It’s been said that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, and that’s certainly the case with these three political wives and their well-known husbands. In fact, history might have turned out quite differently without them.
THE ORIGINAL FIRST LADY
Flora Fraser’s new biography, The Washingtons: George and Martha, “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love”, is a dense but fascinating account of the nation’s first “first couple.” Using letters, journals, dispatches and a variety of authoritative texts, the British author documents George and Martha’s comings and goings as they managed his Mount Vernon estate and dealt with a host of relatives, friends and politicians. Both were in their 20s when they wed—she a wealthy, widowed mother of four.
Before Martha, George loved but didn’t marry the wealthy Sally Cary Fairfax, and also remained close to Philadelphia socialite Elizabeth Willing Powel. Fraser wonders about one encounter with Powel late in George’s life: “Had she or Washington or both declared or acted on a feeling for the other that was forbidden, given his marriage to Martha?”
Regardless of what may or may not have happened, it’s clear that everyone adored Martha. Abigail Adams described her as “one of those unassuming characters which creates Love & Esteem.” During the Revolution, Martha endured winter encampments with Washington and was welcomed by officers who found that she brightened the general’s mood. Fraser concludes that the marriage was “the making” of George Washington, boosting not only his wealth but his confidence.
When he died, Martha said, “All is now over, I shall soon follow him!” She never entered their bedroom again, sleeping instead in the attic.
LBJ’S SECRET DEPENDENCY
Betty Boyd Caroli uses a wealth of primary sources to explore the marriage of Lady Bird and Lyndon. She shapes the Johnsons’ story nimbly, beginning with a telling scene from their daughter Lynda’s White House wedding, explaining why Lady Bird remained so devoted to her brash, womanizing husband.
The glue that kept this presidential couple together, Caroli writes, is that LBJ was “insecure and needy” from the start, and when “faced with a huge problem or disappointment, he would go to bed and pull the covers over his head.” His wife was the only one who knew how to draw him out of these funks, so in that sense she was his savior, time and time again. Lady Bird was also a savvy businesswoman and a highly successful campaigner throughout her life.
Caroli skillfully weaves the couple’s personal lives together with the tumultuous political situations they faced. Her narrative is a soulful account that details the pair’s widely divergent family backgrounds and acknowledges that LBJ was indeed the “human puzzle” that one journalist called him, but also “head over heels” in love with his wife.
The feeling was mutual. Caroli shows that repeatedly, when deciding between her husband’s needs and those of her daughters, Lady Bird chose her husband. One secretary described Lynda and Lucy as “almost orphans in a sense.”
Lady Bird acknowledged that LBJ humiliated her at times, but said, “he made me someone bigger and better than I would have been.”
Might the Allies have lost World War II if Winston Churchill hadn’t married his wife, Clementine? Winston himself claimed victory would have been “impossible without her.” The story of this behind-the-scenes pillar of strength is absorbingly told by British biographer Sonia Purnell in Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill.
Clementine was Winston’s closest and most influential political advisor, Purnell argues, and her role has been largely overlooked—not even discussed in Churchill’s own six-volume account of the war.
Purnell describes this tall, stunning, athletic woman as a fashionable trendsetter, “a precursor to Jackie Onassis.” She built a close friendship with another political wife of her day, Eleanor Roosevelt. Their relationship lasted for years, although, interestingly, neither liked the other’s husband.
Winston and Clementine’s relationship was not without its trials. Heated arguments weren’t uncommon, and Winston sometimes called his wife “She-whose-commands-must-be-obeyed.” The couple was devastated when daughter Marigold died of septicemia at age 2, sending Clementine into a deep depression. And in what Purnell calls Clementine’s most courageous act of the war, in 1943 she refused to tell Winston how serious his heart condition was, fearing the knowledge would impede his ability to conduct the war.
Purnell recounts a mesmerizing period from a never-before-seen vantage point, and readers will be spellbound from start to finish.