Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography
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Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography

3.82 of 5 stars 3.82  ·  rating details  ·  649 ratings  ·  69 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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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
An honest look at a woman who is often portrayed unsymphathetically but we learn there are 2 sides to every story.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
What a sad life. MTL was not crazy...just misunderstood. Her life began with the horrible loss of her mother. The remainder of her life was spent with the horrible reality of the loss of three sons under the age of 20 (two of them not even making it to their pre-teen years), plus the tragic loss of her husband to an assassin, and the loss of love for her eldest and only surviving son Robert who had her committed to an asylum. Self imposed exile in France was followed by the loss of her eyesight,...more
Diane Heath
This is a more sympathetic look at the life of Mary Todd Lincoln. A marked contrast between Mary Lincoln and Jackie Kennedy comes to mind since I read the conversations with Jackie Kennedy (1964) where Jackie did not discuss politics and such with Kennedy but attempted to maintain an oasis of relaxation which is how she viewed the role of a wife in the 60s. Ironically enough, this role of submission/submersion into background was the expected role of the Victorian wife of the 1840's forward. Mar...more
Really interesting book about a fascinating woman. I didn't know much about her, other than rumors of her being troubled. My only bone to pick with the book is the tirade the author goes on about Mary's son Robert having her institutionalized. Granted, by today's standards Mary would seem eccentric, not mentally ill, but in those days, it might have seemed quite logical. Plus he had issues of his own to deal with--father being assassinated, siblings dying young of terrible diseases, mother spend...more
What a tragic life she suffered through. It's amazing that she held out as long as she did, losing a husband and three of four sons - and the fourth had her committed. Weaker women would surely have ended it all. Her grief was considered disproportionate - inconvenient by the standards of the day, though she was probably as well undone by her pretentions and diffcult personality.

Overall it's well-written, though, not unsual with biographies, there are lots of facts and incidents that create clut...more
This is a long but readable account of Mary Todd Lincoln’s life, revealing her strengths and virtues, as well as her failures and shortcomings. It shows extensive insight into her complex personality and motivation, as well as the facts of her life. It is highly researched and extensively footnoted. It is not a fast read, in part because of the enormous amount of detail. That was my only complaint – the amount of detail was so great it slowed the story. Yet it also enabled the reader to realize...more
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