A few weeks ago I listened to Jennifer Chiaverini talk about Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. Her name was Elizabeth Keckley, and she was a slave who had scrimped to buy freedom for herself and her son from her half sister and husband ( Keckley was daughter of a white slave owner and a slave woman). Keckley was well-known in St. Louis in the mid 1800s for her dressmaking skills, and was obviously held in high regard as some of her patrons offered to loan her the $1200 to buy her freedom, knowing she would leave immediately to find her fortune on the East Coast.
Keckley became dressmaker to the leading families in Washington, D.C., including to Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s intelligent and vivacious but troubled wife who had many detractors. After Lincoln was assassinated, Keckley remained close to Mary until Keckley published her tell-all memoir of life in the capitol. Chiaverini took this memoir and built it into a novel, imagining between the lines of Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years as a Slave and Four Years in the White House. She said the memoir is short and did not even mention Emancipation Day.
Slave narratives were being published by that time, mostly by white abolitionists writing the stories of slavery for illiterate former slaves. The brilliant orator Fredrick Douglass himself wrote three autobiographies covering his slavery, those published from 1845-1881. Keckley’s memoir, however, was something else. It only briefly describes her life as a slave, but it exposed the personal relationship she had with Mary Todd Lincoln. Imagine in 1868 a former slave giving the inside scoop about the daily life and marriage of the President of the United States!
No one really knows if Keckley wrote her own memoir. She may have been literate—she was half white and the main wage-earner in her owner’s 17-person family, and the slave man she thought was her father had encouraged her to educate herself. Many believe her memoir was ghost-written, though (the writer misspelled “Keckly” as “Keckley”). In an interview late in life, she said she was “tricked” into telling her stories, and the publisher betrayed her by including her personal letters from Mrs. Lincoln.
Lizzie Keckley did mean to show Mary Lincoln in a good light, albeit not without blemish. The East Coast public, however, happily pounced on verification of that “Western” Mrs. Lincoln’s faults since they didn’t like her anyway. At the same time, they were appalled a black woman would dare publicly expose a white family’s personal lives, and many refused to patronize Lizzie again. Her memoir did not sell well. Mary, understandably, did not appreciate the invasion of her and the President’s privacy and severed the relationship with Lizzie. Lizzie died in poverty.
I haven’t read Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, but I own a signed copy now and am looking forward to Chiaverini’s imaginings and research. I haven’t seen the movie Lincoln yet either, but I do know the black woman accompanying Mary Lincoln in a few scenes is not her maid. She is Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker extraordinaire, a free woman, and one whose memoir would cause irreparable damage to her reputation and to her deep friendship with Mary.
(At the time of this posting, the Behind the Scenes Kindle e-book is free on Amazon)