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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First ladies - First rate
Recently a foreign journalist interviewing George W. Bush asked the President of the United States to turn out his pockets. What an interesting, humanizing thing to ask of the most powerful man on Earth. And exactly the kind of thing that never occurs in the burlesque of today's 24 hour electronic news cycle. The contents of our pockets, those little handy nooks that...
Published on February 23, 2007 by Jeffrey S. Simmons

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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars oddly interesting, sometimes heartless
This book is loaded with factual information, and yet, somewhere in the midnight hours reading about Ida McKinley, my compassion for her far exceeded the author's glib summation of her life. There seems to be too much twentyfirst century historical judgment and bias.

For example, take Ida McKinley, who apparently during the second year of her marriage lost her...
Published on September 14, 2005 by Helen Highwater


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40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First ladies - First rate, February 23, 2007
Recently a foreign journalist interviewing George W. Bush asked the President of the United States to turn out his pockets. What an interesting, humanizing thing to ask of the most powerful man on Earth. And exactly the kind of thing that never occurs in the burlesque of today's 24 hour electronic news cycle. The contents of our pockets, those little handy nooks that serve as contingency storage for our day-to-day indispensables, speak wonderful, accessible volumes about us as people. Show me what you have in your pockets and, whether or not I know WHO you are, I get a glimpse what KIND of person you are. In Secret Lives of the First Ladies, Cormac O'Brien has politely turned out the pockets of the spouses of each of our presidents, and it's a neat-o treasure trove he uncovers. His style is neither lewd nor exploitative, though, to be sure, there's plenty of juicy stuff here. His project is a sort of cameo portraiture of some forty seven intriguing and often remarkable women. The only flattery in these portraits is a consistent, entertaining, and often astounding disclosure of each woman's individual humanity. It is tempting to read the book in little chunks (as I did at first) owing to its concise chaptering. However, it's a real pleasure go back and review long stretches, watching how the public appearance of the First Lady has evolved over time while her private role has remained remarkably consistent: she is the president's wife. Which is to say, sometimes she is a loving yet diminutive spousal anchor and sometimes she is a headstrong engine of scandal and outrage. Sometimes she is a fully enfranchised partner in even the weightiest decision-making at the executive mansion, including public policy. That there were first ladies fitting all these descriptions in every era since the founding of the republic, to me, was quite amazing. If you know any married couples, you will find the First Ladies, good and bad, tragic and heroic, satisfyingly and entertainingly familiar. Predictably, a frustrating aspect of The Secret Lives of the First Ladies is the rigid brevity of its entries, particularly in chapters describing women whom one would like to examine more closely. The challenge is to keep track of those First Ladies whose full biographies you now want to find and read. Alas, one has the nagging fear that those biographies won't be as frank and entertaining as these admittedly brief introductions. But, such is the nature of this omnibus beast. O'Brien's prose is a yummy balance of richness and skim-ability with very few false notes. The design and illustration are a constant reassurance that this is a social visit and not a college text. You're here to make friends and there is no requirement to pass a final exam. A pleasure to read cover-to-cover or simply to table hop as you meet these one-of-a-kind ladies. Of its genre, this is an A+.
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars oddly interesting, sometimes heartless, September 14, 2005
This book is loaded with factual information, and yet, somewhere in the midnight hours reading about Ida McKinley, my compassion for her far exceeded the author's glib summation of her life. There seems to be too much twentyfirst century historical judgment and bias.

For example, take Ida McKinley, who apparently during the second year of her marriage lost her mother, her second child after a difficult delivery, and two years later had her remaining daughter die of typhoid fever. And we think Hillary might have had a rough time. Well, Ida got "the falling sickness" or epilepsy, and the author's summation that "Two things, however, are certain: doctors could do little for her beyond sedation, using narcotics to put her in a state of semiconsciousnes that made her look like the undead; and her husband, bound to his decaying wife by a sublime sense of duty, became, in a fashion, her slave." And who would be chipper with this much personal loss is such a short period of time.

