First lady Nellie Taft was way ahead of her time -- and knew how to have fun

A true pioneer in feminism and civil rights
Posted at 12:00 PM, Sep 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-05 12:00:50-04

Bright, determined, progressive and blessed to be part of Cincinnati's most powerful political family, Nellie Herron Taft established her life's ambition at age 16: She would marry a powerful man. He would become president of the United States, and she would live with him in the White House.

Nelllie Taft posed for this formal portrait early in her White House occupancy. She was known as a wonderful hostess and progressive thinker.

The man she married in 1886, Cincinnati lawyer and judge William Howard Taft, had a different ambition: He wanted to be chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Who made their dream come true first?

Nellie Taft did — by 12 years, the same number of years by which she outlived her husband.

Nellie's dream-like life came to an end in 1943, and she became the first woman ever to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Nellie's seminal role in the first years of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, her rearing of three children (including Robert, a U.S. senator who would run for president three times, and Helen, who would earn her Ph.D. and become president of Bryn Mawr College), her ascension to the White House, and her long, loyal marriage to the brilliant man who an urban legend falsely contends became so big he got stuck in a bathtub are highlights of her life known to many in the Queen City.

But lesser-known tidbits about Helen Louise "Nelllie" Herron Taft (1861-1943) provide spice to the story of her life.

According to the National First Ladies' Library website, Nellie Taft enjoyed racy theater productions, played poker for money, smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol, sometimes on Sundays. She brought the champagne punch bowl back into the White House at a time when the temperance movement was preparing to peak with Prohibition.

Those beautiful cherry trees that blossom each spring in the Potomac River Tidal Basin in Washington were her idea, and she lobbied Congress aggressively to contribute $25,000 (more than $620,000 in today's currency) to fund the park in which they thrive today.

Helen Louise "Nellie" Herron Taft in 1909.

Nellie was educated in four foreign languages as a girl in Cincinnati. When her husband served as the Governor-General of the Philippines from 1900 to 1903, Nellie learned to speak the natives' Tagalog language and accepted invitations to their special events. She embraced that nation's culture and people like no other Anglo-Saxon woman before her, according to the National First Ladies' Library.

When Nellie's judicially minded husband hesitated to leave the Philippines to become Theodore Roosevelt's War Secretary, she urged him on until he accepted the presidential appointment. But Nellie, the library wrote, found being a cabinet wife "dull and demeaning." She wanted to be more than a visitor in the White House. She wanted it to be her home so badly she lobbied Roosevelt privately -- and successfully -- to help get her man onto the Republican ticket in 1908.

Nellie might not have trusted Roosevelt, who many thought would renege on his promise to eschew a second term and make a run at the nomination during the 1908 Republican Convention. She went all out, albeit privately, to guide Big Bill to victory.

Here is the library's account:

"In dozens of letters, she advised him on how to position himself, sometimes down to what words to use, so that he would be seen as supporting some of Roosevelt's popular policies yet also standing on his own, apart from Roosevelt."

The Tafts were making a rare visit to the Cincinnati home (now Taft Museum of Art) of Bill's big brother, Charles Phelps Taft, when they received the official confirmation of his nomination. She appeared but once with Bill during his campaign. But on Inauguration Day in March 1909, there she was, the first first lady to parade to the White House seated next to the new president -- and the first to do so in an automobile.

As the first lady, Nellie's progressive impact on the White House continued. She replaced the all-white usher staff with African-Americans, who often were the first to greet people. She lifted the ban against divorced visitors, put on music concerts and opened the White House grounds to the general public during numerous celebratory events in a way no first lady ever had.

Nellie was a political force as well. She was the impetus behind an executive order that required the Bureau of Public Health to improve the working conditions of women in the executive branch of the federal government. That and other efforts inspired some historians to describe her as a civil rights activist.

Much of Nellie's political activity eventually leaked through the press, but mostly she stayed out of the public eye, especially after she had a serious stroke in May 1909. Her convalescence was long, as she had to learn to speak, read and write again. She came out of it with a slightly droopy face, a limited vocabulary and a permanent speech impediment that greatly limited her public appearances.

Wrote presidential historian Feather Schwartz Foster:

"In short, while the 'receptor' part of her brain, the part that could understand everything, was intact, the 'transmitter' part, the part that could communicate, was seriously impaired. It would take the rest of Taft's administration for her to regain the better part of her lost abilities."

There were other reasons Nellie kept a low public profile, according to the library:

"Unknown to the public, Nellie Taft smoked cigarettes, played poker and gambled at other games. Although there is not even circumstantial suggestion that she was ever alcoholic, she was a heavy drinker, with a self-proclaimed taste for quality beer and champagne."

In William Howard Taft's last year in office, he and Nellie attended a Washington Senators baseball game together.

In the waning months of Bill's presidency, Nellie emerged from her private life in a big way when she, a Republican, attended the 1912 National Democratic Convention. She was the first and last first lady to attend an opposing party's convention.

She broke ranks from Republican leadership again after Bill was confirmed as chief justice in 1921, supporting the League of Nations and opposing Prohibition laws. Her penchant for crossing the aisle continued in the 12 years she lived after Bill died in 1931, becoming friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and reportedly supporting the 1936 re-election campaign of Franklin Roosevelt, who hired her son, future U.S. Senate Majority Leader Robert, to work for the New Deal.

Nellie Taft rarely visited Cincinnati once Bill's career took them to Washington, but she did return to her hometown to attend a number of May Festival concerts.

Many Taft and Herron relatives are buried at Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Cincinnati, but not Nellie and Bill. Visitors to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia can find Nellie's gravesite next to Bill's in Section 30, Lot S-14, Grid Y/Z-39.5.