Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: The Unlikely Friendship of Elizabeth Keckley & Mary Todd Lincoln by Lynda Jones

This is the story of two women of history and the friendship that evolved between them.

Elizabeth Keckley was born into slavery and brutalized by her masters until she finally earned her freedom and that of her son. She started a dressmaking business in Washington, D.C., and was able to impress Mary Todd Lincoln enough to garner her clientele and, over the years which followed, her endearment as well. Elizabeth was such a close friend to Mary that it was Elizabeth's comfort Mary requested during the time when the President was on his deathbed after being shot.

Even after Abe Lincoln's death, Elizabeth came to Mary's aid in trying to raise money by selling the previously famous wardrobe created by Elizabeth and worn by Mrs. Lincoln during her husband's presidency, but this sale did not go well and ended up sullying the reputation of both women, becoming known as the Old Clothes Scandal.

As a last ditch effort to repair her own reputation and also to raise money, Elizabeth wrote an autobiography, Behind the Scenes, which chronicled both her struggle to overcome slavery and also her relationship with Mrs. Lincoln. Some personal correspondence from Mary to Elizabeth was included in the book. This caused an uproar, and Mary was outraged. Sadly, their friendship came to an end over this publication, even though Elizabeth swore the letters were published without her permission and that she had never meant to tarnish the Lincolns' image. What a shame that this beautiful, mutually supportive relationship ended on such a sad note.

This book is very well written and easy to follow and includes spectacular photographs of Mrs. Lincoln wearing Mrs. Keckley's creations. I can only imagine the hours and care that went into sewing each individual flower decoration. Each dress was an elegant work of art.

I would recommend this book for anyone who is interested in Civil War history and in these women, who were often behind the scenes, but still played an essential role.

Soon, I plan to expound on this subject further when I read and review Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini.