Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln's Talented Turncoat

LoyaltyOfDogs

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...You do get the impression Elizabeth had a good deal of contempt for the way Mary was treated. It makes it all the more puzzling why she wrote what did, you know?...
I'm just speculating here, @JPK Huson 1863, but is there any evidence or any suggestion that Elizabeth Keckley's publisher might have asked her for a "tell-all" portrayal of Mary Lincoln? In our own time, it seems that celebrity memoirs and biographies that dish gossip are the only books that become media sensations. Might a 19th century publisher have persuaded an author to write a sensational manuscript rather than a less critical memoir?
 

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JPK Huson 1863

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Thanks so much for that link, Andy. Learned a lot.

Here's a hint, Kansas, how do you feel his death impacted Elizabeth? I know I wish she could have spoken of him- but you just know some things she felt were too personal for prying eyes. Another aspect of society, reading between the lines, you feel she had contempt for was the indolent, wealthy lifestyle. Her son was able to live as a white man but was gosh, a son any mother would watch grow up and know she did something very, very right.

I'm just speculating here, @JPK Huson 1863, but is there any evidence or any suggestion that Elizabeth Keckley's publisher might have asked her for a "tell-all" portrayal of Mary Lincoln? In our own time, it seems that celebrity memoirs and biographies that dish gossip are the only books that become media sensations. Might a 19th century publisher have persuaded an author to write a sensational manuscript rather than a less critical memoir?

I never thought of that and whoa, you're probably right, goodness! I'm replying on the same post as Kansas's commenting on her son for a reason. She remains so silent on the topic- and I've always felt it significant. Poor thing. Yes, I can be so annoyed with Keckley for adding to Mary Lincoln's myriad woes in a horrendously painful life- still hold her in immense respect for what in blazes she overcame. Nothing is simple or easy or, please excuse, black and white.

Writing at the behest of someone, Elizabeth may have had some guidelines she was mandated to follow. Huh. You could see that, without exactly letting her off the hook. It would explain a few other things, too.
 

KansasFreestater

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Regardless of her waffling loyalty, what an interesting person and lovely, this Elizabeth Keckley. She chose well in heading to the White House, and I'm sure lent comfort to Mary in her losses. Imagine those fingers pushing a needle through hundreds of yards of fabric, bruised and pricked, over her tenure with the Lincoln's, every stitch in perfect line, as though done by a sewing machine. Did she have access to an early one? She surely copied the latest Parisian designs. Life went forward unhindered in Europe, while Americans here brained themselves like barbarians. Would Elizabeth have had access to new patterns during the War?
Elizabeth Keckley was the dressmaker/fashion designer in Washington in that era. The wives of senators and Cabinet members were her clients. Mary Lincoln was only one of her clients, but since Mrs. Keckley had employees working for her, she could farm some of her other work out to them when she herself became the exclusive dressmaker to Mary Lincoln. It was just one of those happy, unexpected, win-win things that Elizabeth and Mary got to be very close friends -- with Elizabeth spending much time at the White House, and even helping nurse poor Willie when he was dying, and Tad when he also was sick.

I'm assuming that since Mrs. Keckley was the "dressmaker to the stars," so to speak, that she would have had access to all the latest designs.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Elizabeth Keckley was the dressmaker/fashion designer in Washington in that era. The wives of senators and Cabinet members were her clients. Mary Lincoln was only one of her clients, but since Mrs. Keckley had employees working for her, she could farm some of her other work out to them when she herself became the exclusive dressmaker to Mary Lincoln. It was just one of those happy, unexpected, win-win things that Elizabeth and Mary got to be very close friends -- with Elizabeth spending much time at the White House, and even helping nurse poor Willie when he was dying, and Tad when he also was sick.

I'm assuming that since Mrs. Keckley was the "dressmaker to the stars," so to speak, that she would have had access to all the latest designs.

Have you ever wondered where she developed her heckish eye? I mean really- she was seriously incredible. If you look at Godey's and Demorest's, the styles continually added flounces, trimmings, layers of incomprehensible zig-zag patterns and patches, ruffles- so cluttered! Keckley seems to have relied on sheer cut, tailoring, really elegant lines and attention to tucks right where they do the most good. Once spent quite awhile just comparing- it's remarkable. She took ' good taste ' out of the kitchen, and showed women what it really meant.
 

18thVirginia

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I noticed the same about her dresses, that she omitted a lot of the frou-frou of other designers. It's said that she had a following because she was best at fitting, but it may have been that her clients looked slimmer in the more graceful. uncluttered designs. As most of these were not young girls, it's understandable why they might prefer Keckley.
 

