A proper White House reception History: Miss Lane, who brought gentility back to Washington in the late 1850s, returns in the form of a drawing from the Jackie O. collection.

March 19, 1997|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sometime this spring, the White House will hang the only item it bought at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' estate auction last year: an 8-by-10-inch pen and ink drawing of a pre-Civil War presidential event titled "Miss Lane's Reception."

The White House Curator's Office is not sure which reception is pictured in its drawing, purchased for $14,000. It really doesn't matter. All of Miss Lane's receptions were, in a sense, historic, and certainly deserve to be honored in the White House. So does Miss Lane, for her life and her many other accomplishments.

Miss Lane was Harriet Lane, the niece of bachelor President James Buchanan (1857-1861). She was an orphan; he was her guardian. As such she served as the "first lady" during his one term in the White House. Just 26 when she began, she was quite successful at it, at a time when Washington and White House social life was extremely difficult.

Civil war was drawing nearer in the late 1850s. It was not easy being a hostess in that Washington. Inviting, say, a Southerner and a New Englander to the same event could create seating problems. The year Buchanan was elected, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina brutally caned Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor.

Sectional animosities aside, the White House in 1857 was a place that had not seen gaiety for some time.

The preceding first lady, Jane Pierce, had been referred to as "the invalid in the White House" and "the shadow in the White House." Her son was killed on the eve of Franklin Pierce's inauguration in 1853, and she withdrew from the social scene altogether.

Before her, Abigail Fillmore's brief reign had been a failure in the gloomy aftermath of President Zachary Taylor's death, which had elevated Millard Fillmore to the Oval Office. And Margaret Taylor was, in the words of a contemporary, "totally devoid of social ambitions." She would not attend White House receptions.

Before her, Sara Polk, "the Puritan from Tennessee," forbade dancing and refreshments in the White House. Earlier, John Tyler's first wife had died of a stroke in the White House; his second wife was official hostess for less than a year.

Washington was not much of a social city anyway, as its residents liked to complain. Sen. Sumner recuperated from his caning in Europe. On his return, he told friends he was embarrassed to have cultivated envoys from Europe visit him in the nation's capital. Other federal officials felt the same inferiority to New York, Boston, Philadelphia -- even Baltimore.

So there was not much reason to expect a lot of change on March 6, 1857, when the first Buchanan reception was held in the White House. It was not an auspicious day for it in any case. That very day the Supreme Court handed down its Dred Scott decision, dividing and impassioning the political class more than ever.

But a few Washingtonians were optimistic. The Inaugural Ball two days before had been successful. Furthermore, those who knew Buchanan and Lane's history knew that they had been quite successful on the social scene in London the previous four years, where he had been U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James, and she had been his official hostess.

Miss Lane had been especially successful there. She was pretty: reddish blond hair, almost violet eyes, a figure that was well set off by the gowns of the day. She was well read, knowledgeable about history and politics, an American enthusiast, very self-assured -- and a horsewoman. The British loved her.

Miss Lane often met Queen Victoria and Prince Albert socially. Also Disraeli and Gladstone. The Archbishop of Canterbury. Alfred Lord Tennyson. She became a fixture and a star of court society. The queen was so impressed with her that she had her specially designated a ministerial consort.

When she returned to Washington, she came as the first first lady since Louisa Adams to know the European capitals. And she brought a cultured, cosmopolitan tone to the White House for the first time.

Social relaxation

That's not to say that Harriet Lane was just a social person. She was also her uncle's confidante on matters of state. It would probably be too much to characterize her as an adviser, but he did use her as a sounding board often.

She was not reluctant to tell him what she thought. And she had her pet causes; she became, for instance, an advocate of betterment for Indians on government reservations.

But her most significant success was providing social relaxation at a time of great political stress.

She kept it up for four years. She left the White House with style: a farewell reception for 4,000, who knew, as the band alternately played "Yankee Doodle" and "Dixie," that a magical interlude was over and that something terrible lay ahead.

Still, Harriet Lane's successes weren't over. She and her uncle retired to Wheatland, his estate near Lancaster, Pa. After the Civil War, in January 1866, she married Baltimore banker Henry Johnston.

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