From slave to dressmaker: Book explores relationship of Mary Todd Lincoln and her seasmstress

Contributing Culture WriterJanuary 17, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    Jennifer Chiaverini signs and discusses 'Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker'

    When: 7 p.m. Jan. 19

    Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Mall at Lexington Green, 161 Lexington Green Cir.

    Admission: Free

    Learn more: (859) 273-2911, Josephbeth.com

In Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated film Lincoln, we get a brief glimpse at the intimate relationship that first lady and Lexington native Mary Todd Lincoln had with her dressmaker, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (played by Gloria Reuben), and the intimate, trusted role she had within the Lincoln household.

But a new historical novel, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini (Dutton, $26.95), details Keckley's remarkable life from 1860 to 1901.

Chiaverini will sign and discuss her book Saturday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington.

It is Wisconsin writer Chiaverini's first stand-alone book that is not part of her popular Elm Creek Quilt series, but quilting is what introduced her to Keckley's story.

"I was researching another book set during the Civil War era and I happened to come across a photo of a quilt very typical of late 19th century," says Chiaverini, who is a quilter and quilt designer. "It had all kinds of padding and embroidery and patriotic symbols, and in the caption I saw that the quilt was attributed to Elizabeth Keckley."

While the artifact cannot be 100 percent verified, it is said to be made from scraps of gowns that Keckley sewed for Mrs. Lincoln.

"I thought of all of the conversations and stories and history that was behind the creation of this quilt and I wished I had been able to be present at the conversations that Mrs. Lincoln had shared with her dressmaker."

Chiaverini didn't have to imagine all of the conversations herself. While researching yet another book, Chiaverini had discovered that Keckley had written a memoir.

Keckley lived a rich life. Besides being Lincoln's closest confidant, Keckley, a former slave who bought her and her son's freedom for the hefty price of $1,200, became one of the most sought-after dressmakers for Washington's elite social circles, including the wives of Gen. and President Robert E. Lee and Confederacy President Jefferson Davis.

Keckley's memoir, Behind the Scenes: or, 30 Years as a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, provided Chiaverini with richly informative source material. It was scandalously received in its time, permanently ending her close relationship with Lincoln.

Chiaverini says that the sad end to their friendship was a misunderstanding, that Keckley's aim was to offer a redemptive look at Lincoln so the public, already scandalized by Lincoln's secret attempt to sell her formal gowns for money, would not judge her so harshly.

"She wrote it to give an account of her own life and to explain what really happened with the old clothes scandal, to clear her name and Mrs. Lincoln's — but that is not how it was received," Chiaverini explains. "It absolutely severed their friendship. Elizabeth wrote to her many times afterward. She saw Mary through the most difficult, trying circumstances of her ultimately very sad life, and to be cut out in this manner was devastating."

It is the difficult, trying circumstances that Chiaverini focuses on in the novel, including how Keckley tends to the Lincolns' dying son Willie and, later, the grieving family.

Keckley's fame is defined by her service to and close familial relationship with one of the most famous families in American history, but she also founded the Contraband Relief Association, which tended to tens of thousands of former slaves who sought refuge in Washington.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Keckley's place within the family as much as Mrs. Lincoln's immediate response to her husband's assassination.

"Mary Lincoln wanted no one but Elizabeth by her side," Chiaverini says, "which speaks volumes about the bond they had at the time."


IF YOU GO

Jennifer Chiaverini signs and discusses 'Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker'

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 19

Where: Joseph-Beth Booksellers, The Mall at Lexington Green, 161 Lexington Green Cir.

Admission: Free

Learn more: (859) 273-2911, Josephbeth.com

Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.

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