Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly:
The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady
and a Former Slave
By Jennifer Fleischner (New York: Broadway Books, 2003. Pp
372, $26, ISBN 0-7679-0258-0
Review Originally Published byNorth and South Magazine, 6:7(November 2003):89-90
Keckly is best remembered as Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker during
the Civil War, partly responsible for the first lady’s bold
and oftentimes controversial fashion sense. A friendship formed
between the pair, but like so many of Mary Lincoln’s relationships,
it ended in bitterness. The rift occurred in 1868 when Keckly
wrote her autobiography, appropriately titled, Behind the Scenes:
Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Jennifer Fleischner’s new book contributes much needed
context to the lives of the former slave and dressmaker, Elizabeth
Keckly, and the colorful and outspoken first lady, Mary Lincoln.
and Elizabeth Keckly traveled vastly different paths before meeting. Fleischner
contrasts the life of privilege Mary Lincoln grew up in, with the early life
Keckly spent in slavery. In describing Mary’s background, Fleischner
details the early death of Mary’s mother. Mary was raised by a
slave the family referred to as “Aunt Sally.” Fleischner
writes, “And if Mary had a nightmare about her father dying too, a natural
fear under the circumstances, it was probably Aunt Sally who hushed her back
to sleep, while she clutched one of her beloved dolls to her chest.” While
the biographical information is not new, Fleischner demonstrates particular
strengths in both empathy and detail.
relies on Keckly’s autobiography to bring life to her portrait of Mrs.
Keckly. In addition, Fleischer’s own research on the subject of
slavery, of which she previously wrote Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family,
and Identity in Women’s Slave Narratives, provides for an even deeper
understanding of Keckly’s experiences. For instance, in her autobiography,
Keckly describes the circumstances in which she gave birth for the only time. Of
her son’s white father, she wrote, “Suffice it to say, that he
persecuted me for four years and I - I - became a mother.” Fleischner
adds context to Keckly’s brief description. “At twenty,” Fleischner
explains, “Lizzy was older than many young slave women who were sexually
preyed upon by their masters.” Fleischner cites a similar incident
between a slave and her master.
her research on slavery, particularly focusing on slave women’s experiences,
Fleischner adds a depth of understanding and detail for the reader not found
in Keckly’s autobiography. By breathing life into the Keckly-Lincoln
relationship, she adds color to the life of the former first lady. Mrs.
Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly is not merely a supplement to Behind the Scenes,
but a fascinating, colorful, imaginative, yet historically sound look into
a relationship forged in the White House between a first lady and her dressmaker.
- Samuel P. Wheeler, Southern Illinois University