The Tyler Women

03/11/2012

There were many firsts during the John Tyler WH: the first time a Vice-President took over as President; the first time a First Lady died in the WH; the first time a former actress served as WH hostess; the first time a President married while in office; the first time a First Lady had her own press agent.

President John Tyler’s first wife, Letitia, suffered a stroke within a year of Tyler’s term. It was her second, and it proved fatal. The Tyler’s were married 30 years and had seven children together, and Letitia spent most of the marriage bringing up the brood in Virginia while John sought political fame is Washington, D.C. A hausfrau.

Letitia Tyler

Letitia was born November 12, 1790 on her father’s prosperous plantation in New Kent County, Virginia. During her courtship with Tyler she apparently kept him at arm’s length, and the first time they kissed was on their wedding night. When Tyler unexpectedly became President in 1841, due to the death of William Henry Harrison, she became First Lady of the Land, but, being ill, she spent most of her time in the bedroom.

After her death the Tyler’s daughter-in-law became the official WH hostess: Priscilla Cooper Tyler. Raised by an actor father and former socialite mother in New York City, as an adult Priscilla performed on the stage at a time when actresses were considered no better than whores. She knew poverty well, also. The financial crisis of 1837 hit the family hard and they survived on “strawberries and radishes.” During a performance of “Othello” in Richmond, Va., playing Desdemona, a member of audience became infatuated with the leading lady: Robert Tyler, eldest son of the Tyler’s.

Priscilla Tyler

Despite her social standing as an actress the Tyler’s welcomed Priscilla into their home with open arms. Her stint as WH hostess lasted from 1841 to 1844. Perhaps because of her acting abilities Priscilla was a lively, popular hostess; during her tenure she entertained famed novelist Charles Dickens and members of Napoleon’s family. The first actress to play WH hostess, she also was the first to give birth. A highlight of the WH years for Priscilla was accompanying her father-in-law on an official Presidential tour in 1843.

New York City was the most impressive: “I never saw so magnificent a spectacle in my life. All the other cities had done their best, but none have the number of inhabitants or the natural advantages of New York”, Priscilla wrote. “The President had really showers of bouquets and wreaths thrown upon him everywhere. Windows of the houses have been filled with the most beautiful women waving their handkerchiefs and casting flowers in his path.”

In 1844, Robert relocated the couple to Philadelphia and Priscilla’s reign came to an end. Robert practiced law in Philly for sixteen years but their Confederate sympathies forced them to flee to Richmond, the new C.S.A. capital. The family narrowly escaped lynch mobs. During the war he worked at the Treasury Dept. and, afterwards, as an editor at a newspaper in Montgomery, Ala. the first capital of the Confederacy. The Tyler’s resided in this southern capital until their respective deaths in 1877 and 1889.

In 1844, John Tyler married for a second time to a young coquette, New Yorker Julia Gardiner. Tyler had been friends with Julia’s father, David Gardiner; he was a member of a Long Island family and former state Senator. In a strange and macabre twist, Julia, her father David, and her sister Margaret were onboard the steamboat frigate, the Princeton, when David, along with a few others, was killed when a huge naval gun exploded during a testing onboard. Apparently, while comforting Julia over the loss, the President, thirty years Julia’s senior, proposed marriage. It was a low-key engagement. The two were married in New York City on June 26, 1844. Tyler’s daughters were less-than-thrilled over their new, young stepmother, especially Letty Tyler.

Julia Tyler

Though she was hostess of the WH less than a year, Julia had a daguerreotype made and hired a press agent. The last ball during the Tyler administration, which Julia oversaw, drew 3,000 guests. Julia went out with a bang. The Tyler’s relocated to Sherwood Forest in Virginia after the Presidency. They lived their for nearly twenty years until the Civil War broke out. During this time Julia had become sympathetic to the southern cause. In the early 1850s, Julia had written an article defending slavery pusblished in Northern papers including The New York Herald.

In 1861, John Tyler was elected to serve in the Confederate cabinet in Richmond, but was dead within a few months of the war’s beginning. Oddly, despite her southern sympathies, Julia decided to relocate to Staten Island with her mother. Maybe she was lonely or needed

Gardiner-Tyler house on Staten Island today.

help with raising the seven kids she and John had together. Her beliefs caused friction within her Northern family and in the Staten Island community. At one point her Uncle living with Julia and her mother moved out because of the arguments with his niece. Her two teenage sons served in the Confederate Army, also.

In 1871, Julia left Staten Island and returned to the South. Hit hard by the 1873 financial panic, she lived in genteel poverty for the remainder of her life, like Dolley Madison, and survived on a pension given to her as a Former wife of a U.S. President. She passed away in Richmond, Va. in July of 1889 at age 69. She is buried next to the President in Hollywood cemetery.

(….)

SOURCES

Crapol, Edward P. John Tyler, the Accidental President.

Goodheart, Adam. “The Ashen Ruin,” The New York Times. 15 Feb 11.

Gray, Christopher. “Streetscapes /The Gardiner-Tyler House, West New Brighton, Staten Island; Where a President’s Widow Backed the Confederacy,” The New York Times. 20 Jun 99.

Wikipedia: Letitia Tyler; Julia Gardiner Tyler; Priscilla Cooper Tyler; Robert Tyler; Gardiner-Tyler Mansion; U.S.S. Princeton.

FirstLadies.org: Letitia Tyler

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4 Responses to “The Tyler Women”

  1. Clanmother said

    Thank you for your excellent post!!! I look forward to every one of them!!!

  2. Hi I am doing a report on Priscilla. 😀

  3. Excellent post! I’ve been reading more than writing lately, but hope to have a new post soon about Nellie Taft. I enjoy your posts very much. Thank you 🙂

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