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First Ladies Get Corner Spot in History

Times Staff Writer

Presidents get their own libraries. John Kennedy’s overlooks Boston Harbor. Franklin Roosevelt’s overlooks the Hudson River. Ronald Reagan wanted his at Stanford University, but he had to settle for Simi Valley.

And presidential wives? They get a corner in the Cerritos Public Library.

It is believed to be the only municipal book depository in the country dedicated to the nation’s First Ladies and containing a First Ladies Collection. The section was created at the behest of local women, who insisted that the library, built in 1973, memorialize the contributions of women to community life.

National Enquirer Clippings

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Forget that much of the archival material--most notably that about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis--consists of clippings from the National Enquirer.

Forget that under a picture of Mary Harrison someone put the date of her death as four years before she married Benjamin.

In Cerritos one can quickly find out what kind of woman married Calvin Coolidge--a man so aloof that humorist Dorothy Parker, upon learning he was dead, quipped, “How can they tell?”

Grace Coolidge, according to her biographer, was a “lively extrovert” and a teacher of deaf children who as First Lady became their spokeswoman and helped secure them a right to education.

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In Cerritos you can find out almost as quickly which of the nation’s First Ladies had a degree in geology and spoke Mandarin Chinese.

It was one of five languages spoken by Lou Henry Hoover, who met her mining-engineer husband, Herbert, at Stanford University and after their marriage followed him to China where he worked.

Want to know how Presidents romanced First Ladies? Look to the collection for two books of love letters by Woodrow Wilson--to first wife, Ellen, and second wife, Edith. Wilson called both of them “my own darling.”

Soap opera writers in search of new material can check out “Cannibals of the Heart,” a title that at least sounds more titillating than the “The Guiding Light.”

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“Cannibals” chronicles the “Who’s-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf"-like marriage of John Quincy Adams and wife, Louisa, whose sense of identity within the illustrious Adams family was so fragile that she titled her diary “The Adventures of a Nobody” and once suggested that “hanging and marriage” were a lot alike.

Accommodations to History

The First Ladies Committee of the Friends of the Cerritos Library realized, though, when it began hanging First Lady portraits on the library walls that it would have to make some accommodations to history.

Presidents often had more than one wife so the committee decreed that its portrait gallery be open to all presidential wives, not just First Ladies.

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The gallery includes Rachael Jackson, the love of Andrew’s life, who was buried in the gown she would have worn to the Inaugural Ball. She became ill and died before her husband could take the oath of office.

The presidential wives’ designation also explains why Alice Roosevelt and Caroline Fillmore made it to the wall of the library, if not to the White House. Alice died 17 years before husband, Teddy, and his second wife, Edith, moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Caroline did not marry Millard Fillmore until five years after he and first wife, Abigail, who later died, moved out. But there is no picture yet of actress Jane Wyman, the first presidential ex-wife.

Some friends of the library, said Annette Creasy, a founding member of the library auxiliary group, have privately pondered the Wyman issue. The group is sensitive, Creasy said, to rumors that there might be a “rift” between Reagan’s first wife, Wyman, and Nancy Reagan. The issue, Creasy suggested, will probably be resolved after everyone involved is dead.

The First Ladies collection--170 books, 41 gold-framed pictures, six scrapbooks of news clippings and memorabilia that includes a pale pink leather handbag that belonged to Mamie Eisenhower--is a mother lode of First Family trivia.

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Among the books: “Dog Days at the White House: The Outrageous Memoirs of the Presidential Kennel Keeper.” Among the news clippings: a story about Margaret Wilson, daughter of Woodrow. She moved to India and joined a religious cult.

Julie Eisenhower’s biography of mother Pat Nixon is in the book collection, along with a tell-all tome about her called the “Lonely Lady of San Clemente.” For real First Lady pathos, though, read “The Insanity File.” It is about Mary Todd Lincoln’s commitment to an asylum in her later years.

Pat Nixon’s tenure in the White House helped spur the city to dedicate its library to First Ladies. Richard Nixon’s wife spent part of her high school days in Cerritos when it was still called Dairy Valley. And, until the Watergate scandal when an unknown arsonist burned it down, the house in which she lived stood in the South Street park named for her.

The City Council accepted the idea of establishing the collection, Creasy said, only after the women played up the Pat Nixon connection and did research to show that Cerritos would be the only city that dedicated its library to First Ladies and had a First Ladies collection inside.

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