10 Presidential Marriage Proposals


Ten revealing true stories of how our nation’s greatest romantics in chief put a ring on it.


Harry Truman met Bess Wallace in Sunday school. He was 6. She was 5. Later, in fifth grade, Wallace sat right behind the future president (their teacher sat them alphabetically). He had a crush on her but was too nervous to speak, later confessing, “If I succeeded in carrying her books to school or back home for her, I had a big day.” For years he courted her. He sent love letters, even sneaking in this proposal while talking about, of all things, the weather: “I guess we’ll all have to go to drinking whiskey if it doesn’t rain very soon. Water and pota- toes will soon be as much of a luxury as pineapples and diamonds. Speaking of diamonds, would you wear a solitaire on your left hand should I get it?” She said no. He kept asking, and finally, before he shipped out for World War I, she said yes. Throughout the war, he kept a photo of his fiancée in his breast pocket.


Woodrow Wilson is one of three presidents to marry while he was in office. (The other two are John Tyler and Grover Cleveland.) Just months after his first wife died of kidney disease, he was introduced to Edith Galt, the “perfect playmate” who could beat him in golf. (He was 59, and she was 43; the Secret Service referred to her as “Grandma.”) He officially proposed over dinner, although as one contemporary joke put it, “What did Mrs. Galt do when the president proposed to her? She fell out of bed.” Edith later proved to be more than a playmate—she sat in meetings in the Oval Office, and when Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919, she stepped in and served, in her words, as his “steward.” Functionally, she became president, secretly and successfully running the government’s executive branch for the rest of her husband’s term.


Lyndon Johnson already had a date with another woman when he met Lady Bird. So he asked her to meet him for breakfast. She said yes. They spent the next day driving around Austin, Texas; he proposed that same day. She demurred. He traveled back to D.C. (where he was working as a Congressional aide) and for the next 10 weeks they exchanged love letters—90 in total. Less than three months later, he returned to Texas with a ring. It cost $2.50.


At 25, Richard Nixon auditioned for a community theater production of The Dark Tower, where he met Thelma “Pat” Ryan, a schoolteacher. (Thelma’s father nicknamed her “Pat” because she was born the day before St. Patrick’s Day.) Nixon proposed; she laughed him off. But he courted her for two years, going ice-skating with her and her friends (even though he hated ice-skating), wooing her with letters, and even patiently driving her to dates with other men. He proposed again on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, giving her a ring in a basket of flowers.


Hillary Rodham made the first move. She first saw Bill Clinton in Yale’s student lounge, later recalling that he looked “more like a Viking than a Rhodes scholar.” For months they exchanged glances but never talked. Finally, she stood up, walked over to him, and said, “If you’re going to keep looking at me, and I’m going to keep looking back, we might as well be introduced. I’m Hillary Rodham.” Three years later, the tables would turn. Clinton repeatedly pro- posed to her; she repeatedly said no. He eventually bought a little red brick house in Arkansas and proposed a final time, saying, “Do you remember that house you liked? Well, I bought it, so now you’d better marry me because I can’t live in it by myself.” They held the wedding in the living room.


Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Mamie to marry him by giving her a miniature version of his class ring from West Point. His bride-to-be wasn’t pleased; she wanted a full-size rock. He proposed on Valentine’s Day, but because of a business trip he wasn’t able to ask her father until March 17. Apparently a fan of getting flowers, Mamie would celebrate both Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day as her engagement anniversaries.


When he was a kid, George W. Bush lived 10 blocks from his future wife—but they never met. They went to the same junior high school—but they never met. They later lived in the same apartment complex—but never met. Finally, in their early thirties, they both attended a barbecue in a mutual friend’s backyard; they got married three months later. Laura would later joke, “All our friends were married. George and I were literally the last ones of all of our friends. That’s why we had to marry each other, I guess.”


Andrew Jackson proposed to his future wife, Rachel Robards, when she was married to another man. (This was not without controversy!) Robards left her abusive, cheating husband and moved to Mississippi; when she heard that he’d filed for a divorce, she married Jackson. But the news eventually proved false. So, technically, she was married to two men at the same time. For years, political opponents used the marriage to smear Jackson. Eventually, Jackson killed one such complainant in a duel.


Warren Harding and Florence Kling had what a friend of Harding’s called “a Capulet-and-Montague love affair.” Harding had fallen for Florence, his sister’s piano teacher, a young mother whose husband had left her. Her father vehemently opposed their relationship, so the two met clandestinely in Florence’s rose garden. Once she dissolved her marriage she tied the knot with Warren (Florence’s mother snuck in secretly to avoid the wrath of her father). It’s a good thing they took the leap: many credit her as the brains behind his later success. “I know what’s best for the President,” she once boasted. “He does well when he listens to me and poorly when he does not.”


A 25-year-old Michelle Robinson was a promising first-year associate at the corporate law firm Sidley Austin when her bosses asked her to mentor a new employee from Harvard. The two met for lunch. She later recalled, “He had this bad sport jacket and a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and I thought: ‘Oh, here you go. Here’s this good-looking, smooth-talking guy. I’ve been down this road before.’” On their first date they saw Do the Right Thing and went to Baskin-Robbins. Two years later, while dining at Gordon’s, Robinson started lecturing him, saying they need- ed to get serious about their relationship ... when suddenly a ring showed up on her dessert plate. Obama said, “That kind of shuts you up, doesn’t it?”

A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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