I recently read Eleanor Herman’s Sex with Presidents: The Ins and Outs of Love and Lust in the White House and wanted to share a review, because this book was absolutely fascinating and very eye-opening. You might think a book about presidents many years ago might be boring, but this was the opposite of boring. Non-fiction at its best, with the marriages, sex lives, and scandals of U.S. presidents summarized, with so many “who knew” and WTF moments. All the stories you didn’t know you didn’t know.
Someone on Goodreads reviewed the book “Came for the sex, stayed for the history!” which I believe is a fair summary of the contents of the book. It does talk about presidents’ sex lives, but is filled with colorful history, heartbreak, and the consequences of decisions. Herman also talks about how many presidents likely suffer from hubris syndrome, bipolar disorder, narcissistic disorder, and a “superfluity of testosterone.” I found the history of the wives even more fascinating, with personal favorites being Edith Bolling Wilson and Jackie Kennedy.
Each chapter of the book summarized one man- mostly presidents but a few notable exceptions who didn’t become president (Alexander Hamilton and Gary Hart). Presidents covered in this book include Thomas Jefferson, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. The author referenced many sources, including personal diaries of the presidents, many love letters, published pamphlets, and even telegraphs. We learned of their wives, mistresses, secretaries, and secrets. And Eleanor Roosevelt’s love affair with Lorena Hickok.
For example, Warren G. Harding fathered a child with mistress Nan Britton when he was serving as Senator in 1919. Harding died suddenly during his presidency, and the girl, Elizabeth Ann Britton Harding, was never interested in confirming paternity with DNA evidence. In 2015, 10 years after Elizabeth’s 2005 death at age 86, the NY Times reported Ancestry.com was able to confirm, through testing of descendants of Harding’s brother and Britton’s grandchildren, that Harding was in fact, Elizabeth’s father.
One of my favorite “Real Housewives of the White House” – ok, First Ladies – was Edith Bolling Wilson. Edith is a descendant of Pocahontas and the only Southern Appalachian-born First Lady. Her marriage to Wilson was controversial because it occurred just 15 months after the death of his first wife in 1914, and there was what we call now a suspicious overlap. Back then, there was much more emphasis on prolonged mourning periods.
Anway, Mrs. Wilson #2, Edith, basically ran the country after he suffered a stroke. Even whitehouse.gov credits her “Secret President” and “first woman to run the government” saying “After President Wilson suffered a severe stroke, she pre-screened all matters of state, functionally running the Executive branch of government for the remainder of Wilson’s second term.” To use my favorite Gwyneth Paltrow quote, “Who knew?”
Side note: Reading about Edith outside of the book, makes me want to take Ava to the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum in Wytheville, VA. The museum claims to be one of only eight historic sites across the country dedicated to the interpretation of a First Lady.
I did think the chapter titles were cleverly thought out and hinted at the meat and potatoes of each president’s story. For example, Chapter 9, “John F. Kennedy’s Terrible Headaches” – referred to JFK telling just about anyone, including a British Prime Minister, “If I don’t have sex every day, I get a headache.” And Chapter 10, “Lyndon Johnson and Half the People in the World,” referred to his wife Lady Bird Johnson’s famous interview quote, where she said: “Lyndon was a people lover. And that certainly didn’t include– did not exclude. half the people in the world — women.”
There were a number of places in the book that made me stop and google people, and do my own reading. I appreciated the depth of research the author did – she was very committed. In many of the stories, she pulled information from later memoirs, such as Mimi Alford’s memoir Once Upon a Secret. Mimi had an affair with President John F. Kennedy while she served as an intern in the White House press office in 1962 and 1963. Mimi is still alive today, quite a few of JFK’s lovers are. As Kennedy was assassinated 20 years before I was born, I didn’t know much about his presidency other than what I learned in school. He was really wild.
Beyond the salacious stories and wild adventures of JFK, his story left me with a deep sadness for his widow Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis, who was is remembered as a global style icon but suffered two miscarriages and a stillborn birth, and put up with her husband’s wild pursuits of women for years. On August 23, 1956, when she gave birth to a stillborn baby, JFK was thousands of miles away on a yacht cruising the Mediterranean. It didn’t occur to him to get back to his wife until friends suggested he might be shamed for not being at her side. Florida Senator George Smathers reportedly said to him: “You better haul your ass back to your wife if you ever want to run for president.”
Perhaps the saddest story was that of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s love affair with Kay Summersby, who served as his driver and personal secretary. Summersby was an energetic Irish divorcee, and Eisenhower was 20 years older than her. During WWII, while Eisenhower was a general, she was a member of the British Mechanised Transport Corps. While driving Eisenhower around while he was serving as commander of the Allied forces in north west Europe, the two became extremely close over several years. Eisenhower gifted Kay a little Scottish terrier named Telek (his name was a combination of Telegraph Cottage and Kay). You can read about Telek here.
The LA Times reported that Summersby wrote of falling in love with the face in the rearview mirror: “I succumbed immediately to that grin which was to become famous.” Kay never found love, she moved to the U.S., married a New York stockbroker in 1952, but got divorced in 1958, and struggled to find a job. She died on January 20, 1975 (Eisenhower died in 1969).
After reading the book, I enjoyed reading the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Many people who read the book believed it to be sensationalized, but I didn’t. The author clearly heavily researched this book. If you like presidential history even a little bit, you will enjoy this book.