As “the only unusual incident” of her girlhood, “Nellie” Herron Taft recalled her visit to the White House at 17 as the guest of President and Mrs. Hayes, intimate friends of her parents. Fourth child of Harriet Collins and John W. Herron, born in 1861, she had grown up in Cincinnati, Ohio, attending a private school in the city and studying music with enthusiasm.
The year after this notable visit she met “that adorable Will Taft,” a tall young lawyer, at a sledding party. They found intellectual interests in common; friendship matured into love; Helen Herron and William Howard Taft were married in 1886. A “treasure,” he called her, “self-contained, independent, and of unusual application.” He wondered if they would ever reach Washington “in any official capacity” and suggested to her that they might—when she became 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: state judge, solicitor general of the United States, federal circuit judge. In 1900 he agreed to take charge of American civil government in the Philippines. By now their children numbered three: Robert, Helen, and Charles. The delight with which she undertook the journey, and her willingness to take her children to a country still unsettled by war, were characteristic of this woman who loved a challenge. In Manila she handled a difficult role with enthusiasm and tact; she relished travel to Japan and China, and a special diplomatic mission to the Vatican.
Further travel with her husband, who became secretary of war in 1904, brought a widened 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, she still took an interest in politics but concentrated on giving the administration a particular 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. Her daughter left college for a year to take part in social life at the White House, and the gaiety of Helen’s debut enhanced the 1910 Christmas season.
During four years famous for social events, the most outstanding was an evening garden party for several thousand guests on the Tafts’ silver wedding anniversary, June 19, 1911. Mrs. Taft remembered this as “the greatest event” in her White House experience. Her own 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, she died at her home on May 22, 1943.
You Might Also Like
Collection Presidential and First Lady Portraits
Since 1965, the White House Historical Association has been proud to fund the official portraits of our presidents and first ladies,...
Podcast Conversations from History Happy Hour
In this first episode of 2021, White House Historical Association President Stewart D. McLaurin introduces the Association’s popular virtual program Hi...
Collection Women and the White House
While there has yet to be a female president, women have played an integral role in shaping the White House...
Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits
Collection Animal Ambassadors
Animals, whether pampered household pets, working livestock, birds, squirrels, or strays, have long been a major part of White House...
Collection The White House Behind the Scenes
While the presidency is often in the eye of the public, those who ensure operations at the White House run...
Podcast Entertaining at the White House
From diplomatic dinners to holiday gatherings, the White House has always played a central role in the nation’s official en...
Collection The First Ladies
Biographies & Portraits
Collection Cherry Blossoms
Since the first cherry blossom planting in 1912 by First Lady Helen Herron Taft, Washingtonians have celebrated the scenic beauty and...
Podcast Fearless Leadership: A Conversation with Jean Case
Fearless leaders have walked the halls of White House for centuries. In this episode, White House Historical Association President Stewart...
2022 National History Day Resources
The White House Historical Association (WHHA) offers many different resources for students working on National History Day projects.
Presidential Sites Summit Schedule
Tuesday, March 15 12:00-6:00pm: Registration at the Adolphus Hotel 12:00-3:00pm: Optional Day Trip The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey...