Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly The remarkable story of the friendship between a first lady and a former slave

Jennifer Fleischner

Book - 2003

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BIOGRAPHY/Lincoln, Mary
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New York : Broadway Books 2003.
Physical Description
372 p., [8] p. of plates : ill
Includes bibliographical references.
Main Author
Jennifer Fleischner (-)
Review by Choice Review

Formatted as a double biography, this book traces in alternate chapters the lives of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth "Lizzy" Hobbs Keckly. Born into affluence in Lexington, KY, in 1818, Mary became the wife and widow of Abraham Lincoln. Born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, Lizzy was a house servant and seamstress who purchased her freedom in 1859 and moved to Washington, D. C., where she became a highly successful seamstress for prominent whites. Mary hired her to make dresses shortly after Lincoln's election. Their ties evolved into a friendship, as Keckly helped Mary cope with the White House, the deaths of a son and husband, and to regain financial footing after leaving Washington. Despite being "friends," Mary was a troubled and difficult person; their relationship was asymmetrical and ended when Lizzy published her memoirs, Behind the Scenes (1868). This book is well written, extensively researched, and rich in context throughout, though the central story, based on Keckly's memoirs and Lincoln's published letters, remains thin. Fleischner (English, Adelphi Univ.) often relies on hypotheticals to imagine some of their thoughts and conversations. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. For general readers and undergraduates. J. Borchert emeritus, Cleveland State University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission. Review by Booklist Review

Fleischner analyzes the dynamics of the great friendship that existed between first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and former slave Elizabeth Keckly. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Lizzy Keckly was already established as the most sought after dressmaker in Washington D.C. The mulatto daughter of a Virginia landowner and his slave, Mrs. Keckly had purchased her freedom and parlayed her talent with a needle into a successful business venture. When the fashion-conscious wife of the new president moved to the capitol, she immediately sought Keckly's help, and a powerful bond was forged between these two southern-born women from vastly different backgrounds. Set against the backdrop of mid-nineteenth-century America, this fascinating dual biography provides a glimpse into a friendship that defied convention and flourished during an age when social associations between the races were feared and actively discouraged. --Margaret Flanagan

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

This double biography opens with an arresting image: two middle-aged women, one white, one black, are seated on a park bench in New York's Union Square in 1867. The white woman is Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of the president and desperately in need of money. The black woman is her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly, who is trying to help Mrs. Lincoln realize some profit out of the sale of the clothes that Mrs. Keckly made for her in happier times. Neither woman has been treated well by history. Mrs. Lincoln has gone down as a compulsive shopper whose own son tried to have her declared a lunatic; Mrs. Keckly was at one time thought to be a figment of the abolitionist imagination. Although Fleischner (Mastering Slavery), a former Mellon Faculty Fellow in Afro-American Studies at Harvard, is sympathetic to Mrs. Lincoln, the first lady's portrait here will not enhance her reputation significantly. But Fleischner's rehabilitation of Mrs. Keckly, portrayed as a strong-minded and talented woman who bought her freedom from slavery, lost her son on a Civil War battlefield and wrote a detailed biography of her former employer, is a revelation. Of particular interest is the glimpse provided into the vexed and ambiguous nature of the relations between the races both before and after abolition, a terrain the author negotiates with tact and sensitivity. (On sale Apr. 8) Forecast: This portrait of an interracial friendship will be of great interest to readers of women's history and African-American history. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

Mrs. Lincoln was the wife of a President. Mrs. Keckly, a slave who bought her freedom, became a celebrated dressmaker in Washington, DC, and eventually the confidante of the First Lady. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-A fascinating look at the lives and friendship of two women-one about whom historians have told us much, the other, a person who deserves far more recognition than she has received. But before it is possible to understand how two seemingly unlikely people could become friends, it is important to know the circumstances that brought a president's wife and a former slave and dressmaker to the moment of their fateful meeting. To take readers to that point, the author uses alternating chapters to discuss the circumstances and people who molded each woman. Lincoln was used to others stepping in and taking care of her when life got too tough and Keckly took on that role. As their friendship progressed, they shared difficult and heart-wrenching situations. When the president was assassinated, Mary sent for Lizzy. The book gives an in-depth look at a time, a friendship, and two very different women. The author's almost conversational writing style will keep readers engrossed.-Peggy Bercher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

Meticulous reconstruction of the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave who became the First Lady's personal dressmaker and confidante. Fleischner (English/Adelphi Univ.; Mastering Slavery, not reviewed) brings to light a compelling story long obscured by events of greater consequence. She begins with a post-assassination meeting in New York City between Mary and Lizzy during which the emotionally damaged and deeply indebted widow revealed to her friend a plan to raise money by selling the scores of gowns she wore during her White House years. (The plan, we find out 300 pages later, failed miserably.) Then the author moves back to chronicle in alternating chapters the biographies of Mary Todd and Elizabeth Hobbs, the former born into a fairly prosperous slave-owning family in Lexington, Kentucky; the latter born into slavery in Virginia. It takes 200 pages for their lives to converge. By then Lizzy had married a man named Keckly (who soon vanished), become a talented and popular seamstress, purchased freedom for herself and her son at the enormous price of $1,200, and established herself in Washington, D.C., as the favored seamstress of such luminaries as Mrs. Jefferson Davis. Lizzy and Mary met on the eve of Lincoln's first inauguration, when Mary ordered the first of what would be many dresses. The relationship, argues Fleischner, grew into a friendship as Lizzy helped Mary with everything from childcare to shopping to grieving. It fractured, however, when Lizzy, who had damaged her own business to attend to the First Widow, elected to publish a memoir. This was much too uppity for proud, frangible Mary Lincoln, and the two never met again. The author provides many fascinating details about fashion and mantua-making, although she could have omitted much material available elsewhere about the rise of Abraham Lincoln and horrors of the Civil War. Still, an important, absorbing addition to the vast Lincoln library. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.