It's an interesting book in a sort of Jeopardy/trivia fashion.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Secret lives of the First Ladies, August 30, 2005
I LOVE this book. It's full of interesting information. I love books like these where you get to learn something. I have given it to two of my friends that are history teachers and they have used some of the information about the first ladies in their lessons. It's something that the kids can find interesting. I couldn't put it down. I would recommend this book to anyone that is interested in history.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Amazing women, too often overlooked, January 22, 2009
This is a follow-up to O'Brien's previous book, Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents, which, while a fascinating book, is a topic that has been covered many times. I have, in fact, two books on this topic, and they both illuminate the hidden idiosyncrasies, character flaws, shining moments of virtue and petty humanity of the 43 Commanders-in-Chief.

It was Abagail Adams who exhorted her husband to, "Remember the ladies," and it seems that O'Brien has done just that. He's given us a nice concise look at the women of the White House, and it's a hell of a read.

It's very easy to forget the First Ladies, and kind of pigeonhole them into the space that reads "President's wife," but to do so would be a great disservice to an amazing group of women.

A lot of people remember Hillary Clinton as being a political powerhouse, a kind of "co-President." But she wasn't the first, by any means. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, all access to him was controlled by his wife, Edith. She would let no-one in to see him, on the grounds that he was very ill and needed absolute peace and quiet. So, when someone needed something signed by the President, Edith would take it, close the door, and come back a few minutes later with the signed document. The question very quickly arose: who's really the President?

Helen Taft is another forgotten First Lady firebrand. Without her motivation, William Howard Taft might have been perfectly happy to be a judge, but that wasn't good enough for Helen. From her teenage years, she knew that she wanted to live in the White House, and she pushed her husband to make damn sure that she did. Once there, even her husband called her the "co-Presidentress" for the amount of involvement she had in the day-to-day decision making that went on. She was a woman of boundless energy, who was never willing to sit still. Oh, and if you like the cherry trees that bloom in DC every spring, you can thank Helen Taft for that. Women like these - Eleanor Roosevelt and Jocelyn Carter are part of their ranks as well - left indelible impressions on the country.

Not every First Lady was so ambitious, though. Some were more populist idols, adored by the public not for their works but for their personality. The most recent example would probably be Jacqueline Kennedy, who became a media icon almost as soon as her husband was elected. But there were others before her.

Dolley Madison threw the best parties in Washington, and was vastly more beloved than her dour and stolid husband, James. It was said that she had no enemies, and even the people who loathed her husband adored her. She stayed in the White House right up until the British showed up at its doorstep and managed to save a few precious items. It's even said that the British commander, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, was more interested in capturing her than the executive mansion, and took her seat cushion from the dining room so that he could come away with something to remember her. Before he had the building torched, of course. After she left the White House and her husband passed away, it was customary for each new President to pay her a visit, gaining a kind of approval from the most loved woman in America.

Or take Frances Cleveland, wife of Grover. Her relationship with her husband would be considered scandalous in this day, and certainly was in hers - she was twenty-seven years younger than her husband, who had been her legal guardian when she was a child. Much to the nation's surprise, he went from being "Uncle Cleve" to "Beloved Husband." But that bit of creepiness didn't stop the nation from loving her. Once in the White House, she became an early proponent of women's accomplishments, willing to meet and talk to anyone, rich or poor. When Grover ran for re-election in 1892, Frances' image was the one campaigners used, not his. And why shouldn't they? In an age before byzantine copyright law, her name and image were already being used to sell all kinds of household goods. Ever eaten a Baby Ruth candy bar? It was named after the Clevelands' daughter, who was, for her short life, the most popular baby in America.

And then there were the sad stories, the women whose lives in and out of the White House were full of misfortune. Jane Pierce is probably the saddest of these. She never wanted her husband to be President. Every step that he took forward seemed to result in pain for his family. Their first child died after a few days. When Franklin finally got out of national politics and opened up his own law firm, their second child died of typhus. With only one child left to them, Jane held on to him with a manic grip. His death - the only one in a train derailment a short time before Franklin's inauguration, was the last straw. Jane became convinced that God had killed their children so that Franklin could have more time to devote to his Presidency, and spent her days writing letters to the dead boy, asking his forgiveness. She became known as the "shadow of the White House."

No less tragic, of course, was the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, who is best known for being the wife of our first assassinated President. Even before that bad night at the theater, however, she had her share of sorrow. The animosity and hatred that was heaped upon her husband, the terrible strife of a civil war, and the untimely death of one of her sons turned a once vibrant, energetic woman into hysterical, morbid harridan. She held séances to try and talk to her deceased boy, harangued the White House staff, and almost had to be forcibly ejected once Andrew Johnson became the President. What's worse, her own son, Robert, had her declared insane and had her committed. She won her freedom, but the animosity between mother and son after that was white-hot.

