Hearts inside the Oval Office

Glimpses of life for First Couples

By Nancy Maes
Special to the Tribune

February 18, 2005

What's love got to do with it? A Presidents Day celebration at the Chicago Historical Society will try to answer that question by exploring the private lives of John and Jacqueline Kennedy, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and their legacies.

Abe look-alike Michael Krebs, as Lincoln, will be accompanied by Debra Miller coiffed and dressed to resemble his spouse. The Lincolns couldn't have been more different.

"He lived in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, bounced around from state to state with his father and had less than a year of formal education and she grew up in an affluent home with servants and was able to go to school for eight years, which was unheard of for women in that day," explains Miller.

During the hour-long presentation that explores their relationship, the two actors reveal that Abe and Mary did, however, have one sad experience in common.

"He lost his mother when he was 9 and she lost her mother when she was 6," explains Miller, "so they shared the same feeling of abandonment and fear of abandonment."

The title "First Lady" originated with Mary, who took on the task of renovating the White House.

"She saw the executive mansion as a place for dignitaries to meet and thought it should be well appointed, but she overspent the budget by $1,500," explains Krebs. "Abe said, `I won't have soldiers sleeping in the fields with no blankets to furnish flub-dubs for this old house' and he made up the difference himself."

William and Sue Wills are easily recognizable as Jack and Jackie Kennedy.

"I have a few of Jack's little mannerisms like the way he leaned slightly forward because of his back problem and the little smile he had just before giving a nice one-liner at a press conference," says William Wills, "and Sue wears the trademark pillbox hat and a suit like Jackie wore and she has her wispy voice."

The presentations are separate, but the lives of the Lincolns and the Kennedys intersected in a variety of ways.

"JFK tried to model his speeches after Lincoln's and Jackie was the first to redo the White House 100 years after Mary redid it," says Miller. "Both couples lost children and Mary and Jackie lost their husbands and were adrift afterwards because the country couldn't deal with the grief and so they both went to Europe to escape the pain and scrutiny."

The relationship between Abe and Mary and between JFK and Jackie may have had a common element, too.

"The Lincolns loved each other fiercely," says Miller, while Krebs points out, "I think Jack and Jackie's relationship was getting stronger in 1960 because they were brought together by so many personal tragedies and it seemed like Jack was maturing and mellowing." Miller concludes, "These were vulnerable, fallible people, not icons on a shelf."

Presidents Day Celebration When: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday. Where: Chicago Historical Society, 1601 N. Clark St. Price: Free; 312-642-4600.
Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune

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