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Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography

3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  755 ratings  ·  84 reviews
Mary Todd, daughter of the founders of Lexington, Kentucky, was raised in a world of frontier violence. First abandoned at the age of six when her mother died, Mary later fled a hostile stepmother for Springfield, where she met and, after a stormy romance, married the raw Illinois attorney, Abraham Lincoln. Their marriage lasted for twenty five years until his assassinatio...more
Paperback, 429 pages
Published April 1st 1989 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 1987)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,438)
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Susan
This is a well-written and absorbing biography of one of America's most controversial first ladies. Baker does an excellent job of putting Mary's story in the context of her place and time, and she has a dry sense of humor that made this particularly readable.

The only reason I didn't give this five stars was the author's treatment of two figures: Mary's daughter-in-law, Mary Harlan Lincoln, and Mary's son, Robert Lincoln. Baker suggests that Mary Harlan Lincoln was a closet alcoholic and that th...more
Nancy
Historian Jean Baker thinks it's just too easy to turn Mary Todd Lincoln into the First Lady we love to hate. She sets out to provide a social, psychological, and feminist context for understanding Mary's childhood, marriage, motherhood, and widowhood, and it is a very powerful story.

Mary was one of 14 children in what these days would be called a blended family. Her mother died when she was young and so she was raised by a stepmother, who she was constantly at odds with. Her father, often away...more
Monk
My problems with this book are legion, but I'll highlight just a few.

First, Baker's perspective is limited, as she clearly is writing a "feminist" history of Mary Todd Lincoln, and her diatribes become both tiresome and tortured. Her "logic" goes like this: 19th century society treated women badly because they were women. Mary Todd Lincoln lived in the 19th century. She was treated badly. Therefore, she was treated badly because she was a woman. That thinking is far too simplistic, but it is at...more
Noelle M
I thought the book was a real tour de force in the biography writing genre. Baker's thesis is that in childhood, the maternally orphaned Mary Lincoln developed a narcissistic personality in response to being rejected by her stepmother who wanted the husband's first family to just go away. Mary needed and didn't get normal attention so she found other means to get what she needed. Admittedly narcissism is a "broken" strategy for solving emotional problems, a childish strategy. The original proble...more
Karyl
Mary Todd Lincoln was a complex woman, too often dismissed as "insane" because she was institutionalized by her one surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, though she only spent three months at a sanitarium. Her son's reasons for institutionalizing her included her belief in mediums who could contact her dead husband and children, and her incessant buying of needless items. Of course, in modern times, this would not be nearly enough to institutionalize anyone, yet it was a fairly common thing in the...more
Kelly
We have all been told that Mary Todd Lincoln was a crazy first lady. Reading 'Mary Todd Lincoln', you see a side of Mary Todd that is rarely told. She had a higher education than most women and some men of her day. She was very interested in politics and in the book many people describe her as lively and intelligent. She was fiercely loyal to her husband and her children. I found reading about how the Lincoln's raised their children to be endearing. They did not have a heavy hand and treasured t...more
Kelly
The Lincolns are not even in the White House yet and I am annoyed with this author. She tends to belittles Mary Lincoln often. I realize MTL is not a woman loved by history, but I find the author's assertion that MTL's political interests "displayed a quirky feminism located not in principle but in the psychological necessity to be somebody" o be dismissive. MTL was very well educated -- she had 12 years of formal schooling -- maybe her interest in politics was born of a working mind in need of...more
Leah
This is the first book I've ever read about Mary Todd. I found the history fascinating and I now realize what a difficult life Mary really had.
Alan Jacobs
Jun 20, 2011 Alan Jacobs rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: hisotyr buffs; those interested in the role of women in mid-19th cetury America
One of the finest biographies I've ever read. Totally changed my perception of Mary Todd Lincoln. The author is not an apologist for Mrs. Lincoln: she lays out the details of all her notorious extravagances, and recounts every one of her public outbursts. However, the author always puts Mrs. Lincoln's utterances extravagances in the context of how Mary became an educated woman at a time when most women only had a rudimentary education, and then how she never received the respect, or even the cor...more
Doug Nagel
Sep 08, 2011 Doug Nagel rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who enjoys a good biography and American history
This was an excellent biography. Jean Baker provides a thorough psycho-social profile of Mary Todd Lincoln, highlighting the early family influences and abandonments that shaped her character, ambition and well-documented idiosyncracies. Tracing her life from her Lexington, Kentucky roots, Baker emphasizes her unusual interest in politics, Mary Todd's academic achievements at a time when education for women was denigrated and her desire to marry someone who would elevate her social standing in t...more
Bob
Everyone who grows up in central Illinois, 100 miles from Springfield, more or less accepts Abe Lincoln as almost a distant relative. Lincoln is EVERYWHERE -- places he stayed, court houses where he tried cases, locations where he gave a speech, and on and on. But Mary Todd? She is always pegged as the hugh strung wife, somebody who could not get along with anybody. Never seems like a proper match for Mr Lincoln.

