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Monday, February 15, 2021

First Ladies charm Gallery guests


The entrance to the exhibition, Every Eye is Upon Me at the National Portrait Gallery where Martha Washington welcomes visitors/Photo by Patricia Leslie
Robert Clark Templeton, Rosalynn Carter (b. 1927),  1976.  Mrs. Carter's focus on mental health began in 1970 when she was the first lady of Georgia and has never wavered since. When her husband, Jimmy Carter was president, Mrs. Carter attended cabinet meetings so she could be better informed to answer questions in her role as honorary chairwoman of the President's Commission on Mental Health. After the Carters left the White House in 1981, they invested muscle, hours, and money to humanitarian efforts like 
Habitat for Humanity, the largest non-profit builder in the world which has helped 29 million persons move in or rehabilitate homes/Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, donated by Mark, Kevin, and Tim Templeton, sons of the artist


I hope the paintings of the ladies are still up when the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery re-opens to showcase the aura and beauty of First Ladies of the United States in the enthralling exhibition, Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States

In a large gallery of several rooms, the more than 60 portraits welcome visitors who mentally "ooohhh" and "awwww" at the elegance and refinement these ladies present.  Honestly, you walk away a more sophisticated person, having spent time in the halls with these women, admiring their achievements.  (You see what art can do!)
Charles Robert Leslie, Louisa Adams (1775-1852), 1816. Mrs. Adams was the wife of John Quincy Adams who served as President Madison's envoy to Russia in the court of Czar Alexander I. The couple lived in St. Petersburg for five years and a building there bears an historical marker denoting their place of residence. Her attire reflects the influence of her stay there.  

She was born in London where this sitting took place a year after her six-week journey from Russia to Paris, and she was educated in France. A woman of many talents, Mrs. Adams played the harp and wrote several autobiographical novels, including one about "gender inequality," titled Adventures of a Nobody,  according to the label. She preceded the feminist movement by150 years!/The portrait was loaned from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.  
Francesco Anelli, Julia Tyler (1820-1889), 1846-48.  Julia Gardiner Tyler was born to a large slave-holding family in Long Island, and during the Civil War she urged her sons to fight for the Confederacy. 

When she married him in 1844, President John Tyler was a widower, and it took some coaxing for her to marry a man 30 years older than she was. She was the first woman to marry a president in the White House but her residency there lasted only eight months when her husband's term ended in 1845. 

On state occasions, the label notes,  she encouraged the playing of "Hail to the Chief," a legacy which continues to this day. After her husband died in 1862 and the Civil War ended, Mrs. Tyler,  needing financial help, successfully lobbied Congress for a pension which she received in 1880.  

Together the Taylors had seven children, and their grandson, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, is still living at age 91 in Virginia/Collection of The White House
George Peter Alexander Healy, Sarah Polk (1803-1891), 1846. Mrs. Polk served as what then would have been "chief of staff" for her husband, James K. Polk. She scheduled his appointments, managed his correspondence, and acted as his secretary. Likely because of bladder surgery, President Polk was not able to have children, and he and Mrs. Polk are the only presidential couple to never have children/Loaned from the James K. Polk Home and Museum, Columbia, Tennessee
Charles Fenderich, Angelica Van Buren (1818*-1877), reproduction of original, 1838-1841. Mrs. Van Buren was born in Wedgefield, S.C., likely at Melrose, a South Caroline plantation, where she grew up. On a visit to Washington, her cousin, Dolley Madison, introduced her to her future father-in-law, the widower, Martin Van Buren. Only eight months later Angelica married one of his four sons, Abraham, and her elegance and education led to her leadership as White House hostess, the youngest woman to hold the unofficial position. Mrs. Van Buren's family's ownership of slaves and her elegant lifestyle helped contribute to Martin Van Buren's defeat in 1840. (*One source says she was born in 1816.) From the collection of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.  
Unidentified artist, Abigail Adams (1744-1818), c. 1795.  When John Adams was president (1797-1801), Mrs. Adams suppressed her advocacy of women's rights, education, and the abolition of slavery/Collection of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York
Thomas Sully, Martha Jefferson Randolph (1772-1836), 1836.  According to the label copy, this was painted the year Mrs. Randolph died. She was Thomas Jefferson's oldest child and the wife of Thomas Randolph.  She helped maintain her widowed father's plantation, Monticello, where she was born/Loaned by Monticello, Charlottesville, VA 
M. L. Barlow, Martha Johnson Patterson (1828-1901), 1886, the daughter of President and Mrs. Andrew Johnson, served as White House hostess for her mother, Eliza Johnson (1810-1876), who did not participate in Washington life, mainly due to poor health/Courtesy of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, Greeneville, Tennessee

Unidentified photographer, Eliza McCardle Johnson (1810-1876), 1865-1876.
The Johnsons met in Greenville, Tennessee, when they were teens and married when he was 18 and she was 16, the youngest first lady to get married. Andrew Johnson never attended school, and Mrs. Johnson taught her husband how to read/Courtesy of the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, Greeneville, Tennessee
Unidentified artist, Abigail Fillmore (1798-1853), 1840. A great reader and book collecter, Mrs. Fillmore kept her teaching job after marrying her husband, one of her former students. At the White House, she helped establish the reference library and invited notable authors to visit. After Millard Fillmore's presidency ended in 1853, Mrs. Fillmore lived only 26 days, dying of pneumonia at the Willard Hotel/Collection of the National Portrait Gallery

Unlike here, the exhibition is arranged chronologically, ending with contemporary first ladies, many still living:  Rosalynn Carter, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Melania Trump. Apparel worn by Nancy Reagan, Michelle Obama, and Jacqueline Kennedy are displayed in a protective case at the end.

