Friday, January 09, 2009

Priscilla Cooper Tyler

I posted earlier this week on Letty Semple and today I’m going to cover Priscilla Cooper Tyler, John Tyler’s other White House hostess:
Priscilla Cooper Tyler , the daughter-in-law of the President and Mrs. Tyler served as the official hostess of the White House during the first three years of the Tyler Administration, from approximately April, 1841 to early spring of 1843. She was born Elizabeth Priscilla Cooper on 14 June, 1816 in New York City. Lively, extroverted, attractive and a sparkling conversationalist with great wit, the dark-haired, dark-eyed Priscilla Tyler charmed the many notable visitors whom she entertained from members of Napoleon's family to Charles Dickens. For the general public, she initiated summer Marine Band concerts on the White House South Lawn. Priscilla Tyler was especially close to her sister-in-law Elizabeth "Lizzie" Tyler, and the younger president's daughter often aided her at social events.

The only professional actress to serve as White House hostess until Nancy Reagan assumed the position in 1981, Priscilla Cooper Tyler had first gone on the stage at 17 years old. She was the daughter of the famous actor, tragedian Thomas Apthorpe Cooper and New York socialite Mary Fairlee, who was a close friend of Washington Irving and later the basis for a fictional character in one of his works. In 1807 her father had co-leased the Park Theatre with a fellow actor Stephen Price and they built and lived in two elegant houses at Broadway and Leonard Street. With the economic panic of 1837, however, Cooper lost all his assets and he and his daughter Priscilla were forced to near starvation, surviving on radishes and strawberries and living in a ramshackle cottage, having to perform to survive. She was playing Desdemona in Richmond to her father's Othello, when a member of the audience gave a rousing standing ovation and came backstage to meet her. It was Robert Tyler, the eldest son of John Tyler, and despite her poor prospects for any inherited wealth, he fell deeply in love with her. Their attachment was immediate and it proved to be a happy partnership.

Robert Tyler and Priscilla Cooper married on 12 September 1839 in Bristol, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Letitia Tyler especially took to Priscilla, dismissing any notions of her being undesirable because she had worked as an actor, then considered by many in polite society to be a scandalous profession, especially for a woman. Although her stroke prevented her attending their wedding, Letitia Tyler immediately made Priscilla Cooper feel like one of her own daughters. The two women served as hostesses together for at least one reception, for a group of school children.

Most notable of Priscilla Cooper Tyler's tenure was her accompanying her father-in-law on an official presidential tour during the summer of 1843. It was the first time that any President travelled the United States with a female member of his family as part of his official party, thus giving a previously unrecognized level of public visibility and status to the role of First Lady. Along with the President and her husband, Priscilla Tyler was honored at a public banquet and reception in Baltimore. In New York, the party was welcomed with a flotilla of seventy-four ships, many booming cannons; in the streets, their carriage path was strewn with flowers and an estimated 40,000 citizens turned out to cheer them. Unfortunately, while walking on the steamer ship, she hit a metal bar and had to rest and thus miss much of the continuing festivities, including the dedication of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston. Nevertheless, as a result of the unprecedented trip, Priscilla Cooper Tyler received considerable press notice. As one New York newspapers, The True Sun, editorialized, "she has shown all the power of her native strength of mind and without being dazzled by the elevation of her position...". Interestingly, the newspaper also offered an "apology for alluding" to her in print: it was considered improper and a breach of unwritten societal code to publicly refer directly in print to a woman of her social status. It was an early example of the public ambivalence in the 19th century of the proper role to be played by a First Lady. Was she a public figure with public responsibilities, or simply the most prominent of private ladies who presided over the most public house? Also notable was the fact that Priscilla Tyler was the first official hostess of the White House to give birth during her tenure; her second child, Letitia, was born in the spring of 1843.

Robert Tyler moved to Philadelphia in March of 1844, to practice law, and with the absence of Priscilla Cooper Tyler, the President's daughter Letitia "Letty" Semple assumed the hostess role. In Philadelphia, Robert Tyler was president of the Irish Repeal Association, which defended the rights of Irish immigrants and also sought to bring them into the Democratic Party, and notary of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In 1858, he was named chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Executive Committee. With the start of the Civil War, both Robert and Priscilla Tyler declared themselves loyal to the South and moved to Richmond where Robert was appointed register of the Confederate Treasury. After the war he edited the Mail and Advertiser in Montgomery, Alabama. He died there on 3 December, 1877. Priscilla Tyler survived him by twelve years, also dying in Montgomery, Alabama, on 29 December, 1889.

Gilson Willets (remember the book I referenced when posting on Letty?) wrote this about Priscilla Tyler:
President Tyler’s daughter-in-law, Mrs. Robert Tyler, was very beautiful and extremely fascinating, so much so that Washington Irving perpetuated her fame in his Salmagundi, in which she figure as “Sophie Sparkle,” although personally Irving often referred to her as “The Fascinating Fairlie,” this name having its origin in the fact that Mrs. Tyler’s maiden name was Mary Fairlie.

You’ll note the same disagreement – this is a confusion on Mr. Willets’s part. Mary Fairlie was actually Priscilla Cooper Tyler’s (Mrs. Robert Tyler) mother. Their first daughter (died in infancy) was also Mary Fairlie. (History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography).

I hope you've enjoyed this sojourn into the lives of President Tyler's hostesses.


Larry Myers said...

Just to let you know the other daughter was Fairlie Cooper who married Frank Myers. They had a son named James Fairlie Cooper Myers. This family was related to Martin Van Buren through is wife Hanna Hoes. They may also be related to Washington Irving.

comerhouse said...

The brother of Priscilla Cooper (Tyler) was James Fairlie Cooper 1816-1889, a West Point graduate and 3rd superintendent of the U.S.Mint at Dalonega,GA 1843-1849. He was named for his grandfather, Major James Fairlie, who was a member of General Washington’s staff assigned as aide de camp to General von Steuben.

James Fairlie Cooper married Sarah Frances Blount. It was their daughter, Mary Fairlie Cooper, who married Frank Minis Myers. The Myers' eldest son was James Fairlie Cooper Myers 1867-1929 of Savannah, GA.