Helen Taft Juvenile/Educational Biography
Helen Herron Taft
June 2, 1861 – May 22, 1943
Helen “Nellie” Herron was born on June 2, 1861, to John W. Herron and his wife Harriet. The family lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Mr. Herron was a judge and also Rutherford B. Hayes’s law partner. She attended Miss Nourse’s school and graduated from the Cincinnati College of Music. In addition, she studied at Miami University but did not graduate. Although she did not need to work, she taught school for several years as a young woman.
When she was 17, Nellie first visited the White House as the guest of her father’s law partner and now president, Rutherford Hayes. When she returned to Cincinnati, she announced to all who would listen that she planned to marry someone who was destined to be President of the United States because she liked the White House so much.
Nellie was clearly an intelligent woman who wanted to be surrounded by individuals equally smart as she. In order to accomplish this, she organized a “salon” that met regularly in her parents’ home. This “salon” was a gathering of Cincinnati’s intellectual and social elite who discussed “topics intellectual and economic, ” as Nellie later described it. And it was here that her friendship with young Will Taft developed.
William Howard Taft had first met Nellie in the winter of 1879 at a bobsled party. They had both grown up in Cincinnati, were comfortable moving in the highest social circles of their hometown, and had fathers who were lawyers and public servants. However, the differences between the two were striking. Will was tall, handsome, easy-going while Nellie was petite, charming, good looking, but intense and outspoken. In addition, Nellie had a streak of the unconventional in her; she liked to smoke cigarettes and drink beer with her friends from time to time. In an attempt to explain to his father why Nellie taught school, Will was reported to have said, “She wanted to do something in life and not be a burden. Her eagerness for knowledge of all kinds puts me to shame. Her capacity for work is wonderful.” After a long courtship of nearly six years, the two became engaged in May 1885. The wedding, on June 19, 1886, was held in the parlor of Nellie’s parents’ home. The newly weds sailed for Europe for their honeymoon.
When the young couple returned to Cincinnati, they moved in with Will’s parents for a time until their new home in Walnut Hills was completed. Will was in a law partnership in addition to serving as assistant to the prosecuting attorney of Hamilton County. His ambition, however, was to serve on the judicial bench, eventually becoming a United States Supreme Court Justice. Nellie wanted a more visible political office for her husband. In 1889, when he was only twenty-nine, Will was appointed a Judge of the Superior Court. Nellie, while proud, was concerned that he would be associating with men so much older than he was. Therefore, when he was appointed Solicitor-General of the United States in 1890, she was ecstatic. The appointment took them to Washington, DC, a city she loved. His appointment two years later as a member of the Sixth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, dismayed Nellie. Not only did she miss the excitement of Washington, she feared that Will would again be among men much older than he and that he would be “fixed in a groove for the rest of his life,” as she described it years later. For his part, Will began to dream of an appointment to the Supreme Court, a distant but no longer impossible goal.
While Will traveled the six-state circuit for the court, Nellie remained at home with their children, two boys Robert and Charles and a daughter Helen. She attended art classes, joined a book club, and even played a leading role in the formation of the symphony orchestra in Cincinnati. Their letters from this period when he was away from home for long stretches of time make it clear that their marriage contained not only great love and respect for each other but also the intellectual companionship they both desired.
In January 1900, Will received a telegram at home containing a request from President McKinley to see him as soon as possible about important business. Will left immediately for Washington. When he returned home three days later, he announced that he was to head the commission that was to establish a civil government in the Philippines. The United States had acquired the Philippine islands in the Spanish-American War. The entire family left in April for Manila.
The Philippine years were, for the most part, happy ones for the Taft family. When the Philippines Commission that Taft headed ended military rule there, Taft because the first governor. As an administrator he demonstrated great competence and soon won the respect and devotion of the Filipinos in Manila and across the islands. Nellie served as his hostess, presiding over receptions and dinners at the elegant Malacanan Palace. She toured all 18 provinces, bearing the hardships of travel without complaint, and ended the color line observed by the Army under General Arthur MacArthur.
After the assassination of President McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt because president. He offered Taft an appointment to the Supreme Court. Will turned it down because he thought that he still had much to do in the Philippines. President Roosevelt persisted and soon there were banners blanketing Manila that said, “Queremos Taft” (We want Taft). Roosevelt relented. However, a few months later, Roosevelt asked Taft to become Secretary of War in his Cabinet. Since this post would permit him to continue to work with the Philippines, Taft accepted. Nellie was ecstatic. This appointment was “in line with the kind of career I wanted for him and expected him to have,” she wrote later in her memoirs. In addition, she would return to Washington, a city that she loved.
