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What Every First Lady Looked Like at 50 Years Old

Interesting Things logo Interesting Things 4/28/2020 Jeremy Helligar
a person wearing a suit and tie walking down the street: The Trumps at the White House Earth Day event, just a few days before the First Lady’s 50th birthday. © Provided by Interesting Things The Trumps at the White House Earth Day event, just a few days before the First Lady’s 50th birthday.

Years aren’t what they used to be. As time goes by, we’ve come up with new and improved ways to slow it down, if not turn it back or stop it completely. U.S. First Lady Melania Trump turned 50 on Sunday, April 26, and the Slovenian-born former model’s still-youthful appearance underscores the reality of modern age: Time is much kinder to us than it used to be (although a healthy lifestyle, moisturizer, and good genes don’t hurt). In light of FLOTUS’s big day, we’re flashing back to previous First Ladies at the same stage in life.

a person wearing a suit and tie walking down the street: The Trumps at the White House Earth Day event, just a few days before the First Lady’s 50th birthday. © Getty Images The Trumps at the White House Earth Day event, just a few days before the First Lady’s 50th birthday.

Michelle Obama: Born January 17, 1964

Obama was the realization of a once-seemingly impossible dream: She became the United States’ first black first lady when her husband, Barack Obama, became the 44th U.S. president in 2009. A longtime LGBTQ advocate, Obama made one of the most memorable FLOTUS speeches when she spoke publicly in support of same-sex marriage at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. A lawyer by profession and a wife since 1992, she turned 50 in 2014, just one year into her husband’s second term.

Laura Bush: Born November 4, 1946

Eight years after her mother-in-law, Barbara, left the White House, Bush she became the second daughter-in-law of a former first lady to ever assume the role. (The first was John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa Adams.) Unlike Barbara Bush, who was a one-term first lady, Laura spent eight years in the White House with her husband, George W. Bush. Married to him since 1977, she turned 50 in 1996, while Bush Jr. was the governor of Texas.

Hillary Clinton: Born October 26, 1947

One of five 20th-century First Ladies to turn 50 while living in the White House (the others were Grace Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter and Helen Taft), Clinton was also the first and, to date, the only one to go on to be elected to a national post (U.S. Senator). The former junior U.S. senator from New York has been married to 42nd U.S. President Bill Clinton since 1975 and was the first female presidential nominee of a major political party in 2016.

Mamie Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower in uniform posing for a photo: General Dwight Eisenhower with his wife and son, Captain John Eisenhower, in London, October 10th 1946. © Getty Images General Dwight Eisenhower with his wife and son, Captain John Eisenhower, in London, October 10th 1946.

Barbara Bush: Born June 8, 1925

One of only two First Ladies to give birth to a future U.S. President (Abigail Adams did it first), she was married to 41st U.S. President George Bush for 73 years before dying in 2018 at age 92. Their marriage, the second-longest presidential union in U.S. history after Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, produced six children and 14 grandchildren. Here she is in 1975, the year she turned 50.

Nancy Reagan: Born July 6, 1921

a black and white photo of Grace Coolidge © Getty Images Grace Coolidge

Like her husband, 40th U.S. President Ronald Reagan, the former Nancy Davis had a first act as a Hollywood actress, before retiring from performing 10 years after their 1952 marriage. Known for her war on drugs, her movie-star elegance, and her fierce protectiveness of President Reagan, she turned 50 in 1971, halfway through his eight years as governor of California.

Edith Wilson wearing a hat © Getty Images Edith Wilson

Rosalynn Carter: Born August 18, 1927

An 18-year-old bride when she married Jimmy Carter in 1946, she turned 50 seven months after her husband was sworn in as the 39th U.S. president. Married longer than any other president and first lady, the couple from Plains, Georgia, will celebrate their 74th wedding anniversary on July 7.

Betty Ford: Born April 18, 1918

She probably has better name recognition today than her husband, 38th U.S. President Gerald Ford, because of her public battles with breast cancer and alcoholism. She underwent a double mastectomy in 1974, weeks after becoming first lady, and spoke publicly about her ordeal, becoming one of the first female celebrities to do so. Ford, who turned 50 five years before her husband became Richard Nixon’s vice president in 1973, founded the Betty Ford Center nine years later, and it remains her most-lasting legacy.

Esther Cleveland, Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston posing for a photo: Francis Cleveland © Getty Images Francis Cleveland

Pat Nixon: Born March 6, 1912

Richard Nixon’s long-suffering wife, who married the future 37th U.S. president in 1940, is one of four First Ladies—along with Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Kennedy—to be portrayed onscreen in Oscar-nominated performances (Joan Allen in 1995’s Nixon). She turned 50 in 1962, one year after the end of her husband’s two terms as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower.

