Sally Field Image: ABC/Michael Desmond; Mary Todd Lincoln Image: Wikipedia
"What was she thinking?" This is undoubtedly the question on Sally Field's mind RIGHT NOW as she prepares to step into the shoes of Mary Todd Lincoln for Steven Spielberg's hotly anticipated Lincoln biopic. It's a challenging role – for all the hundreds of books written about Abraham Lincoln, relatively few have been devoted to the First Lady whose life was marred by grief and mental illness in the years after her husband's assassination; we have fictionalized accounts, a few collections of her letters, but Mrs. Lincoln wrote no memoir of her own.
For the last few generations, getting inside the head of a First Lady of the United States has been a cinch – most of them have penned autobiographies, and from Lady Bird Johnson onward, the chain remains completely unbroken. Most recently, F.L.O.T.U.S. memoirs have been strategically deployed to help shape broader political narratives – Laura Bush's Spoken From the Heart as softcore Republican apologia; Hillary Clinton's Living History as a 500-page job application for holding public office – and as readers, we are poorer for it. There was once a time when a freshly retired First Lady's plain, everyday thoughts and experiences, however mundane, were considered perfectly valuable memoir material all by themselves, providing surprisingly raw glimpses of the (presumably) flesh-and-blood humans occupying our nation's most powerful positions.
Future generations of actors and impersonators will treasure the revelations in Nancy Reagan's My Turn, for example. The book remains true to its title throughout – its first and foremost purpose is to address the many scandals in which Reagan found herself embroiled. But along the way you'll find countless slice-of-life anecdotes that inflame the imagination:
Before every speech, Ronnie removes the contact lens from his right eye, which allows him to see the audience with one eye and the Teleprompter with the other. Ronnie started wearing contacts early, back in the days when they covered the entire eye. When we first started going out, he would sometimes pop out a lens at a red light, wet it with his tongue, and stick it back in. The first time he did it, my heart stopped. I was sure he wasn't going to get it back in before the light changed. But he did, and from then on I learned to trust his timing.
My Turn also contains all sorts of hit-and-run philosophical musings that make you terrified to skim, lest you miss something like this:
The execution was set for ten in the morning. The night before, a group of protestors held an all-night silent vigil outside our house ... The protesters wanted to have church bells ring at the hour of the execution so that everyone could pray for the man's soul. I had no objection to that, but I thought, Wouldn't it be nice if the bells could also ring whenever somebody is murdered, so we could also pray for that person's soul.
The book is perhaps most fascinating as the testimony of an older woman vainly struggling to keep apace with the modern world. Reagan was sixty when her husband took office (or sixty-two, depending which sources you consult) and in that first year alone she endured an assassination attempt against her husband, the death of her mother, and a mastectomy. Despite her longing to connect with the young Americans, Reagan's dated attitudes are never more evident than when she boasts about her family's breeding of a horse named "Tar Baby" with another named "Gypsy Minstrel." (The product of this pairing, she is proud to announce, was named after herself.)”
Similarly candid in an amazingly out-of-touch way is the Barbara Bush memoir Reflections. Having already written an all-encompassing memoir in 1994, Bush returned to the lit scene in 2003 with a post-White House account of her golf games and society luncheons. However carefully mediated the details may be, for some reason we are informed of the Bush family word for bowel movements ("dookies"). And there is really no hiding the effects of a lifetime of comfort and privilege on one's sense of humor. For instance:
Once again my golf was horrid, but such fun for me. I kept thinking what a thrill Rees Jones must be feeling, playing on a course he had designed and built. It was cut out of 350 virgin acres of jungle and marshlands. I heard that they really went out of their way to be environmentally correct. I can vouch for the fact that they were – I was eaten alive by mosquitoes!
For what it's worth, she points out that she loved "Meet the Parents."
Rosalynn Carter's 1984 memoir, First Lady From Plains, contains all the candor of a Reagan or Bush memoir, but is notable for its almost total lack of entertainment value. Carter shines brightly when she writes as an advocate (à la her 1999 manual Helping Someone with Mental Illness – a cause for which she is still passionate. Here she is recently with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show"), but as First Lady her interests are purely pedestrian, and aside from the revelation that she was thrown out of nearly every Kmart in Georgia (for handing out fliers during her husband's campaign), the colorful admissions are few and far between. The following passage hints that her reticence may be a strategical defense:
When I attended the inauguration of President Lopez Portillo in Mexico, I admired a ring his wife was wearing, an intricate design of silver circles and diamonds. Immediately she commissioned a jeweler to make one for me. And when I admired a beautiful carved table in the museum in Mexico City, she instructed the museum to pack it up for me. Obviously I couldn't take the table out of the museum, and I had trouble convincing her I couldn't accept it. I learned not to comment on things I liked.
Historians (and actresses assigned to juicy First Lady roles) will fondly regard the late 20th century as the last great era of guilelessness, where overexposure and unselfconsciousness managed to intersect, often hilariously. Oh, that we (including Sally Field) had the power to view Mary Todd Lincoln through such a lens! Had Lincoln the benefit of knowing how future First Ladies would fare under scrutiny, however, I'm sure she would choose to safeguard her mystique – when applied to books like My Turn, the question "What was she thinking?" has a whole different ring to it.