The Forgotten Presidential Wives: The First Ladies that Never Were

History remembers the First Ladies, the women who have stood by their husbands as they held the highest office in the land. They have all distinguished themselves in some way and some are often remembered on their own merits, such as Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in creating the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and Hillary Clinton running for President.

What about the women who never made it to the White House? Several divorcées and widowers have made it to the Presidency. Some remarried, while others remained single. Let’s learn about the incredible women who were married to these powerful men but never got to play the coveted role of First Lady.

Martha Jefferson (née Wayles, formerly Skelton), Oct 1748-September 6, 1782

The only contemporary depiction of Martha Jefferson that is known to exist.
  • Married to: Bathurst Skelton (1766-1768), Thomas Jefferson (1772-1782)
  • Children: John Skelton (died in early childhood), Martha Jefferson, Jane Jefferson (died in infancy), Unnamed Son (died at two weeks old), Mary ‘Polly’ Jefferson, Lucy Jefferson (died in early childhood) and Lucy Jefferson II (died in early childhood).
  • Cause of Death: Childbirth complications

The only child of wealthy Virginia planters, Martha Wayles later had four half-sisters by her second stepmother. Her mother died just after her birth, and two stepmothers (with whom she did not get along) had died before she became a teenager. It was after his third wife died that John Wayles took slave Betty Hemings as a concubine, and one of their children was Sally Hemings (yes, that Sally Hemings). 

Little is known about Martha and no pictures survive of her, but she is known to have been tall with auburn hair and hazel eyes. Her first marriage occurred when she was 18 to attorney Bathurst Skelton, with whom she had a son named John. Skelton died less than two years into their marriage.

A distant cousin to Jefferson, the pair married four years after Skelton’s death. It seemed their marriage was happy, as Jefferson is not noted to have taken a mistress when they were together. The pair had six children, but only two lived past the age of three and only one made it past 25- Martha, named for her mother. Martha ran the Monticello household, and ledgers in her handwriting still exist. She was reportedly a popular host who was charming, witty and polite. Her musical skills were widely praised. In later years, she was First Lady of Virginia.

Like many women of her age, childbirth and pregnancy weakened her. Her illness was likely exacerbated by being forced to flee from Monticello during a British invasion, which led to the death of her daughter Lucy. Martha’s final pregnancy weakened her and on her deathbed, she made Jefferson promise never to remarry, likely because she did not like her stepmothers. Four months after giving birth to her last child, she died aged 33.

Jefferson rarely spoke about Martha, but he was a very private figure who was not known for open attachments, so this isn’t a surprise. He did not remarry as she requested, but his relationship with Sally Hemings is historically known. After he died, attendants opened the small locket he’d worn for decades and found a lock of his deceased wife’s hair. 

While his daughters sometimes played White House hostess, friend Dolley Madison would take the role for most of Jefferson’s administration. She later became First Lady in her own right.

Rachel Jackson (née Donelson, formerly Robards), June 15, 1767-December 22, 1828

A contemporary portrait of Rachel Jackson.
  • Married to: Lewis Robards (1787-1790), Andrew Jackson (1790, legally married 1794-1828). 
  • Children: Adopted her nephew Andrew Jackson Jr, Creek orphan Lyncoya (died aged 17), and her great-nephew Andrew Jackson Hutchings
  • Cause of Death: Heart attack

Rachel Donelson was one of 11 children born to the co-founder of Nashville, Tennessee and his wife. Her father was murdered when she was a teenager but the assailant was never caught. Rachel was known to be a very attractive lady with long dark hair, dimples, and full red lips.

She married her first husband Lewis Robards in 1787, but the marriage was deeply unhappy. Robards was known to be jealous and cruel. Believing her husband was ready to divorce her, Rachel moved back in with her mother. 

Andrew Jackson was a boarder at the Donelson home. The two became close and eventually married in 1790, but it was not so simple. Not only was Rachel not divorced from her first husband, but the changes in territories and states meant that it was not legal anyway. Four years later, Robards won a divorce on the grounds of adultery and bigamy. After this, Jackson and Rachel legally wed. 

