First Ladies and how they’ve changed

Playbill_edited-1Seeing a new play while it is still in preview, before any reviews have appeared, is always fun for me. Without having anyone else’s judgment to guide me, I can pretend to be a Broadway critic on opening night. A few days ago I had a chance to do that while I was in New York for the weekend—not on Broadway but at the Public Theater downtown where so many legendary plays have opened.

This time my chance came with a new musical, First Daughter Suite, by Michael John LaChiusa, which is based on the lives of the wives and daughters of recent U.S. presidents. The four scenes feature Pat Nixon and her daughters Julie and Tricia; Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter with daughters Susan Ford and Amy Carter; Nancy Reagan with daughter Patti Davis; and finally Barbara Bush and Laura Bush with the ghost of Barbara’s daughter Robin, who died as a child. The production is superb, the music charming and appropriate, and the acting spectacular. Almost all of the actors play two roles and playing two such different women as Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford during one performance, as Alison Fraser does, is an amazing feat. Each of the  performers inhabits her role with remarkable grace and complete conviction.

What lingers with me still, several days after I saw the show, are questions about how much reality the show reflects. The six president’s wives portrayed are familiar to most of us through the immense publicity they received during their husband’s campaigns and time in office. Each of them took on the difficult job of serving as first lady and met the requirements of not causing a public crisis or major embarrassment despite the glare of publicity goes along with the presidency these days. They must be both tough and capable; yet somehow in this play they come across as victims. The White House is regarded almost as a prison that both mothers and daughters would like to escape.

None of the women portrayed in this play show much interest in any of the policies their husbands were pursuing, yet earlier first ladies frequently influenced, and by some account dominated, their husband’s choices of positions and personnel. If we look back at history, even the quietest first ladies were active participants in the business of government.

  • Abigail Adams
    Abigail Adams

    Abigail Adams was called “Mrs. President” by some of John Adams’s staff because she was so active in politics and so influence with her husband.

  • Florence Harding, the long-forgotten wife of Warren Harding, was reported to have written her husband’s inauguration speech and to have dictated his selection of cabinet members

    Florence Haarding
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, of course, was a leading adviser to her husband and strongly influenced his ideas and his policies.

I am pretty sure that the first ladies portrayed in First Daughter Suite were not only observers, much less victims, of their husband’s actions. Although First Daughter Suite gives us a fascinating glimpse of life in the White House, I’m still waiting for a play that will show us a more rounded portrait of the women

Is this the face for the new $20 bill?
Eleanor Roosevelt

who have lived there.

3 thoughts on “First Ladies and how they’ve changed

  1. First Daughter Suite sounds quite interesting. I can only hope that it makes its way out to California. Other First Ladies who are frequently unrecognized for their contributions are Dolly Madison (who brought flair and pizzazz to DC during her husband’s presidency and is credited by some as making the decision to rebuild Washington DC after the British burned it down in 1812) and Edith Wilson (who, after her husband suffered a severe stroke, “she pre-screened all matters of state, functionally running the Executive branch of government for the remainder of Wilson’s second term.” (

    Any chance that we might see Charlotte Edgerton meet up with survivors of Dorr’s Rebellion in Rhode Island and perhaps meeting and befriending Julia Gardiner who meets and marries President Tyler? Perhaps the explosion on the USS Princeton could be a conspiracy mystery to be solved and Charlotte’s friendship to Julia could help Julia adjust to the changes required to live as First Lady. It certainly could be a vehicle to explore how difficult it is to be First Lady and permanently on display. Might be doubly interesting if there are parallels to today’s President/First Lady.

    • What great ideas for Charlotte Edgerton’s further adventures! I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Julia Gardiner, but I will try to read more about her. It’s exciting to learn more about these people who did such important things and have somehow faded out of history. Thanks for telling me about them!

  2. Hear! Hear! Eleanor Roosevelt is one of the American women I admire most. She is CERTAINLY the First Lady I admire most. She had many real hardships to contend with in her life, yet no one would ever describe her as a victim. Why can’t we have plays that celebrate the positive contributions that First Ladies such as Eleanor Roosevelt made instead of plays that mourn the supposedly “sad lot” of recent First Ladies? Thanks for a terrific post!


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