Review

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave

by Jennifer Fleischner



The name of Elizabeth Keckly is well known to numerous Abraham
Lincoln buffs, but unknown to virtually everyone else. She was
certainly one of the most interesting bit players in the long
unfolding drama of American history.

She was born in 1818, the same year as Mary Todd Lincoln. In fact,
the birthplaces of the two women were not that far apart ---
Keckly's in east-central Virginia, Mary Todd's in east-central
Kentucky. Mary Todd was born into a respectable and upwardly mobile
white family; Keckly was the child of an illicit union between a
slave mother and her white master. The two women did not meet until
the day before Abraham Lincoln's inauguration as President in
1861.

Jennifer Fleischner, author of a previous book on how slavery
affected women, tells the story of this unlikely partnership in a
series of alternating biographical chapters, not allowing her two
protagonists to inhabit the same chapter until after their meeting
about two-thirds of the way through the book.

Mary Lincoln, of course, is a famous American eccentric ---
domineering, limitlessly ambitious, a manic shopper and spender,
prone to delusions, furious tantrums and unpredictable mood swings,
probably considered mad by many who knew her. Her half of the
story, though retold conscientiously by Fleischner, is old news.
The real interest of this book is in the life and character of
Elizabeth Keckly, a talented and resourceful woman determined to
rise above the disgrace and anonymity of her origins to make her
way in the world through her gifts as a seamstress and
dressmaker.

(Fleischner adopts as standard the spelling of Keckly rather than
the more often met with "Keckley", because that was the way her
subject always spelled her name. For the same reason, she becomes
in this book "Lizzy" rather than Lizzie. At birth she was Elizabeth
Hobbs because that was the name of her slave "father." Her actual
father was a lusty Virginia planter named Armistead Burwell. Keckly
was a feckless slave whom Lizzy married but later deserted.)

Lizzy became a seamstress almost by accident, but showed such an
aptitude for the trade that she eventually became sought after by
fashionable white women in St. Louis and Washington. She was able
to buy her freedom for $1,200 with the proceeds of her needlework
plus contributions from grateful women customers. One of her steady
customers in Washington was the wife of Jefferson Davis, then a
senator from Mississippi. With the Civil War about to break out,
Varina Davis asked Lizzy to go with her back to Mississippi, but
freedwoman Lizzy refused; had she accepted that offer, she would
still be unknown to history.

Fleischner's book catches literary fire only when the two women
meet and their complex personal relationship forms. Up to that
point, the writing is workmanlike at best. Even with the deep
research detailed in her bibliography, Fleischner must often rely
on speculation about details. There is a lot of "likely" and
"perhaps" in this book. Also, the reader is often entangled in the
complicated branches of both family trees, sorting out cousins,
in-laws and other members of the chorus who surround the two
principals.

Abraham Lincoln is present too, the familiar figure of the
ungainly, self-conscious frontier lawyer prone to melancholia and
suddenly thrust onto the national stage by his gift for political
oratory. Fleischner is of the school that believes Lincoln never
really loved Mary Todd; her picture of the lonely, beleaguered
President coping with personal and political life while the
national skies reddened with the flames of war is nicely
drawn.

The end of the relationship between the two women is sad indeed.
After Lincoln' s assassination, when Mary learned that Lizzy was
writing a book about her White House years, she cut off
communication with the woman upon whom she had depended for
personal and financial salvation. Elizabeth Keckly outlived Mary
Lincoln by 25 years, eventually dying in the National Home for
Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington in 1907. Her
story, despite this tragic ending, is inspiring. Jennifer
Fleischner has done a service by bringing Keckly out from the
historical background for a joint curtain call with her more famous
patron.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 22, 2011

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave
by Jennifer Fleischner

  • Publication Date: April 8, 2003
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway
  • ISBN-10: 0767902580
  • ISBN-13: 9780767902588