A thread in a torn Union

  • Article by: JOHN WILLIAMS , New York Times
  • Updated: January 14, 2013 - 6:07 PM

The story of Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, gains attention onstage, on the screen and in books.

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Karen Kandel played Elizabeth Keckley, confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln, in the play “A Civil War Christmas” at the New York Theater Workshop last fall. Keckley published a memoir in 1868, to public outrage.

Photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times

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When Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave turned professional dressmaker and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, published her memoir, "Behind the Scenes," in 1868, the response was vitriolic. One Washington reviewer called Keckley "treacherous" and asked: "What family of eminence that employs a Negro is safe from such desecration? Where will it end?"

What a difference 145 years make.

The memoir is now ensconced as a historic literary treasure, and in pop culture's most recent outbreak of Lincoln fever, Keckley is logging significant time onstage, on screen and on the page, where her remarkable life has allowed other writers to explore the complicated intersections of race and power in 1860s America.

"She had always prided herself on her integrity and dignity, and to suddenly be dismissed as a lowly servant telling tales was quite a shock," said Jennifer Chiaverini, whose novel "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" is being published by Dutton this week.

Keckley's rise from slave to independent businesswoman for the elite would be fascinating had she landed in the White House next to Chester Arthur. That she was privy to the halls of power during the most fateful moments in the Union's history makes her that much more compelling.

In Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," Gloria Reuben plays Keckley in a limited role but steals a pivotal scene. Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, said that his and Spielberg's decision to focus the story on the inner workings of the federal government restricted their ability to include black characters, and that Keckley's "entirely plausible" access to the president allowed for "a very important opportunity to have a black character talk directly about slavery to Lincoln." Kushner called the moment "in many ways the cornerstone of the film."

Bought her freedom

Born to a slave and her master in Virginia in 1818, Keckley bought herself and her son out of slavery in 1852. Chiaverini's novel picks up the story in 1860, after Keckley had moved to Washington, where she set up shop and was soon making dresses for the wives of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, among other powerful Southerners.

Chiaverini, the author of 21 novels, said that as she was researching earlier books set during the Civil War, she kept coming across secondary sources that relied on Keckley. After reading the memoir, which Keckley published three years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln pushed Mary Lincoln out of the White House, Chiaverini was inspired to imagine the many intimate day-to-day moments between the seamstress and the first lady that were left out of it.

Jennifer Fleischner, an English professor at Adelphi University, has written the most comprehensive historical account, "Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly" (2003). (Her book title uses an alternative spelling of Keckley's name; both versions appear in the historical record.) "The fact that she's portrayed at all" in recent popular depictions of the era "is a real change," she said.

The film "Lincoln" got Keckley's presence in the family's private quarters "just right," said Fleischner, who added that she wished the film had included a longer look at her autonomy, since she wasn't a servant and didn't live at the White House.

Keckley's busy life included the founding of the Contraband Relief Association in 1862. That organization helped newly freed slaves with housing, clothing, medical care and other necessities. That she steadily negotiated a life among whites and blacks makes Keckley a contrast to Lincoln himself, according to Kushner.

More work on Keckley later?

Speaking generally about the large number of "extraordinary characters" in that period of history, Kushner said his original draft of "Lincoln" ran to more than 500 pages and included several scenes with Keckley that ended up being cut. "There's a possibility I might write more about her in the future," Kushner said. "Gloria and I have talked a lot about other moments that we could look at."

One thing Keckley shared with Lincoln was pragmatism. According to Fleischner's book, Keckley "had her eye on sewing for the new inhabitants of the White House -- whoever they might be -- and she would not have jeopardized her success by being open about her political views." In 1860, as political tensions mounted, Jefferson Davis' wife, Varina, offered to bring Keckley south with them.

"I preferred to cast my lot among the people of the North," Keckley wrote in her memoir. "I parted with Mrs. Davis kindly, half promising to join her in the South if further deliberation should induce me to change my views."

Mary Lincoln's mood swings, however, occasionally strained their friendship, just as they strained the presidential marriage. While in 1867 Mary Lincoln would write to Keckley, "I consider you my best living friend," the falling-out they had over the memoir, which included some of the first lady's personal correspondence, was painful for both of them.

Keckley "wrote impassioned, apologetic letters to Mrs. Lincoln, but never received so much as a single word in reply," Chiaverini writes. In this she is sticking to the historical record. Keckley and Mary Lincoln never spoke again.

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