2010 JFK Symposium

Off-the-Record: Grace Coolidge’s Emotional Role in Sustaining Calvin Coolidge

Adapted from Remarks by Carl Sferrazza Anthony

Grace Coolidge once remarked, I paraphrase – “Mr. Coolidge did not always enjoy life.  I tried my best to help him in this regard.  I’m afraid I was not always successful.”

Unlike those such as Eleanor Roosevelt or Hillary Clinton, who took particular interest in aspects of their husbands’ policy objectives and assumed a role in directing those objectives, or those such as Nancy Reagan or Jacqueline Kennedy who were keenly aware of how the Administration and the President were being perceived or cast in public by the media or served by those personnel members whose actions affected it, or those like Ida McKinley whose care as an invalid by the President helped develop qualities of discipline, focus and commitment that proved so necessary as he conducted the Spanish-American War, Grace Coolidge had a power over the presidency that she kept entirely secret from the public – because it was entirely private and personal as an element of her marriage. That’s a paradox in the sense that she was highly accessible to the public, literally and figuratively.  Like Florence Harding before her, she unwittingly helped to establish the White House photo opportunity, willing to pose in practically any setting for any cause she thought she could help. Usually it was with large groups visiting the White House whom the President did not wish to see – and she assumed that role for him. Mrs. Coolidge with Helen Keller on the steps of the South Portico in which Mrs. Coolidge’s interest and professional career as a teacher of the deaf best illustrates this.  My favorite one of Mrs. Coolidge at the opening of the annual flower show in Washington where she’s got her hands on this giant chrysanthemum right beneath a sign that says “please do not touch the flowers.

Unlike Mrs. Harding, Mrs. Coolidge was also physically accessible to the public because she walked around Washington, went into stores, and she shook hands or gave strangers a hug or a kind word in response to their greeting. Her clothes, her interest in sports, her healthy inclinations gave the impression of the popularized “new woman” of the 20s, having just been given the right to vote and who were now more physically, economically and professionally independent.

That was partially an illusion. I think Grace Coolidge summarized poetically not only the sense of sacrifice of self but also the emotional and psychic cost of being First Lady. After all, no matter how much that role is now institutionalized as part of the American Presidency it is still one thrust upon a woman who happens to be married to a Vice President – and it is especially unfair to those who came by it as a result of accident, meaning the departure of the previous President from the office of chief executive before the term has expired and the assumption of it by the Vice President.

Pursing a college education and a professional career, Grace Coolidge began her adult life with specific intention to help teach children with the disabilities which arise out of deafness or hearing problems. She seems to have willingly given it up upon marriage to assume the traditional and unsalaried work of a wife to an increasingly absent husband and mother of two children. Though she ostensibly saw her role as First Lady through the prism of being merely Coolidge’s wife, she clearly grasped that she was to be perceived as an individual public figure, a celebrity, as well.

Her remark then also captures a truth that is timeless and holds for not only those in politics but entertainment, sports or any arena where a persona is used to symbolize the person.  I paraphrase, but it went something like this: “This was I, yet not I, for this was the wife of the President of the United States and my own personal wishes and desires and interests and inclinations had to be sublimated to what the public expected of the presidential wife.” She was intuitively understood that she was, really, two beings – a public one and a real one.

She also understood that those photo ops served the purpose not only of promoting an issue or raising public interest in a matter but as a shield, a limit to who she was a real person. No matter how wise and conscientious any one of us is about this reality, as we know in our own lives, you know, when you see a photograph you take it at face value and you make a judgment.  And of course the people who have taken that photograph or who have set that photograph up are hoping that you’ll do so.  But, of course, it is a great falsehood to be lured into the belief that the photograph is always the full truth.  You then wonder, what was Mrs. Coolidge seeking to protect from public consumption?

