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They were pleased that Keckley’s book was published, as it would serve as a warning “to those ladies whose husbands may be elevated to the position of the President of the United States not to put on airs and attempt to appear what their education, their habits of life and social position, and even personal appearance would not warrant.” Cleveland Daily Plain Dealer

There are two major flaws with this book. The first is that Keckly can hardly be described as a slave in the terms of Uncle Toms Cabin. She was a highly considered domestic servant who was allowed to ply a trade and by doing so buy her freedom. There is no evidence offered that she was ever the subject of sexual misadventure or any other sort of maltreatment. Of course Fleischner will not allow this and states that her past was “hidden” since the new dispensation insists that every slave who was not beaten on a daily basis was sexually abused constantly – how else can they justify their outlandish claims to entitlement today?

Largely missing also is the history of her arriving in Washington, being given rather than having to purchase, a seamstress license and the fact that both Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis; and Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee were clients. Either they did not talk to the “help” or discretion was the better part of valor since Keckly’s book has no juicy tidbits from these ladies whose every utterance would have been pounced upon by a sensationalist press.

And that may be the telling of the tale. Ladies may have confided certain things to their dressmakers but every evidence suggests that Keckly manufactured her own self-importance and Fleischner has compounded the errors. The result is a muddle that is worthy of Kitty Kelly in spite of its foot-noted pretensions.

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly : the remarkable story of the friendship between a first lady and a former slave New York : Broadway Books, 2003  Jennifer Fleischner Dressmakers United States Biography, Keckley, Elizabeth, ca. 1818-1907 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. 372 p. : ill., map ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 327-360) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

A vibrant social history set against the backdrop of the Antebellum south and the Civil War that recreates the lives and friendship of two exceptional women: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her mulatto dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly.

“I consider you my best living friend,” Mary Lincoln wrote to Elizabeth Keckly in 1867, and indeed theirs was a close, if tumultuous, relationship. Born into slavery, mulatto Elizabeth Keckly was Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker, confidante, and mainstay during the difficult years that the Lincolns occupied the White House and the early years of Mary’s widowhood.

She was a fascinating woman in her own right, independent and already well-established as the dressmaker to the Washington elite when she was first hired by Mary Lincoln upon her arrival in the nation’s capital. Lizzy had bought her freedom in 1855 and come to Washington determined to make a life for herself as a free black, and she soon had Washington correspondents reporting that “stately carriages stand before her door, whose haughty owners sit before Lizzy docile as lambs while she tells them what to wear.”

Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe on exhibition in New York, sketched by Stanley Fox, Illus. in: Harper’s weekly, v. 11, no. 565 (1867 October 26), p. 684.

Mary Lincoln had hired Lizzy in part because she was considered a “high society” seamstress and Mary, an outsider in Washington’s social circles, was desperate for social cachet. With her husband struggling, Mary turned increasingly to her seamstress for companionship, support, and advice — and over the course of those trying years, Lizzy Keckly became her confidante and closest friend.

With Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, Fleischner allows us to glimpse the intimate dynamics of this unusual friendship, and traces the events that enabled these two women — one born to be a mistress, the other to be a slave — to forge such an unlikely bond. Beginning with their respective childhoods in the slaveholding states of Virginia and Kentucky, their story takes us through the years of war, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the early Reconstruction period.

An author in her own right, Keckly wrote one of the most detailed biographies of Mary Lincoln ever published, and while is was a commercial success because of its sensational nature it led to a bitter feud between the friends, none the less it is one of the resources that Fleischner depends upon.

A work that reveals – and often weaves of whole cloth – the legacy of slavery and sheds new light on the Lincoln White House, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly brings to life intimate aspects of the Lincoln’s during the Civil War and underscores the inseparability of black and white in Lincoln’s heritage.


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