We often think of presidents and First Ladies as stodgy old men and women. But they too were once young, and the stories of how these power couples first got together show a human side to the presidency.
When Georgie Met Martha
In 1758 Martha Dandridge Curtis was 27 and recently widowed, and a very wealthy woman. That year George Washington, also 27 and already a colonel in the Virginia militia (and not at all wealthy) met Martha via the Virginia high-society social scene and proceeded to court her. Courtship was quick, and they were married in January 1759, in what at the time was viewed as a marriage of convenience. They were, however, happily married for 41 years. (Note: The marriage took place at the plantation that Martha owned, in what was called the “White House.”)
When Johnny Met Louisa
Louisa Catherine Johnson, who was born in London, met John Quincy Adams at her home in Nantes, France, in 1779. She was 4; he was 12. Adams was traveling with his father, John Adams, who was on a diplomatic mission in Europe. The two met again in 1795 in London, when John was a minister to the Netherlands. He courted her, all the while telling her she’d have to improve herself if she was going to live up to his family’s standards (his father was vice president at the time). She married him anyway, in 1797, and his family made it no secret that they disapproved of the “foreigner” in their family. Nevertheless, they were married until John Quincy Adams’s death in 1848. Louisa remains the only foreign-born First Lady in U.S. history.
When Jimmy Met Ann
In the summer of 1819, James Buchanan, 28, became engaged to Ann Coleman, 23, the daughter of a wealthy iron magnate in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He spent very little time with her during the first months of the engagement, being extremely busy at his law office, and rumors swirled that he was seeing other women and was only marrying her for her money. The rumors are believed to be untrue, but Ann took them to heart, and in November, after several distraught weeks, she wrote to him that the engagement was off. On December 9 she died of an overdose of laudanum, possibly in a suicide. Buchanan was devastated, and even more so when her family refused to allow him to see Ann’s body or attend her funeral. He disappeared for some time but eventually returned to his work in Lancaster. After Ann’s death, Buchanan vowed that he would never marry. He didn’t… and remains the only bachelor president in American history.
When Gracie Met Calvin
One day in 1903, Grace Anna Goodhue was watering flowers outside the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she taught. At some point, she looked up and saw a man through the open window of a boardinghouse across the street. He was shaving, his face covered with lather, and dressed in his long johns. He was also wearing a hat. Grace burst out laughing, and the man turned to look at her. That was the first meeting of Grace and Calvin Coolidge. They were married two years later.
When Harry Met Bessie
In 1890, when they were both small children, Harry Truman met Bess Wallace at the Baptist Church in Independence, Missouri. They were both attending Sunday school. He was six; she was five. Truman later wrote of their first meeting: “We made a number of new acquaintances, and I became interested in one in particular. She had golden curls and has, to this day, the most beautiful blue eyes. We went to Sunday school, public school from the fifth grade through high school, graduated in the same class, and marched down life’s road together. For me she still has the blue eyes and golden hair of yesteryear.” Bess and Harry were married in 1919.
When Lyndie Met Lady Bird
Lyndon Baines Johnson met Claudia “Lady Bird” Taylor in 1934, a few weeks after she’d graduated from the University of Texas. Johnson was a 26-year-old aide to Texas congressman Richard Kleberg, and was in Austin, Texas, on business. They went on a single breakfast date, at the end of which Johnson proposed marriage. She said she’d think about it. He returned to Washington, and sent her letters and telegrams every day until he returned to Austin 10 weeks later, when she accepted. “Sometimes,” she later wrote about her husband, “Lyndon simply takes your breath away.”
When Richie Met Pattie
Thelma “Pat” Ryan graduated from the University of Southern California in 1937 at the age of 25. She got a job as a high school teacher in Whittier, a small town not far from Los Angeles, and became a member of the amateur theatrical group the Whittier Community Players. In 1938 Richard Nixon, a 26-year-old lawyer who had just opened a firm in nearby La Habra, joined the theater group, thinking that acquiring acting skills would help him in the courtroom. In their first performance, Nixon was cast opposite Ryan. He asked her out, and asked her to marry him on their first date. They were married three years later.
When Ronnie Met Nancy
Ronald Reagan wrote in his autobiography that he first met Nancy Davis when she came to him for help. He was president of the Screen Actors Guild, and she couldn’t get a job acting in movies because another Nancy Davis’s name had shown up on the Hollywood blacklist of alleged communists. But according to Jon Weiner’s book Professors, Politics, and Pop, SAG records show that Nancy’s blacklist problem occurred in 1953, a year after the Reagans were married. So how did they meet? Reagan biographer Anne Edwards says that in 1949 Nancy, who had just become an MGM contract player, told a friend of Reagan’s that she wanted to meet him. The friend invited the two to a small dinner party, and the rest is history.
When Georgie Met Laura
Joe and Jan O’Neill lived in Midland, Texas, and were childhood friends of Laura Welch. In 1975 another childhood friend, George W. Bush, came back to Midland after being away for a few years. The O’Neills bugged Laura to go out with George, but she didn’t want to. She later said that the O’Neills were only trying to get them together “because we were the only two people from that era in Midland who were still single.” She finally agreed to meet him at a backyard barbecue in 1977, when she was 30 and he was 31. George was smitten; Laura was, too. They were married three months later.
When Barry Met Michelle
In 1989 Michelle Robinson was working at a Chicago law firm when she was assigned to mentor a summer associate from Harvard with a “strange name”: Barack Obama. Not long after, Barack, 27, asked Michelle, 25, on a date. She later admitted that she was reluctant to date one of the few black men at the large firm because it seemed “tacky.” Robinson finally relented, and after dating for several months, she suggested they get married. He wasn’t interested. One night in 1991, during dinner at a Chicago restaurant, she brought it up again. Again, he said no. But when dessert showed up, there was an engagement ring in a box on one of the plates. They were married in 1992.