Conventional wisdom about the Coolidges always poses him as painfully shy and her as exuberant extroverted.  And this the public repeatedly believed because he tended to say little and seem uncomfortable in public settings with strangers and she was talkative and lively. An attempt to glimpse into their souls, however, might provide a deeper insight. This can be difficult for the biographer, especially the academic perspective which limits itself to facts and data. 

Yes, Calvin Coolidge and Grace Coolidge were both born and raised in Vermont, she the daughter of a Democratic Methodist from the more urbanized world of Burlington, he the son of Republican Congregationalists born and raised in the rural setting of Plymouth Notch. Seeking to attribute the development of a person’s character and soul or understanding them based on several hard facts is limiting – let alone the basis for bigotry. Take any one of us and you could find about thirty labels that you could put on any one of us, and anyone else could try and judge us simply on that one label.  In truth, we are all of us more than the limitations of any one biographical fact – our birth order, ancestry, education, age, gender, height, weight, race, etc. It’s only by first considering the fullest blueprint of that unique combination of labels which begins to give a sense of genuine individualism. Consider the relationship that Calvin and Grace Coolidge both had with their parents. Both lived most of their life as only children, he after the early death of his sister Abigail. He also lost his mother early on and while his father would remarry, his relationship with his stepmother never neared the intensity of his bond to his father. As his published letters to his father show, it was the closest he had for most of his life and which grounded his sense of family duty and even responsibility to his father’s land in Plymouth Notch. As one movie newsreelman managed to inadvertently capture, the day Coolidge departed home to begin his presidency, he kissed his father Colonel Coolidge on the lips, and then his son, John, kissed his grandfather Colonel Coolidge. Once the car leaves, the Colonel turns and sees the cameraman – a bit shocked. This is extraordinary. This is not what anyone would presume based on the facts that it was the early 20th century, that these were men, that they were allegedly typical Vermonters who did not display emotion. This is, however, who Calvin Coolidge really was as an individual. For a family which valued the sanctity of privacy, it must have been a shock to have this moment captured.

Coolidge first had a family of four – his parents and sister. It then reduced to three, then just two. When his stepmother entered the picture, it went up to three and with marriage to Grace, back up to four. With their two sons – Coolidge had the largest number of family he would know, a total of six.  Then in 1920 his stepmother dies, in 1924 his son Cal died, and in 1926 his father dies. His sense of family is reduced to three.  The preciousness of family, the ability to trust in only one or two individuals was forced on him by these circumstances.

Look at the 1920 Republican Convention program’s biography of Governor Coolidge. It’s highly descriptive, filled with superlatives about thrift, sturdiness, hard work and honesty.  Everything it says, however, is truth and not hyperbole, aspects of which he was as a person that he was willing to provide to the public as his persona. Shortly into his presidency, he cooperated with Boy’s Life Magazine, the magazine of the Boy Scouts, for the article “President Coolidge and His Boys.”  He permitted them to use one of his letters about the value of scouting, , several photographs of the boys on the farm  and one quote from each son.  Asked what the presidency would mean to their family, John Coolidge was quoted as saying, ‘Father will be kept busy as president, but in off hours he will be the same old dad and companion.’”  These are from the same pool of anecdotes and images that were the limit of what the public ever saw. It was a conscious concession by Calvin and Grace Coolidge to the expectations of their public personas. And there they drew the line. It was a wise and modern accommodation that also permitted them the freedom of some privacy.

Within that pool of images – be they still pictures of newsreels, the majority are taken from their life at Plymouth Notch and from outdoors. They send one consistent and visible message – a love and respect for the natural world, whether it was the land – with Calvin harvesting crop or milking corn and Grace cultivating a very healthy garden – or the other living beings which shared their life – their dogs. At a time when most adults perceived dogs as largely work animals, be they for hunting or herding, Calvin and Grace Coolidge displayed an extremely unusual degree of reverence, of genuine love for their individual dogs.  In one still picture, Grace Coolidge is holding the hands of one dog which is standing up and they’re looking into each others’ eyes. A newsreel clip shows an especially sensitive Calvin Coolidge seated on a bench, at Plymouth Notch, with his arms affectionately around the neck of one of their white collies.. Images might not satisfy the assiduous academic obsessed with paper trails as the only valid proof, but in the case of the Coolidges these serve as subtle yet undeniable evidence of how highly they valued all living beings, even those not among the great and mighty human species. It offers silent testament to an emotionally intelligent value they shared.

