- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2003


By Jennifer Fleischner

Broadway, $26, 372 pages, illus.


The “remarkable story” of the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly, turns out to hardly be a story at all, as the two don’t meet until Page 202 of Jennifer Fleischner’s account.

That’s not to say Miss Fleischner’s story isn’t compelling or that Keckly’s life alone isn’t remarkable. At the very least, “Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly” gives a voice to a largely forgotten former slave whose remains lie in an unmarked grave. But it also weaves an interesting narrative out of the well tread biographical ground of the former first lady.

From her early childhood, Keckly used her talent as a seamstress to her advantage, eventually buying freedom for herself and her son and building a dressmaking business that brought her to the White House. Her rise is difficult to explain without acknowledging the class distinctions within the black community at the time, a nuance to which Miss Fleischner pays less-than-due attention. Keckly’s lighter skin gave her an edge over field hands, and she worked in the slave owner’s home, where she received the education that allowed her to develop her ambitions.

Those ambitions carried her into a world foreign to those she grew up with, one in which she had access to the president and membership at an elite Washington church where the other congregants were also light-skinned.

Several years after Keckly had been freed, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation liberated a population of blacks who were still mentally encumbered by slavery and who struggled to understand the idea of working for wages. Keckly attempted to help them, and in doing so, she must have felt torn between her world and theirs, but that ground goes largely uncovered by Miss Fleischner.

Lincoln, the other half of Miss Fleischner’s story, grew up in a household similar to Keckly’s but in the position of master rather than slave. She had her own ambition — to get to the White House. Brought up to attach her identity to her husband’s, she said she would one day be first lady. She was depressed, moody and difficult. Once in the White House, she found herself unpopular and a detriment to her husband’s reputation.

The friendship that emerged between Lincoln and Keckly — and Miss Fleischner spends a great deal of time proving that a friendship did emerge — seems a natural outgrowth of the two women’s lives and personalities.

Lincoln was needy and demanding, and by the time she became first lady, she did not have many women in her life. She even had difficulty communicating with the White House staff. For much of her life, she had maintained unquestioned control over black slaves in her household. In Washington, she was uncomfortable with the white, usually Irish, servants she and her husband employed.

Slavery, however, had equipped Keckly with an ability to handle a difficult client, and in some ways her relationship with Lincoln resembled that of a slave and mistress. Several times Keckly put off other clients to meet Lincoln’s demands. She also nursed the first lady through severe depressions after the deaths of two of her sons. She seems to have put her life on hold after the president’s assassination. The only hint of a reciprocal gesture came after Keckly’s son died while fighting for the Union in the Civil War, when Lincoln sent Keckly a note expressing her sympathy.

The larger story that binds Lincoln and Keckly are their roles as women. The conditions they faced and opportunities they had were made inconsistent by race, but as women in the 1860s, they shared a lack of freedom, with their prospects attached largely to others — whether masters or husbands. In a letter one of Lincoln’s sisters characterized the first lady as the “most ambitious woman I ever saw.” But she had no way to channel that ambition except in a social context.

In that respect, Keckly, for all the disadvantages she had by virtue of her birth, was more successful than Lincoln. She found something she was good at and poured her energy into it. She also had a community that accepted her. Lincoln alienated almost all of her friends and much of her family, and left the White House wrapped up in a scandal about how much she had overspent the presidential budget.

Miss Fleischner posits that Lincoln’s willingness to refer to Keckly as her closest friend, at least for a few years, is an indication of Lincoln’s change of heart on slavery. (Though neither were abolitionists, the first lady was more pro-slavery than her husband was.) That’s a leap in logic, though, as Lincoln’s dependency on and love for an individual (light-skinned) black woman and feelings of racial superiority would not have been mutually exclusive.

What ended the women’s friendship was Keckly’s memoir, in which she was critical of the first lady. The book was attacked from a range of sources as Lincoln’s harshest critics became her defenders. The dispute was characterized as a black woman versus a white woman, and Lincoln received “implicit restoration to the special status of white womanhood.”

Though “Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly” contains no revelations about slavery or the Civil War or the Lincoln White House, Miss Fleischner remembers a woman that history has forgotten and tries to understand a woman to whom history has been harsh.

Erin Mendell is a copy editor on the copy desk of The Washington Times.

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