“I don’t know what I would do without her.”*
Grace Goodhue Coolidge (January 3, 1879 – July 8, 1957) is one of my favorite first ladies. She and her husband Calvin lived for many years in Northampton, MA, a town I know well. In fact they met there, when she was on the faculty of the Clark School for the Deaf and he was a lawyer.
The story goes that while watering flowers outside the school one day in 1903, she happened to look up at the open window of Robert N. Weir’s boardinghouse and caught a glimpse of Calvin Coolidge shaving in front of a mirror with nothing on but long underwear and a hat. She burst out laughing at the sight; he heard the noise and turned to look at her. It was their first meeting. After a more formal introduction sometime later, the two were quickly attracted to each other.
Her vivacious personality was the perfect complement to his shy character. They were such opposites. She was a Pi Phi at the University of Vermont and the president of her sorority. Calvin was no Greek at Amherst. He was an outsider, an “ouden”–or “nothing.” At the Christmas break of his freshman year, he did not want to return to school, but because he believed in finishing what he started, he did, and he pulled himself together.
Throughout their marriage, Grace and Calvin were a devoted pair. They may have been very different in some ways, but they also had a lot in common. They were both descended from Puritans, both were from Vermont and both had found their way to Northampton.
Both were animal lovers and the White House was a veritable menagerie sometimes referred to as the “Pennsylvania Avenue zoo.” Dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, even a raccoon–“She was a mischievous, inquisitive party,” wrote Grace of their raccoon Rebecca. “We had to keep watch of her when she was in the house. She enjoyed nothing better than being placed in a bathtub with a little water in it and given a cake of soap with which to play. In this fashion she would amuse herself for an hour or more.”
It is amusing to picture the man who brought dignity back to the White House with a raccoon in the bathtub.
They were indeed a couple, supporting each other. Somehow they went forward after the tragic death of their 16-year old son Calvin Jr. who had played tennis without socks and developed a blister and then sepsis. It nearly ruined them, but Calvin found solace in knowing that Abraham Lincoln had also lost a son while president. He and Grace pressed on.
If you are interested in learning more about the Coolidges, I recommend Coolidge by Amity Shlaes, published last year by Harper Collins. He and his wife were warm and real and unpretentious. They worked hard. I’m afraid we will not see their like again.
So join me in toasting Grace Coolidge tonight on the anniversary of her death in 1958.
*Calvin Coolidge referring to his wife.