This provides an opening, perhaps, into glimpsing their souls and the way that Grace Coolidge attempted to keep the heart of her husband open, to keep him focused on other types of life beyond those beloved family members lost in death, whether it was expected or not. Coolidge’s love letters to Grace display explicit awe and respect for Grace’s decision to become a teacher of the deaf – a frustrating, and at times bewildering, profession which required a high degree of patience and understanding.  Some have incorrectly cast the Coolidge marriage as one forged by his need to control and to conform his wife to serve him. I believe that he saw her as either an equal or even superior, in terms of her understanding lack of harsh judgment of human beings and that knowing his own discomfort with strangers and inability to always express himself,  she would accept him as he was.  “Having taught the deaf to hear,” a quip at the time of their marriage ran, “perhaps Grace will be able to make the mute speak.”  I don’t think either Coolidge was interested in having her serve as his “voice,” but rather having her serve as a safe and trusted venue for his deeply felt yet closely held emotions.

Grace Coolidge’s skill in managing emotional safety within the family is more apparent when one considers the aspect almost always overlooked – the loyal and devoted relationship she kept with her mother. For whatever reason, Lemira Barrett Goodhue maintained a bitterness towards her son-in-law unmatched within presidential families except for perhaps that between Truman and his mother-in-law. Perhaps it was due to her perception that Coolidge would cut Grace off from her emotionally, living as a widow in Burlington. Despite her public commitments as First Lady, and the need for her as a companion, ballast and emotional foundation for the President, Grace Coolidge managed to serve as a primary caretaker to her mother as she died slowly in 1928.

Two other incidents are often repeated without consideration of how much more it might reveal about the depth of humanity to Grace Coolidge.  One involves the funeral services of her teenage son Cal. The shock and horror of such an incident occurring to a mere 16 year old, at the very time the family is most expected to be public – a re-election campaign. Public outpourings of sympathy were great for the family and when the services were held in the East Room of the White House, it was decided to permit the public onto the North Lawn and keep the windows open. It was a concession that provided the general public a chance to participate in the mourning of one they perceived as part of their national family and yet did so without compromising the genuine emotional grief of his parents and brother.  This would not have been done unless Calvin Coolidge had approved to the arrangement and it suggests that both he and Grace were emotionally evolved enough to recognize that their grief and recovery would take place in their hearts and minds, without regard to the physical reality that strangers were listening to the service through an open window.

The other involves the so-called scandal of the First Lady taking a long hike in the Black Hills of South Dakota with her young and unmarried Secret Service agent Jim Haley – who was then immediately assigned away from her by the President not because of jealousy but a belief that Haley had put his wife’s well-being in jeopardy. The press reported it as if there was something of a love affair between Mrs. Coolidge and Mr. Haley. We don’t know if Mrs. Coolidge argued with the President against his decision. We do know, however, that she wrote a private letter of commendation on Haley’s character and his professionalism to the chief of the Secret Service adding in secret defiance of her husband that the reassignment was “a great injustice.” Had Coolidge not been personally upset by the incident it is likely he would have admired the fact that Grace insisted on asserting respect for Haley into the record of the incident.

Assessing precisely how Grace Coolidge’s emotional role in the life of Calvin Coolidge affected his presidency may be too speculative for consideration by academics. Even the most humanistic study of the couple may offer insights that can only remain ephemeral. Still, consideration of it provides a wider context for understanding that something was very much in evidence to those who knew them. As the newspaper editor William Allen White put it, ‘To what degree Mrs. Coolidge has had influence on the president, only two people know.  One is too silent to say, the other too smart.’