Divorce and the Presidency
The old saw that politicians could survive anything but a divorce does not cut much wood at a time when both the President and the Vice-President designate of the United States are married to divorced women. But throughout much of American history, divorce and the threat of it have hung over the presidency.
Gerald Ford is the third United States President to be married to a divorcée. Andrew Jackson was the first and Warren G. Harding was the second. (Ford, however, is the only President born of divorced parents.) Other men who became President including Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower reportedly wrestled with the question of divorce themselves before they reached the White House—only to decide against it, partly as a result of popular prejudice.
The taboo against divorce has ebbed slowly, as presidential aspirants Adlai Stevenson and Nelson Rockefeller discovered. The most beset of all Presidents was Andrew Jackson, whose divorcée wife was called a “convicted adulteress” and he a “paramour husband.” Jackson did not take such insults lightly. When one Charles Dickinson insulted his wife, President Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel in 1806 and, after being wounded in the ribs himself, shot Dickinson dead.
Andrew Jackson married his divorced lady twice. He was a 24-year-old lawyer when he moved into a Nashville rooming house and wooed Rachel Robards (above), the unhappy wife of another lodger named Lewis Robards. Jackson spirited Rachel off to Natchez to marry her in 1791, only to learn later that Rachel’s decree of divorce had never been granted. They hastily remarried in 1794 after Robards finally divorced Rachel on the grounds of adultery. The charge of “wife-stealer” plagued Jackson, and Rachel, brokenhearted by the slanders of the bitter and unsuccessful 1824 presidential campaign, never lived in the White House. She died in 1828 just before Old Hickory’s inauguration. Jackson never remarried.
Warren Gamaliel Harding, the 29th President, is better remembered for his extra-marital flings than his 32-year marriage to Florence Kling de Wolfe (above), a piano teacher from his hometown of Marion, Ohio. She had already divorced an alcoholic husband when she ignored her parents’ objections in 1891 and married Harding, then a newspaperman and, at 25, five years her junior. Harding went on to a romance with his best friend’s wife and a lurid affair with his longtime mistress, Nan Britton, who wrote that she met Harding for lovemaking in a White House closet and presented him with his only child, an illegitimate daughter. No one knows how much “The Duchess,” as Mrs. Harding was called, knew of Harding’s indiscretions; after his death in 1923, she burned all his papers and left no memoirs herself.
Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor had the most unusual marriage in the White House. As Joseph Lash told it in Eleanor and Franklin, Eleanor in 1918 discovered love letters to her husband from her social secretary, the vivacious Lucy Mercer (below). Eleanor gave Franklin an ultimatum: give her a divorce or give up Lucy. Pressured by his indomitable mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt (photographed above at Hyde Park with Eleanor and Franklin in 1920), who argued that a divorce would ruin his political career, FDR promised to break off with Lucy. But 23 years later, Lucy, a Roman Catholic and married, was again visiting Roosevelt in the White House during Eleanor’s absences and was with him in Warm Springs, Ga. when he died.
Adlai Stevenson was the first divorced man to run for President. He had married wealthy Ellen Borden in 1928, and they had three sons, Adlai III (not shown), John (left) and Borden (right). Seven months after his inauguration as governor of Illinois, Ellen left him, citing her distaste for politics. Although the divorce was not an issue in Stevenson’s presidential tries in 1952 and 1956, a whispering campaign was waged against him.
Dwight Eisenhower and Mamie were once almost on the rocks. At least so Harry Truman says in Merle Miller’s book Plain Speaking. According to Truman, Eisenhower told General George Marshall in 1945 that he wanted to divorce Mamie to marry his English-born Jeep driver Kate Summersby (shown between Ike and Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith). Marshall reportedly threatened “to bust him out of the Army and see to it that never for the rest of his life would he draw a peaceful breath.”
Nelson Rockefeller lost the 1964 GOP nomination in part because he had divorced Mary Todhunter Clark (shown above with Rocky after his first gubernatorial victory), his wife of 32 years, and married Happy Murphy the year before. Their romance was back in the news as a result of their first child Nelson Rockefeller Jr., who was born only days before the critical California primary, narrowly won by Barry Goldwater. After a decade and the birth of one more child, the second marriage of the prospective Vice-President is taken for granted.