First Women

9780062439659_p0_v3_s192x300Who doesn’t indulge in a little gossip now and then?  Kate Andersen Brower reveals the secrets of “The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies” in  First Women.  When I heard about this book on a morning news show, I downloaded the ebook, read the sample, and was hooked.

Not a biography like Jean Baker’s Mary Todd Lincoln or a soulful memoir like Laura Bush’s Spoken From the Heart, Brower’s book focuses on a small group of first ladies of a generation, from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama, and connects them by making comparisons on their experiences, backgrounds, husbands, and personalities. Not one to avoid the snide comment, Brower throws in a few from staffers, but most of her “reporting” is respectful, as she offers an inside look to their lives as political wives and mothers.  Whether the conclusions she draws in her commentary are accurate or not seems irrelevant.

When you read a People magazine story, you expect exaggeration and a little nudging of the truth, none of which takes away from the fun of reading it, so my expectations for First Women were low. Yet, despite the gossipy tone, Brower manages to tap into the real person behind each persona, as she recalls poignant moments in their lives – some public, some private.  Although Brower cites pages of references and primary sources for each chapter, including White House staffers, most of her conclusions are drawn from observation and letters.

Chapter titles add to the trade fiction feel: “The Good Wife,” Keep Calm and Carry on,” “Supporting Actors,” “The Political Wife.”  Citing the dislike of one woman for another (Michelle Obama for Hillary Clinton), or the unlikely bonding of two women (Laura Bush and Michelle Obama) in the chapter titled “Bad Blood,” seems petty  – but has caught the attention of the media more than other parts of the book.

The book is long, going through chapters with titles carrying each woman through the beginnings of her husband’s political career to the ultimate “prize” – the White House. Most of the information is public, as Brower recounts important moments in each presidency, but the private revelations offer new perspectives on each woman.  And the album of pictures at the back of the book is worth a look, if only to see them in their forgotten younger days.

Rosalynn Carter, who comes across well in Brower’s dissection, noted:

“First ladies are bound together by having had the experience of living in the White House and all that involves, but I’m not sure we would call the relationship among first ladies a sisterhood.  About the only time we are ever together is when a new presidential library is established or for a funeral.”


Related Reviews:

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

President Nixon

The drama of Watergate took on the qualities of a suspense thriller in the seventies, with the Washington Post’s daily installments of revelations, ultimately leading to the downfall of a sitting President. Reporters Woodward and Bernstein documented their relentless pursuit in their book, All the President’s Men, later developed into a movie. The identity of Deep Throat, their secret source, finally was revealed in 2005, and Frank Langella immortalized the deposed Nixon in the 2009 play based on the Frost/Nixon interviews. The fascination continues with a new twist.

Using the famous political scandal for his new historical fiction – Watergate – Thomas Mallon imagines the personal lives and conversations behind the scenes from 1972 (the night before the famous break-in) to 1974. With the real cast of characters – listed in the front of the book for reference – and embellishing the facts only a little, Mallon manages to create a suspenseful mystery about events that are already part of the historical record.


Mallon uses three key women in Nixon’s life to fill in a fictional back story to the well-known reality: Rose Mary Woods (the President’s secretary who famously erased 18  1/2 minutes of incriminating taped recordings); Pat Nixon, (the President’s long-suffering wife); and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (the well-connected ninety year old daughter of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt).  All were devoted fans of Dick. Pat wore bright hues to compensate for her husband’s drab origins as a Quaker, and Mallon inserts more color into her life by giving her a fictional affair with a wealthy Irishman.  Rose Mary, the loyal secretary, mistakenly thought she could erase herself from history (Mallon’s own version of what was really on those missing 18 1/2 minutes), and Alice used her insider information to predict catastrophe – with real lines that could rival Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith character.

In Mallon’s story, the powerful men have secondary roles as characters who reveal their own demons through conversations that might have taken place. Fred La Rue, the bagman who delivered the cash hush money, plays a sympathetic key role. His skeleton in the closet becomes a continuing thread in the story.  Nixon himself emerges as strong-willed and brilliant, yet insecure and paranoid – a tragic hero/villain.

Throughout, Mallon inserts reminders of the seventies – the Vietnam War is winding down, a new agreement with China is imminent, Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture is defaced in the Vatican.  At times, I found myself fact-checking on the internet only to find that an unlikely incident that seemed out of a spy novel had really happened, e.g.,  the untimely and suspicious death of Dorothy Hunt, wife of E. Howard Hunt, one of the many involved in the scandal who went to jail.

Most of the players are dead now, and the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge across from the Watergate where the break-in was planned, is a George Washington University dormitory.  I kept wondering how history would have been different if those condemning tapes had been destroyed.   In those pre-computer days, the evidence would have been hard to reconstruct.  I found a  transcript from the Nixon/Frost interview with a commentary from Ken Hughes that actually addressed Why Nixon Didn’t Burn the Tapes

Whether you lived through the scandal, read about it, or just wonder why “gate” is now attached to any modern corruption scandal, Mallon’s Watergate offers a new perspective.  I was surprised that there was still more to say on the subject, but Mallon says it well, and kept me reading – no matter that I knew the ending.

from Ann Beattie’s Imagination – Mrs. Pat Nixon

A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, with her own collection of short stories making the best seller list (see the review below), Ann Beattie has imagined Pat Nixon’s life in a fictionalized version of the former first lady’s life and thoughts – Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life – to be published this month.  Not the first time a First Lady has recently been subjected to conjecture:  Laura Bush in Curtis Sittenfeld’s An American Wife, Hilary Clinton in Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife.  Monica Ali even resurrected Princess Diana with a new life in Untold Story.

In her article for the New York Times, Me and Mrs. Nixon, Beattie offers her rationale for creating her own scrutiny of Richard Nixon’s wife – a seeming paragon of old-fashioned values, married to a man with no values.  What must have been going on in her head?  How did she manage to fade so effectively into the background – even behind the intensity of her daughters?

Beattie offered a taste of what to expect in her recent excerpt in The New Yorker – Starlight.  The book might be fun to read, but, like others in this genre, it could be hard to remember it’s fiction.

  • Read the review of Ann Beattie – the New Yorker Storieshere