Ellen Herndon Arthur would have been a great First Lady. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it to the White House with her husband, Chester A. Arthur. Ellen died ten months before her husband was elected Vice President of the United States. Arthur became President in September 1881, after the assassination of James Garfield.
Ellen “Nell” Lewis Herndon was born on August 30, 1837 in Culpepper Court House, Virginia. Her father was William Lewis Herndon, a naval officer. In 1857, Herndon gained national fame when he died a hero’s death as his ship, the Central America, went down in a storm off Cape Hatteras. He safely evacuated all passengers and crew before going down with his ship.
As a child of the Virginia aristocracy, Nell grew up in privileged surroundings. Nell was described as “one of the best specimens of the Southern woman.” One of her family friends was Dolley Madison. As a child, Nell played in Dolley’s home and was entertained by Dolley’s stories. As she grew older, she moved with her family to Washington, D.C. when her father was stationed there. Still a young girl, her beautiful voice attracted attention, and she joined the prestigious choir of the St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square. Later, the family moved to New York City, where Nell and her mother continued to live after William Herndon’s death.
Nell was introduced to Chet Arthur in 1856, and they were engaged the next year. Chet Arthur proposed to Nell on the porch of the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York. In a letter to Nell later that year, he reminded Nell of “the soft, moonlight nights of June, a year ago…happy, happy days at Saratoga – – – the golden fleeting hours at Lake George.” He also said he wished he could hear her singing again.
After their marriage, they lived for a time with Nell’s mother in her fashionable Lexington Avenue brownstone home in New York City. Nell also became a celebrity in her own right as a leading soprano of the Mendelssohn Glee Club. The glee club performed benefits and fund raisers in New York. Nell also worked for various prestigious charities, and became part of the high society of New York. Among her friends were both “old” and “new” money people such as the Vanderbilts and the Roosevelts. Nell was invited to President Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1864, and was one of the select few invited to the private White House wedding of Nellie Grant.
As Chet Arthur’s law practice prospered, he became a wealthy man. His leisure time was spent more and more in politics, and he became a leading figure in the New York Republican Party. During the Civil War, he became the Adjutant General of New York, a position that carried the rank of brigadier general. For the rest of his life, Arthur preferred being called General Arthur. Nell, however, made no secret of her southern sympathies, which caused some problems. A number of her relatives from Virginia were fighting in the Confederate army. When a Confederate cousin of hers became a prisoner of war in a New York prison, Chet Arthur made arrangements for Nell to visit him. The visits were made as quietly as possible.
Nell was a great help to Arthur’s blossoming political career. She assisted Arthur as she “visited and kept up his list of friends” and attending to other such social obligations. She was a gracious hostess, and her dinners and parties further added to Arthur’s popularity and prestige within the party hierarchy. Friends described Nell Arthur as an ambitious woman and said no one was happier when Arthur was appointed port collector of New York. But she never got to see her husband make it to the White House, where she would have been even happier.
In January 1880, while Arthur was away on one of his frequent political trips, Nell Arthur performed in one of her charity concerts. While waiting for her carriage outside the concert hall, she caught a chill that quickly became pneumonia. Always in frail health, she died of the pneumonia only two days later, on January 10, 1880. She was only 42 years old. Nell was already unconscious by the time Arthur reached her side, and she never regained consciousness.
Arthur remained inconsolable for weeks, and never fully recovered from Nell’s death. In November of that year, he was elected Vice President of the United States. In September of the next year, he became President. Arthur often privately expressed his regret that Nell never lived to see him become President. He told friends that without Nell, “Honors to me now are not what they once were.”
In the White House, Arthur kept a portrait of Nell and ordered fresh flowers be placed before it every day. Nell’s skills as a hostess would have been invaluable to Arthur in the White House. The duties of hostess were given to Arthur’s sister, Mrs. Mary McElroy. But Arthur never gave his sister the protocol rank of the President’s wife. No one would have the place that should have been Nell’s, and the official position went empty out of respect for his late wife.
In his New York home, Arthur left Nell’s room just as she had left it, the needle still in place in her sewing and the bookmark on the last page she had read. Arthur also donated a stained-glass window in her memory to St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, in whose choir she had sung as a young girl. The window depicted angels of the Resurrection and was placed in the south transept of the church. At his request, the lights were kept on all night so he could see the window from his room in the White House just across the street. Arthur never remarried and remained a widower for the rest of his life.