Secrets and Scandals of First Ladies

PHOTO: Nancy Reagan greets The Grand Duke of Luxembourg at the White House in Washington, D.C. on November 13, 1984.
Ron Galella/WireImage

Scandals and secrets are the bread and butter of the world of politics, especially when they take place inside the White House. What kinds of secrets have the ladies of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue hidden over the years? With the help of the National First Ladies' Library, here's a look at a number of these women's private lives.

PHOTO: Portrait of Harriet Lane, circa 1860s.Miss Lane acted as the First Lady while her uncle, James Buchanan, was president.
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Harriet Lane: The Beard

Although John Buchanan was her uncle, not her wedded husband, Lane fulfilled the duties of a first lady throughout Buchanan's time in the White House. In 1854, Lane accompanied Buchanan to London, where he was serving as ambassador, and was afforded privileges of an ambassador's wife by the Brits. When bachelor (and rumored gay lover of William Rufus King) Buchanan became president in 1857, Lane took up the post of first lady. Buchanan is the only unmarried man ever to serve as president. Additionally, according to National First Ladies Library Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, "because she was his niece and people didn't really know how to address her," Lane was the first woman to be given the title of "First Lady."

PHOTO: Mary Todd Lincoln, nee Mary Todd, the wife of Abraham Lincoln, the assassinated 16th President of the United States of America.
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Mary Todd Lincoln: The Shopaholic

Raised in a wealthy family, Mary had gotten accustomed to a certain lifestyle by the time she married Abe. She reportedly knew that her husband would become the president from a young age, and so had a vested interest in the success of Abe's run for office. When she was in the White House, Mary thought it appropriate to both redecorate the entire residence in 1861 and to use federal funds to support her expensive clothing habits. She believed that maintaining such an appearance was necessary to demand respect as the first family, but the poor populace and the Republican appointees whom she pressured to pay her debts (tit-for-tat, since they "owed" Abe after getting their jobs) didn't really see eye-to-eye with her on the issue. Mary was also the first first lady "to have gotten involved in a political scandal by diverting funds that were supposed to go for the welfare of soldiers … to the welfare of freed slaves," Anthony said.

PHOTO: Mrs Woodrow Wilson, Edith Galt, the 2nd wife of American President, Woodrow Wilson, circa 1922.
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Edith Wilson: The Secret President

Edith was always an important presence within the White House, sitting in on Oval Office meetings and screening the president's visitors. But her role only expanded after President Wilson suffered a stroke in the fall of 1919. After his stroke, Edith fought to keep the Wilson administration intact and keep VP Thomas Marshall from assuming responsibility. "What happened in the White House in the wake of Wilson's stroke was unprecedented and difficult to characterize precisely," said Cormac O'Brien, author of "Secret Lives of the First Ladies" (2009). "No one, not even the vice president, was allowed access to the president while he convalesced in the Lincoln Bedroom, per Edith's orders. The country -- the world -- had to take Edith Wilson's word for it that the champion of the League of Nations was even alive." Many historians believe Edith was essentially the acting commander-in-chief during this time.

PHOTO: Florence Kling Harding, wife of American president Warren G Harding. Born into a wealthy family in Marion, Ohio, she had already eloped with and divorced Henry de Wolfe before she met Harding.
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Florence Harding: In Defiance of Moral Conventions

First lady to Warren Harding from 1921-1923, Florence Harding was an astrology devotee and, before her marriage to Harding, an unwed mother. When her husband began his run for the GOP presidential nomination in 1920, Florence consulted an astrologer, who predicted (accurately) that securing the nomination would guarantee Harding the presidency, although he would not live to see the entire term through. In addition, Florence also had a son out of wedlock before marrying Warren after she eloped with (but did not legally marry) Henry DeWolfe at the age of 19. Florence's second marriage was no less scandalous, according to O'Brien. "Scandal rocked her husband's administration, and she was often in the middle of it, serving whiskey, for instance, to her husband's poker parties at the height of Prohibition." O'Brien said. "I often quip how ironic it is that the first presidential election in which women could vote sent a serial adulterer to the White House."

PHOTO:Portrait of US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt circa 1945, wearing a fur coat and holding a purse, smiling while standing on a ramp after exiting an airplane.
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Eleanor Roosevelt: A Secret Love

It is widely rumored that this iconic first lady, hurt by her husband's infidelity before he contracted polio, had a secret affair with journalist Lorena Hickock. Overwhelmed by the impending responsibility of assuming the duties of occupying the White House, Roosevelt increasingly turned not to her husband, FDR, but to the female reporters covering his 1932 campaign with which she had become close friends, Hickock being one of them. Some say correspondence between the two throughout the years is suggestive of a lesbian affair. Eleanor was no stranger to infidelity - according to Anthony, she was also rumored to have had an affair with NY state trooper Earl Miller during her time as governor's wife.

PHOTO: First Lady Betty Ford, wife of Gerald R Ford, the 38th President of the United States, waves to photographers from the lawn of the White House, Washington, D.C circa 1975.
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Betty Ford: The Less-Than-Conservative Republican

Not necessarily the most natural Republican first lady, Betty Ford only announced her marriage to Gerald Ford, her second husband, after he had secured the GOP congressional nomination in June 1948. They were married weeks before Election day, as Ford was concerned that his conservative base would be turned off by his marriage to Betty, a divorcee with a background in modern dance. Prior to her husband's election to the White House, Betty struggled with dependence on pain medication and with alcoholism, seeking therapy for both. But she served as a draw for moderates and liberals, though she continued to scandalize the public on occasion. "The Fords were the first executive couple since the Coolidges to openly share a single bedroom, a fact that drew scandalous responses from around the country," O'Brien said. Betty's famous response was, "I guess when you're president, you're supposed to be a eunuch."

PHOTO: Nancy Reagan greets The Grand Duke of Luxembourg at the White House in Washington, D.C. on November 13, 1984.
Ron Galella/WireImage
Nancy Reagan: The Astrology Devotee

This first lady also had a penchant for astrology. After the assassination attempt on her husband in 1981, Nancy began consulting astrologers to determine the best dates and locations for her husband's appearances. Events, locations or dates with unfavorable readings inevitably led to the cancellation of appearances. "Nancy Reagan pretty much dictated her husband's schedule, even meetings with foreign heads of state, with the direct input of an astrologer," O'Brien said.

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