Our Amazing History: Julia Gardiner, First Lady of the U.S.

Julia Gardiner
Julia Gardiner
Library of Congress, Wshington D.C.

Julia Gardiner, the daughter of a well-known East Hampton resident, grew up to marry the president of the United States while he was in office. That has not happened before or since. It has also not happened that the age difference between a president and first lady was so great. President John Tyler was 54. She was 24.

How it all came about is a wonderful love story. Tyler’s presidency (1841–45) is considered one of the country’s worst. But the love story is another matter.

Her father, David Gardiner, was a prominent New York lawyer. He and his family had a home in Manhattan and a house on Gardiners Island off Amagansett which his older brother owned. Julia was born on Gardiners Island and raised amidst New York’s high society. In the summer, she attended Clinton Academy in East Hampton to study manners, poetry and music.

She grew to become a great beauty. But when she was 19, she was involved in a great scandal. In Manhattan, she allowed herself to promote a middle-class department store in that town by appearing in a newspaper advertisement with an unidentified man saying, “I’ll purchase at Bogert and Mecamly’s, No. 86 Ninth Avenue. Their Goods are Beautiful and Astonishingly Cheap.” As a result, her father took her and the rest of the family on an 11-month tour of Europe where the family was presented to kings and queens and even the pope. The scandal was gone when they returned, so her father began practicing law in and around Washington, D.C. At a reception at the White House, Julia was presented to President Tyler, who was immediately smitten. He was still married, but his wife was bedridden and dying upstairs.

After his wife’s death, President Tyler began openly sending poems and love letters to Julia. Her parents were horrified. The age gap between them was totally inappropriate.

Still, President Tyler constantly invited her back to the White House, chaperoned by her father, of course. But then a tremendous tragedy changed everything.

Julia and her father were among many guests invited by President Tyler to accompany him on a cruise up the Potomac River aboard the Princeton, the newest and largest warship in the American Navy. A band played. Many members of the administration were on board. The secretary of war urged the captain to fire the ship’s big gun, the largest gun ever built to that time. Julia was below deck in a cabin. The gun exploded, sending shrapnel everywhere. President Tyler ran upstairs and found himself amidst smoke, fire and six people dead. One of them was Julia’s father. The president ran downstairs and held Julia, saying he would never ever leave her. He carried her ashore, sobbing. She married him.

Julia Gardiner became a celebrity. She rode around Washington in a carriage pulled by a team of white horses. She held parties and affairs honoring foreign dignitaries. She required that a Marine band play “Hail to the Chief” whenever her husband entered a room. Drawings of her became souvenirs.

Julia and her husband retired to his Virginia plantation after he completed his first and only term. She bore him seven children. In 1862, Tyler, now a senator for the Confederacy, died while going to a meeting in Richmond. Julia lived on Staten Island for a while, then retreated to the family estate in Virginia, where she died in 1889 at age 69.

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