Though Jackson was a temperamental, ill-mannered man who was quick to make enemies, he absolutely adored his beloved wife. Accusations of bigamy dogged the couple for years and Jackson duelled anyone who dared insult Rachel. The two spent lengthy times apart due to Jackson’s military career and he yearned to be closer to her. Media attacks meant Rachel was unwilling to be in the spotlight.

The elections of 1824 and 1828 were bloodthirsty. Rachel was the subject of many character assassinations from Jackson’s rivals, portrayed as a whore. The death of her adopted son as well as the attacks caused a deep depression for Rachel in the 1828 campaign.  

Three days before Christmas 1828, Rachel suddenly felt ill with sharp pains in her body. That same day, she died suddenly of a heart attack. Jackson was absolutely devastated and pushed going to DC back as far as he could. He blamed the media and his detractors for her death and vowed to destroy them. Jackson never remarried.

The treatment of Rachel would help give way to a huge political scandal years after her death. Secretary of War John Eaton, a widower of many years, became acquainted with a woman who helped run the boarding house he worked in. This woman, Peggy O’Neill, was married to a much older man and had children by him. Eaton helped O’Neill and her husband but things changed when Timberlake suddenly died while away at sea. Nine months later, at Jackson’s encouragement, Eaton married O’Neill. This was completely scandalous, as the mourning period for O’Neill’s husband was not yet over. Rumours swirled that he had killed himself over his wife having an affair.

It all boiled over when Floride Calhoun, wife of Vice President Calhoun, ringleader of the Cabinet wives, started snubbing O’Neill. She was not invited to teas or called upon. This greatly angered Jackson, as it reminded him of his late wife’s treatment. When Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, a widower who aligned with the Eatons, offered to resign, Jackson decided it was time.

Every other Cabinet member resigned, save for Calhoun and one other minister. Calhoun then blocked Van Buren’s nomination to the role of Ambassador to Great Britain, further infuriating Jackson. He was taken off the 1832 ticket, which allowed Van Buren to rise in the next election. 

Rachel’s niece Emily Donelson and the Jackson’s daughter in law Sarah York Jackson were co-hostesses of the White House. 

Hannah Van Buren (née Hoes), March 8, 1783-February 5, 1819

  • Married to: Martin Van Buren (1807-1819)
  • Children: Abraham Van Buren, John Van Buren, Martin Van Buren, Winfield Scott Van Buren (died in infancy) and Scott Thompson Van Buren
  • Cause of Death: Tuberculosis

One of four children born to a Dutch origin family, Hannan spoke the language as her mother tongue and held a strong accent. She was a cousin of Van Buren and they started courting as teenagers, but did not marry until their twenties. He called her the diminutive ‘Jannetje.’

Hannah was blue-eyed, shy, timid, and modest. Little is known about her, but she was devoutly religious. After giving birth five times, she developed Tuberculosis. She fell pregnant during this time and while she successfully delivered her youngest, she died of TB just before her 36th birthday.

Van Buren rarely mentioned his wife, not even in his 800-page biography, though this may have been because of social norms. His children were unsure of her name, to the point where one had to ask what it was so his daughter could be named after her. Van Buren’s daughter-in-law Angelica Singleton acted as White House hostess, having been introduced to her husband by none other than Dolley Madison.

Ellen “Nell”  Arthur (née Herndon), August 30, 1837-January 12, 1880

The memorial window to Nell Arthur at Saint John’s Church.
  • Married: Chester A. Arthur (1859-1880)
  • Children: William Arthur (died in early childhood), Chester Alan Arthur II, and Ellen Arthur
  • Cause Of Death: Pneumonia

Ellen was the only child of a Virginia couple. Her father William Lewis Herndon was a national figure who was involved in the 1857 Central America sinking. Captain Herndon saved many women and children but decided to sacrifice himself for others. Ellen and her mother were financially helped by public subscription, and her father was honoured throughout the country. She was known for her outstanding singing voice and friendship with Dolley Madison, with whom she shared a church. 

