Grace Coolidge burst out laughing when she glanced through a boardinghouse window and spotted her future husband shaving in long underwear and a hat. Their relationship – and his political career – would be marked by her ebullience, which filled in his silences.
Decades after his death, it was revealed Calvin Coolidge’s silences resulted from intense social anxiety throughout his life. Grace made up for it, becoming one of the most popular First Ladies in history.
The American public followed her fashion choices at weekly photo ops. They read about the Coolidge menagerie in the White House, enjoyed her exploits on the hiking trail and joined in her enthusiasm for the national pastime.
When her 16-year-old son died suddenly, they sent her thousands of letters of sympathy.
‘I am going to be married to you’
She was actually involved with someone else when she first dated the dour young attorney who’d just moved to Northampton. They went to a Republican rally.
He proposed by stating, “I am going to be married to you.”
She agreed, but her mother didn’t. They were married on Oct. 4, 1905, over her mother’s vehement objections, during a plain ceremony in her childhood home.
In 1906 they rented half of a duplex they’d live in for two decades.
During the early years of their marriage, Grace Coolidge raised their two sons, John and Calvin, Jr., in Northampton while Calvin pursued his political career in Boston. He did spend two years in Northampton as mayor, from 1910-11, but most of the time from 1907 to 1921 he lived in a dollar-and-a-half room in Boston and came home on weekends.
Grace’s quiet life was interrupted in 1921, when her husband became vice president of the United States. She was abruptly shoved into the spotlight, and Cal quickly recognized how much her gregariousness helped him.
He set limits on her, though. He wouldn’t let her wear pants, drive a car or ride in an airplane. When a comment appeared in a newspaper about the jodhpurs she wore while horseback riding, he told her “…you will get along at this job fully as well if you do not try anything new.”
The White House Brings Grief
Early in the morning of Aug. 3, 1923, the Coolidges were vacationing at his family home in Plymouth Notch, Vt., when they received word that President Harding had suddenly collapsed and died. Grace lit a kerosene lamp and watched while her father-in-law, a notary, administered the oath of office to her husband.
During their stay in the White House, the animal-loving Coolidges kept a menagerie: dogs, cats, birds and even a raccoon named Rebecca. Grace held weekly photo ops, and the public avidly followed her: She went to the movies and concerts, wore the latest fashions and campaigned for the Red Cross and the Clarke School for the Deaf. She hiked, swam and listened to sports on the radio when she wasn’t attending games. If she couldn’t get a football game on her crystal radio she went to the White House telegraph room for scores.
In July 1924 her 16-year-old son Calvin died when a blister developed into blood poisoning. On the five-year anniversary of his death, Grace Coolidge published an original poem, ‘The Open Door,’ in Good Housekeeping magazine. It began,
You, my son,
Have shown me God.
Your kiss upon my cheek
Has made me feel the gentle touch
Of Him who leads us on.
For most of the 1924 presidential campaign, she and her husband were in mourning. Grace became a rabid baseball fan at about that time, frequently attending Washington Senators games. Later in life she had a season pass to Red Sox games. She sat near the dugout and chatted with the players. In 1948 she sent a quarter and a Post cereal box top to get a genuine Red Barber baseball guide. She got a letter from Red in return (and the guide).
By 1928 President Coolidge’s health was deteriorating, and he decided not to seek reelection. They moved back to the two-family home they rented before moving to Washington. Finally, to protect themselves from sightseers, they bought a large home on the Connecticut River with a gate.
Calvin Coolidge died of a heart attack on Jan. 5, 1933. Grace Coolidge lived as an active widow for the next 25 years. She often attended Red Sox games at Fenway Park, supported her favorite charities and toured Europe in a car, which she drove herself. She also flew in planes.
Grace Coolidge died July 8, 1957 in Northampton, Mass. She is buried next to her husband in Plymouth, Vt.
With thanks to the National First Ladies’ Library. This story was updated in 2021.