The Social Life of Lizzie Swanson

By Patricia B. Mitchell

Whatever Happened To Elegance?

Mrs. Elizabeth Lyons Swanson, wife of Virginia Governor and U.S. Senator Claude A. Swanson, is a local legend, having lived at Eldon, their summer home on Chalk Level Road near Chatham, where she “endeared herself to the people of the county by taking a large interest in community affairs.”

Mrs. Swanson was a friendly, talkative Greta Garbo, if you can imagine; for “Lizzie” possessed classic beauty, charm, charisma, and that vanishing trait known as “elegance.”

Do you know many “elegant” ladies these days — ladies who wear boas and diamonds and entertain effortlessly and have a cordial yet reserved relationship with their domestic help?

Mrs. Swanson fit the description, a post-Victorian woman “widely known outside of Virginia through having served as hostess at many [Washington] social functions….”

True Virginia Cordiality

She was thought to “look remarkably handsome” dressed in outfits such as “black net spangled with red and trimmed in red panne velvet.” The agreeable Mrs. Swanson “with her true Virginia cordiality” was described as:

…one of the most popular members of official society at the national capital … she is a bright and cheerful little lady, and is a great favorite with the wives of congressmen. She is not a “political woman” or “a woman in politics” in any sense. She is just bright and cheerful, and makes everyone around her bright and cheerful. The net result of all this is that every Republican congressman's wife in Washington, without regard to the politics of “hubby,” [is] a zealous partisan of Mrs. Swanson's husband.

Another observer wrote:

The appointment of former Governor Claude A. Swanson to be United States Senator to succeed the late John W. Daniel of Virginia, is another step in the ambitious program marked out for him by his beautiful wife, to whom it is said he owes his political prominence almost entirely. She is a woman of rare personal charms and great popularity.

She virtually elected her husband to Congress, then she decided she wanted him to be governor of the Old Dominion, and he was accordingly elected. His term was marked with lavish social functions and the Governor's Mansion was the Mecca of all who wanted to shine in society.

The appointment to the United States Senate of the former Congressman and Governor gives Mrs. Swanson increased opportunities for greater social achievements, which she will lose no time to embrace. Like most men, the new Senator out-married himself by long odds, and it was a fortunate day for him when the minister pronounced them husband and wife till death do part.

Loved Home and Hearth

Was this female just another hard-driving Hillary-who-says-she-doesn't-bake-cookies? No, on the contrary, Elizabeth was a beauty who loved home and hearth and letting her man head the household (see “Eldon Through the Eyes of Elizabeth Swanson” in the Summer 1992 Packet). Yet her charm and energy was abundant and overflowed into social and cultural diversions after she had tended to house and family responsibilities.

As the able Mr. Swanson climbed up the political ladder, Mrs. Swanson worked to make sure the ladder rungs were strong and steady to insure his advancement.

Mrs. Swanson Honored

Thursday afternoon, between the hours of 3:30 and 6 o'clock, marked one of the most elegant entertainments of the season, when Mrs. John Pritchett Swanson was “At Home” in honor of Mrs. Claude Swanson, at her hospitable Danville home on Main street. The interior of the house was most tastefully decorated for the occasion, the hall being a bower of yellow chrysanthemums, palms, ferns, and here Mrs. James G. Penn, Mrs. William Averett and Mrs. Roscoe Anderson welcomed the guests and ushered them into the parlor, a perfect symphony in green and ivory tones, and with its decorations of pink chrysanthemums and evergreens; and amid the pink glow of shaded lamps here Mrs. Swanson, gowned in smoke eolian cloth, white chiffon and lace trimmings and diamonds, received her guests, assisted by Mrs. A. Claude Swanson in a Parisian gown, black net, magenta, iridescent and cream lace over black silk and diamonds, and Mrs. Henry Swanson in soft white point d'esprit over silk and lace trimmings. The library, with its rich colorings of red, and artistically decorated with autumn leaves and white chrysanthemums, made a most attractive picture.

