The most notable Southern woman surviving the classic old régime, says a magazine paragraph published by ex-Governor Taylor, of Tennessee, is that yet brilliant daughter of President John Tyler, Mrs. Letitia Tyler-Semple, who ruled the White House when her father, John Tyler, of Virginia, the tenth Chief Executive of the Nation, held sway there. “Mrs. Semple, now eighty-six years old,” continues the same story written in 1906, “mentally virile, almost totally blind, is the pet and admiration of that philanthropic institution founded for Southern gentlewomen by the late W. W. Corcoran, the Louise Home. Mrs. Semple is the honored guest of all Presidential families at the White House, where she once reigned as “First Lady.”
A biographer of this daughter of a President, in relating further about President Tyler's daughter, says that “only a few blocks from the White House, where she once ruled, a light-hearted queen, Letitia Tyler Semple — daughter of John Tyler, tenth President of the United States — blind, inform, but mentally virile, waits peacefully for the end, amidst the comforts of that philanthropic institution, The Louise House.
“Over the mantel in her bedroom hangs an oil portrait of her lovely mother, Letitia Christian Tyler, of Virginia, who died soon after her husband's accession to the Presidency. Indeed, so frail was the health of President Tyler's wife, that her official place in the White House was invariably filled by one of her three daughters, Letitia, Elizabeth, Alice, or by her son's wife, Mrs. Robert Tyler.”
Letitia Tyler, as her biographer informs us, married at eighteen to Captain Semple, U.S.N. of Virginia. She was just one and twenty when her official career began in the White House as the daughter of a President. She was living with her father at this time during the absence of her husband on a three-years' cruise.
“Those were days of conservation and quiet dignity, and the passing of the old régime is deeply deplored by this stately relic of by-gone days.” Mrs. Semple denounces, it was said some years ago, what she was moved to call in her emphatic way “the atrocious butchery” of the White House, declaring that even were she able, physically, nothing could induce her to enter the offensively “reconstructed” portals of to-day.
After a visit to Mrs. Semple her biographer records the fact that this brilliant young-old lady of eighty-four (this account being written in perhaps 1904), with her grande dame elegance and culture recalls, as though it were but yesterday, the hasty flitting in 1841 of her father, then the Vice-President, and his family, from the home of Williamsburg, Virginia, to Washington, when news was brought to them, by the boat Osceola, of the death, two days before, of that President of one month, William Henry Harrison.
After the installation of the new incumbent in the Executive Mansion, Mr. Tyler promptly assembled about him, in solemn conclave, we are told, his three daughters and his daughter-in-law, and laid upon them this injunction: “My daughters, you are now occupying a position of deep importance. I desire you to bear in mind three things: Show no favoritism, accept no gifts, receive no seekers after office.”
Dolly Madison, still brilliant in the forties, gave to the Misses Tyler the benefit of her social experience. It was at Mrs. Madison's suggestion that they return all calls in person; and accordingly three afternoons a week were devoted to this duty.
“At the White House, during Mrs. Semple's reign, the ordinary schedule of hospitality was two dinners a week, of about forty covers, to members of Congress, which one public reception, to which invitations were not issued.”
But all gayety went into eclipse, it is stated, upon the death of the President's invalid wife in 1842. Mrs. Robert Tyler, in a letter from the White House to a friend wrote, “Nothing can exceed the loneliness of this large and gloomy mansion hung in black.” At the same time she speaks of “the almost awful-looking Mr. Daniel Webster” and “his charming gossip.”
“Mrs. Semple,” writes Daisy Fitshugh Ayres, emerging from the vicissitudes of the Civil War, widowed and penniless, full of pluck and capacity, with three nephews and nieces to provide for, opened in Baltimore, according to one who knew her, the “Eclectic Institute” for young ladies, the attendance at which of two pupils from Canton, Ohio, produced the germ of the subsequent intimacy between Mrs. Semple and President McKinley and his wife. We are told, then, that it was at the urgent instance of Mr. W.W. Corcoran, the Washington philanthropist of the last generation, that the daughter of President Tyler “lent the prestige for her presence to the Louise Home, then just established as a memorial to his wife and daughter. Mrs. Semple's residence there in the troublous times immediately succeeding the Civil War, was looked upon as a wise stroke of sectional diplomacy.”
Welcome at the White House, continues Daisy Fitzhugh Ayres, Mrs. Semple has proven herself to be through all administrations. It was her friend, Mr. Corcoran himself, who was wont to escort her to the Hayes' receptions. Mrs. Hayes, herself a Virginian, was a constant informal guest of Mrs. Semple at the Louise Home. Every McKinley function had this venerable daughter of a President high on its list of honored guests, while Mrs. McKinley's carriage was often at her disposal. Mrs. Semple has flowing in her veins the blood of three Presidents: John Tyler, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison.
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