In 1906, Roosevelt was faced with another vacancy on the Supreme Court. Again he turned to Taft and this time, Will was tempted. However, Nellie counseled against it. She even consulted with President Roosevelt about her husband’s future career. Roosevelt and many others thought Taft had a realistic chance at the Republican nomination for President in 1908. Nellie vowed to do all she could to support her husband; however, she found it hard to get Will to work for the nomination. To keep his name before the public, he did agree to make a trip around the world at Roosevelt’s request. In addition, he made speeches around the country upon his return. The movement for Taft’s nomination gathered steam.
When the Republican Convention met in Chicago in June of 1908, the Tafts were with friends in the War Department office, following the events by means of telegrams and telephone calls. On the second day of the convention, there was a huge floor demonstration for President Roosevelt that gave the Taft group quite a scare. Many believed that Roosevelt was attempting to win another nomination on the Republican ticket. Those suspicions strengthened when a large portrait of Roosevelt was displayed on the podium later and the convention again exploded in cheers and applause. However, when the balloting began, it was clear that Taft had the support of the convention. Nellie was proud and happy, just as she was that November when Will defeated William Jennings Bryan for the Presidency. Nellie was First Lady in the White House, her dream for nearly 30 years.
On Inauguration Day, Nellie learned that Roosevelt did not plan to follow tradition and accompany his successor on the first ride to the White House; in fact, Roosevelt planned to head for the railroad station to leave town. Nellie decided to break precedent. She rode from the Capitol Building to the White House with her husband, the first First Lady to do so.
As First Lady, Nellie lost little time in making changes to the White House. She converted several public rooms for the private use of her family. Next, she replaced the White House steward (household supervisor) with a housekeeper. In addition, she dismissed most of the White House ushers and replaced then with footmen in blue uniforms. Her innovations produced considerable criticism; many thought she was trying to duplicate the regality of the Malacanan Palace. Nellie was surprised by the response and admitted later, “Perhaps I did make the process of adjusting the White House routine to my own conceptions a shade too strenuous. I could not feel that I was mistress of any house if I did not take an active interest in all the details of running it. …I made very few changes, really.” The Tafts, however, were the last presidential family to have a cow on the White House lawn and the first to have a presidential automobile.
Many of her changes were very well received. She sponsored musicales (musical programs with receptions) in the White House and arranged for performances of Shakespeare’s plays on the lawn. She arranged for Potomac Drive to be converted into a promenade, with bandstands at each end, where people could walk or ride while listening to band music in the early evening several times a week. She then decided to duplicate the Tokyo cherry blossom festival. A search of nurseries in the United States yielded fewer than 100 cherry saplings. A family friend who was now mayor of Tokyo offered to present the city with 3000 trees. However, the trees were infected and had to be destroyed. When the Mayor of Tokyo heard the news, he sent more trees and within a few years, Potomac Drive became a popular tourist attraction during the blossoming of the cherry trees, a sight that is enjoyed today.
Just because Will was president did not mean that Nellie ceased to be interested in politics. She continued to keep track of his official appointments and to discuss issues with him in the evenings. She even sat in on important White House conferences and was reported to have talked through the agenda with Will afterward.
Regrettably, Nellie’s activism was short-lived. In May 1909, she and Will boarded the Sylph for a trip up the Potomac to Mt. Vernon. The boat had barely left the dock when Nellie suffered a stroke. She was partially paralyzed and barely able to speak. Her recovery was slow and it was more than a year before she could walk or talk normally. Will remained close to her bedside, reading to her, telling jokes and stories, and conversing with her to help her regain her speech. Although Nellie eventually recovered, she never resumed the level of activity she had during the first weeks in the White House. However, in June 1911, she threw a huge party to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Many thought it was the most elegant party ever held in the White House.
In 1912, Nellie supported Will’s decision to run for a second term. However, Theodore Roosevelt challenged him for the nomination. When Will received the Republican nomination, Roosevelt withdrew from the party and ran on an independent ticket. Since this third party split the normally united Republican vote, Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected president. Will and Nellie moved to Connecticut where Will became a law professor at Yale. In 1921, Will’s greatest ambition came to pass; President Warren G. Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Nellie was thrilled to return to Washington. Will served ably for nine years prior to his death in 1930. After his death, Nellie remained in Washington where she played golf, read widely, entertained, and attended plays and concerts. She also followed with great interest the careers of her grown children; Robert was a Senator, Charles was a civic leader in Cincinnati, and Helen was Dean of Bryn Mawr College. When she died in May of 1943, she was buried beside Will in Arlington National Cemetery, the first First Lady to be laid to rest there.