The Gorgeous Hussy film poster.

What does a 1936 Joan Crawford period vehicle have to do with the First Lady of Andrew Jackson’s White House?? One-hundred years after Jackson occupied the Oval office, Crawford’s only period movie was released to tepid response. Because of its failure she never made a period movie again.

The Gorgeous Hussy told the story of Margaret “Peggy” Eaton a woman of modest background shunned by Washington society but defended by Andrew Jackson. Peggy’s father was an inkeeper in D.C. Many politicians roomed at the boarding house including Jackson when he served in the Senate during the 1820’s.

Formerly married to a navy pursar, Peggy married Jackson ally John Eaton in 1829, a year after her first husband was lost at sea. Eaton had just been named Secretary of War – an important government position no doubt. As a high-ranking official his wife was expected to be a hostess and invitee of important functions – but she was shunned. Gossip was spreading like wildfire through the capital that Peggy was not a lady but a hoe. The fun couple were accused of having an affair before Peggy’s first marriage was over.

Andrew Jackson was furious at the way the Eatons were being treated. His recently deceased wife, Rachel, had been the victim of malicious attacks during the 1828 campaign because, evidently, Jackson had married her whilst she was still together with her first husband. She dropped dead from a heart attack right before the inauguration and Jackson blamed it on his opponents and their dirty campaign. Jackson was a steadfast supporter of the Eatons and didn’t tolerate anyone who shunned them. The scandal caused tension within his family.

After Rachel’s death, his neice Emily Donelson and her husband Andrew came to live with Jackson in the captial. Emily was the official hostess and Andrew performed secretarial duties for Jackson whom depended upon the couple for emotional as well as professional support. Familial bonds were important for Jackson. Emily was self-conscious about the Jackson frontier background and wanted to be accepted by the captial society in-crowd so she refused to have anything to do with Peggy Eaton which made the Eatons furious. Cabinet member and future President Martin Van Buren tried to intervene with disastrous results. Unsurprisingly, Jackson and Emily came to heads over the matter and she returned to the Hermitage estate outside Nashville for a year.

Emily Donelson

Why would a possible infidelity cause tumult within political and social circles during the Jackson Administration? Basically, those close – and opponents also – to Jackson used it for political gain. The “Petticoat” Affair turned into something larger because of human ambition. For example, Emily’s husband Andrew and others were jealous of Eaton’s sway with Jackson. As Jon Meacham writes in American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House:

That the race for the White House in a large republic should have been affected by the sexual history of the wife of the secretary of war seems bizarre; yet politics is often driven not only by large ideas about policy and destiny but by affections and animosities. From Helen of Troy to Henry VIII, what Alexander Pope called “trivial Things” in The Rape of the Lock have led to wars, revolutions, and reformations, and so it was to be in the administration of the seventh president of the United States.

To ease tension John Eaton resigned from the War Department alongside other cabinet members like Martin Van Buren. The Eatons returned to Tennessee ending the petticoat affair and the intrigues surrounding the hoopla. With the Eaton’s gone Emily and Andrew Donelson returned to the White House. In a way she had won. Standing by her convictions Emily never received Peggy Eaton.

I chose to write about the petticoat affair because it’s juicier than just a breakdown of the Jackson White House First Lady and Peggy Eaton is such an interesting character. To me, she outshines Emily in this scandal. A journalist who’d known Peggy claimed after her death in 1879 that “She belonged to the restless heart whose lives are always stormy, sometimes great, and rarely happy.” It’s hard to know whether she was guilty of the accusations made against her nearly two hundred years later.

From what I gather from Meacham’s Jackson bio Margaret preferred the company of men to women and didn’t keep her distance from male crowds. She was dramatic and didn’t keep her emotions at bay and doubtfully had any tact. Her behavior rubbed women the wrong way and they snubbed her. Peggy made herself an easy target for scandal and gossip mongering. For example, after Eaton’ death in 1856 she married a third time at 59 to a 19 year-old Italian dancing instructor!!!! OMG. It was doomed. The dancer took off with her grandaughter!

Peggy Eaton in her last years.

Meacham writes this about Emily Donelson and President Jackson: “On close inspection, they had much in common, perhaps most significantly a tendancy to be stubborn yet mask willfulness with charm and geniality.” Alexander Hamilton’s son recalled seeing Emily riding up to Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, on horseback with her baby in her arms. Emily would not live to see Jackson complete his second term. She contracted consumption(tuberculosis) in 1836 and passed away at the Hermitage awaiting the arrival of her husband.


Elizabeth Kortright Monroe in her youth.