Ellen was introduced to Chester A. Arthur by her cousin Dabney Herndon, who was a friend of Arthur’s. They courted for a year before they married in a lavish ceremony. She was pale, slim with dark hair and glasses.

The couple were happily married and were in NYC’s social elite – their furniture was from Tiffany’s. The outbreak of civil war caused tension, as Ellen had many relatives in the Confederacy while some, like her cousin Dabney, were fighting for the south. Arthur used his connections to have Dabney and others released, as well as allowing them to be visited. He wanted to fight but Ellen allegedly forbade him to kill her kin. In 1863, he resigned from the government to begin a lucrative career in private practice. 

Ellen was undoubtedly ambitious and accepted invitations to Lincoln’s second inauguration and Grant’s daughter’s wedding among others. She continued to lead an active life with a successful singing career. However, tragedy struck. Her firstborn son died as a toddler, with her mother soon suddenly dying in France. The journey to bring her mother home sent Ellen into a deep depression and there are rumours she nearly filed for divorce. 

In 1880, Ellen fell ill after being out in very bad weather; some say she fell from her carriage into the snow. Her husband was summoned home when her illness was revealed to be critical, and she soon died. Arthur was devastated, as he had loved his wife. Her funeral was attended by some of the biggest figures of the day. When he was president, he had a stained glass window dedicated to her, one he could see from the White House. Fresh flowers were to be put in front of her portrait every day.

Arthur’s sister Mary McElroy became the White House hostess and mother figure for the sons left behind. 

Mary Harrison, (née Scott Lord, formerly Dimmick), April 30, 1858- January 5, 1948

A black-and-white photograph of Mary Harrison.
  • Married: Firstly Walter Dimmick (1881-1882), Benjamin Harrison (1896-1901)
  • Children: Elizabeth Harrison 
  • Cause Of Death: Asthma

Unique on this list because she’s the only post-Presidency wife, Mary was born in Pennsylvania. Little is known about her early life, but we can assume she was a society woman.

Mary married Walter Dimmick in late 1881, but his sudden death three months later made her a widow at 23. After the death of her mother, she was invited by her aunt Caroline Harrison to serve as her social secretary and live with her in the White House. 

Three years later, Benjamin Harrison married his wife’s niece and children’s cousin. His grown children, who were older than the new bride, refused to attend. Harrison’s former Navy secretary Benjamin F. Tracy was the best man. The couple had a daughter named Elizabeth, born in 1897 and forty years younger than her half-siblings.

The Harrisons extensively travelled but were married for only five years before the former President died. Mary remained active in politics and was a WW1 volunteer. Daughter Elizabeth married a grandnephew of James G. Blaine and her daughter married James A. Garfield’s great-grandson. Elizabeth served as a lawyer at a time where it was almost unthinkable for a woman to do so, as well as an investor newsletter founder.

Mary died in 1948 and is buried with her second husband and his first wife.

Jane Wyman, (née Mayfield), January 5, 1917-September 10, 2007

A black-and-white photograph of Jane Wyman from the 1950s.
  • Married: Ernest Wyman (1933-1935), Myron Futterman (1937-1938), Ronald Reagan (1940-1949), Frederick Karger (1952-1955, 1961-1965)
  • Children: Maureen Reagan, Michael Reagan (adopted), and Christine Reagan (died on the day she was born) 
  • Cause Of Death: Old age

Born Sarah Jane Mayfield, she was the only biological couple of a Missouri couple. Jane also had two foster siblings. After her parents’ divorce and her father’s early death, she was raised by foster parents. She temporarily lived in California before returning to Missouri. It was at this time she started dabbling in entertainment, though she had to add a few years on her birth date. 

