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.

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