Taft, Helen Herron

Helen Herron Taft (1861-1943) was born to a wealthy Cincinnati family. Music was her life-long passion. Privately educated, Helen taught school until her 1886 marriage to attorney William H. Taft. She tended to their three children, Robert, Helen, and Charles, while longing for challenges outside the home. When Taft was appointed U.S. Solicitor General in 1890, the Tafts relocated to Washington, D.C., where they met Edith and Theodore Roosevelt. When William Taft joined the Sixth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in 1892, the Tafts returned to Cincinnati. Helen Taft volunteered with the city’s hospital and helped to found the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

In 1900, President William McKinley put William Taft in charge of establishing a civilian government in the Philippines. As the wife of the first American governor of the Philippines, Helen Taft established some progressive social policies in Manila. She traveled extensively in Asia.

Convinced that her husband would someday become president of the U.S., Helen Taft was instrumental in turning down offers of a seat on the Supreme Court for him, including one from President Theodore Roosevelt. Instead, Taft served as Roosevelt’s secretary of war. When Roosevelt left office in 1909, Helen Taft expected Roosevelt to announce his support for Taft as his successor earlier and more fervently than he did. Roosevelt found Helen Taft to be inappropriately pushy on her husband’s behalf. Hard feelings resulted, compounded by misunderstandings when Helen Taft appeared over-eager to take possession of the White House.

Mrs. Taft was very involved with her husband’s administration and her own First Lady duties. She is best known for helping to bring the famous cherry blossom trees to Washington, D.C. In May 1909, Helen Taft suffered a paralyzing stroke that nearly ended her productive time as First Lady. Nursed back to health by her husband, her final, and largest, social event celebrated the Tafts’ 25th wedding anniversary.  

Helen Taft was the first First Lady to write her memoirs, Recollections of Full Years. In 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft to the Supreme Court and Helen gladly resumed her vaunted position in Washington society. She worked with the Colonial Dames, especially after Taft’s death in 1930. Helen Herron Taft was intelligent, politically savvy, and ambitious for her husband. Their marriage was a strong partnership. She died on May 22, 1943, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.