On the whole, modern First Ladies’ reputations matter almost as much as those of their presidential husbands. And as a result, it could be said that the respective spouses of recent U.S. leaders have often strived to cultivate images that are practically blemish-free. By contrast, however, former First Lady Julia Tyler was often held in rather ill repute. In fact, Julia’s notoriety even preceded her time in the White House; it lasted, moreover, until she and her husband retired to their Virginia estate.
The title of First Lady originated in the United States – although, for many years, there was no single term to refer to the wife of the president. For instance, when George Washington served as the nation’s first president, most people called his wife, Martha, simply “Lady Washington.”
And a 1838 article in the St. Johnsbury Caledonian described how Martha Washington still kept some of the same rituals in which she had engaged before her husband had become president. The author – an individual going under the name of “Mrs. Sigourney” – wrote, “The first lady of the nation still preserved the habits of early life. Indulging in no indolence, she left the pillow at dawn.” By 1877, meanwhile, the term “first lady” had gained national attention, leading it to become more commonly used as a manner in which to refer to presidents’ wives.
But, of course, wives haven’t been the only ones to have served as presidents’ first ladies; in other cases, daughters, nieces or sisters have stepped into the role instead. And that worked well in the past, when a First Lady’s responsibilities were more ceremonial than political.
In the 20th century, though, first ladies began to establish themselves as more than just their husbands’ helpers. In particular, using their considerable influence, they began to take on good causes. Jackie Kennedy championed the arts and served as a traveling ambassador during her time in the White House, for instance, while Hillary Clinton fought for healthcare reform.
But long before these well-known women, Julia Tyler had her term as the nation’s First Lady – although she would make her mark in other ways than through her advocacy. On May 4, 1820, she was born Julia Gardiner on her family’s own island in East Hampton, New York. And as that location suggests, her parents were well-to-do. Julia’s father, David Gardiner, worked as a lawyer and would become a state senator; her mother’s family, meanwhile, had a thriving real-estate business.
Young Julia’s lavish lifestyle saw her attend New York City’s Chegary Institute, a well-established finishing school for women. Then, after she had completed her schooling, she became one of the city’s most prominent socialites. Julia’s fame came back to bite her at 19, though, when she made a questionable decision. And this resolution became the first of many that would build her scandalous reputation.
At that time, Julia appeared in a newspaper advertisement for a clothing emporium. There, she featured alongside an anonymous man, with the ad’s caption calling her “The Rose of Long Island.” And thanks to her feature in the lithograph, she became the first New York City woman to ever star in a commercial endorsement.
Yet while today’s famous families may rejoice over such publicity, Julia’s parents felt shock and embarrassment after seeing their daughter’s ad. So, they decided to take her to Europe until the scandal wore off. The trio visited nine countries over the course of 11 months before they went home to New York in 1841.
But that was only one of Julia’s known indiscretions. And her return to the United States didn’t come with an improved reputation, as her parents had hoped. Instead, Julia became known as a flirt, and her charm and beauty duly earned her the affection of several young men. Some of them even popped the question – requests that she presumably went on to decline.
Supposedly, Julia did what was considered unthinkable in the 19th century: namely, showing her male suitors that she had taken a liking to them. And while her actions mortified her parents, she nevertheless drew many men in – among them a German baron and a Belgian count.
To that end, Julia had caught the eye of several prominent American men, too. For one, she is said to have had a romance with James Buchanan, who would go on to become president in 1857 and who famously stayed a bachelor until his death in 1868. She was also linked to the 13th president, Millard Fillmore, who was married at the time of their flirtation.
And another politically linked man caught the young Julia’s eye: John Tyler Jr., the son of then-President John Tyler. Julia’s family had spent the winter of late 1841 and early 1842 in Washington, D.C.; and while there, they had rubbed shoulders with some of the capital’s most important people.
Tyler Jr. made his affection for Julia clear, too, writing her poetry and flirting with her. Even so, the pair had one big problem: he was married, although Tyler Jr. promised the socialite that he intended to obtain a divorce. Soon enough, though, Julia enraptured another man – and he was someone very close to Tyler Jr.
Yes, that man was, of course, President John Tyler. When he met Julia in 1842, he had been married to Letitia Christian Tyler for nearly three decades. By the end of that year, though, he would be a widower, as Letitia had died in the White House from a stroke the previous September. In that way, the 51-year-old became the first wife of a U.S. leader to pass away in the residence.
And once Tyler’s wife had died, he only had eyes for only one woman: Julia Gardiner. By contrast, the socialite from New York City had no interest in the reserved commander-in-chief, who was three decades older than her. Yet that didn’t deter the president, as he proposed to Julia in early 1843 during a masquerade ball at the White House.
Julia turned down Tyler’s proposal, too, although she continued to spend time with him afterwards. Then, later that year, a horrific incident brought her even closer to the leader of the United States. The socialite, her sister and her father had joined Tyler and others on an excursion on a steam-powered warship, the USS Princeton, when the tragedy occurred.
On board the Princeton that day, several passengers lost their lives when their steamboat passed a testing ground for a new naval gun called the Peacemaker, and the weapon exploded. Julia’s beloved father became one of the seven victims, and President Tyler stepped up to support her during such a heart-wrenching time.
With that, Julia’s opinion of her suitor changed completely. So, in 1844 President Tyler proposed a secret engagement to her at the George Washington Ball – and she agreed. The pair then said “I do” at The Church of the Ascension in New York in June that year.
But the public didn’t particularly embrace President Tyler and Julia. First of all, they latched onto the couple’s age difference. She was three decades younger than her new husband, while her mother was only nine years younger than her new son-in-law. Not only that, but the new First Lady was also five years younger than her oldest stepdaughter, Mary.
