Rarely are First Ladies mere accessories to their husbands or hosts to lavish parties. As this book proves, they’re often intelligent, opinionated, inspirational, and witty—Laura Bush was heard saying, “Rein it in, Bubba,” to her husband during his campaign.
Adler’s book is full of anecdotes and trivia: Mary Todd Lincoln was a big spender. When her husband was campaigning for re-election, she told a friend, “If he is reelected I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs; but if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent in and he will know all.” Fifty-four-year-old John Tyler was the first President to marry while in office when he wed a 24-year-old. Decorators and historians refer to the White House as “BJ” and “AJ”—before Jackie and after Jackie. Woodrow and Ellen Wilson were quite the romantics: “Over the course of their 30-year marriage they gave each other over 1,400 love notes.”
At times, lengthy speeches and letters take away from the book’s charm. Hillary Clinton’s Wellesley College commencement address is reproduced in its entirety and—while interesting to an extent—quickly becomes dull.
But Adler has done an exceptional job at a daunting task: He’s compiled a must-have reference for any enthusiast of American culture while keeping it mostly light and enjoyable. Most important, he expands our notion of presidents’ wives beyond stereotypes. Any First Lady would be proud.