Helen Taft: Our Musical First Lady (review)
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Helen Taft: Our Musical First Lady. By Lewis L. Gould. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010. Pp. vii, 232. $34.95 cloth)

Nellie Taft remains enigmatic and indistinct in much of First-Lady history, mentioned only in passing when the cherry blossoms are about to bloom. Lewis L. Gould's insightful work, supported by extensive and heretofore unpublished research, provides fresh insights into this significant, three-dimensional First Lady.

Helen Herron ("Nellie") Taft, wife of the twenty-seventh president, shared a symbiotic relationship with her husband Will that was forged as they traveled the world together. Eventually, her ambition and drive for a life as a prominent government spouse overcame his political reticence and desire for the Supreme Court bench. Although other First Ladies might not have made suggestions about presidential appointments, patronage, or political positions, Nellie Taft enthusiastically shared her perspectives with Will as a key advisor, enjoying a great deal of access to presidential decision making.

Gould reflects on these aspects and adds a significant layer to the narrative: Nellie's penchant for bringing ceremony, culture, and drama to the White House and Washington, D.C. In contrast to the only other Taft biography—Carl Anthony's Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era (2005)—Gould illuminates Nellie's cultural agenda, providing a depth of character and accomplishments to a long-overlooked First Lady.

Gould's work contextualizes Nellie Taft's public and private persona, noting that early in life, she called music "the inspiration of all my dreams and ambitions" (p. 5). Gould notes how the inspiration became reality as Nellie Taft brought classical music to the White House in attempts to transform the nation's capital into the center of American cultural life. He asserts, "She deserves to rank among the presidential wives who did the most to elevate the taste of the American people from her privileged setting" (p. 78).

Gould identifies Nellie's cultural impact by describing her determination to spotlight the best in serious music, as she established [End Page 299] a musical patronage at a time without radio or television, and poor recording quality. Nellie passionately followed trends and emerging talents in the classical-music world, attending concerts, operas, and recitals. She capitalized on her position to have the best of touring musicians play for her on a regular basis. By recruiting some of the finest American and foreign musicians of the early twentieth century, Nellie conducted a sustained campaign to bring distinguished artists to the White House, performing the works of recognized and rising composers. In addition, she provided women musicians a showcase that was unmatched elsewhere in the artistic world. Gould's research uncovered an impressive roster of talented artists she brought to Washington, such as monologist Ruth Draper, soprano Leila Livingston Morse, pianists Olga Samaroff and Ernest Hutcheson, modern dance master Isadora Duncan, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Manhattan Opera Company, violinist Fritz Kreisler, and preeminent female pianist of 1910 Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler. Gould's lively descriptions highlight the artistic innovations that these artists brought to Washington, and his research exposes the breadth of patronage that Nellie's White House afforded.

Although Gould centers prominence on Nellie Taft's impact on bringing classical music to the national capital, the book also provides nuanced insight into Nellie Taft's stroke and its impact on her White House tenure, her interference in Will's political choices, and the role her formidable personality played in feuds with Edith and Alice Roosevelt and backstage campaigns against diplomatic appointments.

Gould laments that historically, "What Mrs. Taft did to bring the best classical music and its performers to the White House has now been forgotten" (p. 71). He answers that disparity by illuminating Nellie's hectic schedule of activities, parties, receptions, and dinners, establishing the Tafts as what he terms the equivalent of the "most intense social couples" of the Progressive Era during the four administrations between 1897 and 1921 (p. 41). Until recently, the politically astute and ambitious Nellie Taft has been pigeonholed merely as the woman who brought cherry blossoms to the Capitol [End Page 300] Basin or who cunningly pushed her husband...