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Impromptu First Ladies

Practice Management

In observance of Presidents Day on Monday, Feb. 20, the ASPPA offices will be closed. Accordingly, ASPPA Connect will not be published on that day. ASPPA Connect will reappear on Wednesday, Feb. 22. 

The occupants of the White House are no secret. Some — but not all — of the First Ladies are widely known and recognized. And even more obscure are some of the impromptu first ladies — those who filled the role because of the absence of a presidential wife or because the First Lady was incapacitated in some way. 

In recognition of their importance as individuals, here we recognize those accidental First Ladies chronologically by their names, not under the name of the President they assisted. 

Martha (Jefferson) Randolph. Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Martha, died in 1782. Their oldest daughter, Martha, served as White House hostess most of the time during his tenure (1801-09); she assumed that role at age 27. During times when Martha was unable to serve in that capacity, Dolley Madison (wife of then-Secretary of State, and next President, James Madison) did. 

Emily Donelson and Sarah (Yorke) Jackson. Rachel, wife of Andrew Jackson, died of a heart attack just before he was inaugurated as the 7th President. For most of his time in office (1829-37), Rachel’s niece Emily served as White House hostess; toward the end, his daughter-in-law, Sarah (Yorke) Jackson, did.

Angelica (Singleton) Van Buren. Martin Van Buren’s wife died of tuberculosis in 1819. During his term (1837-41), his daughter-in-law Angelica served as White House hostess. 

Priscilla (Cooper) Tyler. John Tyler’s (1841-45) first wife, Letitia, had died of a stroke. From his assumption of office in 1841 until he married Julia Gardner and she became First Lady in the summer of 1844, his daughter-in-law Priscilla served as White House hostess. 

Harriet (Lane) Johnston. James Buchanan was engaged once, but never married; his niece served as White House hostess during his term (1857-61). She assumed that role at age 27.

Martha (Johnson) Patterson. Andrew Johnson’s wife, Eliza, was bedridden — so their daughter Martha served as White House hostess during his time in office (1865-69).

Mary (Arthur) McElroy. Ellen, wife of Chester Arthur, died of pneumonia in 1880, just before he assumed office, so their daughter was White House hostess during his time in office (1881-85).

Rose Cleveland. Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97) was a bachelor when he began his first term, so his sister Rose was White House hostess in 1885 and 1886, until he married Frances Folsom, who was First Lady during the rest of his first term and in all of his second (1893-97). 

Mary (Harrison) McKee. Benjamin Harrison’s wife, Caroline, died before he took office in 1889, so their daughter served as White House hostess; she took on that role at age 31.

Margaret Hobart. First Lady Ida McKinley was alive during William McKinley’s time in office (1897-1901), but she suffered from a variety of ailments. So Margaret Hobart, the wife of Vice President Garret Hobart, assisted as hostess. 

Margaret Wilson. First Lady Ellen Wilson, Woodrow Wilson’s (1913-21) first wife, died in 1914, during his first term. Their eldest daughter, Margaret, served as White House hostess until he married Edith Bolling Galt in 1915 and she became First Lady.