After reading this biography, which felt to be very well researched and factual, it...more
Brenda
I was inspired to learn more about Mary Todd Lincoln after watching the new Spielberg movie "Lincoln" (I also want to learn more about Thaddeus Stevens).

This biography is extremely readable (more readable imho than the acclaimed book the movie was based on). I LOVE non-fiction that reads like fiction and this almost qualifies.

Baker provides a balanced portrait of Mary. She's neither heroine nor villain. She is portrayed as intelligent, emotional, ambitious and insecure. Baker believes that Mar...more
Kathy
This is an interesting examination of a very misunderstood former first lady. Jean Baker provides a sympathetic look at Mary Todd Lincoln as a bright, educated upper-class young woman from Lexington, Kentucky who struggles with much loss over the years and finally must defend her sanity and deal with the strained relationship with her only surviving son. Politics were a significant part of the Lincoln marriage and Mary Todd Lincoln's challenges with her role as first lady is a particularly fasci...more
Linda
Mary Todd Lincoln has always been an enigma to me. I've vacillate between thinking that she was down right crazy (as her son Robert apparently thought) and that she was simply a woman with a major personality disorder - manifested throughout her life by her bizarre and eratic behavior. Whichever the case, she was most definitely a tragic figure - one who also played a key role in the life of one of our most admired presidents. If you have an interest in her, it's definitely worth the read.
Ashley
A great look into a complicated life of a woman who had very delicate emotions. A lady who had so much loss in her life and who tried to bear with it as best as she knew how, while trying to convince people she was not insane but just very emotional. There is nothing so sad as to see her own son dislike his own parents and want to hide his mother away for fear of embarassment to himself.
Touching story of love, loss and redemption of oneself.
Anna
Ik probeer biografieën te lezen van Amerikaanse presidentsvrouwen. Ik zocht naar aanleiding van de recente films rond Lincoln naar een goede biografie. Dit was het beste dat ik kon vinden en eigenlijk niet de moeite van het lezen waard. Wel goed gedocumenteerd maar zeer matig geschreven. Geen aanrader.
☯Emily
This is a very readable book about Abe Lincoln's wife and her tortured life. Today we have drugs that would help her with her fears and depression, but in the 1800's, there was no sympathy for her and the many issues she faced. This book was written with sympathy and understanding.
Cornmaven
Pair this with the novel, Mary, by Janice Newman, for a really thought-provoking study of Mrs. Lincoln, as well as what society was like in the 19th century.