Lady Bird Johnson: Born December 22, 1912

Her given name was Claudia Alta Taylor (she was nicknamed “Lady Bird” as a child), and she earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida in 1934, the same year she married 36th U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson. An entrepreneurial spirit, she was the owner of a radio station and a TV station before her 50th birthday in 1962. The following year, she became first lady after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Jackie Kennedy: Born July 28, 1929

Just 31 years old when her husband John F. Kennedy became the 35th U.S. president in 1961, she was the second-youngest woman ever to assume the position of first lady, after Grover Cleveland’s 21-year-old bride, Frances Folsom. Jackie also was the youngest one to become a widow, after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Their 10-year marriage produced four children (two of whom lived to adulthood), and by the time she turned 50 in 1979, she’d remarried and divorced Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.

Mamie Eisenhower: Born November 14, 1896

Mamie Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower in uniform posing for a photo: General Dwight Eisenhower with his wife and son, Captain John Eisenhower, in London, October 10th 1946. © Provided by Interesting Things General Dwight Eisenhower with his wife and son, Captain John Eisenhower, in London, October 10th 1946.

At 19, she married future 34th U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, and by 50, she was some six years away from becoming first lady. A full-time Army wife for the first 37 years of her marriage, the former Mamie Geneva Doud once estimated that the family had moved house at least 27 times during that period, due to her husband’s military career.

Bess Truman: Born February 13, 1885

The woman Harry Truman married in 1919 was not a fan of her husband’s presidential career and spent relatively little time in Washington during his time in office. She turned 50 in 1935, one month after the future 33rd U.S. president began a 10-year stint in the U.S. Senate. When she died in 1982 at age 97, she was the longest-lived first lady, a distinction she still holds.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Born October 11, 1884

The most politically active first lady until the arrival of Hillary Clinton 60 years later, Eleanor was the favorite niece of 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and a distant cousin of the man she married in 1905, 32nd U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She turned 50 nearly two years into his first term and by the time of her husband’s death in 1945, she had been first lady for just over 12 years, making her the longest-serving FLOTUS in American history.

Lou Hoover: Born March 29, 1874

The woman who would go on to be first lady at the beginning of The Great Depression, five years after turning 50, met her future husband, 31st U.S. President Herbert Hoover, in a geology lab when she was a freshman and he was a senior at Stanford University. Hoover was an accomplished Chinese linguist who became the first mistress of the White House to make regular radio broadcasts.

Grace Coolidge: Born January 3, 1879

a black and white photo of Grace Coolidge © Provided by Interesting Things Grace Coolidge

Although her husband, 30th U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, is not particularly celebrated today, in 1931, Grace Coolidge was voted one of America’s 12 greatest living women. She turned 50 two months before moving out of the White House in March of 1929, and for her “fine personal influence exerted as first lady of the Land,” the National Institute of Social Sciences awarded her a gold medal in 1931, a decade after bestowing the same honor upon her husband.

Florence Harding: Born August 15, 1860

A divorcee when she married 29th U.S. President Warren Harding in 1861, she was five years his senior and had no children with him. (Marshall DeWolfe, her son from her first marriage, died on New Year’s Day 1915 at age 34.) The future first lady turned 50 the year her husband lost his bid to be governor of Ohio, and after he assumed the Presidency in 1921, they flouted Prohibition by serving alcohol in the White house. She died in 1924 at age 64, a little more than one year after Warren Harding died while in office.

Edith Wilson: Born October 15, 1872

Edith Wilson wearing a hat © Provided by Interesting Things Edith Wilson

One of the more controversial First Ladies, the second wife of 28th U.S. President Woodrow Wilson didn’t turn 50 until after leaving the White House in 1921. When her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, she acted as a sort of de facto surrogate president for the remainder of his second term. Although she made no executive decisions, she determined which matters would be brought to President Wilson’s attention and diverted the rest to the appropriate departments. She was a widow for nearly 38 years after Wilson’s death in 1924 and died on his birthday in 1961 at age 89.

Ellen Wilson: Born May 15, 1860

The third first lady, after Caroline Harrison and Letitia Tyler, to die while her husband was president was an amateur painter who installed a studio with a skylight in the White House. She was married to Woodrow Wilson for 29 years when she succumbed to Bright’s disease in 1914, four years after turning 50.

