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Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly is a vibrant social history set against the backdrop of the Antebellum south and the Civil War that recreates the lives and friendship of two exceptional women: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her mulatto dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly.
Historian Jennifer Fleischner allows us to glimpse the intimate dynamics of this unusual friendship for the first time, and traces the pivotal events that enabled these two women—one born to be a mistress, the other to be a slave—to forge such an unlikely bond at a time when relations between blacks and whites were tearing the nation apart. Beginning with their respective childhoods in the slaveholding states of Virginia and Kentucky, their story takes the reader through the years of tragic Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the early Reconstruction period. An author in her own right, Keckly wrote one of the most detailed biographies of Mary Lincoln ever published, and though it led to a bitter feud between the friends, it is one of the many rich resources that have enhanced Fleischner’s trove of original findings.
“I consider you my best living friend,” Mary Lincoln wrote to Elizabeth Keckly in 1867, and indeed theirs was a close, if tumultuous, relationship. Born into slavery, mulatto Elizabeth Keckly was Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker, confidante, and mainstay during the difficult years that the Lincolns occupied the White House and the early years of Mary’s widowhood. But she was a fascinating woman in her own right, independent and already well-established as the dressmaker to the Washington elite when she was first hired by Mary Lincoln upon her arrival in the nation’s capital.
Elizabeth Keckly had bought her freedom in 1855 and come to Washington determined to make a life for herself as a free black, and she soon had Washington correspondents reporting that “stately carriages stand before her door, whose haughty owners sit before Elizabeth docile as lambs while she tells them what to wear.” Mary Lincoln had hired Elizabeth in part because she was considered a “high society” seamstress and Mary, an outsider in Washington’s social circles, was desperate for social cachet. With her husband struggling to keep the nation together, Mary turned increasingly to her seamstress for companionship, support, and advice—and over the course of those trying years, Elizabeth Keckly became her confidante and closest friend.
A remarkable and revealing work of scholarship that reveals the legacy of slavery and sheds new light on the Lincoln White House, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly brings to life an intimate aspect of Civil War history, and underscores the inseparability of black and white in our nation’s heritage.
"This is a beautiful book....Its beauty comes from Fleischner's exquisite control of the narrative as she writes a dual biography of two women—one white, free, and privileged in all but happiness and the other black, initially enslaved, and adept in human relationships, sewing, and money matters....Through the two women Fleischner (English, Adelphi Univ.; Mastering Slavery) reveals the world of petticoat politics in Springfield, IL, and the nation's capital, the cultural and social interiors of women's lives, and the intricacies of dress and public style....An essential read."—Library Journal (starred review)
"...Fleischner's rehabilitation of Mrs. Keckly, portrayed as a strong-minded and talented woman who bought her freedom from slavery, lost her son on a Civil War battlefield and wrote a detailed biography of her former employer, is a revelation."—Publisher's Weekly
"[W]ell written, extensively researched, and rich in context throughout. Recommended."
—Choice (American Library Association)