I found it heart-breaking that her son never accepted her. Mary Lincoln's story is a tragic one, and fascinating.
Karen
An honest look at a woman who is often portrayed unsymphathetically but we learn there are 2 sides to every story.
Peg
I've read several books on the Lincoln's and one on Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker. This was as good as others I've read. I knew of her eccentricities and of the death of three of four of her sons. However, I did not know of her son Robert's successful campaign to have her declared a lunatic and have her institutionalized.
That was a very sad and disloyal action on Robert's part. She was not considered a risk to herself or others just an embarrassment. Eventually Mrs Lincoln was discharged and r...more
Carol
Sep 26, 2014 Carol rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2014
I have had this book for several years. I had forgotten how much I truly enjoy biographies. Mary Todd Lincoln was born in the wrong century. Don't get me wrong--she was a narcissist but with all the losses of loved ones in her life I tend to be a bit forgiving of the woman. She was an intelligent woman who, most of the time, sabotaged her good intentions. Favorite quote: "Robert [her son who had her committed to an insane asylum] had always tried to make her into the conventional woman she was n...more
Kela
I wanted to read a book on Mary Todd Lincoln after visiting the Lincoln home and presidential museum this summer. This book is considered the definitive biography on the former first lady, but I found it a bit dry at times. The first few chapters were hard to get through. I get it that she came from a very prominent family that played a major role in the founding of Lexington. I don't need several chapters completely bogged down in details to get that point across. Adding to the confusion was th...more
Rachel
I have not heard much of anything about Mary Todd Lincoln and the very little that I have heard about her crazy spending habits and that she was insane didn't appeal to me to read about her. After reading this book, I am amazed at the strength she did have in spite of all the tragedies she had in her life, long before Lincoln was killed. She was a strong and outspoken woman, which turned off a lot of the men in her husband's political circles. Not one of them helped her after he died with the fi...more
Becky Loader
I read a lot about Mary Lincoln, and I believe that Baker and Clinton have written the best, popular biographies of this very complex woman.

Baker's prose style is attractive and readable, so that the reader will not get bogged down by a too-academic approach. Baker uses lots of verified stories from Mrs. Lincoln's letters, so I feel she has spent time trying to get details that will keep the reader interested.

As with most authors, Baker can't quite keep from inserting her own personal views in...more
Jane
It's ALL about Mary Todd Lincoln. A consummate narcissist, it's no wonder she ended up bitter and alone. Who could possibly fill the gaping holes in her psyche? As long as she had her way, she functioned well, but if anyone or anything rubbed her wrong, she went straight into angry victim mode. Yes, she suffered terrible losses, but she used them to demand sympathy - and large amounts of money. I adore stroppy women who refused to settle for societal norms - George Eliot comes to mind - but Mrs....more
Maggie
I took a very long time to get to this excellent biography of one of the most fascinating First Ladies in history. Mary Todd Lincoln was very intelligent, well educated, extremely interested in politics, and incredibly adept at playing the political game for her husband. She was also her own worst enemy, though she never realized that. She was badly mistreated by her own family, experienced many great tragedies, and was virtually friendless near the end of her life. She loved her husband deeply,...more
Carolyn
Everyone wonders why she suffered insanity. I believe it was the losses she suffered so close together. As well as the criticism her husband took. Then there is the fact that she was the second choice wife. Who knows how many times this was brought up. I loved this biography. I think she was a great lady despite her illness and J. Baker covered her life very well in writing.
Anne
I expected to be immediately drawn into this book, and was disappointed. The vast majority is spent on a recitation of the facts of Mary Lincoln's life, with little critical analysis. Once she reaches the final two chapters, Baker finally takes her stand on Mary Lincoln, and it is wonderful. I only wish that she had used the same depth of her insight throughout. Mary Lincoln's life was tragic from start to end, but she was also exceedingly bright and knowledgeable about politics - although she s...more
Jamie
While history has no doubt maligned MTL, Baker is very symphathetic to this infamous widow. It's very rare to read much positive information on Mary. I think she made plenty of enemies who took revenge through various accounts. While Baker attempts to even the score, I think she may have gone too far. She justifies almost everything Mary does. She sees her in a very sympathetic light and fails to properly analyze her. She presents a very well researched account of Mary's life. It is her own pers...more
Nancy
Much detail about the period as well as the person, this biography gave me a whole new understanding of this complex and tormented woman. An excellent read for those who like straightforward biography.
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