Name: Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge Born: January 3, 1879; Burlington, Vermont Died: July 8, 1957; Northampton, Massachusetts Presidency: Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929
The young boys were not in the house. John, age 16, had just arrived at Ft. Devens in Ayer, MA to attend the Citizens’ Military Training Camp as a leading example for the nation’s boys. Calvin Jr. went to Northampton where he biked to work on a tobacco farm. Both learned the news of their father’s presidency and continued as if nothing had happened. As Grace and Cal prepared to leave Plymouth Notch, Vermont for Washington, D.C., Vermont neighbors lined up to shake their hands and wish them well. The Coolidges returned by train to Washington and gave Florence Harding time to pack up at the White House.They moved to the White House on August 21st.
First Lady Grace Coolidge
“This was I and yet not I, this was the wife of the President of the United States and she took precedence over me; my personal likes and dislikes must be subordinated to the consideration of those things which were required of her.” (Autobiography, p. 62 and Round Robin letter of her first day at the White House as First Lady)
“I am rather proud of the fact that after nearly a quarter of a century of marriage, my husband feels free to make his decisions and act upon them without consulting me or giving me advance information concerning them.”
A role had been thrust upon Grace Coolidge and this affected her personally. This obviously was stressful as she tried to hold up her part of the job without really having substantial input. As a college educated woman with her ideas valued by many, this was a submissive position. However, the role of First Lady as greeter and cheerleader was her preferred role. She admitted to loving the interaction with people. Just as her father greeted people at his Burlington, Vermont church, she greeted them at the White House. She liked making people feel at home. That was her gift.
During the changing times of the 1920’s Grace Coolidge continued the Hardings’ precedent of garden parties and musical gatherings. In 1925, the State Department was charged with formal entertaining and that relieved some of the pressure on Mrs. Coolidge and her personal secretary. Grace revived many White House traditions and added a few as well. The Coolidges were the first couple to light the community Christmas tree by pushing a button to activate the lights on the tree; electricity was a new invention at the time. Mrs. Coolidge, a church singer, invited carolers to the White House and decorated a tree with the boys. Sounds of children at play during the Easter egg-rolling were a joy to Grace. She truly loved children and animals. She showed off her raccoon, Rebecca, for the children to admire. When the raccoon was too rambunctious for the White House, Grace thought a mate would settle her down. Reuben was recuited, but both raccoons did have to go to the zoo at the end of this experiment. Both Calvin and Grace had animals in their houses from the days even before they had their own children, but no White House couple had such a variety of pets. Their dogs, birds, cats, and raccoons must have been the talk of the town.
Renovation and restoration of the White House were very much on the mind of this very visual First Lady. She asked for a joint resolution by Congress to authorize acceptance of gifts of furniture for the stately White House. When she reached the White House in 1923, she was disappointed that authentic furniture from past occupants was not there. She had the building searched for valuable pieces and did find antiques in the attic. She and General Grant (grandson of U.S. Grant) asked for donations for the White House and Grant rescued some antiques from buildings where they had been stored.
Engineers proposed a $500,000 renovation of the White House to secure the roof and attic and ceilings of the second story. Construction began in March of 1927 and the Coolidges vacated to 15 Dupont Circle to speed up the work. Mrs. Coolidge donned a hard hat to inspect the work one day and was pleased with the enlarged third floor and new sky parlor. This was part of the roof of the south portico and enabled one to have great views of the Washington Monument and Mall.
The highpoint of the administration for Grace was the visit from her fraternity, the Pi Phi’s when they presented a portrait by Howard Chandler Christy to the White House of Grace in a red dress next to the president’s dog, Rob Roy. Her sorority sisters, 1300 strong, filled the White House with joy and pride. The low point was the death of her second son. Admiral Boone, the assistant White House physician, often played tennis with the boys on their vacations from Mercersburg Academy. Boone arrived one day for a game and found Calvin Jr. resting in a room with his mother watching over him. When Boone inquired as to the nature of Calvin’s illness, he tracked down an infection from a blister raised by playing tennis. This fast moving septicemia took the life of Calvin Jr. within a few days. Father Calvin, in his Autobiography, said that the “power and glory of the White House went with him.” Grace was very religious and believed that her son would be waiting for her in heaven. She even wrote a poem to this effect, “Open Door.” To lose your son in such a public arena must have been devastating. Some historians believe that Calvin, the president, became clinically depressed. Grace had to soldier on and also look to their other son, John, now at Amherst College. She also faced a whole term of four years in the White House and knew that many relied on her to perform her role well.
Grace sought out people with disabilities to visit the White House. Helen Keller was a favorite. This interest in helping deaf children and individuals with disabilities was very strong and at the end of Calvin’s administration, $2 million was raised for the Clarke School for the Deaf. Her husband made her cause his cause. When wealthy friends asked how they could commemorate his years in Washington, he asked them to give to the Clarke School.
No one is quite sure where Grace’s interest in baseball began, but it never ended. She was known as “The First Lady of Baseball.” “You may not give a hoot for baseball, but to me it is my very life,” she reportedly said to friends. The American League sent her a yearly pass in a gold trimmed purse.
When Calvin did not choose to run again for president in 1928, they planned to retire to their two family house in Northampton. Lacking the privacy they needed, they bought The Beeches, a gated estate on Hampton Court in Northampton. Grace plunged into community service and writing articles.
After Calvin’s sudden death from a coronary thrombosis in 1933, Grace filled her retirement with her precious four: her son John, his wife Florence, and their children Cynthia and Lydia. Besides her local charity work for the Northampton Red Cross and her church, she raised funds in 1939 to bring refugee children to the U.S. from Germany and was Honorary Chair of the Northampton committee to raise money for the Queen Wilhelmina Fund for the Dutch victims of the Nazi invaders. She sold the Beeches, their retirement house, and built a new house, Road Forks, on Ward Avenue in Northampton. She loaned this house to the WAVES during World War II.
In the 1950’s her health began to fail due to heart trouble. She lived quietly but stepped forward to dedicate the Coolidge Memorial Room at Forbes Library in Northampton and urged her son to give the homestead where Calvin was sworn in as president in Plymouth, Vermont to the State of Vermont to help preserve the legacy of her husband. She died at age 78 of kyphoscoliotic heart disease on July 8, 1957.
Grace Coolidge remains a popular presidential wife in the rankings of all First Ladies. This is probably due to her image as an elegant, young, and vibrant First Lady. The Secret Service nicknamed her “Sunshine.” The social side of the White House, under her guidance, exemplified tradition, such as her emphasis on holidays, and also included children and those with disabilities.
Her interest in White House history was important in that she asked for a joint resolution by Congress to authorize acceptance of gifts of furniture. She wanted to restore antiques to the building and treat it as a living museum. She also improved the building by adding a sky parlor for more sunshine; she renovated the family quarters.
She was a very modern woman; she hiked and swam. She loved baseball enough to attend games into the late innings of her own life.
International in outlook, she raised funds for victims of World War II and loaned her house to the WAVES as their headquarters in Northampton.
She wanted to help preserve the legacy of her husband. She gave materials and memorabilia to the Forbes Library, a public library in Northampton, and made plans to transfer the homestead, where Calvin Coolidge had been sworn in as president, to the State of Vermont.
Grace’s modesty is part of her legacy. She once said, “It has been my experience that those who are truly great are the most simple people at heart, the most considerate and understanding, with a decided aversion of talking about themselves.” (Ross, as quoted by Foss, p. 111)