Helen Herron Taft
Biography: 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
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
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 the 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. At the New
Year's reception for 1910, she appeared in white crepe embroidered with
gold--a graceful figure. 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.