Thursday, November 14, 2013

Birthday Girls: Bang Bangs!

Many happy returns today to two of the Café's favorite (for very different reasons) ladies...

Mrs. Eisenhower, without question the coziest first lady in living memory (if not ever - could Grace Coolidge match her?  Mrs. Washington?), came into this world in Boone, Iowa, in 1896.

Ten years later and a few hundred miles south, Mary Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas.

The lives of these two Midwestern gals could hardly have less in common.  The older had the most conventional of upbringings, married well, and went on to be an inspiration to respectable matrons across the nation (to my mother and grandmothers, she had the status of a household saint, just a notch, perhaps, below the Queen and certainly on a different plane entirely from the scarlet woman who followed her as First Lady).  The younger had a fleeting taste of stardom, lived high and fell low, and ended up a recluse in Rochester, New York.

Still, they were products of a time and place, and I can't help but think that if some odd circumstance in old age had brought them together, they might have had a memorable conversation about the odd twists and turns that life can throw one as its path unfurls, whether that path takes you to the White House or the Eastman House.

Oh - and of course they do share one memorable characteristic, an important signifier in their very, very different personal styles: never have two small-town girls better rocked that trickiest of hair choices, bangs.


  1. what's on mamie's head is more like
    what's found above a cock.
    calling that "bangs" is being
    quite generous, but of course, that's who you are.

  2. What a sweet post! I happen to share a fondness for both Ladies as well.

    1. They're kind of like the dueling angel/devil combos who appear on the shoulders of Bugs Bunny and other modernist heroes. The answers to the questions "What would Mamie do?" and "What would Brooksie do?" are often polar opposites, and considering the consequences of each in a given situation can be both amusing and enlightening.

  3. I have always been perplexed that Mamie was considered fashionable, in her day, despite the deplorable hairdo...Surely she must have done it herself, sleeping in pincurls and cap every night...

    1. I'm sure she did, and I bet the cap had pink ribbons.

      As for her fashionability, I think it's important to remember that her predecessors were Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt. 'Nuff said, no?

  4. Love LOVE Louise Brooks. It broke my heart to see that she had been reduced to prostitution.

    Mamie, though? If I rate the US First Ladies since 1920, it would be (lowest to highest) Lou Hoover, Grace Coolidge, Pat Nixon, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Laura Bush, Roslyn Carter, Barbara Bush, Lady BIrd Johnson, Jackie Kennedy, Michelle Obama, Florence Harding, Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt. If it were just fashion, Mamie, Michelle and Jackie would be my top

  5. Mamie behind Beastly Barbara (by so many accounts a mean and unpleasant woman)? Behind sad, pickled Laura? Behind Florence Harding? Oh, dear. We'll have to agree to disagree, caro.

    As for Brooks, I have a feeling she was more mortified at having been a salesclerk than a call girl...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. As for Mammie, aside for raising money for the Washington Disstaff Residence in Northwest DC, and turning the nation onto her shade of pink, what did accomplish in the White House?

    3. Florence Harding is THE prototype for the modern American First Lady. Florence Harding made it possible for Eleanor Roosevelt to go out and get things done. Before Florence Harding, and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson excepted, First Lady's were meer adornments. Remember that rather than become a champion for Epilepsy, Ida McKinley had a napkin thrown over her face whenever she had a fit during a White House dinner. And who remembers the name of James K. Polk's poor wife, without looking it up, who not only didn't get no loving from her husband (he claimed that erections were painful) who's only function was to smile at dinner parties and throw teas?

      Florence Kling was born to a merchant who became the richest man in the town of Marion, Ohio. And Amos Kling raised his daughter to be a very shrewd business woman. While she didn't have a maternal instinct (she handed her son over to her father and mother when Florence's first husband took a powder), she was a sound business woman. She found the man she wanted to marry, and wore him down until he gave in and proposed. She turned his losing local paper into a profitable business and drove the competitors out of business in the meanwhile. And when it came to politics, Florence was not to be messed with. She knew how to court the press and had a building built for them on their property with phone lines and telegraph lines because she knew if she could make it easy for them, they would sing Warren's praises, and they did. Once they got to the White House, she made women's education a priority, promoted the Girl Scouts as a means by which girls could learn to be self sufficient so none of them would ever be marooned by a man like she was by her first husband.

      Florence also hard while a first lady. She pushed for the creation of the VA system - before the Harding's vet's didn't get any type of healthcare. Florence made weekly trips to Walter Reed to read to vets who were blinded in WWI. She worte letters to their families and if the Harding's travelled to places like Birmingham, Alabama, where the Warren G. Harding gave the first speech by a sitting president in the 20th century in the south against lynching, Florence made sure to stop in and visit one vet's family as a symbol of her commitment to their care.

      In Washington social circles, she was thought of as crass, but she raised money for educating young children and she advocated the expansion of Junior High Schools in rural communities as a means of ensuring that boys could get more than an eigth grade education.

      And Florence was a fashion plate for the for time she was in the White House.

      And she did all this in under two and a half years as First Lady.

      She's been maligned in the popular American culture because she was kept a virtual prisoner of Dr.'s Charles and Carl Sawyer during the final year of her life. And with no living children to carry on the fight to clear her name after it was shellaced in the horribly inaccurate book "The Strange Death of President Harding" by Gaston Means (a petty theif and murderer in his own right), Florence has been portrayed as a hack, a hick and leach.

      If I were on a sinking ship and had to choose between a life boat with one Florence Harding and the other with ten Mamie Eisenhower's, I would chose Florence Harding because she was one helluva woman.

  6. I remember walking down to the corner from our house with my Mom to see Ike and Mamie drive by. The street was lined with people waving and clapping. For some reason it was quite moving.