The (Often Unhappy) History of Weddings at the White House
December 7, 2009
On November 30 a spokesman for President Bill Clinton reported that former first daughter Chelsea had become engaged to her longtime boyfriend Marc Mezvinsky. Following rumors last summer that the two had gotten married, the announcement was not greeted with much surprise. But one can only imagine how much more newsworthy it would’ve been had the 2000 election turned out differently.
If the Clintons now occupied the White House, Chelsea would have been the 24th child of a president to get married during her father’s (or mother’s) term in office. And if her ceremony were held in the White House, it would have been only the 10th time in U.S. history that the child of a sitting president had decided to do so—and the first such ceremony since Tricia Nixon’s famous wedding in 1971. (The children of President Reagan and both Presidents Bush who married during their father’s term did not get married in the White House.)
Although it is hard to think of a wedding venue with quite the same cachet as the White House, weddings at the presidential mansion have a mixed history. Nevertheless, weddings have been held in the White House, on average, about every 19 years.
And even though it may seem that Tricia Nixon’s 1971 wedding took place a long time ago, the 38 years that have elapsed since do not represent the longest period that a wedding ceremony has not been held at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: there were no weddings at the White House from 1914 to 1967, a span of 53 years.
With President Obama’s daughters Malia (age 10) and Sasha (age 7) not likely to be ready to marry even if their father is re-elected to a second term, it may be some time before we experience another wedding at the White House.
Until then, here’s a look back at past marriage ceremonies held at the most famous address in America:
March 1820: Maria Monroe’s wedding overshadowed by “Murder”
Maria Monroe, the daughter of the fifth U.S. president, was only 17 years old when she married her first cousin and presidential staffer Samuel Gouverneur. At the time First Lady Elizabeth Monroe was in poor health, and so Maria’s much older sister, the oft-reviled Eliza, took charge of making the arrangements—much to the chagrin of the happy couple. Elizabeth and Eliza had managed to alienate much of official Washington, and the first White House wedding was a rather small affair as a result. To compensate, Maria and Samuel planned a series of balls after the official wedding, the first of which was to be held at the home of popular naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur. But when Decatur was mortally wounded in a duel only days after the ball, the joy of the newlyweds was eclipsed by the scandal of Decatur’s “murder”. The hapless couple only found true peace when they later re-located to New York with the assistance of President John Quincy Adams.
February 1828: Sibling rivalry and the wedding of John Adams II
John Quincy Adams had been secretary of State during the Monroe presidency, and the wedding at the White House of his son John Adams II wasn’t much happier than Maria Monroe’s wedding eight years earlier. The bride, Mary Catherine, became part of the Adams household after the death of her parents. She proceeded to date each of the three Adams boys before marrying John—and breaking the hearts of his two brothers, who did not attend the wedding ceremony. The Adams wedding wasn’t much more lavish than the Monroe wedding, and wasn’t particularly joyful either.
January 1842: Illness and the wedding of Elizabeth Tyler
The third White House wedding was less marred by family intrigue than its predecessors, but resulted in a marriage that did not have a happy conclusion. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Tyler was the fifth child of President John Tyler. Though her union to William Waller was a happy one, it was short-lived: she died at the age of 27 after being married only eight years, leaving behind five children.
May 1874: Nellie Grant’s storybook wedding (but less than stellar marriage)
It wasn’t until the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant that the country saw a truly gala wedding take place at the White House. The East Room was completely redecorated for the occasion, including new French chandeliers. Grant’s only daughter Nellie had grown up in the White House and was a stunning beauty who had been educated at the finest schools in the country. She met Algernon Sartoris while touring England and their wedding at the White House was heralded as the social event of the century. By 1889, however, when her husband’s drinking and womanizing had taken their toll, with the support and assistance of Algernon’s family Nellie got a divorce, and she later re-married.
February 1906: Alice Roosevelt’s grander wedding (and unhappy marriage)
The curious mirroring of White House weddings repeated itself with Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, whose grand wedding and resulting marriage mirrored Nellie Grant. Alice was a supremely popular—and often controversial—figure who loved to smoke and flirt in public. Alice outdid Nellie Grant with a wedding ceremony that used all of the White House function rooms and had three times as many guests. She refused to have bridesmaids (reportedly to avoid being upstaged) and notoriously grabbed a sword from a member of the honor guard to cut her wedding cake. But, alas, like Nellie Grant her grand ceremony resulted in an unhappy marriage, and she reportedly burned her husband’s priceless Stradivarius violin after he died.
November 1913: Jessie Wilson starts a very happy marriage to Frances Bowes Sayre
Only 7 years had passed since Alice Roosevelt’s wedding, and when Woodrow Wilson announced the marriage of his second daughter the press was eager for similar fanfare. But Jessie and her fiancé Frank Sayre avoided the limelight, which annoyed the press but made the couple even more popular with the public. The House of Representatives gave Jessie a large diamond necklace, and other gifts poured in from across the world. Unlike some of their predecessors, Jessie and Frank had a long and happy marriage until their respective deaths.
May 1914: Eleanor Wilson marries her father’s (much older) Secretary of the Treasury
Just a year later, a second Wilson daughter got married at the White House. Due to the declining health of First Lady Ellen Wilson, Eleanor “Nellie” Wilson’s wedding was a small, family affair. Just 23, she married Williams Gibbs McAdoo, the 56 year-old Secretary of the Treasury who was a widower, a grandfather, and father of six. McAdoo was a prominent figure in the Democratic Party who had several close, but unsuccessful, attempts to earn his party’s presidential nomination. McAdoo and Nellie were divorced in1932, and he then married another younger woman—some say to enhance his presidential prospects.
December 1967: Lynda Byrd Johnson’s Christmas wedding
The first White House wedding of the television age had the Vietnam War as a backdrop. President Johnson’s eldest daughter Lynda Byrd married Captain (and future governor and senator) Charles Robb of the Marine Corps, who was to start a tour of duty in Vietnam shortly thereafter. The brief, 15-minute ceremony took place in an East Room decorated for Christmas. Robb wore his military uniform for the occasion, and over 500 guests attended.
June 1971: Tricia Nixon’s iconic Rose Garden ceremony
Tricia Nixon’s wedding continues to be the most memorable wedding ever held at the White House, and that is not simply due to its recency. For starters, the ceremony is the only one to have been held in the Rose Garden—a risky insistence by the bride due to Washington’s often-rainy June weather. (On the wedding day, in fact, the weather cleared at the last minute, allowing staff to clear plastic covers off the seats and to scrap contingency plans for the East Room.) On top of that, Tricia Nixon was a celebrity even before her wedding was announced, appearing not once but twice on the cover of Time magazine, by herself. It is said that she is the most beautiful of all White House brides. In yet another example of the circularity of weddings at the White House, Tricia Nixon’s wedding was attended by none other than Alice Roosevelt—who quipped that her seat in the Rose Garden had been wet.
So, what is the moral of the story? If there is one, perhaps it is that in some respects venue doesn’t count. Weddings at the country’s most prestigious address have a checkered history, but that has more to do with the couples themselves than the building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.