Helen Taft: Born June 2, 1861

She was just two months into her four years as 27th U.S. President William Howard Taft’s first lady when she suffered a severe stroke, and at the halfway point, she turned 50. Mrs. Taft recovered from the stroke, and eight years after moving out of the White House in 1913, she returned to Washington when her husband became the first and, to date, only president to be appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Edith Roosevelt: Born August 6, 1861

Roosevelt was the first first lady to live in the “White House.” Before her husband, 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt officially gave the residence that name in 1901, it had been known, at various times, as the “President’s Palace,” the “President’s House” and the “Executive Mansion.” The Roosevelts were childhood friends who married in 1886, two years after the death of the future president’s first wife, Alice.

Ida McKinley: Born June 8, 1847

She was an invalid before she turned 30, due to phlebitis and epilepsy, and whenever she had a seizure during state dinners at the White House, her husband, 25th U.S. President William McKinley, would cover her head with a large handkerchief. Mrs. McKinley turned 50 a little under three months after becoming first lady, and when the president was fatally shot by an assassin in 1901, he is said to have told his secretary: “My wife—be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her. Oh, be careful.”

Francis Cleveland: July 24, 1864

Esther Cleveland, Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston posing for a photo: Francis Cleveland © Provided by Interesting Things Francis Cleveland

The only first lady to move into the White House, move out, and move back in (her husband, Grover Cleveland, served two non-consecutive terms, making him both the 22nd and 24th U.S. President), she also was the second to assume the role of FLOTUS during an in-progress Presidency. Twenty-seven years Grover Cleveland’s junior, she married him three months into his first term, and she didn’t celebrate her 50th birthday until 1914, six years after his death.

Caroline Harrison: Born October 1, 1832

She was the first first lady to have electricity in the White House, but she and her husband, 23rd U.S. President Benjamin Harrison (grandson of 9th U.S. President William Henry Harrison), wouldn’t touch the light switches for fear of getting shocked. In 1892, she died of tuberculosis while in the White House, 24 days after her 60th birthday and five days after her 39th wedding anniversary. Harrison’s daughter, Mary McKee fulfilled her mother’s hostess role for the remaining four months of her father’s term.

Lucretia Garfield: Born April 19, 1832

The second FLOTUS to lose her husband to an assassin’s bullet (after Mary Todd Lincoln), she had fallen seriously ill months after becoming first lady and was recovering from malaria in New Jersey when she received news that the 20th U.S. President James A. Garfield had been shot. She cared for him throughout the summer of 1881, and although it seemed at one point as if he might recover, he died on September 19, exactly seven months before she turned 50.

Lucy Hayes: Born August 28, 1831

The wife of 19th U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes, her great claim to fame was that she refused to serve alcohol at White House functions, earning her the nickname “Lemonade Lucy” in later years. At age 18, she graduated from Wesleyan Female College in Cincinnati, becoming the first FLOTUS to earn a university degree. She turned 50 the summer after leaving the White House and died after suffering a stroke at age 57.

Julia Grant: Born January 26, 1826

The daughter of a Southern slave owner, she married the future Civil War Union Army General and 18th U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant in 1848, turned 50 toward the end of his second term, and remained a devoted wife until his death from throat cancer in 1885. The Grants declined Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln’s invitation to join them at Ford’s Theatre the night of the then-president’s assassination in 1865 due to Julia’s intense dislike of the first lady, likely saving her own husband’s life.

Eliza Johnson: Born October 4, 1810

She was the first first lady to assume her position after the assassination of a president. Like Melania Trump and Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Johnson watched her husband, 17th U.S. President Andrew Johnson, be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives and saved from losing his job by the U.S. Senate. Only 16 at the time of her 1827 marriage to the future vice president and president, they remained together for 48 years until his death in 1875, five and a half months before her own.

Mary Todd Lincoln: Born December 13, 1818

Who was the more tragic first lady: the wife of 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln or her FLOTUS predecessor Jane Pierce? (James Buchanan, the Commander-in-Chief between Lincoln and Franklin Pierce, was a bachelor, so, technically, he was a president without a first lady). Both buried multiple children and spent their final years in mournful seclusion, but Lincoln, who survived three of her four sons, might have had the unfortunate edge, albeit a slight one. By the time she turned 50 in 1868, nearly four years after leaving the White House, she’d lost two sons to illness and her husband to an assassin’s bullet.

Jane Pierce: Born March 12, 1806

It’s hard to imagine any mother coming back from seeing her son decapitated during a train accident two months before her husband becomes the 14th U.S. president. Jane Pierce had already buried two young sons, and she never fully recovered from the death of her third, remaining in mourning and shrouded in black throughout Franklin Pierce’s four-year term. She turned 50 one year before he left office and died six years and five months later.