There's so much more. The relationships these amazing women had with their husbands are also well-detailed, and also somewhat surprising. For all that Bill Clinton was a lecher, he was hardly the first. Hillary joined a group of long-suffering women who put up with blatant and repeated infidelities in and out of the White House. Some relationships were partnerships, like the Carters, the Hoovers and the Tafts. And some couples were just quietly devoted to each other, like the McKinleys and the Clevelands.

The First Lady is not an elected position. There's nothing in the Constitution about her, what she can and cannot do, so the job, such as it is, is one that each wife makes for herself when her husband takes office. The effects that these women have had on this nation is immense, and should not be overlooked. So, if you're interested in knowing more about our Presidents, you could do worse than to give a good look at the women who stood by them.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars oregonmommy, June 16, 2006
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If you like trivia, you'll enjoy this book. If you have only enough time to read short chapters or a few pages at a time, again, you'll like this book. Each chapter, which is about one first lady, is only a few pages in length -- perfect for bedtime reading for tired moms like me. There was enough information about each first lady to pique my interest, and make me want to find more in-depth biographies about many of the women.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading!, February 26, 2006
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A very good read! Interesting facts about all the first ladies. It is sure to make you laugh. You will find out things you did not know. Entertaining.
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Much better ... for what it is, September 16, 2005
I didn't think Cormac O'Brien's previous book, "The Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents," was worth a lot. Though some reviewers raved about how he brought forgotten presidents "to life" for them, I still fail to see the point in bringing William Henry Harrison "to life" if all you know about him are a couple of People Magazine irrelevancies. Combine that with conventional political sneers breezily delivered and you've got perfect modern history-writing.

"Oh lighten up. It's all in fun." Okay: If you liked the author's last dive into hip, ironic, personality-driven history, you'll probably like this one. In fact, I found it less objectionable because the relative historical anonymity -- even insignificance -- of most American first ladies fits better with the author's interest in trivia in the first place. (I recall one newspaper editor gushing about Jacqueline Kennedy not long ago, saying something to the effect that she was "the first first lady to go to college, the first one to have lived overseas, the first one to speak a foreign language!" None of which is even remotely true.)

While O'Brien largely glossed over most of what was important in the presidents' terms in office, his thumbnail biographies of the first ladies tend to be balanced and fairly comprehensive. And although he still gets his digs in at Nixon, Reagan, and George Dubya, his chapters on Mrs. Nixon, Mrs. Reagan, and Mrs. Bush (both of them, actually) are fair and even sympathetic.

I'm not sure precisely who the target market is for this book. But if people in that demographic are seeking lightweight reading that tells them a little bit, maybe, about American history and politics, then I suppose this will suit them well enough.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun read for a fun topic!, June 28, 2010
My interest in First Ladies is relatively new, but I find myself COMPLETELY in awe of the topic and desire to devour all the info I can. This book was the first on my list based on the topic and the concept. I figured I would start here and see what I thought, and I am glad I did so. This book is a fantastic read for those who may be lightly interested in the topic of First Ladies or just a fun read for the right group of High School, American History students. Don't misunderstand - it doesn't contain a wealth of info and on occasion you find yourself asking, "I wonder where the author got THAT info from..." But that's not what this book is for. It's a great at-a-glance of our First Ladies, and I commend the author for trying to put a positive spin on Ladies who may not have contributed quite a bit or whose role in history has been lost over time. All in all, if you read this book expecting the pages to drip with historical info, then you'll be disappointed. If you read it expecting a fun read with neat "tid-bits" on all the First Ladies, you'll love it!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Back of the toilet book..., April 21, 2012
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with some of the ugliest illustrations that i have ever seen in a published manuscript. Not as much info about the First Ladies as i would have liked. What was there was delivered in an amused, respectless voice that i found annoying. For example, the author called James Madison a "sickly,withdrawn little thing". Really? A President of the United States "a little thing"? But for quick reads while you eat or whatever, entertaining enough...
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun History, July 9, 2011
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A great read, and easy to read in spurts. The author is eloquent and witty. Each passage about a first lady has a short but meaty biography. I want to read the Secret Lives of Presidents now!
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Secret Lives of the First Ladies
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