And the pair’s wedding also proved to be out of the ordinary; President Tyler and Julia had eloped to New York and married in front of only a dozen guests. The couple justified their actions, however, by saying that they had only secretly wed because they were in the midst of mourning the death of Julia’s father.
Aside from the age difference or even the way in which they had tied the knot, President Tyler and Julia made waves because they had such different personalities. The commander-in-chief had all of the traits of a dyed-in-the-wool Southern gentleman; his new wife, on the other hand, had boundless energy and loved stirring the pot.
Julia hardly endeared herself to President Tyler’s seven children, either, with his oldest daughters especially disliking her. Tyler had once vowed to his offspring that he would never remarry in the wake of their mother’s death. When he wed a much younger woman so soon after they lost their mother, then, his children saw Julia’s presence as an insult.
Eventually, though, two of President Tyler’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, did build a bond with their new stepmother. They acted in marked contrast to the third-oldest girl, Letitia, who didn’t appreciate the fact that Julia had taken over her duties as White House hostess. The new First Lady had become very close to Letitia’s ex-husband, too.
In spite of all the behind-the-scenes drama, though, Julia brought plenty of pep and glamour to her new role as First Lady. This was important, given how fatigued President Tyler appeared to be after he and his new wife finished up their wedding celebrations and honeymoon at his Sherwood Forest estate.
Furthermore, while Julia’s trip through Europe with her parents had done little to reduce her notoriety, it did nonetheless show her the ways in which overseas royalty lived. As a result, then, the First Lady adopted a number of regal traditions in the White House. For one thing, she had her own staff of ladies-in-waiting, who all dressed the same and surrounded Julia at presidential parties.
The First Lady also began wearing ornate gowns and elaborate headpieces – much in the manner of a European queen. And as the White House’s de facto hostess, she began throwing over-the-top parties and receptions. The month before her husband left office, for instance, Julia arranged a ball for a staggering 3,000 guests.
And Julia pulled out all of the stops for her public appearances, too. The First Lady would travel through the nation’s capital city in style in a carriage pulled by eight white horses. She also imported an Italian greyhound from Naples to trot beside her before she went on her first public walk as a president’s spouse. Then there was the time that Julia arrived late to a naval ship christening – simply because she wanted to make a grand entrance.
Clearly, then, the First Lady had little issue making a fuss of herself. It’s worth noting, though, that she also hired some help to ensure the public knew all about her fabulousness. Supposedly, Julia came to an agreement with New York Herald reporter F.W. Thompson: he could have a free pass to all of her events as long as he published sparkling reviews of her style, her parties and her beauty.
In the end, however, Julia served as First Lady for less than a year – from June 26, 1844, until March 4, 1845. And yet during that time, she was able to forge one change that has more or less become a tradition for those presidents who have served since her husband.
You see, as a lover of grandeur, Julia came up with several rituals meant to honor the office of the president. She noted, for one, that the song “Hail to the Chief” sometimes heralded the presence of President Tyler; consequently, she began to insist that the music be played on every occasion that her husband arrived somewhere. The next First Lady, Sarah Childress Polk, then continued this tradition, with “Hail to the Chief” still serving the same purpose today.
But, of course, President Tyler and Julia’s time in the White House ultimately drew to a close. And after that, the couple returned to the leader’s estate, where they had spent their honeymoon. The Virginia plantation also provided a serene setting in which the pair could raise their seven children: sons David, John, Lachlan, Lyon and Robert and daughters Julia and Pearl.
Unfortunately, though, the Tylers’ tranquil life in the South would eventually be marred as a result of the Civil War. Although the former First Lady had grown up in the north, she quickly got caught up in the southern plantation lifestyle – meaning, in turn, that she defended slavery. The war would end that practice, of course, and Julia’s chosen way of life – as the owner of 60 slaves herself – with it.
And in the midst of the Civil War, a personal tragedy struck the Tyler family. Their patriarch and the former President of the United States passed away in 1862, three years before the war ended. With her husband gone, Julia then tried to move herself and some of her children to her home state of New York. However, the former First Lady faced some challenges along the way.
You see, although Julia’s request to move had initially received the green light, she was subsequently told that she would have to swear her allegiance to the Union. And although she wouldn’t do so, she nevertheless found her way back to her mother’s house in Staten Island. Cannily, her ship had detoured to Bermuda then turned back to the Empire State.
Of course, scandal continued to follow the over-the-top former First Lady. Once she arrived at her mother’s house, Julia made a point to hoist a Confederate flag at the location. In response, Union soldiers almost burned the place down because they saw their enemies’ banner waving there.
Then, Julia had to figure out how to survive in the wake of the Civil War. As a result, then, given that she had so little money and so many debts, she found herself having to forfeit one of her Virginia properties – 1,100 acres of land in all. And yet she managed to hold onto Sherwood Forest, the estate she shared with her late husband.
In order to boost her financial standing, though, Julia had to take matters into her own hands. She lobbied Congress for a pension, and in 1880 they agreed to fund her with a monthly allowance. And the next year, they extended that benefit to all presidential widows, agreeing to a $5,000 annual sum for each former First Lady whose husband had passed.
Julia’s income allowed her to save Sherwood Forest, the home she shared with her husband until his death. And, ever since she did that, a member of the Tyler family has lived on the plantation since the President bought it in 1842.
But First Lady Julia Tyler will also be remembered for her social prowess, outgoing nature, flirtations and, of course, her extravagance. We continue to play “Hail to the Chief” for today’s presidents, just as she did for her husband. But, perhaps most importantly, her somewhat scandalous reputation allowed today’s version of the First Lady to develop because Julia Tyler, too, made her opinions known to the world – and they listened to her.