Saturday, September 8, 2012

Priscilla Cooper Tyler

Priscilla Cooper Tyler and the American Scene, 1816-1889 was one of those books you think about during the day and cannot get wait to get back to reading before bed! Priscilla and her sisters left scads of gossipy, dramatically detailed letters and journals which the author quoted often so I could really feel the emotion behind the facts. Priscilla's personality reminds me of Josephine March from Little Women. She would encourage her younger sisters to put on little dramatic plays at home. She edited a family newspaper. She was not good at domestic tasks. All those were left to her older, more responsible sister, Mary Grace.

Her father was the famous Shakespearen actor, Thomas Cooper and her mother was Mary Fairlie whose family never accepted or loved Thomas, but stayed close to Mary and their children. When Priscilla was a teenager her mother passed away from a long illness. Her father’s popularity on the stage had dwindled as he had gotten older and the family was strapped for cash. So to support her family, Priscilla went on stage with her father putting on the Thomas Cooper Benefit Tour. The family was careful to shield Priscilla from the rough backstage life. Her older sister Mary Grace went as costumer and chaperone to help out. They toured from New York all the way down to New Orleans for four and a half years. Priscilla’s journals and letters reveal that acting was merely a job for her. She must have been good at it based on the newspaper reviews quoted in the book, but she does not speak of enjoying the attention or praise or the work.

During one performance in Richmond, Virginia, Robert Tyler, son of governor John Tyler, saw Priscilla on stage and he apparently fell in love at first sight. He pursued her and they were married shortly there after.  Priscilla left her home in Bristol, Pennsylvania to live at the Tyler plantation in Virginia. It seems to have been a happy family together and Priscilla called John Tyler, Father, all her days.

When John Tyler became president, his wife, Letitia, was an invalid confined to her chair, his older daughters were married, and his younger daughters were still children. So Priscilla was it! And she did a fine job! The author says that although politically John Tyler could do nothing right, socially, the Tylers could do nothing wrong.

When John Tyler moved his family to the White House, he sat everyone down for a family meeting reminding them that they would only be in this high office for a short time then the would be the plain Tylers again, so they should remember to conduct themselves with humility.

I like to think how her career on the stage prepared Priscilla for life in the White House. She was already used to having an audience and performing when the spotlight was on her. She was used to paying attention to details of a performance like her costume, the scenery, in essence setting the stage so that the atmosphere is just right. Even knowing a script in a play is not too much different from preparing proper topics of conversation for important dinner parties. By the end her time as hostess she wrote that she felt born to the role.

However, she did display some stage fright during her first cabinet dinner. She fainted away at the table! Daniel Webster took her from the table to try to revive her at the same time, Priscilla says, John Tyler “deluged us both with ice-water, ruining my lovely new dress and, I am afraid, producing a decided coolness between himself and the Secretary of State.”

Priscilla’s success may also be due to her wisdom in seeking advice from Dolley Madison who was often in Washington and was close friends with the Tylers. During one particularly trying time for John Tyler, Priscilla decided to get him to lighten up. She dressed up her four year old daughter like Dolley Madison, coached her in imitating Dolley’s speech and then ran to John in his office and said “come quick! Dolley needs to see you in the drawing room!” John rushed down to see his granddaughter as Dolley and they all had a good laugh!

When John Tyler remarried in 1844, Priscilla’s time as hostess was up, but not her time mixing with politics. While he reluctantly practiced law, Robert Tyler remained active in his political party and helped to get Pierce and Buchanan elected. His potential political career in Pennsylvania was ruined by the outbreak of the Civil War. When he mentioned he was for state’s rights, he was run out of Bristol by a lynch mob. He eventually escaped to his father’s home in Virginia and fought for the Confederacy. By the time the war was over, Robert Tyler was completely ruined and he and Priscilla were staying with her family in Alabama. At this time, his faithful friend James Buchanan wrote him a letter extending his friendship and also a check for $1000. Robert Tyler returned the check but appreciated the support.  The Tylers stayed in Alabama where Robert helped greatly to keep integrity and honesty in the government during reconstruction.

610 Radcliffe Street, Bristol PA
home of Robert and Priscilla Tyler when he was run out of state by a lynch mob
This house is now the Grundy Museum.

The First Ladies each have a different home life and background before they come to the White House that either helps or hinders them in their role as hostess. Priscilla thrived because of her background on the stage. This makes me look ahead to Reagan. How did his background in acting help him in the presidency? Were there other actors and actresses in the White House?

Although her family and in-laws were so different, both were so loving and supportive. This reminds me of Louisa Adams’ unhappy family and her feelings of being imprisoned in the White House. She was stuck with her miserable husband and unhappy children! The Tylers were a loving family so although it was a lot of work, there were a lot of fond memories in the White House. Of course, Tyler’s emphasis on humility allowed them to live in reality too. I’m sure John Tyler did not nit pick his family when they weren’t perfect (sound familiar, John Quincy??).  He allowed them room to make mistakes, like fainting at a cabinet dinner. Love and humility can go a long way in the success of any house as we see from the families that have called the White House home.

1 comment:

  1. I think we would have been great friends, Pricilla and me. She does remind me of Jo from what you have said here. Love you!