On this day in 1879, a future First Lady of the United States is born. Grace Anna Goodhue Coolidge was an only child—and the apple of her parents’ eye. The “sun, moon, and stars, in the opinion of my parents, revolved about my infant head,” she would later joke.
Her life was forever changed when she was only four years old.
Her father was injured at work, breaking bones and injuring an eye. Grace was sent to live with a neighboring family during his recovery. While there, she came to idolize their oldest daughter, June. “I thought that everything she said and did was absolutely perfect and tried to be as much like her as possible,” Grace explained.
June took classes at the University of Vermont, then began teaching at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts. Grace soon followed in June’s footsteps: She earned a college degree, then went on to teach at the Clarke School. That job brought her into contact with none other than Calvin Coolidge.
Grace was watering flowers outside the school one day when she looked up and saw a man through a window. He was shaving in front of a mirror, dressed in long underwear and a hat. Reportedly, Grace burst out laughing at the sight.
It was Calvin Coolidge, of course.
Grace’s friends didn’t understand what she saw in her new beau. Coolidge was reserved, introverted, and glum. Grace was charming, vivacious, and social. But they had things in common, too: Both were originally from Vermont. Both had college degrees. Both had a good sense of humor, although Coolidge’s tended to be more subtle and a bit dry. Both valued hard work and persistence.
Coolidge soon proposed. Sort of. “I am going to be married to you,” he announced. Grace agreed. The newly married couple began life together modestly, staying in a rented hotel room. When that hotel went out of business, they bought the hotel linens and dishes at a reduced price and continued to use them, despite the hotel monogram.
Grace had quit teaching and spent her time taking care of their boys or volunteering. Coolidge was a rising star in politics, but she wasn’t too involved in that—at least not at first. By the time Coolidge became Vice President, then President, Grace was critical to his success. She was warm and cheerful, making friends and softening “Silent Cal’s” reticence. “She is wonderfully popular here,” Coolidge wrote his father. “I don’t know what I would do without her.”
The one area in which the famously frugal Coolidge splurged a bit? He enjoyed buying Grace dresses and hats.
“She gave everyone a sense of ease and enjoyment,” one contemporary observed, “because she was so richly endowed with joie de vivre herself.” Alice Roosevelt Longworth agreed: “She had a simplicity and charm . . . was amused by all the official functions and attentions, yet was always absolutely natural and unimpressed by it all.”
After Coolidge’s presidency, the two returned to Massachusetts. Their marriage had struggled at times under the pressures of the presidency, their differing temperaments, and the unexpected loss of a son. But when they stepped off the train, Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes recounts, “they realized that the office of the presidency was what had separated them. He was no longer “the President,” as she had referred to him so often. He was suddenly Calvin again. And his being Calvin made her Grace.”
“For almost a quarter of a century,” Coolidge soon wrote, “[Grace] has borne with my infirmities, and I have rejoiced in her graces.”
They were home.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
- A Companion to First Ladies (Katherine A.S. Sibley ed. 2016)
- American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy (Lewis l. Gould ed., 2d ed. 2001)
- Amity Shlaes, Coolidge (2013)
- Grace Coolidge: an Autobiography (Lawrence E. Wikander & Robert H. Ferrell eds. 1992)
- Grace Coolidge Overview (Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation)
- Nancy Hendricks, America’s First Ladies: A Historical Encyclopedia and Primary Document Collection of the Remarkable Women of the White House (2015)
- Paul F. Boller, Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History (1988)