Ten revealing true stories of how our nation’s greatest romantics in chief put a ring on it.
1. MASTER OF SUBTLETY
Harry Truman met Bess Wallace in Sunday school. He was 6. She was 5. Later, in fifth grade, Wallace sat right behind the future president (their teacher sat them alphabetically). He had a crush on her but was too nervous to speak, later confessing, “If I succeeded in carrying her books to school or back home for her, I had a big day.” For years he courted her. He sent love letters, even sneaking in this proposal while talking about, of all things, the weather: “I guess we’ll all have to go to drinking whiskey if it doesn’t rain very soon. Water and pota- toes will soon be as much of a luxury as pineapples and diamonds. Speaking of diamonds, would you wear a solitaire on your left hand should I get it?” She said no. He kept asking, and finally, before he shipped out for World War I, she said yes. Throughout the war, he kept a photo of his fiancée in his breast pocket.
2. WILSON’S WISE PICK
Woodrow Wilson is one of three presidents to marry while he was in office. (The other two are John Tyler and Grover Cleveland.) Just months after his first wife died of kidney disease, he was introduced to Edith Galt, the “perfect playmate” who could beat him in golf. (He was 59, and she was 43; the Secret Service referred to her as “Grandma.”) He officially proposed over dinner, although as one contemporary joke put it, “What did Mrs. Galt do when the president proposed to her? She fell out of bed.” Edith later proved to be more than a playmate—she sat in meetings in the Oval Office, and when Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, she stepped in and served, in her words, as his “steward.” Functionally, she became president, secretly and successfully running the government’s executive branch for the rest of her husband’s term.
3. FAST AND FRUGAL
Lyndon Johnson already had a date with another woman when he met Lady Bird. So he asked her to meet him for breakfast. She said yes. They spent the next day driving around Austin, Texas; he proposed that same day. She demurred. He traveled back to D.C. (where he was working as a Congressional aide) and for the next 10 weeks they exchanged love letters—90 in total. Less than three months later, he returned to Texas with a ring. It cost $2.50.
4. PATIENCE AND FORTITUDE
At 25, Richard Nixon auditioned for a community theater production of The Dark Tower, where he met Thelma “Pat” Ryan, a schoolteacher. (Thelma’s father nicknamed her “Pat” because she was born the day before St. Patrick’s Day.) Nixon proposed; she laughed him off. But he courted her for two years, going ice-skating with her and her friends (even though he hated ice-skating), wooing her with letters, and even patiently driving her to dates with other men. He proposed again on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, giving her a ring in a basket of flowers.
5. BILL BRIBES HILL
Hillary Rodham made the first move. She first saw Bill Clinton in Yale’s student lounge, later recalling that he looked “more like a Viking than a Rhodes scholar.” For months they exchanged glances but never talked. Finally, she stood up, walked over to him, and said, “If you’re going to keep looking at me, and I’m going to keep looking back, we might as well be introduced. I’m Hillary Rodham.” Three years later, the tables would turn. Clinton repeatedly pro- posed to her; she repeatedly said no. He eventually bought a little red brick house in Arkansas and proposed a final time, saying, “Do you remember that house you liked? Well, I bought it, so now you’d better marry me because I can’t live in it by myself.” They held the wedding in the living room.
6. IKE’S CLASS MOVE
Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Mamie to marry him by giving her a miniature version of his class ring from West Point. His bride-to-be wasn’t pleased; she wanted a full-size rock. He proposed on Valentine’s Day, but because of a business trip he wasn’t able to ask her father until March 17. Apparently a fan of getting flowers, Mamie would celebrate both Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day as her engagement anniversaries.
7. LATE TO THE PARTY
When he was a kid, George W. Bush lived 10 blocks from his future wife—but they never met. They went to the same junior high school—but they never met. They later lived in the same apartment complex—but never met. Finally, in their early thirties, they both attended a barbecue in a mutual friend’s backyard; they got married three months later. Laura would later joke, “All our friends were married. George and I were literally the last ones of all of our friends. That’s why we had to marry each other, I guess.”
8. ANDY SWOOPS IN
Andrew Jackson proposed to his future wife, Rachel Robards, when she was married to another man. (This was not without controversy!) Robards left her abusive, cheating husband and moved to Mississippi; when she heard that he’d filed for a divorce, she married Jackson. But the news eventually proved false. So, technically, she was married to two men at the same time. For years, political opponents used the marriage to smear Jackson. Eventually, Jackson killed one such complainant in a duel.
9. GARDEN OF DELIGHTS
Warren Harding and Florence Kling had what a friend of Harding’s called “a Capulet-and-Montague love affair.” Harding had fallen for Florence, his sister’s piano teacher, a young mother whose husband had left her. Her father vehemently opposed their relationship, so the two met clandestinely in Florence’s rose garden. Once she dissolved her marriage she tied the knot with Warren (Florence’s mother snuck in secretly to avoid the wrath of her father). It’s a good thing they took the leap: many credit her as the brains behind his later success. “I know what’s best for the President,” she once boasted. “He does well when he listens to me and poorly when he does not.”
10. OBAMA SERVES IT UP
A 25-year-old Michelle Robinson was a promising first-year associate at the corporate law firm Sidley Austin when her bosses asked her to mentor a new employee from Harvard. The two met for lunch. She later recalled, “He had this bad sport jacket and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and I thought: ‘Oh, here you go. Here’s this good-looking, smooth-talking guy. I’ve been down this road before.’” On their first date they saw Do the Right Thing and went to Baskin-Robbins. Two years later, while dining at Gordon’s, Robinson started lecturing him, saying they need- ed to get serious about their relationship ... when suddenly a ring showed up on her dessert plate. Obama said, “That kind of shuts you up, doesn’t it?”