Unique among first ladies, Harriet Lane acted as hostess for the only president who never married. James Buchanan was her favorite uncle and her guardian after she was orphaned at the age of eleven. And of all the ladies of the White House, few achieved such great success in deeply troubled times as this polished young woman in her 20s.
She was born in 1830 in the rich farming country of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Her uncle supervised her sound education in private school, completed by two years at the Visitation Convent in Georgetown. By this time "Nunc" was secretary of state, and he introduced her to fashionable circles. In 1854 she joined him in London, where he was minister to the Court of St. James's. Queen Victoria gave "dear Miss Lane" the rank of ambassador's wife; admiring suitors gave her the fame of a beauty.
"Hal" Lane enlivened social gatherings with a mixture of spontaneity and poise. After the sadness of the Pierce administration, the capital welcomed its "Democratic Queen" in 1857. Harriet Lane filled the White House with gaiety and flowers, and guided its social life with enthusiasm and discretion, winning national popularity.
As sectional tensions increased, she sat formal dinner parties with care, giving dignitaries proper precedence while keeping political foes apart. Her task became impossible. Seven states had seceded by the time Buchanan retired from office. He thankfully returned with his niece to his spacious country home, Wheatland, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The popular Miss Lane flirted happily with numerous beaux, but waited until she was almost 36 to marry. Within the next 18 years she faced one sorrow after another: the loss of her uncle, her two fine young sons, and her husband.
She decided to live in Washington, among friends made during happier years. She had acquired a sizable art collection, largely of European works, which she bequeathed to the government. Accepted after her death in 1903, it inspired an official of the Smithsonian Institution to call her the "First Lady of the National Collection of Fine Arts."
Harriet also dedicated a generous sum to endow a home for invalid children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It became an outstanding pediatric facility, and its reputation is a fitting memorial to the young lady who presided at the White House with such dignity and charm. The Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics serve thousands of children today.
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