American Pomp and Ceremonial - Some Famous Wives of Famous Presidents - The Social Evolution of Washington - Mistress of the White House, a Great but Onerous Position
The building over which the "first lady in the States" reigns is not pretentious. Indeed, Mr. Bryce, the present British Ambassador to America, has described it as having the "air of a large suburban villa rather than of a palace," and from time to time it has been suggested that the White House should be rebuilt, in order to make it - from an architectural point of view, at any rate - a more imposing and impressive residence for the President of the land of dollars.
But, although the White House is but comparatively a small, two-storeyed building, 170 feet long by 86 feet deep, it is the hub, not only of political and official life, but also of social life in the States, in spite of the fact that American society displays much of its wealth and magnificence in New York.
Under the brilliant regime of Mrs. Roosevelt and that of Mrs. Taft, Washington has acquired remarkable distinction in the social world, and these two ladies rank with Mrs. James Madison (Dolly Madison), whose husband was president of the States at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and whose brilliant entertainments are a matter of history as the most famous of the mistresses of the White House. During the presidency of Mr. Mckinley and" that of Mr. Cleveland the glories of Washington waned. Mrs. Cleveland, the only bride of a president married at the White House, and the mother of the only child of a president born in the White House, cared little for society, and her husband even less, while the fact that Mrs. Mckinley was an invalid prevented her from entertaining other than in connection with official functions. But even entertainments such as these are a severe tax on the health and strength of the strongest of women. When Mrs. Roosevelt came to the White House, in 1901, a new era was inaugurated. It is true that she followed the programme of official entertainments which is governed by laws of precedence as immutable as the laws of the Medes and Persians; but she instituted several innovations - innovations maintained by Mrs. Taft, a brilliant and accomplished woman, who has been the sharer of her husband's joys, ambitions, and sorrows since she married him, in 1886, when he was a struggling lawyer in Ohio. Mrs. Roosevelt practically reconstructed the social life of the White House. She did not depart from the formality and stateliness which have marked all official functions here for a century past, but she instituted a number of semi-private entertainments, dinners, musicales, and teas, to which representatives of the fashionable sets of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were invited.
"You know, of course," said President Roosevelt once, "that Mrs. Roosevelt is as near a pattern president's wife as could be made. She is so broad in her vision, and yet so conscientious in her action. That woman is a wonder," he continued, enthusiastically, warming to his subject.
The musicales instituted by Mrs. Roosevelt usually began at ten o'clock, and so popular did they prove that Mrs. Taft. who, like Mrs. Roosevelt, is an accomplished musician, decided to continue them.
She also arrived at a similar decision in regard to "the weekly meetings of Cabinet women," instituted by Mrs. Roosevelt. The latter hit upon the happy idea of enlisting the advice and help of the wives of members of the Cabinet in her semi-private social affairs, as well as in those of an official character. If a social event were impending, she summoned them in a body, and in the handsome oval-shaped library on the second floor of the White House they discussed together plans for its success. These little meetings were the foundation for the joke which found its way into the newspapers to the effect that Mrs. Roosevelt had started a feminine Cabinet, which met at the same time as the presiden t' s advise rs, and discussed matters of state. The same story was repeated when Mrs. Taft continued the practice, but, of course, it is merely social, not state mat-ters, which are discussed at these gatherings.
Then, too, it was Mrs. Roosevelt who introduced the famous teas at the W h i t e House, and here again Mrs. Taft is following the example of her predecessor. For her afternoons-at-home and teas, Mrs. Taft merely sends her visiting card, on which is engraved, "Mrs. William Taft," and underneath the name are penned the words, "will be glad to have you come and take a cup of tea with her on-------------, at five o'clock."
The card is enclosed in a little white envelope, which bears the legend "White House " in silver letters in its upper left-hand corner. Washington is always filled with strangers," Mrs. Roosevelt said one day, speaking of her teas, and I have started this manner of entertainment in order to give them the opportunity of seeing the inside of the historical home of the presidents and a little of its social life. I know the great veneration the American people have for the office of the presidency, and I feel that, as far as possible, they should meet their chief executive, and see the way in which he lives."
Ample opportunity of visiting the White House, however, is afforded to Americans during the official social season. To a certain ex-tent, of course, each president regulates his own enter-taining and recept ions, but, as already i n-t i m at ed , there are certain f unc-t i o n s prescribed b y custom which must be held, except in case of mourning. The officialsocial seasonopens in D e c e m-ber, when the p r e s i-dent gives his Cabinet dinner. This includ es every Cabinet member and the wife of every C a b i n e t member, together with such diplo-m a t i s t s, army and navy officers,govern-mental dignitaries, and other official persons, as the president may see fit to invite. And here it might be mentioned that a dinner invitation to the White House is like a command from the King in England. It is no valid excuse to say that you have asked guests to your own house for the same evening; your dinner must be postponed, or must be served in your absence.