7thWisconsin

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Mrs Keckley was an amazing wOman, and I'm so glad I read her book. (BTW I was directed to it by a podcast called "The History Chicks" which is completely worth the time of anyone interested in women in history.) My feeling is that she was a very talented seamstress, and also very ambitious. She was definitely THE newsmakers for Washington's elite. If I'm not mistaken, she also worked for Varina Davis, wife of Congressman Jefferson Davis.
I think most of the details of conversations in the White House were contrived to paint a picture and leave an impression rather than be accepted as unvarnished fact. If I remember correctly, the book was heavily edited dare I say ghostwritten by the publisher. He also talked her into giving him her letters, which he then printed without the permission of either Elizabeth or Mary Todd. This is what ruined their relationship.
 

LoriAnn

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I do find the love Elizabeth has for her former owners confusing and interesting. I realize this must be a thing that should be experienced to be fully understood, so I shall remain in the dark on this one. I wouldn't be surprised though if placed in her shoes, I would have been spitting venom instead.

When she speaks of her mother and her passing, it's so sad. Her mother died far from her daughter and was buried in such a way that her remains really couldn't be accurately located. Like she didn't matter, or Elizabeth's need to pay respects to her own mother in a proper manner didn't matter either.

"As I did not visit my mother's grave at the time, the Garlands were much surprised, but I offered no explanation. The reason is not difficult to understand...

To look upon a grave, and not feel certain whose ashes repose beneath the sod, is painful..."

Elizabeth didn't seem to harbor any anger towards her former owners, but man, I managed to stir up a little while reading this book.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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I do find the love Elizabeth has for her former owners confusing and interesting. I realize this must be a thing that should be experienced to be fully understood, so I shall remain in the dark on this one. I wouldn't be surprised though if placed in her shoes, I would have been spitting venom instead.

Yes, and it does lend justification to what Loyalty of Dogs said on the tell-all aspect, hence write what readers wish to hear? Since you read it, notice the contempt she has for this ' owner ' ? Loathes him as a weak man spoiled by indulgence. She politely sneers at him several times. He was on the verge of hiring out Keckley's very elderly mother, to help keep him in his indolent, self-indulgent lifestyle.

When she published this, that family was still out here, too. Who knows, Elizabeth may have had no interest in antagonizing them?
 

LoriAnn

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I've finished, and I must say...Elizabeth is an admirable woman. She starts life as someone's property, perseveres, works her way to freedom, and eventually ends up at the White House. Her drive and strength must have been very apparent. It must have been what one of her "owners" tried to beat out of her when she was a young woman.

If I remember correctly, the book was heavily edited dare I say ghostwritten by the publisher. He also talked her into giving him her letters, which he then printed without the permission of either Elizabeth or Mary Todd. This is what ruined their relationship.
I got the impression that both women were vulnerable to being preyed upon once Lincoln was gone, and Mary was left to fend for herself. I can see the argument for Elizabeth trying to help her friend by portraying Mary in a more sympathetic light, then having the publisher add/change her work without her permission, leaving both her and Mary pretty screwed.

It was sad to read that Mary had been reduced to selling her personal items. It was made worse to learn that the relationship between the two women later dissolved. How much were other unscrupulous people to blame, I wonder.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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It was sad to read that Mary had been reduced to selling her personal items. It was made worse to learn that the relationship between the two women later dissolved. How much were other unscrupulous people to blame, I wonder

That seems very insightful of you. Seem to be a lot of pawns at play in so many of these stories? One of Mary's worst, worst problems was being used to attack her husband. Couldn't get to Lincoln but boy, could they get to his wife or what? How awful if this friendship both valued so much was another casualty.

Yes, I'm with you. You just cannot compare traumas- Elizabeth's enslaved life was not Harriet Jacobs or Douglas's but it was ridiculous, as a human being. That she was able to still have the energy of an entire city on fire, and do what she did is almost super human. What an extraordinary woman, goodness!
 

5fish

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You all should read her book... kindle 55 cent

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1684221129/?tag=civilwartalkc-20



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2017 Reprint of 1868 Edition. An autobiographical narrative, Behind the Scenes traces Elizabeth Keckley's life from her enslavement in Virginia and North Carolina to her time as seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House during Abraham Lincoln's administration. It was quite controversial at the time of its release--an uncompromising work that transgressed Victorian boundaries between public and private life, and lines of race, gender, and society.