Abigail Fillmore: Born March 13, 1798

The wife of 13th U.S. President Millard Fillmore was the first first lady to work outside of the home, teaching school after their marriage in 1826. Nearly two years older than her husband, she also was the final first lady to be born during the 1700s. She turned 50 two years before her husband assumed the Presidency in 1850, following the death of 12th U.S. President Zachary Taylor, and died of pneumonia at age 55 just 26 days after he left office, making her post-White House life shorter than that of any other first lady.

Margaret Taylor: Born September 21, 1788

She and her husband, 12th U.S. President Zachary Taylor, suffered a major blow in 1835 when their daughter Sarah Knox died from malaria. At the time of her death, Sarah had been married for three months to Lt. Jefferson Davis, making the Taylors the former in-laws of the future president of the Confederate States of America. Poor health forced Margaret to turn her hostess duties over to her youngest daughter, Mary Elizabeth, and she died at age 63 in 1852, two years after her husband became the second president in 10 years to die while in office.

Sarah Polk: Born September 4, 1803

She and 11th U.S. President James K. Polk were married on New Year’s Day, 1824, when he was 28 and she was 20. By the time she became first lady in 1845, she was only 41 years old and didn’t turn 50 until more than four years after leaving the White House. A widow at 45 (her husband died just three months after the end of his first and only term), she remained in mourning until her own death 42 years later, a few weeks shy of her 88th birthday.

Julia Tyler: Born May 4, 1820

She assumed the FLOTUS position at age 24, after 10th U.S. President John Tyler remarried just under two years after the death of his first wife. The second Mrs. Tyler served less than one year, and she didn’t celebrate 50 until eight years after her husband’s death in 1862. Two of her and John Tyler’s grandchildren are still living (Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., born in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler, born in 1928), making them the earliest U.S. president and first lady to have surviving grandchildren.

Letitia Tyler: Born November 12, 1790

She was the first person to become first lady after the death of a president, assuming the role as Vice President John Tyler succeeded the late ninth U.S. President William Henry Harrison, who had died one month after his 1941 inauguration. She also was the first of three First Ladies to die while their husbands were still in office, succumbing to a stroke in 1842, at age 51.

Anna Harrison: Born July 25, 1775

The shortest-serving first lady, the first to become a widow while living in the White House, and the last to be born in the British colonies, Anna Harrison was already 65 when her husband, William Henry Harrison, became the ninth U.S. President in 1941. He’d die a month later, leaving his wife little time to make a mark as FLOTUS (or even to move into the White House), but she does hold one important distinction: She’s the only first lady to also be the grandmother of a future president (Benjamin Harrison, who became the 23rd Chief Executive in 1889).

Louisa Adams: Born February 12, 1775

Until Melania Trump, the wife of sixth U.S. President John Quincy Adams was the only first lady to have begun life outside of the United States or the original 13 colonies. Born in London, she also was the first of two daughters-in-law of former First Ladies to eventually upgrade to the same title (the second was Laura Bush in 2001). Adams, who would be the last official FLOTUS until three administrations later, took over the role less than one month after her 50th birthday

Elizabeth Monroe: Born June 30, 1768

In 1795, while her husband, future fifth U.S. President James Monroe, was serving as U.S. Minister to France under George Washington, she visited the wife of Lafayette in prison during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Her association with Madame Lafayette led to her release and possibly saved the aristocrat from the guillotine. Monroe turned 50 one year into her husband’s two terms, but poor health forced her to share FLOTUS duties with their daughter Maria.

Dolley Madison: Born May 20, 1768

One of the best-known First Ladies and by far the most fashionable one until Jackie Kennedy one and a half centuries later, Dolley Madison is perhaps most famous for saving the portrait of George Washington when the British army torched the White House during the War of 1812. A 26-year-old widow when she married fourth U.S. President James Madison in 1794 (he was 43), she didn’t turn 50 until one year after the end of her eight years as FLOTUS. Following the 1836 death of her second husband, she lived in poverty until her own death in 1849.

Abigail Adams: Born November 11, 1744

The second FLOTUS was the first to be the mother of a future president and the first to live in the White House, though she only resided there for the final four months of the term of her husband, second U.S. President John Adams. New York City was the first U.S. capital, but Philadelphia became the temporary capital between 1790 and 1800 while Washington D.C. and the White House were under construction. Although women had no rights in her day, Adams was a valuable advisor to her husband and is recognized as being the most politically influential of the early First Ladies.

Martha Washington: Born June 2, 1731

The mother of four children, she and her second husband, first U.S. President George Washington, had no children together, but he helped raise her two surviving children. The first FLOTUS was also the first of two who had significant ties to the Confederate States of America (the second being Margaret Taylor). Mary Anna Custis Lee, her great-granddaughter through her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis, was the wife of iconic Confederate soldier Robert E. Lee.

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