Whether it's Eliza Johnson who taught her husband how to read or Edith Wilson who renovated the White House or Pat Nixon who championed volunteers, you cannot help but be impressed by all, including the hated Mary Todd Lincoln.
Elizabeth Keckley made Mary Todd Lincoln's capelet, c.1861. Do you really think Mrs. Lincoln was as bad as all the books describe her? Everyone marvels about Abraham Lincoln, but I suppose his one really big mistake, to hear the biographers tell it, was his choice of Mary Todd Lincoln to be his lawfully wedded mate.
The turned portion of the capelet shows the name of the seamstress, a South Carolinian who was the daughter of a slave and a white man who was her mother's owner/Loaned from the National First Ladies' Library, Canton, Ohio
Cecilia Beaux, Edith Roosevelt (1861-1948),1902. The label says the artist was "one of the most prominent society portraitists of her generation," who painted Mrs. Roosevelt with her daughter, Ethel, here about age nine.  Mrs. Roosevelt was Teddy Roosevelt's second wife, his first, who died in childbirth the same day as his mother. The child born that day, Feb. 14, 1884, was the notable Alice Roosevelt who established her own reputation. Edith Roosevelt was the first first lady to hire a social secretary and she established the East Wing with offices for the first lady. She was active in Washington life, renovated the White House (which had been called the "Executive Mansion" prior to her arrival) and she is rumored to have influenced decisions to start the National Portrait Gallery. She and Eleanor Roosevelt were not great friends and campaigned for their husbands' political opponents. (See Wikipedia.)/Collection of Sarah Chapman  
Edward Steichen, 
Lou Hoover (1874-1944), 1928. Her wistful expression evokes that of her husband's administration. The label copy notes her wealthy background blinded her to the plight of lower-class and working women who did not have Mrs. Hoover's time to volunteer and churn out good works for the sake of society which her successor, Eleanor Roosevelt, promoted, earning nods from the public for her efforts. Mrs. Hoover's were the times that tried women's souls.

This was a 1928 photograph for Vogue, taken shortly before the Hoovers moved into the White House, marking the first time the magazine featured a first lady among its pages/Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, bequest of Edward Steichen 

The arrangement at the Portrait Gallery leaves plenty of viewing space for visitors who are not scrunched and squeezed to gaze upon the ladies and wonder how they managed.  With each portrait comes a short biographical sketch and there's a catalogue to go with the exhibition, First Ladies of the United States ($19.95).

This presentation is must viewing for girls and women of all ages, to give hope, inspiration, identity, and to provide a brief sense of American history. 
Martha Greta Kempton, Bess Truman (1885-1982), 1967. This portrait depicts Mrs.  Truman as happier and more glamorous than she was usually portrayed in photographs, a rather dowdy lady who I am sure was livelier than memory tells me. Her father's suicide when she was a teen perhaps explained her constantly sad expression.  She did not like living in Washington and participated in life here only when necessary, spending a lot of time back home in Independence, Missouri. Following Eleanor Roosevelt would have been a hard act for anyone/Collection of the White House
Elizabet
h Shoumatoff,  Lady Bird Johnson  (1912-2007), 1968. From the label copy:  "Lady Bird Johnson is often associated with the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, an initiative that incorporated historic site preservation, natural resource conservation, and environmental protection. For her successful efforts, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988." The artist captured Mrs. Johnson's grace and beauty, lovely and gracious as always. The National Portrait Gallery chose this portrait to welcome visitors at one of the exhibition's entrances/Collection of the White House
 Boris Chaliapin, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929–1994), 1960-61.  This portrait appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1961. Mrs. Kennedy's grace, charm and education commandeered many, including the leaders of France who, based on her efforts,  loaned the Mona Lisa to the United States. Her interest in historic preservation led to the birth of the White House Historical Association and the rescue from destruction of buildings on Lafayette Square and the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House. Note the baby carriage on the balcony above, a symbol of the Kennedys' young family/Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, gift of Time magazine

Robert Vickrey, Pat Nixon (1912-1993), 1960.  This is my favorite of the whole show. The portrait was made for the Feb. 29, 1960 issue of Time magazine when her husband, the future President Richard M. Nixon, was running against John Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. (To me, It suggests the works of Edward Hopper and Chris Van Allsburg.)
Mrs. Nixon was a strong advocate of volunteerism. She invited single senior citizens and wounded servicemen to the White House for Thanksgiving and was the first first lady to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation.  At the White House, she added 600 paintings and antiques to the collection, the most of any administration, and she started the Map Room. At the time she was the most traveled first lady in history, earning the title of "Madame Ambassador" for her goodwill trips, including visiting 39 of 50 states during her husband's first term/Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, gift of Time magazine

There is some controversy about a likeness of President Zachary Taylor's wife, Margaret Taylor (1788-1852). Wikipedia says there are two, however, the Gallery said there were none to be found for the show. The picture above is one which family legend says the president carried with him. 

