Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Washington Whirlwind # 7: Whirling Star


Washington Whirlwind # 7: Whirling Star for the First Lady
by Elsie Ridgley

Despite the war Washington's social life whirled around frequent 
White House receptions.
Above: Mary Lincoln in a typical off-the-shoulder dress showing off
her "poitrine" as they say in France.

During the first year of White House life Mary Todd Lincoln must have enjoyed herself mightily as the nation's First Lady. She set about refurnishing the Executive Mansion, acting as hostess and buying a wardrobe that "befitted her position," as Julia Taft recalled. Mary's idea of that position was a bit lofty for a democracy. She and some newspaper editors viewed her as a "Republican Queen." She modeled her wardrobe on the French Empress Eugenie's.

Eugenie, Emperor Napoleon III's consort from 
1853 to 1870, set western fashion with her 
elaborate bell-shaped skirts.

Mary Lincoln clipped sketches of the Empress's gowns and asked seamstress Elizabeth Keckly for copies.

Whirling Star by Becky Brown

Mary Clemmer Ames (1839-1884)

During the Civil War journalist Mary Ames sent dispatches to various newspapers including one widely copied story telling of the "Late Slaves," meaning once-enslaved Washingtonians now free. 

This 1862 article about Lizzie may be the first published reference to Elizabeth Keckly's skills. 

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (1818-1907)

Whirling Star by Elsie Ridgley

Jean H. Baker in her 1987 biography of Mary Lincoln tells us of the French Empress's influence. Baker thought Mary Lincoln's personality problems and her need to outshine others were due to her mother's early death and resulting trauma, a somewhat Freudian explanation.

"Nobody suffered as she suffered."

Mary Clemmer Ames seems to have been more perceptive. In her 1873 book Ten Years in Washington: Life & Scenes in the National Capital, she describes the First Lady:
"Incapable of lofty, impersonal impulse. She was self-centered, and never in any experience rose above herself. According to circumstances, her own ambitions, her own pleasures, her own sufferings ...consumed every other. As a President's wife she could not rise above the level of her nature....."

Freud had not yet borrowed the term Narcissist for the extremely self-centered but Mary Lincoln seems to have been a classic example.

National Museums of Liverpool
Greek myth painted in 1903 by John William Waterhouse.
The rejected Echo looks on as Narcissus loses himself in his own reflection.
He cannot pull himself away and eventually dies, his handsome corpse
turned into the daffodils named for him.

Writing in 1914 Freud would have linked Mary Lincoln's personality disorders to sexual repression or some such thing but today that inability to view the world through any other prism but one's own feelings is considered an innate personality disorder, crippling in many cases. The Narcissist is often "her own worst enemy."

New Year's Eve at the White House, December 1861, London Illustrated News

Whirling Star by Elsie Ridgley

Like many Narcissists Mary was attractive and even compelling. Her husband did love her despite her tantrums. At her sparkling best she was quick-witted, amusing and up-to-date on the latest conversational topics, something he seems to have valued.

Mary's social whirl may have gotten her and the White House budget into financial trouble but this first year as First Lady was the only bright year in her Washington life. The year 1862 would bring her the first of the losses she was constitutionally unable to overcome.

Whirling Star by Denniele Bohanon

The Block

The pattern is Blockbase+ #3295, attributed to the Nancy Cabot column in the Chicago Tribune. 
Fifty years ago when I was compiling my Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns I relied on other indexers as sources and this is one I cannot back up today. But it's a pretty block in shades of mauve & magenta, representing the Republican Queen well. 
Further Reading:

Read Mary Clemmer Ames's 1873 book Ten Years in Washington:

Psychology Today on Narcissism:

And information about Mary Lincoln's questionable associates:

No comments: