Episode 72: Elizabeth Keckly

Posted 16 July 2016 by
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When we were researching Mary Lincoln we both admired her friend, Elizabeth Keckly, so much that we knew that had to talk about her. She was born a slave, eventually bought her freedom and built a very successful business (twice) all before she, too, realized her own White House dream. Yes indeed- Lizzie needs her time in the spotlight.Keckley1870framed

Elizabeth was born the same year as her friend Mary Lincoln, although unlike Mary the exact date is unknown. Sometime in February of 1818 Agnes (Aggie) Hobbs gave birth to Elizabeth in the town of Dinwiddie Courthouse, Virginia. Aggie and Lizzie were slaves owned by Colonel Armistead Burwell. Her father of record, and in her heart, was George Pleasant Hobbs who was also a slave but owned by a different master. Later in life what Lizzie probably always knew was confirmed by her mother- her father of biology was none other than the Colonel.

Lizzie’s early life was sadly common for the times but being commonplace doesn’t take away the horrors of it, (and we do go into a lot more detail in the podcast.)  She was whipped on her very first day of service at age four, moved with the family when the Colonel had a downturn of fortune to Hampden Sydney College and while Lizzie was still a child she saw her loving father for the last time when he was forced to move away. By the time she was a young teen she was separated from her mother and sent to live with the Colonel’s son Robert and his new wife, Anna.

Private men's liberal arts college: motto (translates from Latin):Come here as boys so you may leave as men  Gooo, Tigers!

Still a private, men’s liberal arts college in Virginia: motto (translated from Latin):Come here as boys so you may leave as men
Gooo, Tigers!


While Lizzie had very few choices in her life, she did have some things that could not be taken away from her: her mother and father could both read and write (an illegal rarity among slaves) and had taught her. Almost as importantly, Lizzie had an inner strength and natural grace that she held to tightly despite years of being told she was worthless, the many whippings she endured in an attempt to “put her in her place” and years of allowed (or encouraged) sexual abuse by a nearby plantation owner that did leave her with one bright spot in her life: her son, George.

When Lizzie and her mother were and sent to live with another Burwell- a daughter and her lawyer husband first in Virginia and then St. Louis, Missouri, Mr. Garland wanted to lend Aggie out as a dressmaker. Lizzie was appalled at the thought of her aging mother working for strangers, so she volunteered instead.

Wise move, Lizzie.

St. Louis, Missouri 1850s (Courtesy Library of Congress)

St. Louis, Missouri 1850s (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Lizzie was not only skilled with a needle and thread, but she had a gift for draping fabric and an a strong business mind. She soon built up a very prestigious list of customers…and kept handing the money over to the Garlands. But Lizzie wanted something else for her life: Freedom. She asked Mr. Garland how much she would need to buy her and her son’s freedom. Long story short (long version of this story and a lot more details are on podcast), after asking maaaaany times he gave her a figure of $1200 which gave Lizzie hope for her future, so much so that she married James Keckly…

…a lying, drinking, not-so-great husband. James was NOT free like he had told her and to make her situation worse (yeah, worse) saving any money was nearly impossible– the Garlands took everything. For eight years she tried to save, tried to make her marriage work…but really? The only thing she succeeded in doing was building her reputation as an extraordinary dressmaker. We go into detail in the podcast of the plans she tried to make the money but in the end it was her reputation among her clients that got her the funds to buy her freedom.


Newly free George went off to college and Lizzie headed to Baltimore to work as a dressmaker. But do things ever work out like she plans? They do not. Baltimore wasn’t the place for her so she moved a little south to Washington with her new dream: to work in the White House.

This is where Lizzie’s story meets up with Mary Lincoln’s. Through a series of wise business and networking steps (take note entrepreneurs) Lizzie became a sought after dressmaker and added Mary to her list of clients. Goal? Check!


Thrive on, Lizzie, thrive on!

But what happens when Lizzie’s life starts to go well? Yeah, bad stuff. As soon as the War Between the States broke George join the fight (as a white man, as a black it would have been illegal) in the Union army. 18 year-old George didn’t make it long and was killed in battle only a short time later.

Lizzie distracted herself from her grief with dressmaking work and the Lincoln’s. She was there when Abe needed his hair combed or help with one of Mary’s temper tantrums. She was there when the young Lincoln’s, Willie and Tad, were sick and she was there when little Willie didn’t survive. She was there when Mary had her get-out-of debt schemes and she was there when Mary needed to vent.

