Poet, playwright and biographer Epstein (Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, 2004, etc.) presents a history and analysis of the almost operatic marriage of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln.
The vivacious daughter of an aristocratic Kentucky family, Mary let it be known early and not entirely in jest that she intended to marry a man who would become president of the United States. Aggressively wooed by many in her adopted town of Springfield, Ill., she singled out the unlikely Lincoln. Despite a rocky courtship, she married the prairie lawyer with whom she shared a love of poetry, plays, politics and a ferocious ambition. Touching only lightly on their lives before marriage—and not at all on Mary’s decline after her husband’s assassination—Epstein focuses on their turbulent and often unhappy union. Intensely private, secretive and frequently absent, Lincoln was no picnic as a husband; Mary, if anything, was a worse wife. Epstein sensitively charts her descent into what can only be called madness. During the Springfield years her penchant for self-dramatization and self-pity, extreme nervousness, hypersensitivity and bad temper manifested itself in common enough fashion: an unreasoning fear of thunderstorms, grudges held against family and friends, gratuitous insults inflicted and physical assaults on servants and, occasionally, her husband. In the White House her increasingly disordered mind gave way to more serious offenses: lavish, compulsive spending beyond her means, baseless jealousy of other women, tampering with the government payroll and influence peddling. Her inconsolable grief at a second child’s death led to delusions and hallucinations. A seemingly permanent mental instability, perhaps the result of a carriage accident, separated her even further from a husband preoccupied with managing a savage war. She never wavered in her love for or her belief in Lincoln, but Mary appears to have deserved the titles bestowed on her by the president’s aides: the “hellcat” and “Her Satanic Majesty.”
A dynamic picture of a marriage every bit as fractious and as buffeted as the nation the Lincolns served.