Dorothy Rodham dies at 92; mother of Hillary Clinton

Dorothy Rodham, whose compassion, humor and toughness as a stay-at-home mother in 1950s suburban Chicago profoundly influenced her daughter Hillary Clinton and masked her own difficult childhood, has died. She was 92.

Rodham died early Tuesday in Washington, D.C., according to a statement by the William J. Clinton Foundation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton canceled a trip to London and Istanbul to be with her mother.

Rodham was born in Chicago on June 4, 1919, to Edwin Howell, a fireman, and his wife, Della.

Her parents fought violently, according to the records from their 1927 divorce, and neither paid much attention to Dorothy or her younger sister, Isabelle. After the couple divorced, the children were sent west by train to live with their paternal grandparents in Alhambra.

“On the four-day journey,” Clinton recalled in her 2003 memoir “Living History,” “eight-year-old Dorothy was in charge of her three-year-old sister.”


Life in California was no easier than it had been in Chicago, Clinton wrote.

Dorothy was treated cruelly and isolated socially; after she was caught trick-or-treating with friends, her grandmother declared that she would be confined to her room for a year (the punishment ended after several months when the grandmother’s sister found out about it, Clinton wrote).

She left her grandparents’ home at 14 and moved in with another family as a nanny while attending Alhambra High School. She planned to attend college in California until her mother summoned her back to Chicago, promising to help her pay for her education there. It turned out, Clinton wrote, that the newly remarried mother only wanted a housekeeper.

“I’d hoped so hard that my mother would love me that I had to take the chance and find out,” Clinton quoted her mother as saying. “When she didn’t, I had nowhere else to go.”

She moved into her own apartment and got an office job where she met Hugh Rodham, a traveling salesman. They were married in 1942 and five years later Hillary was born, the first of the couple’s three children.

The Rodhams’ two-story brick house became a hub for the neighborhood’s many children. Ernest Ricketts, 64, who was one of those kids, said Rodham seemed to relish her time as a stay-at-home mom.

But she could be tough too. As one story goes, Rodham once gave her daughter permission to punch a girl who had been bullying her. She did, and her bully problems were over.

“One of the things that Dorothy said was that Hillary always had the capacity, the confidence and tenacity to stare the devil down,” Ricketts said.

Clinton, who in her high school days was an enthusiastic conservative in the mold of her Republican father, gradually drifted to the left, causing her to fall out with her father, according to some of her biographers. That, in turn, brought her closer to her mother, according to Carl Bernstein’s 2007 book, “A Woman in Charge.”

“Dorothy is the person who shaped Hillary more than any other, and there is no way to see Dorothy and not see how she fashioned her daughter,” Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, a Hollywood producer and close Clinton friend, said in Bernstein’s book.

In 1987, Rodham and her husband left Chicago to join Hillary and her husband, Bill Clinton, in Arkansas. Rodham’s husband died in 1993, and she later moved to Washington, joining her daughter on the campaign trail during her quest for the presidency in 2008.

President Obama issued a tribute to Rodham:

“Ms. Rodham was a remarkable person,” Obama said in a statement. “Anybody who knows her history knows what a strong, determined and gifted person she was. For her to have been able to live the life that she did and to see her daughter succeed at the pinnacle of public service in this country, I’m sure was deeply satisfying to her.”

Besides her daughter, Rodham is survived by two sons, Hugh and Tony; and four grandchildren.

Tribune reporters Bob Secter and Katherine Skiba contributed to this report.