After gaining bit parts, Jane signed a contract with Warner Bros aged 19. It was a decade before she became a star, at which point she’d divorced her first two husbands and married Reagan. She won an Oscar for her role as a deaf-mute in the film Johnny Belinda, receiving three other Academy Award nominations. Her career was successful throughout her life, even as she turned to television. In her last years, she starred as the scheming Angela Channing in the hit Falcon Crest. Her final role was an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Jane had a turbulent personal life. Her first marriage, in which she lied about her age, failed after two years, though she kept his name as her professional surname. She separated from her second husband after only three months due to differences in having children. 

She married Ronald Reagan after starring in two films with him. They had two biological daughters, one of whom died on the same day she was born, as well as an adopted son. His job as President of the Screen Actors Guild put stress on their relationship, but the death of baby Christine put the nail in the coffin. Jane had a brief affair and filed for divorce, though her husband wanted to fight it.

In one interview, Jane said she wasn’t “the marrying kind.” She never showed any bitterness towards her ex-husband and voted for him both times; Jane was a registered Republican, although at the point of their divorce, Reagan was still a Democrat. She married composer Frederick Karger in 1955 and divorced him, before remarrying him and divorcing him once again.

Jane suffered from diabetes and arthritis in later years. She attended her daughter Maureen’s funeral, while her ex-husband’s illness prevented him from going. After Reagan’s death, Wyman told a friend that “America has lost a great president and a great, kind and gentle man.” Three years later, she died in her sleep.

Ivana Trump, (née Zelníčková), February 20, 1949-present

  • Married to: Alfred Winklmayr (1971-1973), Donald Trump (1977-1992), Riccardo Mazzucchelli (1995-1997), Rossano Rubicondi (2008-2009).
  • Children: Donald Trump Jr, Ivanka Trump, and Eric Trump

Born in Czechoslovakia to a Czech father and Austrian mother, Ivana was a talented skier who used her passion to travel Europe. She gained a degree in physical education from Charles University, also appearing on a children’s TV show. She married an Austrian friend in order to get an Austrian passport.

After her divorce, she moved to Canada with a boyfriend, working as a ski instructor while taking night classes. Ivana started working as a model, including in the 1976 Olympics.

In New York, Ivana met Donald Trump and married him the following year. They were a constant fixture in New York society. With a license in interior design, Ivana worked in this role in the Trump Organisation. In 1988, she gained citizenship after 12 years in the United States. Their marriage soon became troubled and their deteriorating relationship became tabloid fodder. One notable event was at a ski event when Ivana encountered her husband’s mistress, Marla Maples. Legal trouble ensued, though there was a brief pause when Ivana’s father suddenly died. 

Their divorce was highly publicised, with their children receiving much media attention. In 1992, the divorce was finalised and Ivana received a large settlement that included millions of dollars and a Manhattan apartment. 

Ivana has had a career that has included a clothing line, books and movie cameos. She has written several self-help books and an autobiography. In 2010, Ivanka was a housemate in Big Brother U.K. She married her third husband in 1995, but they divorced in 1997 before a huge lawsuit. After dating her fourth husband for several years, they married in a wedding hosted by Trump. They divorced a year later.

Marla Maples, October 27, 1963-present

  • Married to: Donald Trump (1993-1999)
  • Children: Tiffany Trump

Born in Georgia, Marla started competing in beauty pageants, including her 1985 Miss Hawaiian Tropic win. 

In 1989, she met Donald Trump and began an affair with the married man. A highly publicised incident occurred in that year when she was confronted by Ivana Trump at a ski resort. Trump proposed to get a couple of months after the birth of daughter Tiffany, and they married at the Plaza Hotel.  Marla appeared in several TV shows and movies, including a cameo in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and co-hosting pageant competitions.

An apparent affair with a bodyguard led to the end of the Trump marriage. Since then, Marla has undergone various endeavors. She has performed in shows, appeared in Dancing with the Stars, and promotes healthy eating.

Sarah Stook is a freelance writer with a great interest in US politics. Her area of interest is the Republican Party, presidential elections and how campaigns are conducted. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarah_stook.

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