Biography: Unique among First Ladies, Harriet Lane acted as
hostess for the only President who never married: James Buchanan, 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 twenties.
In the rich farming country of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, her family
had prospered as merchants. 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 as he had promised, "in the best
manner." In 1854 she joined him in London, where he was minister to the
Court of St. James. Queen Victoria gave "dear Miss Lane" the rank of
ambassador's wife; admiring suitors gave her the fame of a beauty.
In appearance "Hal" Lane was of medium height, with masses of light hair
almost golden. In manner she enlivened social gatherings with a
captivating mixture of spontaneity and poise.
After the sadness of the Pierce administration, the capital eagerly
welcomed its new "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 worked out seating arrangements for
her weekly formal dinner parties with special care, to give dignitaries
their proper precedence and still keep political foes apart. Her tact
did not falter, but her task became impossible--as did her uncle's.
Seven states had seceded by the time Buchanan retired from office and
thankfully returned with his niece to his spacious country home,
Wheatland, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
From her teenage years, the popular Miss Lane flirted happily with
numerous beaux, calling them "pleasant but dreadfully troublesome."
Buchanan often warned her against "rushing precipitately into matrimonial
connexions," and she waited until she was almost 36 to marry. She chose,
with her uncle's approval, Henry Elliott Johnston, a Baltimore banker.
Within the next 18 years she faced one sorrow after another: the loss of
her uncle, her two fine young sons, and her husband.
Thereafter she decided to live in Washington, among friends made during
years of happiness. 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 "First Lady of the National Collection of Fine
Arts." In addition, she had 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 national 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.