On Getting the Girl

Cal-and-Grace-from-VHS

Calvin & Grace Coolidge. Photo credit: Vermont Historical Society.

Author, journalist and Vermont historian Mark Bushnell over at VTDigger has written a marvelous piece about the courtship of Calvin and Grace Coolidge. It may come as a surprise to many that the Coolidges courted at all but not only that, Cal maintained a prolific correspondence with Miss Goodhue between their frequent outings together. The story of their first seeing each other has often been recounted but, as Mr. Bushnell makes clear, there was much more to what happened next. So much has been written about the differences between Calvin and Grace, we rarely get to reflect on their similarities and even rarer, do we see the quiet man’s deep feelings for the girl he very much loved.

They met in the spring of 1904 with the introduction of Robert Weir, Coolidge’s roommate and the steward of Clarke School, where Grace taught. It was Weir who delivered the potted nasturtium from Miss Goodhue and intensified Calvin’s determination to explain his appearance the first day they saw each other. He had begun shaving by the window with face covered in lather while the hat on his head held an unruly lock of hair in place as he leaned in comically before the mirror (no doubt striking an image that would later be reminiscent of those lanky boys in Norman Rockwell illustrations). As alluded to elsewhere, the advice of Northampton shoemaker, James Lucey, was no doubt working its influence by the fall of 1904, as Calvin ramped up his efforts, writing Grace around 10 letters every month. “I just bought 100 stamps so look out,” he teases her in one letter. Commenting on the nasturtium sent to him, he asks her, “What shall I do with so many blossoms with no one to help me look at them?” The letters are preserved by the Vermont Historical Society in Barre and well worth a visit to view the collections there.

Self-conscious embarrassment and awkward interactions played no less a part in this budding romance than it has and will time and time again for all who seek to begin a life together. It simply confirms that Calvin was just as human as the rest of us. Grace’s  Burlington and Northampton friends were split when it came to the quiet man from Plymouth. Some could not comprehend his reserve, others understood him right away. Grace saw in him what many never even glimpsed. Her childhood friend, Ivah Gale, after several hours alone on a carriage ride with Cal was thoroughly convinced. The man didn’t talk but neither did he have to. Ivah liked him. The Coolidge family instantly adored Grace when she was brought up to Plymouth to meet them. Grace’s mother, on the other hand, never quite acclimated to Coolidge. But even that too, was all human.

Mr. Bushnell writes, “Calvin seemed willing to endure almost anything to woo Grace. He accepted her invitations to go on picnics, which he disliked because of the ants, the mosquitoes and the mess. So people who lived in their neighborhood were treated to the romantic sight of Grace lowering a pair of wrapped sandwiches out her window on a string down to Calvin.”

The formal address in each letter to “Miss Goodhue” dropped in December 1904 and thenceforth Calvin (who likewise shed the “Coolidge”) wrote “My dear Grace.” He proposed in the summer of 1905 and, by October, they were married in the home of Grace’s parents in Burlington. Nor did the letters end with the wedding, a tradition he never neglected even once they remained a phone call away and rose to the heights of public life. One of Calvin’s last letters to Grace reads, in part, “I have thought of you all the time since I have left home.” Whenever they were apart, he felt it keenly. A man of intense privacy, he was not the kind to parade what he felt for the observation of others. He nevertheless possessed a deep well of sentiment, keeping his love for Grace personal and intimate, and not for the world to see. Captain Wilson Brown, the President’s naval aide, once snatched sight of them, following one of the many elegant socials in the White House during their tenure, performing an exaggerated bow and curtsy in a playful minuet as they returned to the family rooms on the second floor of the old mansion. What they had was theirs and theirs alone. He cherished her to the very end whatever others perceived, at times, as indifference on his part. Grace knew the truth. She was his world. He guarded her safety and well-being above all other considerations. As a man known for his economy, he splurged unapologetically when it came to her: constantly window shopping and acquiring hats, dresses, and accessories for her, usually in the fashion popular in their first years together. Nor was she the kind to expect it and ask for more. Unlike some First Ladies, she prized being out of the limelight, remaining free of the power plays that so often enamor political couples. Together they would have been content with the simple, quiet life among family and their menagerie surrounding a fireplace or sitting out on the porch in rocking chairs. They may have begun as a union of city and country mouse but they relished the happiness of what they had together without any of the finery and ostentation.

Mr. Bushnell guides us through the almost year and a half of the Coolidge’s courtship and brings to light some of the qualities in Calvin that certainly won Grace’s heart and began the foundation for a marriage that, through all the difficulties, stood strong and commends to us the beauty of their partnership and the resilience of their example. Theirs would be no easy life, even at the pinnacle of power, and grief would intrude upon them more than once, but they would hold not only to their faith but to each other. The rains would return from time to time, as they did on their wedding day, but just as Cal put it, “I don’t care anything about the rain, so long as I get the girl.” She, then, made it worth every moment.

6208551256_2f914d6dc6_b Coolidges on Mayflower

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