Meticulous reconstruction of the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave who became the First Lady’s personal dressmaker and confidante.
Fleischner (English/Adelphi Univ.; Mastering Slavery, not reviewed) brings to light a compelling story long obscured by events of greater consequence. She begins with a post-assassination meeting in New York City between Mary and Lizzy during which the emotionally damaged and deeply indebted widow revealed to her friend a plan to raise money by selling the scores of gowns she wore during her White House years. (The plan, we find out 300 pages later, failed miserably.) Then the author moves back to chronicle in alternating chapters the biographies of Mary Todd and Elizabeth Hobbs, the former born into a fairly prosperous slave-owning family in Lexington, Kentucky; the latter born into slavery in Virginia. It takes 200 pages for their lives to converge. By then Lizzy had married a man named Keckly (who soon vanished), become a talented and popular seamstress, purchased freedom for herself and her son at the enormous price of $1,200, and established herself in Washington, D.C., as the favored seamstress of such luminaries as Mrs. Jefferson Davis. Lizzy and Mary met on the eve of Lincoln’s first inauguration, when Mary ordered the first of what would be many dresses. The relationship, argues Fleischner, grew into a friendship as Lizzy helped Mary with everything from childcare to shopping to grieving. It fractured, however, when Lizzy, who had damaged her own business to attend to the First Widow, elected to publish a memoir. This was much too uppity for proud, frangible Mary Lincoln, and the two never met again. The author provides many fascinating details about fashion and mantua-making, although she could have omitted much material available elsewhere about the rise of Abraham Lincoln and horrors of the Civil War.
Still, an important, absorbing addition to the vast Lincoln library.