First Ladies: Helen Herron Taft

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Helen Louise Herron “Nellie” Taft was the wife of President William Howard Taft.

Helen Herron Taft

Helen Louis Taft was born on June 2, 1861 to Judge John Williamson and Harriet Collins Herror. She was the fourth of their eleven children and called Nellie, especially during her childhood.

Her father was a classmate of Benjamin Harrison and law partner of Rutherford B. Hayes.

After finishing school, she taught until her marriage.

She seems to have met William Howard Taft around 1879-1880 at a bobsledding party. They did not begin dating on a regular basis until 1882. The couple were married at her parents home in Cincinnati on June 19, 1886.

The couple had three children: Robert, born in 1889, Helen born in 1891 and Charles born in 1897.

When her husband took charge of the American civil government in the Philippines as Governor-General she and the children moved there to be with him. She tried to reconcile with the local population by showing respect to the culture of the Philippines by learning the language, wearing a native Filipino costume and inviting Filipinos to social events.

She also traveled with him as he served as Secretary of War.

Her husband was inaugurated on March 4, 1909 and she became the first First Lady to ride in her husband’s inauguration parade.

Helen Herron Taft

The Tafts attended symphony, opera, and theater performances in Washington D.C.

In May 1909 she suffered a stroke which impaired her speech and right side. With her sister’s help she was able to continue her functions as White House hostess.

On June 19, 1911 they couple hosted their silver wedding anniversary gala.

“In her most lasting contribution as First Lady, Nellie Taft arranged for the planting of the 3,020 Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and on Capitol grounds; with the wife of the Japanese ambassador, she personally planted the first two saplings in ceremonies on March 27, 1912.”

After her husband left office, she wrote her memoir, which was published in 1914. She was the first First Lady to publish her memoirs. Other first include to drive and own a car, smoke cigarettes, support women’s suffrage and lobby successfully for safety standard in federal workplaces. She is also the only First Lady to be wife of a chief justice of the Supreme Court.

On March 8, 1930 her husband died leaving her a widow. She continued being involved in social groups including the Colonial Dames of America and the Girl Scouts of America.

She died in Washington, D.C. on May 22, 1943 and was buried next to her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.



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