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The Joy of Sympathetic Companionship: The Correspondence of Mary Vaux Walcott and Lou Henry Hoover

From: Quaker History
Volume 103, Number 1, Spring 2014
pp. 36-52 | 10.1353/qkh.2014.0000

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

It is easier for historians to write about power than about feelings, and to do so is also more approved of professionally. But in real life the two are not so easily separated. Couldn’t the kind of influence that so rarely gets recorded—the influence that friends, lovers, and relations exert on one another—have mattered in their own ways?

When Herbert Hoover became Secretary of Commerce in the administration of President Warren G. Harding, Philadelphia Quaker Mary Morris Vaux Walcott (1860–1940) had been living in the nation’s capital for nearly a decade. Catapulted into the highest social circles, as a result of her late marriage to Dr. Charles Doolittle Walcott, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Mary Vaux stepped into her new role with aplomb, presiding over large dinner parties for Cabinet officials and foreign dignitaries, frequently attending White House receptions, and making mandatory but perfunctory rounds of calls on other Washington hostesses.

Like Mary Walcott, the Hoovers were Quakers, although, as she once wrote to Mary, when she was “feeling particularly Friendish,” Lou was “only a Friend by adoption” (April 14, 1937). Raised an Episcopalian, she became a Quaker when she married Herbert Hoover in 1899.

When the Hoovers moved from California to their new home at 2300 S Street in the Kalorama District—not far from the home of Mary and Charles Doolittle Walcott—an abiding friendship was launched. The earliest evidence of their acquaintance is a brief note Mary wrote to Herbert regarding Quaker meetings in the capital:

Dear Mr. Hoover,

The Orthodox Friends meeting is at 13th and [Irving] St N.W. and is held at eleven o’clock in the morning, with Sunday school at 10:45 o’clock. I do not know when the Monthly Meeting is held, but I will find out the further particulars at the first opportunity & pass the information on to thee.

I enclose two calendars, & hope thee will like them.

Very sincerely, Mary Vaux Walcott (April 23, 1921)

In large part due to the efforts of Mary Vaux Walcott, who believed the first Quaker President should have a more prestigious place to worship, in 1930, the moribund Irving Street Meeting was merged into a new Meeting at Florida Avenue, just at the foot of the Spanish Steps and around the corner from the Hoover home.

The story of how an unassuming Quaker woman from Philadelphia came to preside over a grand house at the top of the Spanish Steps in Washington and her relationship with the future First Lady is steeped in Quaker history, as well as the turbulent politics of her times. Although a recent biography of Lou Hoover notes Mary only fleetingly as “a scientist, Indian Rights activist, and capital city hostess,” their extensive correspondence over the next two decades reveals a close and increasingly warm relationship.


Click for larger view

Lou Henry Hoover, Lucy Wilbur Foster and Mary Vaux Walcott with A. T. Murray at the dedication of the Florida Avenue Meeting House in Washington DC, January 1931.

Born in Philadelphia in 1860, Mary Morris Vaux was the first child of Sallie Morris Vaux and George Vaux VIII (known in his lifetime as George, Sr.), both descendants of venerable Quaker families. Mary was followed by two brothers, George IX, known as George, Jr. (1863–1927) and William Sansom (1872–1908). The young family lived at 1715 Arch Street and, like many prosperous Quaker families, also maintained a country house at Bryn Mawr.

In 1880, soon after Mary graduated from Friends’ Select, her beloved mother died suddenly, and, as expected of her, Mary dutifully assumed the responsibility of managing both family homes for her father and brothers.

Beginning in 1887 and each summer thereafter, Mary, her father and brothers embarked on long trips to the Canadian Rockies, where, as early photographers, they recorded the regression of glaciers and Mary collected and painted American wildflowers. As they travelled on their first trip west in 1887, Mary recorded their adventures in a 150-page travelogue, the subject of an earlier article in Quaker History.

More than two decades later, while camping at Banff, Canada, Mary met Dr. Charles Doolittle Walcott, longtime Secretary of the Smithsonian, Presbyterian...



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