Mrs. Swanson Receives

Mrs. Claude A. Swanson will give a public reception to the veterans and visitors at the Executive mansion on Saturday evening from 9 to 11 o'clock. Festoons of electric lights will hand from the trees on the lawn, and the large “Welcome” arch over the gateway will be fully illuminated in red and white. Within Confederate decorations and palms will be used.

Mrs. Swanson has asked the following ladies to receive: Miss Mary Custis Lee, daughter of General Robert E. Lee; Mrs. Thomas J. Jackson, widow of General W. H. F. Lee; Mrs. William Mahone, widow of General Mahone; Mrs. J. E. B. Stuart, widow of General Stuart; Mrs. J. R. Cooke, widow of General Cooke; Mrs. Lucy Lee Hill Macgill, daughter of General A.P. Hill; Miss Daisy Hampton, daughter of General Wade Hampton….

Reception At Mansion

The reception given last evening from eight until ten o'clock in the executive mansion by the Governor of Virginia and Mrs. Swanson in honor of the governor of Connecticut, was one of the most brilliant and notable functions of the autumn.

The mansion, which was exquisitely decorated with Southern smilax, palms and roses, presented a fascinating picture, filled with the officers of the Governor's Foot Guard of Connecticut, in their continental uniforms of buff and crimson, the staffs of the two governors in their god-laced uniforms and the officers of the Blues intermingling with exquisitely gowned women. Southern smilax festooned the doorways, and graceful palms were massed in the corners, while the mantles were banked with ferns and flowers. The dining-room table contained an enormous plaque of American Beauty roses.

The receiving party stood in the reception to the right of the entrance. Mrs. Swanson was gowned in Duchesse lace and carried an armful of roses….

Mrs. Swanson Loved Flowers

Elizabeth was an artist's inspiration:

Mrs. Swanson appears on the canvas in an exquisite decollete gown, which affords opportunity for a glimpse of her exquisitely rounded shoulders and arms. She wears a picture hat such as Gainesborough loved to paint and which is always associated with the portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire. In her well shaped hands she holds a single American beauty rose ….

He Loved Flowers Also

Her love of flowers was a passion of long standing as the following account demonstrates:

Senator Swanson fell in love with a pretty little “town girl” in the town where he went to college. He had never cared much for girls up to that time, but she seemed to comprise all that was desirable, and he speedily arrived at the logical conclusion that the oftener he called at her home the more he would see of her. One night two vases of cut flowers on the marble-topped table in her sitting room. She was enthusiastic over the bouquets and explained that “some of the boys” had sent them. Yes, she said, in response to a question from him, she was exceedingly fond of flowers.

Now Swanson was working his way through college and was not going around in those days with lumps on his clothes because of the money in his pockets, but the next morning he had the town florist go up to the “girl's” home and plant three or four beds of flowers out in the front yard at his expense. If she liked flowers, he did not intend to be any piker.

Willing To Wait

The little “town girl” is his wife now. It was ten years before he felt that he could afford to marry, but she was willing to wait.

This marriage was a provident one. What sensible husband would not appreciate a wife who “possesses the charm of manner for which the daughter of the Old Dominion are famed?”

Mrs. Swanson is of medium height, with a graceful, beautifully moulded figure, a wealth of waving fair hair, blue eyes and an exquisite complexion. She is cultivated and clever, and, better still, most affable and winning in her manners.

Death Ends Romance in 1920

Mr. Swanson lost a lovely companion and supporter when Elizabeth died in 1920. As one reporter wrote:

Senator Swanson has always declared that whatever success he has attained in politics in due largely to Mrs. Swanson's active work during the various campaigns which elected him Congressman, Governor and finally, United States Senator. Swanson and thousands grieved her passing.

Scores of telegrams were sent yesterday from Danville to Senator Claude Swanson, expressing sympathy with him in his bereavement ….

The townspeople of Chatham, where Senator and Mrs. Swanson lived during the summer months gathered and sent the following telegram to the Senate. “We extend to you our sincere sympathy in your bereavement.” The telegram was signed by fully fifty people.

One hopes that there were armfuls of American Beauty roses on this elegant lady's coffin.


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