From the Columbus Dispatch, "Elizabeth Keckley: Mary Lincoln’s remarkable dressmaker," by John Williams , on 15 January 2013 -- When a former slave turned professional dressmaker and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln published her memoir, Behind the Scenes, in 1868, she received a vitriolic response.
One reviewer in Washington called Elizabeth Keckley “treacherous,” asking: “What family of eminence that employs a Negro is safe from such desecration? Where will it end?” What a difference 145 years make.
The memoir is ensconced as a literary treasure, and, in the most recent pop-culture outbreak of Lincoln fever, Keckley is logging significant time onstage, on-screen and on the page — where her remarkable life has allowed other writers to explore the complicated intersections of race and power in 1860s America.
“She had always prided herself on her integrity and dignity, and to suddenly be dismissed as a lowly servant telling tales was quite a shock,” said Jennifer Chiaverini, whose novel Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (Dutton, 352 pages, $26.95) is being published today.
Keckley’s rise from slave to independent businesswoman for the elite would be fascinating had she landed in the White House next to Chester Arthur. That she was privy to the halls of power during the most fateful moments in the Union’s history makes her that much more compelling.
In Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Gloria Reuben plays Keckley in a limited role but steals a pivotal scene. Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, said that his and Spielberg’s decision to focus the story on the inner workings of the federal government restricted their ability to include black characters, and that Keckley’s “entirely plausible” access to the president allowed for “a very important opportunity to have a black character talk directly about slavery to Lincoln.” Kushner called the moment “in many ways the cornerstone of the film.”
Born to a slave and her master in Virginia in 1818, Keckley bought herself and her son out of slavery in 1852. Chiaverini’s novel picks up the story in 1860, after Keckley had moved to Washington, where she set up shop and was soon making dresses for the wives of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, among other powerful Southerners.
Soon after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Keckley became personal fashion consultant to the troubled first lady.
“Elizabeth had spent 38 years as a slave,” Chiaverini said, “and she had, just for her own survival, learned how to deal with difficult white women, to put it bluntly.”
Paula Vogel — whose play
A Civil War Christmas, which recently closed in New York, prominently features Keckley and Mary Lincoln — said most of the history written about that time was “war-centric and Lincoln-centric, but the truth of the matter is that people had to carry on, and all of these individuals became equally remarkable at functioning.”
Chiaverini, the author of 21 novels, said that as she was researching earlier books set during the Civil War, she kept coming across secondary sources that relied on Keckley. After reading the memoir, which Keckley published three years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln pushed Mary Lincoln out of the White House, Chiaverini was inspired to imagine the many intimate day-to-day moments between the seamstress and the first lady that were left out of it.
Jennifer Fleischner, an English professor at Adelphi University, has written the most comprehensive historical account, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly. (The title of her 2003 book uses an alternative spelling of Keckley’s name; both versions appear in the historical record.)
“The fact that she’s portrayed at all” in recent popular depictions of the era “is a real change,” Fleischner said.
The film Lincoln got Keckley’s presence in the family’s private quarters “just right,” said Fleischner, who added that she wished the film had included a longer look at her autonomy.
“She was doing a lot of stuff during that time other than sitting next to Mary Lincoln or mourning her son,” Fleischner said. (Keckley’s son died in the Civil War.) “If you’re going to show someone like Keckley, at least show her going home once in a while to have a real life.”
That busy life included the founding of the Contraband Relief Association in 1862. That organization helped freed slaves with housing, clothing, medical care and other necessities. Frederick Douglass, among others, offered his support.
“If the white people can give festivals to raise funds for the relief of suffering soldiers,” Keckley recalled thinking in her memoir, “why should not the well-to-do colored people go to work to do something for the benefit of the suffering blacks?”
That she steadily negotiated a life among whites and blacks makes Keckley a contrast to Lincoln himself, according to Kushner.
Lincoln’s time in Illinois, a state with a severe code that enforced segregation and limited immigration of blacks, meant that “by the time he arrived in the White House, he had far less experience with slaves or free black people than many of the people in his government,” Kushner said. “He was on a steep learning curve. He spoke honestly and openly about that lack of familiarity.”
Speaking generally about the large number of “extraordinary characters” in that period of history, Kushner said his original draft of Lincoln ran to more than 500 pages and included several scenes with Keckley that ended up being cut.
“There’s a possibility I might write more about her in the future,” Kushner said. “Gloria and I have talked a lot about other moments that we could look at.”
One thing Keckley shared with Lincoln was pragmatism. According to Fleischner’s book, Keckley “had her eye on sewing for the new inhabitants of the White House — whoever they might be — and she would not have jeopardized her success by being open about her political views."
In 1860, as political tensions mounted, Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina, offered to bring Keckley to the South with them.
“I preferred to cast my lot among the people of the North,” Keckley wrote in her memoir. “I parted with Mrs. Davis kindly, half promising to join her in the South if further deliberation should induce me to change my views.”
Mary Lincoln’s mood swings, however, occasionally strained their friendship, just as they strained the presidential marriage. While in 1867 Mary Lincoln would write to Keckley, “I consider you my best living friend,” the falling-out they had over the memoir — which included some of the first lady’s personal correspondence — was painful for both of them.
Keckley “wrote impassioned, apologetic letters to Mrs. Lincoln but never received so much as a single word in reply,” Chiaverini writes.
In this she is sticking to the historical record. Keckley and Mary Lincoln never spoke again. (source: Columbus Dispatch)