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'Abraham and Mary' takes a personal look at the Lincolns

Sunday, February 18, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

When we think about America's first ladies, usually a few words come to mind for each.

Hillary Clinton? Ambitious.

Jackie Kennedy? Stylish and graceful.

Mary Todd Lincoln? Crazy as a loon.

Let's face it, Mary Todd Lincoln is usually portrayed as a nut, an off-her-rocker spinster, a mental patient-in-waiting. And that's just in comedies like "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer."

Just in time for President's Day, PBS's "American Experience" seeks to separate fact from fiction in "Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided."

 
 
TV PREVIEW
"Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided"

When: 9 tonight, tomorrow and Tuesday on WQED/WQEX.

Narrator: David McCullough.

   
 

"Mary Lincoln formed a political and love partnership with Abraham Lincoln that helped catapult him to the presidency," said series executive producer Margaret Drain. "[This] is the first documentary film which gives equal treatment to the first lady and the beloved president."

Drain spoke to TV critics about the film last month in Pasadena, Calif., with the film's producer/director, David Grubin, and contributing historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

"Mary has always been caricatured," Grubin said. "If we know anything about her, we see her as someone who's crazy, and that's about it. Or someone whose burdens were so great that Abraham Lincoln had to take his time to worry about her, rather than to worry about the country."

Grubin said by taking time to get to know Mrs. Lincoln and what she went through, viewers will come away with a more complex portrait of the woman than what they usually see. She struggled with tragedies, including the death of a son and her husband's assassination.

"Once you get to know her, you begin to have some feeling for her and you see her as a real flesh-and-blood human being," Grubin said. "And that helps you to understand Abraham Lincoln because when you understand the woman that a man loves, you begin to understand the man better."

Goodwin said historians of the past didn't spend much time exploring the personal lives of presidents, but she said by doing so we get a better understanding of these public figures.

"It's only in the last 30, 40 years, and in part the impact of Freud and his generation, that people have understood that the interior lives of our presidents have an impact on their public lives," she said. "What you see in this film is Mary's [early] support of Abraham - she having come from an aristocratic background, she having come from a family for whom politics was her lifeblood, which many women did not have at that time - was an essential spur to his ambition."

Grubin said Mary Todd appeared to suffer from manic depression and Lincoln was often depressed. Lincoln could handle it better, Goodwin said, because he had structure to his days and she did not.

"Not just Mary, but the cabinet wives all seem to be having hysteria, neuritis, neuralgia, migraine headaches," Goodwin said, "and I think part of it has to do with not having outlets for their talents, their creative energies and their ambitions, which Lincoln had."

But Mary Lincoln had bad luck when it came to timing. Her brothers fought for the Confederacy, so some in Washington thought her to be a spy. She set about redecorating the White House when Union soldiers were freezing for lack of blankets on battlefields.

The Civil War itself disturbed the political union between Abraham and Mary Todd.

"Before she comes to the White House, she could be involved in his political career," Grubin said. "When they get to the White House and there's this terrible war, it's way beyond her. They can't share it anymore and it's no longer a political partnership. And she loses out."

Grubin said the couple had distinctly different personalities. He was quiet, contemplative and kept things inside. She wanted to talk and blurted everything out.

"Sometimes opposites get together," Grubin said. "They attract and repel at the same time, but I think they did care for each other."

"A House Divided" presents another side of Abraham Lincoln that differs from the norm. Actor David Morse voices Lincoln, and gives him an accent straight out of rural Kentucky.

"Lincoln isn't the voice that we've always heard, the Sam Waterston voice, let's say," Grubin said. "He really spoke in that accent, and the first time he travels east and speaks to the New York audience, they're appalled at this accent, but they learn by the end of the speech that they've got a formidable intellect there."

And despite the popular image of Mary Todd as a crazy woman, she was the first president's wife to get that now-familiar title.

"The first time the term 'first lady' was used," Grubin said, "it was used to describe Mary Todd Lincoln."



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