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, wife of fifth U.S. President James Monroe, had the misfortune of following in previous First Lady Dolley Madison’s footsteps. She paled in comparison and perhaps this is the reason she’s an obscure figure from history, and, really, her only claim to fame being her marriage to Monroe. Despite her lack of luster in the White House, she had an interesting, and worldly, life for a woman of her era.

Born in 1768, the same year as her predecessor Dolley Madison, Elizabeth Kortright almost shared a birthday with me, June 30th to my June 29th arrival, alas over two-hundred years apart. A fellow Cancerian. Her family was a part of New York City’s older and elite circle, but her father during the Revolutionary War sided with Loyalists/Tories and, as a result, his fortunes were damaged.

Also like Dolley, Elizabeth met James Monroe in what was then the capital of the U.S., New York City, Elizabeth’s hometown. Despite her father’s Loyalist sympathies, James Monroe, who’d fought in the war alongside Washington, married Elizabeth in 1786. She was 17. They soon relocated to Fredericksburg, Va. where James established a law practice.

More interested in being in the political world than becoming part of the Virginia land gentry, the Monroe’s often lived a peripatetic lifestyle for most of their married lives. While James was a Senator in Philadelphia, Elizabeth spent most of her time in New York, but in 1794 Monroe was named U.S. Minister to France and Elizabeth relocated with him.

Elizabeth took like a cat to milk in Paris. She adopted French clothing and customs. Labeled “La Belle Americane,” she caused a stir when she didn’t make a social call on a visiting American in Paris. Apparently, this was French ritual. Her adoption of old world, European style protocol would be her undoing in later years as the President’s wife.

Aesthetics aside, Elizabeth was admired for her strength and will during this Paris period. She is credited with saving American French-born hero Marquis de Lafayette’s wife,  Adrienne de Noiolles de Lafayette, during the waning days of the French Revolution. Elizabeth visited the Marquis’s wife and made sure that it was known the American contingent was acquainted with Adrienne. Shortly after the prisoner was set free. The French had been American allies and they most likely surmised executing Lafayette’s wife would have been disastrous diplomacy; France was already at war with several other European countries – they didn’t need another enemy.

The Monroe’s stay in France ended in 1796. Back in Virginia, Monroe was elected Governor.

But in 1803 Elizabeth and James set sail again for the Old World. James had been appointed United States Minister to England and Spain. While in Europe James was sent as a special envoy to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Not surprisingly, James and Elizabeth were part of the official U.S. delegation attending Napoleon’s coronation that December, 1804.

Napoleon crowning Josephine at his coronation, c.1804. The Monroe’s were part of the American Delegation attending.

During the Madison Administration James served as Secretary of a State, arriving in Washington, D.C. The Monroe’s distinctly chose to live outside of the capital in the Virginia countryside curtailing their social activities, and Elizabeth reportedly did not reciprocate social calls paid to her.

Privately, Elizabeth had begun to suffer symptoms of epilepsy. Her husband’s election in 1817 coincided with this health crisis.

From her entry:

“Elizabeth Monroe provided an extreme contrast to her predecessor Dolley Madison, who had conceived of her role as partially a public one. As a consequence of both her fragile health and reserved social nature, as well as the prestige she hoped to convey by limiting the access of the President’s wife to the spouses of other officials, Elizabeth Monroe established a European-style, less democratic protocol. To the spouses of Judicial and Legislative branch spouses, as well as those of the foreign diplomatic corps, she would neither make nor return the formal ‘call,’ meaning a visit that signified status and recognition from the Executive branch… When the Monroe’s decided to leave Washington for their nearby Virginia home instead of host the annual open house public reception on Independence Day in 1819, even those citizens not among the city’s elite were insulted. Dissatisfaction with Elizabeth Monroe’s protocol led to a boycott of all Administration receptions (not dinners) by officials in Washington.”

Her appearance – when she graced official events and gatherings – was praised for its grace, chic wardrobe, and handsome looks despite Elizabeth being 50ish.(I write this because that was considered elderly back then; not true today. Also, people didn’t have resources like, um, plastic surgery or sophisticated make-up.)

Elizabeth’s run as First Lady ended in 1825 and the couple returned to their estate in Virginia. Never much of a farmer, James’s plantation was badly managed and he was often in debt; selling slaves to raise much-needed funds.

Interesting that many of our Founding Fathers had such money problems in their later years…

Constantly ill 1825 onward, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe died in 1830, age 62. She was survived by her husband and two daughters, Eliza and Maria. James burned all their personal correspondence after Elizabeth’s death and passed away himself a little less than year following her.

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe’s grave.

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