Tuesday, September 25, 2012

An Unlikely Topic: President William McKinley

"Real Life at the White House; 200 Years of Daily Life at America's Most Famous Residence" by John Whitcombe (father) and Claire whitcombe (daughter.)  Routledge   511 pages   $40

This book covers the presidencies from George Washington through Bill Clinton.  I skipped the earlier presidents and have not read those familiar to me (Truman, Ike, JFK, Johnson et al) but I will. 

I began with William McKinley 1897 - 1901.  During his inauguration, his older brother was heard to say, "But, Mother (she was 87 at the time) this is better than a bishopric!"

His wife, Ida, came from a wealthy family.  She had toured Europe as well as worked in Daddy's bank.  McKinley was blissfully happy to be her husband.

Early in their marriage, however, Ida's mother died, as did their two young children.  Depressed, Ida retired to a dark room, sat in a rocking chair and rocked imaginary children.  Increasingly she suffered from "poor health" and was said to be "delicate."  It was, quite probably, epilepsy.

She came to rely totally on him.  McKinley fed her, when necessary, and would sit with her for hours patting her, soothing her, reading to her.  She suffered from seizures, frothing at the mouth, incontinence, memory loss, infantile behavior as well as phlebitis in both legs (she had to have help to walk) and raging headaches. 

She was sometimes drugged to the gills and was said to resemble "a smiling mannequin."  During normal periods of life, she crocheted -- during their stay in the White House her output was 3,500 pairs of slippers!  Her maid attached them to cork soles, added ribbons to them and they were then given away to relatives and charities. 

She was sharp-tongued and never hesitated to go after women she considered to be too cozy with her husband.  He, in turn, adored her. 

They both learned the signs of an on-coming seizure.  At White House dinners, they broke protocol and she said at his right so he could quickly escort her away from the table.  During informal dinners if they thought a seizure was coming, he would mattr-of-factly put his napkin over he face.  The napkins were thick linen and believed to provide th dark she welcomed.  After a minute or two, he would remove the napkin.  He had continued to converse and hold up the napkin as he ate. 

When McKinley was shot (at the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo9, NY) he said, "Be easy on him, boys!" (a reference to the assassin) and then, "My wife - be careful how you tell her - oh, be careful!"

She outlived him by another six years and never had another seizure again. 

If you think that was interesting, wait till you hear about Woodrow Wilson and HIS marital devotion - to both of his wives!

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