Keckley's first 30 years were spent as a slave, and the cruelties and injustices of her life are related clearly and succinctly. This enlightening memoir recounts how she was beaten and how she became a dressmaker to support her master and his family, how determined she was to purchase freedom for herself and her son, how her friends in St. Louis came to her aid, how she became Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and close friend, and her perspectives and experiences from her inside view of Lincoln's White House. Keckley emerges as a calm and confident person who speaks of a very tumultuous period of American history.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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It is indeed an incredibly valuable book by one of our greatest treasures. Having had a lot more time to look into Keckely, I'm convinced @LoyaltyOfDogs is entirely correct. Elizabeth's life was one of dogged commitment to principle, beyond her brilliance as an artists/designer. You just do not see her betraying trust, much less her own dignity - none of what is included on Mary Lincoln is in keeping with her character. Her shining portrayal of life inside the Davis family is just so odd in comparison. Not that any of it is suspect, the odd part would be her topic.

No one worked harder to ensure citizens, newly claiming their lives, had support. Her story of life inside of a barbaric system, from her own birth to her son's, one of pain, resisted. Because she had to.

From an 1863 newspaper- Elizabeth's friend Mary has her name come up.

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keckley 1863 3.JPG
 

Canadian

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Puzzled by Elizabeth Keckley, famously portrayed through time as Mary Lincoln's only friend in Washington. I've just finished her book, or nearly so. There's a part at the end I ditched, a kind of invented bit where Elizabeth gets into Mary's life before she met her- filled with what Mary said, did, intended and aspired to in Mary's words with quotations. Found this not believable since we never heard from Mary or her husband or any of the other players in history what the conversations were which Keckley claims to record word for word. Those conversations help draw a word picture of Mary Lincoln which is not flattering, especially when you consider people like Herndon were out there gleefully gathering material for the hatefest which would consume his life and bank account- people would tend to lend credence to them coming from a friend. When reading negative ' press' on Mary you can still catch a whiff of Herndon's ridiculous fractured fairytales at work. Some of that damaging nonsense he manufactured from the whole cloth lent him by Mary Lincoln's talented modist, African American Elizabeth Keckley. But why?

Elizabeth had an awful, awful life before literally working herself to freedom. Talk about a self-made woman, gee whiz! She seems to have been composed of steel, talent, perservence, intelligence and did I say talent?

" Elizabeth's life as a slave included harsh, arbitrary beatings "to subdue her stubborn pride," frequent moves to work for often poor family members, and being "persecuted for four years" by Alexander Kirkland, a white man, by whom she had a son. "
http://www.anb.org/articles/20/20-00530.html

She describes this as a rape- something the online bios seem to refuse to do, no idea why. Women know when this has occurred.

I can't find an online bio which describes her life with a family she lived with, the Garlands, but she worked literally for them, keeping them alive and solvent with her dressmaking talents. The husband and father was terrible at earning a living, from Elizabeth's account, did not have to - she provided all of them with the means to eat and a roof over their heads. Slaves did that. Mr. Garland died, his will stated she was worth $ 1200. " Lizzie " had asked for years to be free- to buy her freedom, her white clients pooled money sufficient for her to do so. Another long story short, she ended up in Washington.

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Elizabeth's talent and her incredible drive- not a lot you can do with talent if there's no purpose behind it- put her inside the home of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, on the eve of the Rebellion. Varina wished her to ' go South ' with the family, so helpful had she become. A huge, huge proposition to put before a free black woman in 1860. Various wives of politicians appeared at functions in her designs and she freely stated her wish to design for the resident wife of the White House. It was not ego, Keckley was simply that good. Varina genuinely believed Elizabeth would fare much better in Virginia with the Davis family. Elizabeth found a way to gracefulyl decline. Her little business had become established, her clients really were counting on her.

Mary and Elizabeth's famous friendship began with a single visit, blossomed quickly through the years as Keckley became much more than a designer to this lonely, demanding, frequently kind woman. In her book, Keckley describes instances of Mary Lincoln's kindness to her, personal acts of friendship like taking her on long trips, ensuring she received invitations to some glittering social events, fulfilling requests asked of her. In the instance where Mary fills in Elizabeth of the massive debt she owes, neglects to mention some of that money is owed to her- while at the same time ' tsk-tsk's ' disapprovingly, how could Mrs. Lincoln keep such a secret from her husband? Seems a little not-nice, writing of these acts of friendship then throwing Mary under the bus over her debts. The debts have a nasty habit of popping up later in the book, too, like TB.

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Elizabeth's only son, Kirkland's, was killed in the war. The black armband would either be from his death or maybe this is after the assassination.

Elizabeth speaks admiringly of her one moment, saying she'd heard she was vulgar and was pleased to see she was anything but- then will go on in the next chapter to describe what a jealous shrew she was, and somehow remember a verbatim conversation between husband and wife concerning the subject. She actually write how she never came across such an ornery specimen of a female ( paraphrasing ), Mary was so peculiar! Gosh. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure if one was on intimate terms of friendship with Mary Lincoln, it was full of drama, emotion and tears but to tell the general public you, her acknowledge friend, find her to be such an ugly personality is beyond ' mean girl'. Elizabeth had been with her through Willie and her husband's deaths, knew how dreadfully these had affected her. She also writes of the many enemies Mary had which she seemingly did not deserve, hers for simply being from the South.

