HELEN TAFT

"Nellie" Herron was born in 1861, and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. She studied music with enthusiasm, attending a private school in the city. As "the only unusual incident" of her girlhood, she recalled her visit to the White House at age 17 as the guest of President and Mrs. Hayes, intimate friends of her parents.

The year after this notable visit she met "that adorable Will Taft," at a sledding party. They found intellectual interests in common and friendship matured into love. They were married in 1886. A "treasure," Taft called her, "self-contained, independent, and of unusual application." He suggested she ought to become secretary of the treasury!

No woman could hope for such a career in that day, but Mrs. Taft welcomed each step in her husband's. They had three children - Robert, Helen, and Charles – by the time he took charge of American civil government in the Philippines in 1900. Helen’s willingness to take her children to a country unsettled by war, and the delight with which she undertook the journey were characteristic of this woman who loved a challenge. Travel with her husband brought an interest in world politics and a cosmopolitan circle of friends. His election to the presidency in 1908 gave her a position she had long desired.

As first lady, Helen Taft concentrated on giving the administration a social brilliance. Only two months after the inauguration she suffered a severe stroke. An indomitable will had her back in command again within a year. At the New Year's reception for 1910, she was a graceful figure. The Taft’s daughter left college for a year to take part in social life at the White House, and the gaiety of her debut enhanced the 1910 Christmas season.

The administration’s most outstanding event was an evening garden party for several thousand guests on the Tafts' silver wedding anniversary, June 19, 1911. Helen thought of this as "the greatest event" in her White House experience. Her book, Recollections of Full Years, gives her account of a varied life. And the capital's famous Japanese cherry trees, planted around the Tidal Basin at her request, form a notable memorial.

Her public role in Washington did not end when she left the White House. In 1921 her husband was appointed Chief Justice of the United States - the position he had desired most of all - and she continued to live in the capital after his death in 1930. Retaining to the end her love of travel and of classical music, Helen Taft died at her home on May 22, 1943.

Helen Taft