Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly : The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave
A vibrant social history set against the backdrop of the Antebellum south and the Civil War that recreates the lives and friendship of two exceptional women: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her mulatto dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly.
"I consider you my best living friend," Mary Lincoln wrote to Elizabeth Keckly in 1867, and indeed theirs was a close, if tumultuous, relationship. Born into slavery, mulatto Elizabeth Keckly was Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, confidante, and mainstay during the difficult years that the Lincolns occupied the White House and the early years of Mary's widowhood. But she was a fascinating woman in her own right, independent and already well-established as the dressmaker to the Washington elite when she was first hired by Mary Lincoln upon her arrival in the nation's capital. Lizzy had bought her freedom in 1855 and come to Washington determined to make a life for herself as a free black, and she soon had Washington correspondents reporting that "stately carriages stand before her door, whose haughty owners sit before Lizzy docile as lambs while she tells them what to wear." Mary Lincoln had hired Lizzy in part because she was considered a "high society" seamstress and Mary, an outsider in Washington's social circles, was desperate for social cachet. With her husband struggling to keep the nation together, Mary turned increasingly to her seamstress for companionship, support, and advice--and over the course of those trying years, Lizzy Keckly became her confidante and closest friend.
With Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, pioneering historian Jennifer Fleischner allows us to glimpse the intimate dynamics of this unusual friendship for the first time, and traces the pivotal events that enabled these two women--one born to be a mistress, the other to be a slave--to forge such an unlikely bond at a time when relations between blacks and whites were tearing the nation apart. Beginning with their respective childhoods in the slaveholding states of Virginia and Kentucky, their story takes us through the years of tragic Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the early Reconstruction period. An author in her own right, Keckly wrote one of the most detailed biographies of Mary Lincoln ever published, and though it led to a bitter feud between the friends, it is one of the many rich resources that have enhanced Fleischner's trove of original findings.
A remarkable, riveting work of scholarship that reveals the legacy of slavery and sheds new light on the Lincoln White House, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly brings to life a mesmerizing, intimate aspect of Civil War history, and underscores the inseparability of black and white in our nation's heritage.
This double biography opens with an arresting image: two middle-aged women, one white, one black, are seated on a park bench in New York's Union Square in 1867. The white woman is Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of the president and desperately in need of money. The black woman is her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly, who is trying to help Mrs. Lincoln realize some profit out of the sale of the clothes that Mrs. Keckly made for her in happier times. Neither woman has been treated well by history. Mrs. Lincoln has gone down as a compulsive shopper whose own son tried to have her declared a lunatic; Mrs. Keckly was at one time thought to be a figment of the abolitionist imagination. Although Fleischner (Mastering Slavery), a former Mellon Faculty Fellow in Afro-American Studies at Harvard, is sympathetic to Mrs. Lincoln, the first lady's portrait here will not enhance her reputation significantly. But Fleischner's rehabilitation of Mrs. Keckly, portrayed as a strong-minded and talented woman who bought her freedom from slavery, lost her son on a Civil War battlefield and wrote a detailed biography of her former employer, is a revelation. Of particular interest is the glimpse provided into the vexed and ambiguous nature of the relations between the races both before and after abolition, a terrain the author negotiates with tact and sensitivity.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 09, 2004
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Excerpt from Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly by Jennifer Fleischner
As Mr. and Mrs. Robert Smith Todd looked forward to the birth of their fourth child in 1818, they were likely hoping for a boy. Two little girls--five-year-old Elizabeth and nearly three-year-old Frances--and one boy, one-and-a-half-year-old Levi, were already running around the yard on Short Street at the center of town and up the hill to their widowed Grandma Parker's house next door. By December, as her time neared, the children's twenty-four-year-old mother, Eliza Parker Todd, had retreated to her bedroom on the second floor of the nine-room house, leaving them to be watched by their slave mammy. The Widow Parker, who had given the young Todds the lower part of her double lot as a wedding gift, probably helped supervise the household slaves, among them three of her own whom she had loaned to her daughter: a young girl, a woman in her twenties, and an older woman. The sweet-natured Eliza admitted when she first married at eighteen that she had no idea housekeeping "was attended with so much trouble." Indeed, six months into her marriage, while the young couple were still living with the Widow Parker waiting for their house to be built, she had written, perhaps teasingly, to her maternal grandfather, "It really is almost enough to deter girls from getting married." In any event, she concluded, "it would never do for me to go far from Mama as I shall stand so much in need of her instruction."
Her husband, a second cousin whom she'd known virtually all her life growing up in Lexington, would not have asked her to move anyway. Robert Smith Todd had his own parental ties to Lexington, Kentucky, in the shape of a patriarchal Todd tradition of local power and influence. Well-connected and trained as a lawyer, twenty-seven-year-old Robert was already launched upon hectic political and business careers, apparently determined, if not absolutely destined, to follow in his father's and uncles' footsteps. His concerns kept him from home for long periods elsewhere--in Frankfort, thirty miles to the west, where he served as clerk in the Kentucky House of Representatives, and at other times almost eight hundred miles south in New Orleans on buying trips for his struggling wholesale/retail firm. So Robert Todd may not have minded the constant presence of a mother-in-law in the house. Later, he would come to depend on it.
The new baby, another girl, arrived on a cold Sunday, December 13, 1818. Her parents named her Mary Ann, after her mother's only sister. Like other well-to-do Kentucky women of her day, Eliza, having survived this infant's birth, would have breast-fed her daughter for several weeks or more before handing her over to a wet nurse, most likely a slave. After recovering from the birth, Eliza would have enjoyed returning to some of Lexington's social and cultural activities: paying and receiving morning calls, for which Lexington ladies dressed formally in silks and satins; taking afternoon drives in the Todds' Lexington-built carriage; and visiting the public library, which was open every afternoon except Sunday in a building on the corner of the town square. More likely, she looked forward to visiting Mrs. Plimpton's millinery in Mr. Plimpton's store, at Main and Main Cross Street; attending music concerts in the public rooms of the town's many taverns; and gathering with her neighbors for the thrilling lottery drawings, also held in the taverns, which were the town's favorite means of raising money for schools and churches. There were always plenty of parties and picnics and frequent celebrations honoring a steady parade of patriots and politicians. When little Mary Ann was almost seven months, Eliza may have stood outside Postlethwait's Tavern on July 3, waving a handkerchief as salutes were fired to honor President Monroe and General Jackson, who beamed acknowledgment to the assembled crowd. Later in July she might have attended the university's Commencement Ball, for which gentlemen could get tickets at Postlethwait's but ladies had to apply to the ball's managers.