None of the dresses are certain, even the purple with the white piping- there's no certain proof, but this one is another ' Probably made by Elizabeth Keckley "

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You do tend to want to believe the many, many conversations Elizabeth transcribes which have Lincoln speaking, exchanging thoughts with his wife and sometimes Elizabeth. The thing is, they are so numerous and so specific, makes you wonder how did anyone remember so many, so well? Maybe she did, we do not know. I can't remember what I said to my son yesterday, much less entire conversations from 20 years previously. Maybe of he were President, might shake loose some memories?

Keckley may have also rubbed me the wrong way by presupposing Mary's intentions and beliefs. Keckely stated herself quite early in her career that she certainly wished to be the modist for the White House. Not a thing wrong with that- everything right about it, especially for a talent like hers. She does go on to invent Mary's open intention, however through conversations she supposedly had with Douglas, another pretender for Mary's hand, during their courtship. She has Mary telling Douglas that she will not marry him because she wants to live in the White House so she has to marry someone who will make it there. Keckely then writes Douglas's part in the conversation ( because she was there ) saying Mary was making a mistake and of course he would live there.

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I don't wish to throw Elizabeth under the bus entirely. I wasn’t expecting quite this when it came to her book “ Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House “. I’d heard there was a backlash, hope Mary Lincoln felt somewhat vindicated, people did feel Keckley had violated Mary’s privacy. Mary never spoke to her old friend again. As I read, I kept thinking well, what would be the unforgivable IT ? Tough call. There’s kind of a lot- possibly the indirect charge that Mary did not marry her husband for love, which is one of Herndon’s biggest pieces of nonsense too. Elizabeth later wrote many letters of apologies, begging to be allowed back into Mary’s life but it was too late. We know Mary really did die fairly alone, and lonely- just like she was when she first came to Washington, before she met Elizabeth Keckley.

Keckley's quilt made from Mary Lincoln's dresses
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Really, a regal woman

Fascinating details. Wonderful!
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Fascinating details. Wonderful!

That is kind thank you! Just increasing fascinated by this woman who claimed her right to be the flaming talent she was. Gee whiz, talk about ' No one ever gave her anything ', times 200. Keckley almost makes it a shame our democracy forbids all notions on peerage. You recognize a born Duchess when one shows up.
 
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You all should read her book... kindle 55 cent
I just read again through this thread from beginning to end, and have now "bought" Keckley's book. There is even a free edition for Kindle.
It amazes me how different the reactions to that book are! There is a free version on the internet, and from what I have read up to now, I never had any doubt that Keckley just described what she had perceived when being so close to the First Couple. Probably up to now I missed the parts where Keckley's fantasy had to stand in for the truth she could not know.

There is one exchange I hope happened. Mary had a rather long train on her dress, and as she swished past her husband, he remarked, "Whew! Our cat has a long tail tonight."
I found that comment rather charming and amusing. Something any husband could say jokingly to his wife.
As for this quote, I saw it the other day while searching for an answer for a Trivia question. And it is funny how different the impression was here. There is a second sentence Abe said to "Mother" and I found that conversation neither charming nor amusing, but rather piquing - and Mary was quite annoyed about it also! Her husband thought she should have better used the fabric of her long train to cover her bare shoulders and arms. At least I know that I would have been quite annoyed too if my significant other had made me insecure about my appearance the minute before we were about to appear in public! Couldn't he just have said she looked just gorgeous (because 'Lizabeth Keckley obviously thought she did!) ?
Here is the scene from Keckley's book:

"I arranged Mrs. Lincoln's hair, then assisted her to dress. Her dress was white satin, trimmed with black lace. The trail was very long, and as she swept through the room, Mr. Lincoln was standing with his back to the fire, his hands behind him, and his eyes on the carpet. His face wore a thoughtful, solemn look. The rustling of the satin dress attracted his attention. He looked at it a few moments; then, in his quaint, quiet way remarked—
"Whew! our cat has a long tail to–night."


Mrs. Lincoln did not reply. The President added:

"Mother, it is my opinion, if some of that tail was nearer the head, it would be in better style;" and he glanced at her bare arms and neck. She had a beautiful neck and arm, and low dresses were becoming to her. She turned away with a look of offended dignity, and presently took the President's arm, and both went down–stairs to their guests, leaving me alone with the sick boy."
https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/87/behind-the-scenes/1451/chapter-6-willie-lincolns-death-bed/
 


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