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Uncommonwealth: New book on Mary Todd Lincoln clarifies misconceptions

ctruman@herald-leader.comMay 19, 2014 


    Betty Boles Ellison signs and discusses The True Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography

    When: 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.

    Other books by Ellison: Kentucky's Domain of Power, Greed and Corruption; Justice Delayed, Justice Denied; Illegal Odyssey: 200 Years of Kentucky Moonshine and A Man Seen But Once: Cassius Marcellus Clay

Betty Boles Ellison thinks Mary Todd Lincoln is getting a raw deal from historians.

The Civil War-era first lady, who grew up in Lexington and visited here after her marriage to President Abraham Lincoln, has been portrayed as being crazy, flirty and treacherous as well as a wild spender and a thorn in the side of the greatest president ever.

Ellison says in her new book, The True Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (McFarland: $39.95), that the first lady was both frugal and outspoken, her son Robert a priggish manipulator who had his mother committed while Mary Todd Lincoln masterminded her own release from an asylum by gathering together friends and supporters who did not want to see a first lady humiliated.

"No person should have had to experience what she did, perpetuated by her own son and Lincoln's so-called friends," Ellison said in a recent interview at her Lexington home.

After her release, Mary Todd Lincoln moved to France, where she ordered and read a four-volume history of France written in French.

The early education she received at Madame Charlotte LeClere Mentelle's Lexington academy from 1832 to 1837 served her well. (Augustas Waldemare Mentelle and his wife, both natives of Paris and émigrés who had fled the revolution in France in 1792, ran the school.)

"The woman had a brilliant intellect," Ellison said of Mary Todd Lincoln.

"The more research I did, the more I was aware there was much about this woman that had not been told, and much of what was written was in error," Ellison said. "So I went on a crusade to change that."

Crusading books are nothing new to Ellison, whose 2001 book on University of Kentucky athletics, Kentucky's Domain of Power, Greed and Corruption, caused a stir among fans.

In it she wrote: "From the very beginning, it was evident the school's athletic program decisions were influenced more from without than within. There was a century of catering to downtown Lexington athletic interests at the expense of the school's athletic program."

Although Ellison, 80, a former reporter and writer for state government, began to research Mary Todd Lincoln as early as the 1970s, once her publisher learned that she had written a few chapters about the first lady, he pushed her to finish the book ahead of another current project, she said.

She pushed back her next book, the soon-to-be-released tome about stock car racing called The Early Laps.

She said she did two years of research on Mary Todd Lincoln in six months.

Journalist Mary Clemmer Ames, a contemporary of the Lincolns and a critic of Mary Todd Lincoln, comes in for particular scorn from Ellison, who writes: "Ames conveniently forgot that former first lady Julia Gardiner Tyler hired her own publicity agent to tell the world about her activities as the 'Lady President.' Imagine what would have happened if Mary Lincoln had bought in an elaborate carriage drawn by eight matched Arabian horses, as Julia Tyler did. Or, if Mary Lincoln had sashayed around Lafayette Park with an Italian greyhound on a leash as Julia Tyler did. Ames was terribly concerned about Mary Lincoln meddling in affairs of state but ignored Julia Tyler's lobbying Congress for control of federal patronage in New York and for the annexation of Texas."

Among the other points in Ellison's book:

■ Mary Todd Lincoln's use of psychics has been widely derided, but in the 19th century using a medium was nothing unusual. Mary Todd Lincoln suffered deeply from losing three of her four sons. First lady Julia Pierce also used a medium, Ellison's book says.

"There was nothing unusual about them," Ellison said. "...I've been a widow since 1968, and I can see how she would attempt to find comfort in that, as ridiculous as that seems to us now."

In fact, Gideon Welles, secretary of the Navy, and his wife were also spiritualists, Ellison writes.

■ Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd broke up once during their courtship, but Lincoln was so miserable that the two eventually reconciled and married.

■ Mary Todd Lincoln was in fact cheap rather than extravagant. For years she made her family's clothes. Abraham Lincoln overruled her in a dispute over pay for household help in which she was reluctant to pay a small amount of extra salary. She is also recorded trying to pay less than the seller asked for several pints of blackberries.

Marrying Abraham Lincoln, who was not wealthy, meant spending years as a boarder, rather than having her own home. The situation continued even after the couple had their first son, Robert.

Once the Lincolns arrived at the White House, it was a different and far more public era: Everyone who came to Washington expected to get into a White House reception, and many took home a souvenir, anything from someone else's hat to tassels snipped from the draperies. Upkeep was expensive, Ellison argues, because of heavy wear and theft.

She recounts a reception where Ulysses Grant climbed in his muddy boots onto a sofa to address his admirers. Mary Todd Lincoln, she said, invited Grant to take a place in the receiving line.

William S. Wood, interim commissioner of public buildings, wrote checks to himself in July and August 1861 totaling $7,700, which would have more than covered Mary Todd Lincoln's allegedly excessive expenditures in furnishing the executive mansion. Ellison said this is a point in Mary Todd Lincoln's favor overlooked by others.

■ Either she was frumpy or she was a fashion plate who spent too much money on clothes, critics said. They were wrong, Ellison claims.

Mary Todd Lincoln was derided for showing too much skin, wearing too many flowers in her hair, spending too much on clothes and jewelry, and for not being fashionable enough.

During the period March 1861 to March 1865, she attended at least 106 official functions that required formal dress. She bought 14 to 15 new dresses a year, which Ellison considers a reasonable number.

No matter what she did, she could not win, Ellison said. Either she would be criticized for buying too many clothes for formal events or appearances, or she would be criticized for being too dull when she recycled outfits.

She even took a publicity hit when she wore a shade of purple to a funeral, rather than the expected black.

Her end was tragic. After she was released from the mental hospital, she lived for a few years in France and returned to the United States. A boarder in Springfield, Ill., covered in boils, she suffered a life-ending stroke on July 15, 1882, the 11th anniversary of the death of her son Tad.

She had successfully lobbied to have the government increase her benefits from $3,000 to $5,000 a year, had also regained control of her money from her son Robert, and had been legally declared sane.

Said Ellison: "I think this book is going to make a difference in how people view her. ... There are a lot of women in politics because she broke that glass ceiling in the 19th century, when political wives were supposed to be seen and not heard."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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