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'Dear First Lady': Letters Offer Glimpse of History

President Eisenhower's wife, Mamie, (above) was asked by Sophie Rosenberg on June 15, 1953, to help spare the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were executed four days after the telegram was sent.
/ Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
President Eisenhower's wife, Mamie, (above) was asked by Sophie Rosenberg on June 15, 1953, to help spare the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were executed four days after the telegram was sent.

American citizens have written to the first ladies of the nation since the days of Martha Washington. The letters make requests, ask for favors, criticize and praise. A number of letters to presidents' wives have been collected in the new book Dear First Lady.

On June 15, 1953, a desperate American sent a message to Mamie Eisenhower.

"I turn to you in my deep grief and implore you to intercede with President Eisenhower to grant mercy to my beloved children," wrote Sophie Rosenberg.

Rosenberg was trying to save the life of her son Julius and his wife Ethel. They were sentenced to death, accused of leaking secrets about the atomic bomb to Russia.

"I beg of you to act through the charity of your heart for an old woman whose days are spent in weeping," Rosenberg wrote.

"This was a time when America was afraid," says Dwight Young, co-author of the collection of letters to first ladies. "All of a sudden, the Russians had the atomic bomb. They had moved so swiftly from having been our ally in the Second World War to now suddenly an enormous threat to us."

Sophie Rosenberg's plea went unheeded. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted four days after she wrote to Mrs. Eisenhower.

Few letters in this collection are as heart-wrenching as that one, although there are some shocking, and sad ones.

Helen Thomas, onetime UPI White House bureau chief, covered nine first ladies. In her introduction to the book, Thomas says first ladies rarely replied personally to their mail.

"I think Mrs. Nixon actually read the letters that came to her, and answered them believe it or not," she says. But Thomas says most of the letters are not read by the first ladies because the volume is so great.

'I Am Greatly in Need of a Coat'

Roosevelt got more letters than any other first lady. After all, her husband served for three terms. Co-author Margaret Johnson says that in December 1934, during the heart of the Depression, Mrs. Roosevelt got a touching letter from a woman in Florida.

It was from Clara Leonard, a widow who lived in Miami, where the winter was particularly cold.

"I feel worthy of asking you about this," she wrote. "I am greatly in need of a coat. If you have one which you have laid aside from last season [I] would appreciate it so much if you would send it to me. I will pay postage if you see fit to send it...."

Leonard wrote on lined notebook paper, in clear, careful penmanship.

"She was writing to the wife of the president and she wanted to look her best on paper," Young says. "She was having, in a sense, to humble herself. But she didn't want to come across as pitiful."

Racial Tensions

A letter from Eleanor Roosevelt marks another seminal event in American history. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to permit Marian Anderson to sing at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington. Mrs. Roosevelt resigned from the organization, saying the group missed an opportunity to take a leadership stand on an important issue.

A few months later, with help from Mrs. Roosevelt, Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to a crowd of about 75,000 people. Millions more were tuned to their radios. It was a milestone for civil rights in a country that was deeply segregated.

Ten years before Anderson sang on the National Mall, President Herbert Hoover's wife Lou got an unsigned letter from the Women's League of Miami. It was a custom at the White House for the first lady to invite congressional wives to tea every year. In 1929, one of those wives was black, married to Rep. Oscar DePriest of Illinois. By inviting her, Lou Hoover was not taking a stand. She was simply carrying out a tradition — and was excoriated for it.

A nameless spokesperson for the league wrote: "'We' thought we were putting a 'real' White 'Lady' in the White House. Didn't even dream that you would disgrace the White House by associating with Negroes .... You can go to Illinois next winter and visit your Negro friend. FLORIDA don't care for you to visit the South anymore."

Young says it's "one of those letters where the appearance of the letter tells you a great deal. It looks like it could have been written by a serial killer. It's this fierce, angry scrawl with things underlined and heavily accented and it basically says, you have betrayed us by entertaining a Negress in the White House."

'What Your Sufferings Must Be'

In 1865, shortly after President Lincoln was assassinated, his widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, got a letter with thick, black borders, bearing the royal seal of England's Queen Victoria.

"No one can better appreciate than I can, who am myself utterly broken-hearted by the loss of my own beloved Husband, who was the Light of my Life,—my Stay—my All,—What your sufferings must be...." the queen wrote.

Young notes that the letter was written a little over four years after Queen Victoria's own husband, Prince Albert, had died.

"And she was still deep in mourning," Young says. "So the wounds that Mary Todd Lincoln was feeling were still fresh and familiar to Queen Victoria and she's saying to Mary Todd Lincoln, in effect, I've been there. I know what you're going through. It hurts like hell."

Queen Victoria's handwriting is firm, with a few flourishes. Her writing paper is expensively thick. In the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, the choice of paper and the shape of characters were a reflection of the letter writer.

The Death of the Letter?

"You get so much human personality on a piece of paper that has writing from a human hand on it — and that may be disappearing," Young says.

Thomas, the former White House bureau chief, wonders whether technology will mean "the death of the letter."

Can text messages, e-mails and instant messages reflect the times in which they were written — the events, the state of the world — the way letters can?

Young says his book is only superficially about the women who lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"When you get right down to it, it's really about us," he says. "It's about the American public ... and how we reach out to someone that we think can give us answers or reassurance. So it's the story of us as much as it's the story of the woman in the White House."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.