A Woman to Know: Harriet Lane Johnston

She was his confidante in all matter political and personal. — Sarah Pryor

She was his confidante in all matter political and personal. — Sarah Pryor

(image via The Library of Congress)

When James Buchanan became President of the United States in 1857, he entered an Oval Office roiling in turmoil — Southern states threatened succession, the Dred Scott decision loomed on the horizon and to top it all off, the White House staff was in disarray.

He needed one person, his staff assured him, who could fix it all — he needed a First Lady.

But the confirmed bachelor had never married, and historians today now wonder if he perhaps hid his identity as a closeted gay man for fear of discrimination and isolation.

But luckily for James, he had Harriet.

The decade before, when Harriet found herself suddenly orphaned and living penniless in Pennsylvania, she called on her favorite uncle to save her from poverty. James did so enthusiastically, declaring Harriet his ward and bringing her with him on his travels as ambassador to England. While in London, as James prepared for a presidential run, Harriet fought off several suitors, telling her uncle she found them “pleasant enough but dreadfully troublesome.” James encouraged her to wait on marriage and come with him to DC. She wouldn’t marry until age 36, after her favorite uncle was already declining in health.

In 1857, per his staff’s pleading, the bachelor president summoned his charming, vivacious niece to the White House, where she immediately assumed the hostess duties befitting the wife of a president. Harriet’s popularity saved James’s social reputation in the midst of pre-Civil War chaos, and historians today say the young niece set the model for what would later become codified First Ladyship. Some criticized her politeness, saying she strove to maintain a veneer of niceness at White House functions, even as the country threatened to divide. But she also used her position as defacto First Lady to advocate for Native Americans living on reservations, and she begged her uncle to address the issue of slavery before he left office in 1861. But Harriet’s charm and grace couldn’t save his legacy — Buchanan would later go down as one of the worst presidents in U.S. History.

Years after the White House, Harriet again battled personal tragedy. Her husband, children and uncle all died within a decade of each other, and upon retirement, Harriet through herself back into social causes. Before she died at the age of 73, she left her massive art collection to the Smithsonian Institutions, forming the foundation of what is now the National Gallery of Art.

In 1893, just 10 years before her death, she donated what would now be millions of dollars to establish the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children in Baltimore. Even though local segregation laws still separated hospitals into “white” and “colored” wings, Harriet stipulated specifically that her Home for Children was to be integrated. Today, it’s known as the Harriet Lane Clinic, functioning as part of the John Hopkins University Hospital System.

And despite his reputation as a cowardly president, she fought for her beloved uncle’s formal recognition. She established a fund to build a monument in DC’s Meridian Hill Park, and when she died in 1903, she was fighting for his birthplace to be honored in the Register of Historic Places.

“In her affection, he found the only solace of his lonely life,” one friend remembered.

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A Woman to Know: Eugénie Brazier

I have always been mindful of who I am. — Eugénie Brazier

I have always been mindful of who I am. — Eugénie Brazier

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Not just the first woman to win hold six Michelin stars at one time. The first person.

Eugénie celebrated this accomplishment in 1933. No other chef tied her record until 1998.

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A Woman to Know: Anacaona

Who was so happy as Anacaona/ the beauty of Hispaniola/ the golden flower of Haiti …— Alfred Lord Tennyson

Who was so happy as Anacaona/ the beauty of Hispaniola/ the golden flower of Haiti …— Alfred Lord Tennyson

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In the 15th century, Anacaona held a powerful position among the Taino, an indigenous tribe of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. As wife to one chief and sister to another, Anacaona earned her subjects’ respect as a ruler, a poet and an oral historian.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, Anacaona was among the chiefs who went to meet him. In the midst of tense negotiations, Anacaona pushed her brother and her husband toward peaceful relations with the white invaders. Columbus and his brother promised a fair treaty to come — but only if the Taino continued to greet their ships with gifts and celebrations. Anacaona rushed to appease the colonialists. Even after the Europeans imprisoned her husband and Anacaona assumed his chiefly duties, she went as far as to try and arrange a marriage between her daughter and a Spanish officer. She remained convinced that the two groups could live in relative harmony in Haiti.

But in 1502, Nicolas de Ovando, the Spanish-appointed governor of Haiti, announced he was ready to finally sign the peace treaty promised to Anacaona. The poet-chief prepared a celebration and awaited the governor’s arrival. But the Spaniards didn’t come in peace; they massacred Anacaona’s people, incinerating entire villages and burning people alive. Any Spanish officers who tried to help Taino escape were later enslaved. De Ovando captured Anacaona and put her on trial in Santo Domingo, sentencing her to public execution in 1503. She was 29 years old.

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A Woman to Know: Alicia Patterson

She was the greatest newspaperman I’ve ever known. — Jack Mann

She was the greatest newspaperman I’ve ever known. — Jack Mann

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

She came up in newspapers. Her great-grandfather owned The Chicago Tribune and her father founded The New York Daily News. So before buying Long Island’s Newsday in 1940, Alicia already knew what it took to print a paper and report the news.

But before she’d begin her career as a publisher, she’d endure a string of family-arranged engagements and marriages (a great story about the second engagement: she sent her father a telegram after news of Alicia’s acceptance found her overseas. “Furious not consulted,” she sent him. The marriage dissolved after just a year).

When she finally found her third husband, Harry Guggenheim, she saw a vision for their marriage (and his fortune): continuing her family’s newspaper legacy. With Alicia at the helm, Harry ran the administrative side of Newsday. Alicia encouraged a culture of curiosity, eventually leading her staff to a Pulitzer Prize win in 1954.

Just 10 years later, she passed away following stomach surgery. Harry commissioned Joan Miró to paint a mural in his wife’s honor. Today, the Alicia Patterson Prize awards grants to mid-career journalists, as specified in her will.

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A Woman to Know: Emma Koehler

Everyone has been drinking booze for years. — Emma Koehler

Everyone has been drinking booze for years. — Emma Koehler

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

When her high-powered, high-society, always-philandering husband Otto suddenly died in 1916, Emma Koehler had to pick up the pieces. Otto had established Texas’s largest brewery, Pearl Beer Brewing in San Antonio. But upcoming Prohibition legislation threatened its survival.

So Emma devised a plan: she and her employees would run a front business, disguised as a laundry and dry cleaning operation complete with automobile repair. They converted much of the brewery machinery to make ice cream and a near-beer drink called “La Perla.” Behind the scenes, Emma and her crew were still brewing and distributing Pearl beer throughout the Lone Star State.

While other breweries closed their doors, Emma managed to keep up profits and diversify her business. Throughout all of Prohibition, she never laid off a single employee. When the legislation lifted in 1933, Emma turned over the business to her nephew, after 26 years as CEO. Even in retirement, she advised on deals and weighed in on major company decisions.

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