STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next we'll find out what we can learn from a pile of letters that begin: Dear Mrs. Bush or Mrs. Clinton or Mrs. Lincoln or Dear Madam.
American citizens have written to the first ladies since Martha Washington. The letters make requests, ask for favors, criticize or praise, and some of these letters have been collected in the new book, "Dear First Lady." NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg has the story.
SUSAN STAMBERG: On June 15, 1953, a desperate American sent a message to Mamie Eisenhower.
Unidentified Voice Actor #1: (As Ms. Sophie Rosenberg, Mother of Mr. Julius Rosenberg) (Reading) I turn to you in my deep grief and implore you to intercede with President Eisenhower to grant mercy to my beloved children.
STAMBERG: Sophie Rosenberg was trying to save the life of her son Julius and his wife Ethel. They were sentenced to death, accused of leaking secrets about the atomic bomb to Russia.
Unidentified Voice Actor #1: (Reading) I beg of you to act through the charity of your heart for an old woman whose days are spent in weeping.
Mr. DWIGHT YOUNG (Co-author, "Dear First Lady"): This was a time when America was afraid.
STAMBERG: Dwight Young is co-author of the collection of letters to first ladies.
Mr. YOUNG: All of a sudden, the Russians had the atomic bomb. They had moved so swiftly from having been our ally in the Second World War to now suddenly an enormous threat to us.
STAMBERG: Sophie Rosenberg's plea went unheeded. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted four days after she wrote to Mrs. Eisenhower.
Few letters in this collection are as heart-wrenching as that one, although there are some shocking, and sad ones, as you will hear.
Helen Thomas, one-time UPI White House bureau chief, covered nine first ladies. In her introduction to the book, Thomas says first ladies rarely replied personally to their mail.
Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Former UPI White House Bureau Chief): I think Mrs. Nixon actually read the letters that came to her and answered them, believe it or not, but I think most of them probably are not because they can be in preponderance beyond human capacity.
STAMBERG: Eleanor Roosevelt got more letters than any other first lady; her husband served for three terms. Co-author Margaret Johnson says in December 1934, the heart of the Depression, Mrs. Roosevelt got a touching letter from a woman in Florida.
Ms. MARGARET JOHNSON (Co-author, "Dear First Lady"): She said that she was a widow…
Unidentified Voice Actor #2: (As Clara Leonard, Widow) (Reading) Dear Madam…
Ms. JOHNSON: And she had a 14-year-old son, and it was a particularly cold winter in Miami.
Unidentified Voice Actor #2: (Reading) I feel worthy of asking you about this. I am greatly in need of a coat. If you have one which you have laid aside from last season, I would appreciate it so much if you would send it to me. I will pay postage if you see fit to send it. I wear a size 36…
STAMBERG: Clara Leonard wrote on lined notebook paper in clear, careful penmanship.
Mr. YOUNG: She was writing to the wife of the president, and she wanted to look her best on paper.
STAMBERG: Again, co-author Dwight Young.
Mr. YOUNG: She was having, in a sense, to humble herself, but she didn't want to come across as pitiful.
(Soundbite of song, "My Country 'Tis of Thee")
Ms. MARIAN ANDERSON (Singer): (Singing) My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty...
STAMBERG: A letter from Eleanor Roosevelt marks another seminal event in American history. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to permit Marian Anderson to sing at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington. Mrs. Roosevelt resigned from the organization.
Mr. YOUNG: She says in the letter: probably never been a very good member of the DAR to start with, but in this case, I can't even allow my name to be associated with the organization because I think you had an opportunity here to take a leadership stand in an important issue, and you failed.
STAMBERG: Ten years before Marian Anderson sang on the National Mall, President Herbert Hoover's wife Lou got this letter, unsigned, from the Women's League of Miami.
Unidentified Voice Actor #3: (As Unidentified Correspondent to Mrs. Lou Hoover) (Reading) Well, we didn't dream that you would disgrace the White House by associating with Negroes.
STAMBERG: It was a custom at the White House for the first lady to invite congressional wives to tea every year. In 1929, one of those wives was black, married to Oscar De Priest, representative from Illinois. By inviting her, Lou Hoover was not taking a stand. She was simply carrying out a tradition and was excoriated for it.
Unidentified Voice Actor #3: (Reading) You can go to Illinois next winter and visit your Negro friend. Florida don't care for you to visit the South anymore.
Mr. YOUNG This is one of those letters where the appearance of the letter tells you a great deal. It looks like it could have been written by a serial killer. It's this fierce, angry scrawl with things underlined. And it basically says, you have betrayed us by entertaining a negress in the White House.
STAMBERG: In 1865, shortly after the president who wrote the Emancipation Proclamation was assassinated, his widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, got a letter with thick, black borders, bearing the royal seal of England's Queen Victoria.
Unidentified Voice Actor #4: (As Queen Victoria) (Reading) No one can better appreciate than I can, who am myself utterly broken-hearted by the loss of my own beloved husband, who was the light of my life, my stay, my all. What your sufferings must be.
Mr. YOUNG: This letter was written a little over four years after Queen Victoria's own husband, Prince Albert, had died, and she's saying to Mary Todd Lincoln, in effect, I've been there, I know what you're going through. It hurts like hell.
STAMBERG: Queen Victoria's handwriting is firm with a few flourishes. Her writing paper is expensively thick. In the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, the choice of paper, the shape of characters, was a reflection of the letter writer.
Mr. YOUNG: You get so much human personality on a piece of paper that has writing from a human hand on it, and that may be disappearing.
STAMBERG: Again, journalist Helen Thomas.
Ms. THOMAS: I wonder if it's the death of the letter now, with all the high-tech…
STAMBERG: Can text messages, e-mails and IMs reflect the times in which they were written the way letters can? Dwight Young says his book, "Dear First Lady," is only superficially about the women who lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mr. YOUNG: When you get right down to it, it's really about us. It's about the American public…
Ms. THOMAS: The times, the times…
Mr. YOUNG: And how we reach out to someone that we think can give us answers or reassurance. So it's the story of us as much as it's the story of the woman in the White House.
STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You can read Sophie Rosenberg's plea to Mamie Eisenhower and Queen Victoria's sympathy letter to Mary Todd Lincoln at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
NEARY: And I'm Lynn Neary.