The history and stories of the Presidents of the United States of America and their First Ladies fascinate many Americans. When we discuss their history, our personal politics seem to melt away as we are drawn in by the struggles and turmoil that each of these individuals faced during their time at The White House. As ordinary citizens of this country, we cannot fathom what it is like to live in a political fishbowl where every word and gesture can be misconstrued. Throughout our nation’s history, the press has closely followed the President. Some of the First Ladies have been treated worse by the press than their male counterparts. There was a time when the press did not follow any ethical guidelines and many times, stories about the President and the First Lady were fabricated. While this appalling, it is evidence that Americans have always been interested in the First Family.
Over the years, NPR has had several guests speak about the First Ladies of the United States of America on their radio programs. Included in this list are historians, authors, actors and the First Ladies themselves. In this CD compilation, NPR has included stories from our first First Lady, Martha Washington until our present First Lady, Michelle Obama. For many of the latest First Ladies, listeners can hear interviews with the women themselves and hear the First Ladies discuss issues and voice their own opinions. NPR also included voice recordings of former First Ladies which is quite fascinating. I expected Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice to be lower and more authoritative so I was quite surprised to hear her speak in her very proper ladylike manner. Jacqueline Kennedy can be heard talking to Arthur Schlesinger four months after her husband was killed. It was also quite entertaining to hear Lady Bird Johnson give LBJ notes on how he should speak to reporters. LBJ defensively tells her, “they get mad at you if you waste their time”.
Many of the Founding Mothers are discussed at length as well. Abigail and John Adams have over 1200 letters on file so a lot is known about her. Many years of their marriage was spent living apart which must have been a hardship for Abigail. There are only three letters that survive between the Washingtons. George ordered Martha to burn their letters after he died in order to keep their private lives private. What few people realize is that Martha lived in the military camps with George. She was a favorite among the soldiers. Sally Field discusses playing Mary Todd Lincoln. Field read all the letters that the Lincolns wrote to one another in order to help her prepare for the role. An interesting note about The White House when Lincoln took office is that there were literally livestock on the first floor. Mary believed that The White House was something that Americans should be proud of so she spent money making the place look better. Of course, the press criticized her for this because she spent too much money.
A fun part of this recording is the discussion on the former First Ladies’ ball gowns. At the time of the recording, there was a display at the Smithsonian Museum featuring the First Ladies’ gowns. Most of the gowns that were described were the dresses for the Inaugural Bowl. The gowns reflect the fashion of the time and the economics of the time. The third time that Franklin Roosevelt was elected, they canceled the ball due to the Great Depression. Women in the crowd at the Smithsonian talk about which gowns they would and would not wear and little girls giggle at the poofy sleeves.
First Ladies is a fun way to learn about the First Ladies of the United States and is appropriate for the whole family!