“The Vanishing First Lady”-or Am I?

First Lady Lucretia Garfield lived for 36 years after her husband, President James A. Garfield, was assassinated in 1881 by Charles Guiteau.  During that time, she became a beloved figure in America, though she shunned publicity.  She created the first Presidential Memorial Library and became the matriarch of a large, close-knit and affectionate family.  Debbie Weinkamer, who portrays Lucretia, is a Garfield researcher, first-person living historian, and the Lead Volunteer at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.  Here she presents how Lucretia would speak for herself in answering the critics if she had the chance.  Not always self-assured, except in the company of friends and family, nevertheless, Lucretia had always met adversity head on, facing her responsibilities. 

I appreciate this opportunity to write to you in order to clear up some misconceptions about me.  Many of you have not heard much about me since my husband’s assassination and death in 1881.  Even the newspapers have called me the “Vanishing First Lady” and “Discreet Crete.”  I must admit: I have ducked all publicity, for I feel that in no way am I personally famous.  The name I bear is honored and honorable, but I am just an ordinary woman devoted to her husband and children.

lucretia-1881

Mrs. Lucretia Garfield, ca. 1881.  (Library of Congress)

I did enjoy my husband’s rise to prominence in politics, contrary to many historians’ opinions of me.  At the beginning of his political career, I wrote to him that, “I feel so much anxiety for you that your public career be never marked by the blight of a misdirected step.  I want you to be great and good.”  I was one of his most-trusted confidants and advisors.  I didn’t expect him to be nominated for President in the political climate of 1876-1880, but thought that his time would eventually come.  However, after he received the “dark horse” nomination at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago, I wanted him to win the election – even though I knew that it would bring political difficulties to my husband and a terrible responsibility to our entire family.

My quiet, shy nature made me very reluctant to take over the social duties of First Lady, even though I had been a Congressman’s wife for 17 years and had lived in Washington with my husband and family during sessions of Congress since 1869.  However, I was very fortunate to receive the good advice and assistance of my friend Harriet Blaine, wife of my husband’s Secretary of State and “an experienced Washington grande dame.”  I came to rely on her fine judgment regarding many etiquette matters, including how to establish my calling hours at the Executive Mansion, and effective ways to handle newspaper correspondents and petty criticisms.

Engagement pic cropped

A young James Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph around the time of their engagement.  They married on November 11, 1858.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

(Here, I must pause to reveal some interesting correspondence regarding the Blaines…In April 1875, I received a letter from my husband concerning a rumor that when James Blaine was getting married to Harriet, the couple’s “warm blood led them to anticipate the nuptial ceremony,” and their first child was born about six months after their marriage.  My husband asked, would this fact “have weight with the people in the Presidential Campaign?” [Mr. Blaine was being considered by some for the presidency.]  

I replied, “It was a queer piece of gossip you gave me of Mr. Blaine.  I scarcely believe it.  But if it is true, it ought not to affect the voters very much unless it would have been considered more honorable by the majority to have abandoned the woman—seduced.  My opinion of Mr. Blaine would be rather heightened than otherwise by the truth of such a story: for it would show him not entirely selfish and heartless.”)

During his brief presidency, my husband paid me the best compliments a political wife can receive: that I was discreet and wise, that my “role as his partner in the presidential enterprise was essential to him,” and that I “rose up to every occasion.”

I have led a quiet, yet social, life since that terrible tragedy in 1881.  I created a “country estate” from my farm property in Mentor, Ohio and embarked on several building projects.  A “Memorial Library” addition was built onto the back of the farmhouse, complete with a fire-proof vault to hold my husband’s papers from his public career (and more than 1,200 letters shared between us).  I’ve been told that it may inspire others to create presidential libraries one day!

lucretia-portrait

Lucretia Rudolph Garfield in her later years, in a portrait by John Folinsbee.  This portrait hangs in the Garfield home at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.  (National Park Service)

My children have completed college, married, and now have children of their own.  I am so pleased to say that they have grown up to be distinguished citizens in their own right.  We all gather at the Mentor farm every summer, and I can be found wintering in South Pasadena, California.  I love to travel to New York City for the opera season and to visit my 16 grandchildren at least once a year.

I try to keep well-informed of science, cultural, and political events, both at home and abroad.  I have co-founded a ladies’ literary group (based on one that my husband and I attended in Washington) called the Miscellany Club, where monthly meetings are held in members’ homes and we take turns speaking on subjects related to a year-long topic, like “American History.” I often correspond with my oldest sons about political matters, which can get quite interesting since one is aligned with Woodrow Wilson and the other with Theodore Roosevelt!

lucretiagroup-1

Mrs. Lucretia Garfield (center, seated) surrounded by grandchildren on her Mentor, Ohio property.  (Lake County Historical Society)

My five children have been a continual joy and inspiration to me.  And with the memory of my dear Husband and our little ones who didn’t stay with us very long…I have had a remarkable life.  For does not life grow richer as the years go by?  Even our losses lead us into wider fields and nobler thoughts.

Very respectfully,

Lucretia R. Garfield

 

-Debbie Weinkamer, Lead Volunteer

(This article originally appeared at http://kennethackerman.com/guest-blogger-debbie-weinkamer-on-lucretia-garfield-the-vanishing-first-lady-or-am-i/ on March 30, 2012.)