of her life to travelling as often and as far as possible. Helen “Nellie” Taft died at home on May 22, 1943 at the age of 81. Even in death she achieved another first. When Nellie was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, she became the first First Lady to do so and the only one until Jackie Kennedy several decades later.