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Grace Coolidge: The People's Lady in Silent Cal's White House.

Grace Coolidge: The People's Lady in Silent Cal's White House. By Robert H. Ferrell. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008. 184 pp.

Robert H. Ferrell's Grace Coolidge: The People's Lady in Silent Cal's White House is a volume in the University Press of Kansas's Modern First Ladies series. A perceptive study, it is a fine addition to the series. Grace Anna Goodhue was born in 1879 in Burlington, Vermont, and her life was shaped by the community of Burlington, her family, and her religious faith. Her mother, Ferrell writes, was a withdrawn, self-centered, and difficult woman--not unlike the man Grace would marry. Grace was a good deal more like her father--good-natured, warm, loving, and "buoyantly enthusiastic" (p. 5). She attended and graduated from the University of Vermont, where she was an indifferent student who relished the social opportunities of a turn-of-the-century college campus.

After graduating, she took a teaching position at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, and it was in Northampton that she met Calvin Coolidge, then a lawyer with a modest legal practice who hoped to launch a political career. He was immediately attracted to her, and she was attracted to Coolidge's idealistic nature and to his religious devotion. After they were married in 1905, these shared qualities--and Grace's immense human warmth--sustained the couple through what was at times a difficult and trying marriage.

Calvin Coolidge's reputation for silence and his often tightfisted ways (which obscured acts of generosity) have become the stuff of legend, but Grace soon learned that her husband's silence masked a moody, even dark nature. As a husband and as a father, Coolidge was emotionally distant and easily irritated. His political success owed partly to his hard work and ability and partly to fortuitous circumstances, but it also owed to Grace's determination to persevere in their marriage. Her willingness to tolerate his dark moods, ill temper, and sometimes rude acts was, Ferrell argues, instrumental in his political rise. She steadfastly compensated for his unattractive and petty nature with her own gracious and ebullient manner.

Once in the White House, Grace Coolidge lived under serious restraints in terms of what she might achieve as first lady. Her husband, after all, had never allowed her a role in their marriage--or in public life--comparable to that of Edith Roosevelt, Helen Taft, or Edith Wilson. Still, she managed to make modest contributions to the evolving role of the first lady. She continued Florence Harding's initiatives to make the White House accessible to the public. She gained favorable press attention for a "reputation of being among the best-dressed women of her time," which made her a leader in "good taste among well-dressed women of the 1920s" (p. 69). More importantly, she presided with great skill over the many White House dinners and receptions and enlivened them with impressive musical performances that featured leading classical musicians and opera singers. And whenever she was in the public view, she displayed a gracious charm. "Charm," Ferrell contends, "was her principal legacy to the first lady tradition" (p. 73).

Unquestionably, however, Grace Coolidge's greatest achievement as first lady took place out of the public view. This achievement was to sustain her marriage and family following the death of her younger son, Calvin Coolidge, Jr., in 1924 of an infected blood blister that developed after the 16-year-old played tennis on the White House courts. Both parents grieved inwardly, and for the president, faced with the pressures of his office, the tragic loss left him in a depressed state in which he was all the more prone to angry outbursts and ill humor. His relations with his son, John, never particularly good, became worse still, and his relations with Grace were strained as well. It was a painful, difficult time for her, and matters did not improve until the president wisely decided in August 1927 that he would not seek another term.

Grace and Calvin Coolidge returned to Northampton in 1929, and the former president died there in 1933. In the years that followed until her death in 1957, Grace pursued her passion for baseball, found a group of loyal friends much like herself, and stayed largely out of public life.

--David Hamilton

University of Kentucky
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Author:Hamilton, David
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 21, 2011
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