Isabella (Belle) Hagner (1876-1943) became the first social secretary to a First Lady when Edith Roosevelt hired her on October 2, 1901.
The eldest child of Isabella Wynn Davis and Charles E. Hagner, Belle was born in 1876 and raised in Washington, D.C. Her family was respected and well-connected.
Belle was sixteen years old in 1892 when both of her parents died. It fell to her to raise her three brothers. Thanks to their large circle of friends, the Hagners endured their sudden poverty. Belle became a social secretary to wealthy Washingtonians, assisting with correspondence and invitations. She also held down clerkships in the War Department and for the Social Register, a published roster of socially prominent families.
Among the women for whom Belle Hagner worked was Anna Roosevelt Cowles, Theodore Roosevelt’s sister. It was at the Cowles’ residence, in March 1901, that Hagner met Edith Roosevelt. They discussed the potential of Hagner helping with the upcoming debutante ball of Alice Lee Roosevelt. After Edith became First Lady in September, she hired Hagner as a full-time social secretary.
Edith Roosevelt depended upon Hagner and came to think of her as a daughter. All the Roosevelt children loved Belle. They confided in her and she helped them through scrapes and illnesses. Belle often filled in when entertainments called for an “extra woman,” and she had an excellent sense of the political landscape that was useful to the Roosevelts.
Hagner later served as First Lady Ellen Wilson’s social secretary. In 1915 she married widower Norman James, and became mother to his three children. She died in 1943 and is buried in Loudon Park Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland.