Helen “Nellie” Taft was the wife of President William Howard Taft and First Lady of the United States from 1909 to 1913. During their marriage, she relished travel to Japan, China, and diplomatic missions around the world.
As “the only unusual incident” of her girlhood, “Nellie” Herron Taft recalled her visit to the White House at 17 as the guest of President and Mrs. Hayes, intimate friends of her parents. Fourth child of Harriet Collins and John W. Herron, born in 1861, she had grown up in Cincinnati, Ohio, attending a private school in the city and studying music with enthusiasm.
The year after this notable visit she met “that adorable Will Taft,” a tall young lawyer, at a sledding party. They found intellectual interests in common; friendship matured into love; Helen Herron and William Howard Taft were married in 1886. A “treasure,” he called her, “self-contained, independent, and of unusual application.” He wondered if they would ever reach Washington “in any official capacity” and suggested to her that they might — when she became Secretary of the Treasury!
No woman could hope for such a career in that day, but Mrs. Taft welcomed each step in her husband’s: state judge, Solicitor General of the United States, federal circuit judge. In 1900 he agreed to take charge of American civil government in the Philippines. By now the children numbered three: Robert, Helen, and Charles. The delight with which she undertook the journey, and her willingness to take her children to a country still unsettled by war, were characteristic of this woman who loved a challenge. In Manila she handled a difficult role with enthusiasm and tact; she relished travel to Japan and China, and a special diplomatic mission to the Vatican.
Further travel with her husband, who became Secretary of War in 1904, brought a widened interest in world politics and a cosmopolitan circle of friends. His election to the Presidency in 1908 gave her a position she had long desired.
As First Lady, she still took an interest in politics but concentrated on giving the administration a particular social brilliance. Only two months after the inauguration she suffered a severe stroke. An indomitable will had her back in command again within a year. At the New Year’s reception for 1910, she appeared in white crepe embroidered with gold–a graceful figure. Her daughter left college for a year to take part in social life at the White House, and the gaiety of Helen’s debut enhanced the 1910 Christmas season.
During four years famous for social events, the most outstanding was an evening garden party for several thousand guests on the Tafts’ silver wedding anniversary, June 19, 1911. Mrs. Taft remembered this as “the greatest event” in her White House experience. Her own book, Recollections of Full Years, gives her account of a varied life. And the capital’s famous Japanese cherry trees, planted around the Tidal Basin at her request, form a notable memorial.
Her public role in Washington did not end when she left the White House. In 1921 her husband was appointed Chief Justice of the United States–the position he had desired most of all–and she continued to live in the capital after his death in 1930. Retaining to the end her love of travel and of classical music, she died at her home on May 22, 1943.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Helen Herron Taft’s spouse, William Howard Taft.