Letitia Christian Tyler
Biography: Letitia Tyler had been confined to an invalid's chair
for two years when her husband unexpectedly became President. Nobody had thought of that
possibility when he took his oath of office as Vice President on March 4,
1841; indeed, he had planned to fill his undemanding duties from his home
in Williamsburg where his wife was most comfortable, her Bible, prayer
book, and knitting at her side.
Born on a Tidewater Virginia plantation in the 18th century, Letitia was
spiritually akin to Martha Washington and Martha Jefferson. Formal
education was no part of this pattern of life, but Letitia learned all
the skills of managing a plantation, rearing a family, and presiding over
a home that would be John Tyler's refuge during an active political
life. They were married on March 29, 1813--his twenty-third birthday.
Thereafter, whether he served in Congress or as Governor of Virginia, she
attended to domestic duties. Only once did she join him for the winter
social season in Washington. Of the eight children she bore, seven
survived; but after 1839 she was a cripple, though "still beautiful now
in her declining years."
So her admiring new daughter-in-law, Priscilla Cooper Tyler, described
her--"the most entirely unselfish person you can
imagine...Notwithstanding her very delicate health, mother attends to and
regulates all the household affairs and all so quietly that you can't
tell when she does it."
In a second-floor room at the White House, Letitia Tyler kept her quiet
but pivotal role in family activities. She did not attempt to take part
in the social affairs of the administration. Her married daughters had
their own homes; the others were too young for the full responsibility of
official entertaining; Priscilla at age 24 assumed the position of White
House hostess, met its demands with spirit and success, and enjoyed it.
Daughter of a well-known tragedian, Priscilla Cooper had gone on the
stage herself at 17. Playing Desdemona to her father's Othello in
Richmond, she won the instant interest of Robert Tyler, whom she married
in 1839. Intelligent and beautiful, with dark brown hair, she charmed
the President's guests--from visiting celebrities like Charles Dickens to
enthusiastic countrymen. Once she noted ruefully: "such hearty shakes as
they gave my poor little hand too!" She enjoyed the expert advice of
Dolley Madison, and the companionship of her young sister-in-law
Elizabeth until she married William N. Waller in 1842.
For this wedding Letitia made her only appearance at a White House social
function. "Lizzie looked surpassingly lovely," said Priscilla, and "our
dear mother" was "far more attractive to me...than any other lady in the
room," greeting her guests "in her sweet, gentle, self-possessed manner."
The first President's wife to die in the White House, Letitia Tyler ended
her days peacefully on September 10, 1842, holding a damask rose in her
hand. She was taken to Virginia for burial at the plantation of her
birth, deeply mourned by her family. "She had everything about her,"
said Priscilla, "to awaken love...."