Before the White House,  Mrs. Taylor followed her husband around the country during his many military assignments which ranged from the Florida Everglades to Wisconsin. She lived in tents, cabins,  and forts which may have some bearing on her decision to spend time at the Willard Hotel for her husband's two inaugural balls, not particularly caring for Washington, D.C. life. (The Willard seems to have been a hideaway for several first ladies. ) 

White House hostess duties were assumed by the Taylors' daughter, Betty. Another daughter, Sarah, was the first wife of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, but Sarah lived only three months after their wedding in 1835 when the newlyweds both caught malaria.

Mrs. Taylor was not a total recluse, venturing out every morning for services at St. John's Episcopal Church at Lafayette Square (yes, the very same church which was the site of the famous Bible thumping on June 1, 2020)/Wikipedia/Created Jan. 1, 1852 

Clothes worn by Jacqueline Kennedy (far left), Michelle Obama (center), and Nancy Reagan embellish the First Ladies' exhibition/Photo by Patricia Leslie
This photograph of Nancy Reagan's formal wear does not come close to conveying the gown's glamour and elegance.  Must see to believe!/Photo by Patricia Leslie
And, of course, Michelle Obama's gown she wore for her portrait which hangs nearby/Photo by Patricia Leslie

Nancy Reagan's (left) and Michelle Obama's apparel at the First Ladies' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Jacqueline Kennedy's suit was so plain and unimpressive. unlike she was, that I received a big surprise upon examining my pictures at home where I discovered I had not even photographed it which is visible at far right/Photo by Patricia Leslie


I hope the works are still on display when the Gallery re-opens since it is scheduled to close May 23, 2021.  Maybe, we can hope for an extension?  I was lucky to see the exhibition twice in person before the Gallery shut its doors. 
 
Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the National Portrait Gallery’s senior historian and director of history, research, and scholarly programs was the curator. .

Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States is made possible through the support of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, Morgan Stanley and the generosity of many other donors.

What: Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States

When: Closing May 23, 2021. The National Portrait Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m - 7 p.m. but is closed now due to covid, however, you may see most of the exhibit virtually at the website.

Where: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F streets, N. W., Washington, D.C. 20001

Admission: None

For more information: 202-633-8300 or visit the website

Closest Metro station: Gallery Place-Chinatown or walk 10 minutes from Metro Center

patricialesli@gmail.com



Sunday, February 7, 2021

Mary Higgins Clark's memoir is a must for writers


I've never read any Mary Higgins Clark (1927-2020), but I've listened to Mary Higgins Clark and just finished hearing her memoir, Kitchen Privileges.  

Whatever kind of writers you may be, dear readers who are writers:  Kitchen is a must.

Over many years Ms. Clark persisted at her love, never giving up, developing her craft. The recipient of countess rejection letters, she maintained her sense of humor and joined writers' groups, constantly striving to make her short stories more appealing and improve her writing skills.   

Never does she lose her cheery disposition found throughout the book, despite the many family tragedies she suffered:  the early deaths of her father, husband, and two brothers.  She lived to be 92 and died about a year ago.

The audio is blessed by her mellifluous voice which always adds to the enjoyment of a heard book when the author reads it whenever the author can come close to the beauty of Ms. Higgins' sounds.  In the book, she mimics several characters in her life and successfully produces their voices, cadences, and inflections.

The publisher, Simon & Schuster, likens Kitchen to a Bronx version of Angela's Ashes, but I find the comparison a terrible exaggeration since there is no way Ms. Clark's upbringing  remotely resembles that of the hardships endured by Frank McCourt and his family. 

She was married three times, the first and last being happy unions, but the middle marriage lasted all of approximately two sentences, about as long the marriage itself (later, annulled), and this "intrusion" in the book's theme seems out-of-place and thrown in at the last minute, perhaps by a demanding editor to keep it honest? 
 
This was one of those rare books I was sorry to see (or hear)  end.  Maybe, I will join the millions and read one of her 51 books, her second, Where Are The Children?,  published originally in 1975 when she was 45 and now in its 75th printing, according to Wikipedia.  Her first, Aspire to the Heavens, was plagued, she says in her memoir, by the title.  It was re-issued as Mount Vernon Love Story in 2000, the year before Kitchen Privileges was published.

With five children suffering the sadness of the early death of their father and Ms. Clark alone to raise them, she wrote, rising daily at 5 a.m. when everyone else was sleeping. We can do it, too.

patricialesli@gmail.com