While noodling on the internet one day, I came across an article about Mary Lincoln’s personal dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley. A former slave from Maryland who’d bought her own freedom, Keckley was a master mantua-maker who got herself the coveted position of dressmaker to the president’s wife. There was a little link at the bottom of the article about Keckley’s memoir, and it was too enticing to pass up.
Happily, even though it was published in 1868, my library had a copy of it! The reprinted book was beautiful, complete with all the original print type and etchings. But the story inside was what really intrigued me.
While Keckley recounts her horrific experiences as a Maryland slave and her tooth-and-nail fight to buy her own freedom (which honestly should be made into a movie. Seriously, where are the screenwriters?) her memoir spends most of its pages on her four years as Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker. In this capacity, she was allowed very private access to the Lincolns, and she recounted some of the family’s most intimate moments. She was a huge fan of Abe, and he seemed (at least by Keckley’s testament) to see her as more of a sister or cousin than an employee.
But her relationship with Mary was definitely….different. Particularly after Lincoln’s assassination, Elizabeth and Mary’s relationship really goes off the rails. From the very beginning of Keckley’s tenure with the White House, Mary was as difficult and flighty and petulant as every account of her is, but she and Keckley did confide in each other, and Mary told Elizabeth on several occasions that she counted her as her only true friend. The whole point of Keckley writing the memoir was to try and refute the bad press about Mary that scandalized the country between 1865 and 1867. It’s obvious that in Keckley’s mind, they really were friends. And to Mary’s credit, as a woman raised in a slave-holding family, her personal views on abolishing slavery were pretty radical for her time. I do believe the women saw each other as equals.
But if we’re talking about real friendship, the kind where you can rely on one another, and the give-and-take of the relationship is mutual, Mary did NOT get it. The amount of times Mary blows up Elizabeth’s world for some terribly cockamamie plan is pretty eye-opening. The one that really got me wondering about the true state of their friendship was after Mary was forced to leave the White House. She talks Elizabeth into living with her for almost a year at some hotel in Illinois. Mind you, Keckley owned her own seamstress shop in D.C. where she took orders from many prominent political women. She’s basically forced to lay off her staff and put her business on hold for Mary. Eight months later, when Elizabeth was basically like, “I kinda have to go back to work, cause you, know, finances,” Mary guilt trips her something fierce and then blows up her life about two years later about a wacky scheme to sell off her clothing collection in New York City. This is after Keckley gets her church AND freaking Frederick Douglas to raise a bunch of money to help Mary’s finances after Lincoln’s death (P.S. Mary turns the money down for stupid reasons).
The New York scheme is a serious bust, that puts Elizabeth out of work (again) for four months, and the scheme not only perpetuated, but heightened Mary’s bad press. Keckley felt so badly for her friend that she decided to write and publish her memoir to show ‘the other side’ of Mary Lincoln. It….was not taken as intended by the public, and the two became seriously estranged. The memoir left me with more questions than answers, so I sought more information.
Cue Mrs. Lincoln & Mrs. Keckly by Jennifer Fleischner. This biography was a serious deep dive into not just Mary and Elizabeth’s friendship, but the state of the U.S. and Lincoln’s presidency during the Civil War. If you’re looking for an all around good book on the Civil War that’s not battles and white men, I would highly recommend this biography.
The focus is obviously on Mary and Elizabeth, and Fleischner really explains the parts of their friendship that maybe Keckley couldn’t see because she was in it. Let’s be honest, Mary used her, but it’s clear in the biography that that probably wasn’t Mary’s intent, it was just who she was. Mary was a very intelligent woman who was squashed by her society, and probably had a bunch of mental health issues that were chocked up to hysteria and ‘being a woman’ in the mid-nineteenth century. Elizabeth was also an intelligent and talented woman squashed by her society, so maybe they felt they had that in common. And being a freed slave navigating a precarious position between white and black worlds that were on literal political fire for basically her entire life couldn’t have been easy, and Mary’s position gave Elizabeth a place to feel safe and valued.
In the end, Elizabeth and Mary may not have been ‘friendship goals,’ but at least Elizabeth’s story was written and saved. She’d have been another silenced voice of history if not for her relationship with the psycho Mrs. President, and for that alone, I’m grateful.
5 stars for both the memoir and the biography.
Bingo Square: Friendship