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Awkwardness and Bawdy Talk: 7 Tales of Presidential Courtship

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You may be surprised to learn that not every politician is equipped with romantic game. Here are the stories of a few presidents who had a little difficulty garnering the affections of the first lady – or at least had a few awkward moments during the courtship. Learn from their fumbles, and be grateful that your own aren’t subject to public scrutiny.

1. John Adams’ Ill-Timed Inoculation

If you’re seriously pursuing a woman, try not to get quarantined midway through courtship. That’s exactly what happened to John Adams soon after he began dating Abigail. Because Adams spent a significant amount of time in Boston, where the smallpox epidemic was raging, he opted to get vaccinated. The procedure required a six-week quarantine, during which all physical contact was forbidden.

While Abigail was delighted to receive notes from her sweetheart during his time away, she was so fearful of catching smallpox that she requested that John thoroughly “smoke” the letters before sending them. She wrote, “I hope you smoke your letters well, before you deliver them. Mamma is so fearful lest I should catch the distemper, that she hardly ever thinks the letters are sufficiently purified.” Upon their arrival, Abigail would ask her slave to smoke them one more time and hovered over him while he did. Though the notes themselves were quite heartfelt, the smoky smell definitely made them a tad less romantic.

2. Woodrow Wilson and the Embarrassing Typo

Woodrow Wilson didn’t actually have a problem enticing his wife-to-be Edith Galt to go out with him; the awkwardness came after they’d already been dating. The two began seeing each other in 1915, a year after Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, had passed away. Fearing that critics would condemn him for moving on too quickly, 59-year-old Wilson kept the relationship on the down-low. But one day, the Washington Post published a news blurb exposing the couple’s night out on the town. The article was supposed to read, “Rather than pay attention to the play, the president spent the evening entertaining Mrs. Galt.” But an unfortunate typo stated, “... the president spent the evening entering Mrs. Galt.”

3. Richard Nixon’s Strange Chauffeur Service

Nixon was never exactly a ladies man. When he proposed to his future wife Pat on their first date, she thought he was nuts. But that didn’t deter him. Instead, Nixon offered to be her driver on her dates with other men. He also inundated her with mushy love letters, referring to himself in the third person and to Pat as “thee.” One line read, “When the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves. . . that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee -- my dearest heart.”

Pat’s replies were a little more succinct. She wrote back, “In case I don't see you before, why don't you come early Wednesday and I'll see if I can burn a hamburger for you." But despite her apparent lack of interest, Pat eventually came around and let Nixon drive her on more dates - this time with himself.

4. Calvin Coolidge’s Lasting First Impression

Grace Donahue Goodhue first spotted the demure Calvin Coolidge through a boarding house window while she was watering flowers outside. At that moment, he happened to be shaving in front of a mirror wearing nothing but long underwear and a derby hat - which he claimed was to keep the hair out of his eyes. Grace burst out laughing, causing Coolidge to turn and see her glancing up at him from the street below. Not only did the long johns and shaving cream not catch on – the notoriously reserved president also had to endure decades of taunting from his wife... and everyone else who heard the tale of their initial encounter.

5. Harry Truman’s Unrelenting Love Letters

Truman was acutely aware of his lack of romantic game, admitting, “I was always afraid of girls my age and older.” But when he met Bess Wallace at Sunday school, it was love at first sight. However, while he only had eyes for her, it took almost 30 years before she reciprocated his passion. As adults, Truman began inundating her with over-the-top love letters. In one 1911 note, he opened with remarks about the weather, seamlessly transitioning into a marriage proposal. “Water and potatoes will soon be as much of a luxury as pineapples and diamonds," he wrote. "Speaking of diamonds, would you wear a solitaire one on your left hand should I get it?”

Bess said no. But Truman kept at it, proclaiming his unwavering dedication. In one letter, he declared that if she ever accepted his offer – “I'd make love to you so hard you'd either have to say yes or knock me on the head” – but then promptly apologized for his forwardness. But perhaps that kind of talk was convincing. In 1913, two and a half years after Truman’s original proposal, Bess said her feelings had changed. In 1919, the two finally tied the knot, and Harry moved in with Bess and her mother. Yup, Truman was a smooth operator right up until the very end.

6. Grover Cleveland Robs the Cradle

The only president to serve two non-consecutive terms was also the only president married in a White House ceremony. Grover Cleveland was 49 and a little more than a year into his first term when he married 21-year-old Frances Folsom. Cleveland had known his bride her whole life. Her father was a close friend of the future president, and Cleveland bought the infant Frances a baby carriage as a gift. Growing up she called him "Uncle Cleve." When her father died leaving no will, the court appointed Cleveland to administer the estate.

The wedding was a simple affair, attended by close friends, family, and cabinet members and their wives. But the occasion was far from quiet—John Philip Sousa led the Marine Band. After the ceremony, "the ladies kissed the bride to their hearts content," The New York Times reported, "but the gentlemen followed the example of the groom and refrained." There was a 20-pound salmon to sup on and a 25-pound wedding cake.

7. Barack Obama’s Workplace Romance

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When Michelle Robinson was assigned to be Barack Obama’s supervisor while he worked as a summer associate at a Chicago law firm, she took one look at his file and said, “This guy’s gotta be kind of weird.” For some reason, Michelle thought his exotic name and prestigious pedigree (Harvard Law School, which she also attended) screamed “Steve Urkel” louder than “marriage material.” After meeting Barack, she admitted that he was cuter than she’d expected, but resolved to keep the relationship strictly professional, even after he asked her out multiple times. Finally, after a good bit of nagging on his part, she eventually acquiesced and agreed to hang out—as long as they didn’t call it a date. But after a day filled with art museums, jazz clubs, and Spike Lee, Michelle decided to give the whole romance in the workplace thing a try. In Barack’s case, persistence paid off.

Note: The Grover Cleveland section was written by David Holzel for a previous article on White House Weddings.

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery
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Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

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