Mary Lincoln in a Lizzy Keckly dress, 1861

Mary Lincoln in a Lizzy Keckly dress, 1861 (Courtesy National Archives)

Mary was there for Lizzie, too,. When Lizzie formed the first Black Contraband Organization to help the newly freed people streaming in from the south become established in their new lives, Mary contributed money, goods and a great deal of time.

But when Abe Lincoln was assassinated their friendship was put to the test. Well, Lizzie’s was, anyway. She closed her business down to help Mary move and get settled in Chicago. Time and again Mary told Lizzie that she would compensate her. Mary was eventually given her portion of the Lincoln estate (Ol’ Abe, the lawyer? He died without a will), but did she take care of Lizzie like she had promised? Nope.

For a variety of well-intentionrf reasons Lizzie decided to write a memoir. But, we know now, things don’t always work out for Lizzie. Either by accident or design on the part of Lizzie’s editor, many personal letters from Mary were published in Lizzie’s book, Behind the Scenes or 30 Years a Slave and Four in the White House.


It wasn’t 3o it was 38! Lizzie’s book, still in print (image:Barnes and Nobel)

The fallout was life ruining. Feeling betrayed, Mary ended their relationship and Lizzie’s reputation as a confidant was ruined. No one wanted her near their private lives anymore and her business tanked. AND…ouch…the book never made her any money.

For many years afterward she did what she could including teaching at the college George had attended, Wilberforce University in Ohio ( there is a cameo by our favorite world’s fair, the 1893 Columbia Exposition.) When her health declined she moved into The Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, DC, a place she had helped establish back in her Contraband Organization days.

When she died in her sleep at the age of 88 on May 26th, 1907, Lizzie still had a picture of Mary over her dresser.





Let’s get the burning questions out of the way first:

What’s the deal with the two spellings of Lizzie’s last name? Documents signed by Lizzie use Keckly, while other documents (including her book) use Keckley. We thought we would listen to her.

Was Jefferson Davis REALLY captured in a dress? Read all about it here at the American Heritage Society!


Jennifer Fleischner

Jennifer Fleischner


For children

For children

becky rutbberg

Becky Rutberg

Clarence Lusane

Clarence Lusane



Read Lizzie’s book for freeeee! Behind the Scenes or 30 years a Slave and four years in the White House on Project Gutenburg

OR listen to it for the same $0.00 on LibriVox!

Roadside plaque location for Lizzie is in Hillsborough North Carolina:

Location of street plaque

Location of street plaque

Smithsonian article about her dressmaking

Surratt House Museum— now a Civil War museum with focus on Lincoln Assassination AND with directions to Lizzie’s grave.

History of Elizabeth Keckley Mary Todd Quilt


Episode 71: Schuyler Sisters with Amanda Vaill

Posted 25 June 2016 by
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schuyler sisters

Since the musical Hamilton opened on Broadway we’ve been getting a lot of requests to cover the Schuyler sisters, Angelica, Eliza and Peggy. (You sang that, right?) But we couldn’t make it work because there wasn’t enough material available to us to fill a whole show in the way we would want to…so we met someone who could:.

Author Amanda Vaill.


Episode 70: Mary Lincoln Part Two

Posted 11 June 2016 by
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In our last episode we talked about Mary’s childhood, education and life as the wife of Abraham Lincoln. She was described as, “amiable, accomplished, gracious and a sparkling talker,” by members of the Republican Party before she got to Washington…so what happened afterward that left her without this glowing impression?

Frida Kahlo may have approved of the fluffy dresses and floral head bling.

Frida Kahlo may have approved of the fluffy dresses and floral head bling.



Episode 69: Mary Todd Lincoln, Part One

Posted 4 June 2016 by
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Mary Todd Lincoln’s life can’t be defined by who she married and her husband’s legacy–she was a lot more than simply a southern born wife of a president. Actually, she wasn’t simple at all.


Mary circa 1847 (wikicommons)


Episode 68: Madam C.J. Walker

Posted 14 May 2016 by
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When Madam C.J. Walker solved one of her own personal problems, she also created an opportunity to leave behind a life as a laundress for one as a successful businesswoman, philanthropist and civil rights activists and she was able to take thousands of women with her. Alaia Williams from the 18 to 49 Podcast graciously fills in as guest co-host with Beckett to talk about the life of this trailblazing role model who began to change her fate by changing the condition of her hair.

Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker

Rags to riches stories don’t happen without a lot of hard work, the ability to fill a need, hard work, perseverance and- yeah- hard work. Madam C.J. Walker’s life was all that and more. When she was born on December 23, 1867 in Delta Louisiana, her given name was Sarah Breedlove – and she was the first person in her family who was not born a slave. This fact makes it sound like the family’s life was improving, but they were extremely poor sharecroppers and laundresses; none of the children went to school and by the time Sarah was seven, both of her parents had died.


Episode 67: Q&A Number Two

Posted 2 May 2016 by
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***********We had a tech glitch on our website player, it’s corrected now but if you tried to play it before you may have to clear your cache to get the Q&A 2 episode on this player*****

What would you serve Dorothy Parker for dinner? When are you covering the Schuyler sisters? What would you tell your high school history teacher? We get a lot of questions and love them all (except maybe the mean ones). Some are asked quite often or were so good that we thought, “hmmm, maybe a lot more people would like to know this but were too busy to ask it, perhaps we should have a colloquy,” (because we’re fancy like that.)

And then Beckett talked Susan out of actually using the word, “colloquy.”

See? Fancy.

See? Fancy.


Episode 66: Zelda Fitzgerald

Posted 22 April 2016 by
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Southern-born Flapper? Trophy wife of famous writer? Jazz Age fashion icon? Wild and selfish woman-child who went off the deep end?  Zelda Fitzgerald has been remembered in all of these ways – but none are entirely correct, nor do they describe this unique woman who lived a very complex life in an ever-changing world.

Zelda_Fitzgerald_portrait framed

Zelda was a southern born flapper. No argument there. Zelda Sayre began her life on July 24, 1900 in Montgomery, Alabama. She grew up in a socially prominent (although financially upper middle class at best) family as the loved-by-everyone, charming, energetic, brave and highjinky youngest child. She was a skilled ballet dancer, a fearless flirt and an incomparable Orange Blossom sipping beauty. Young gentlemen filled her dance card, frat boys swore their devotion to her and aviators flew over her house just to be noticed by her.

She became a Jazz Age icon and first wave flapper when she and her new husband–freshly published, (gasp!) Yankee writer, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald– arrived in New York City to a life of instant literary fame in 1920. She defined the flapper: bold, brave, reckless and fun loving young women who threw off stuffy formality along with their corsets. Zelda and Scott lived a very public life of opulence as the poster couple for the wild, monied and creative set in both the US and Europe. Wherever they went partying followed; whatever they did somehow was used as material for Scott’s novels, articles and short stories. His second book, The Beautiful and the Damned, was so filled with their likenesses the publisher went ahead and marketed it with a couple that looked an awful lot like them on the cover.Beautifuldamed

The whole Youth on a Wild Bender life sounds kind of dreamy…for a short time, but the pair made “never settling down” a lifestyle. Even the birth of their only child, Frances Scott Fitzgerald (Scottie) didn’t slow them down. New York, Paris, the Riviera, Hollywood…they kept moving, Scott kept writing (and drinking), Zelda kept helping to critique (and write) his work and giving him fodder for the novels, short stories and articles that supported them. But the more Zelda lost herself into their marriage–into Scott’s literature–the more troubled she became.

Circa 1921, Zelda was pregnant with Scottie. (wikicommons)

Circa 1921, Zelda was pregnant with Scottie. (wikicommons)

We give a disclaimer that we TRIED to achieve middle-ground between Team Scott (she was his muse but also his crazy wife who pulled him down) and Team Zelda (she was an emotionally abused wife whose mental condition had more to do with an alcoholic husband, exhaustion and unnecessary and harmful medical treatment than simply an existing mental illness). We probably failed to completely achieve middle-ground.

We’re okay with that.

Zelda tried to find and throw herself into creative outlets for herself ONLY–her OWN writing, ballet dancing, painting all of which she was very good at. These activities worked to help her express herself and to keep it together…until they didn’t. His behavior towards her– multiple affairs (she wasn’t exactly innocent here, either), alcohol induced dramas, panic from massive debts mounting, dismissing her art, her writing, her value, and blaming her for any family failures– only pushed her spiral downward.

The wife, the girl friend. hmmm...

The wife, the Hollywood girl friend. hmmm…

When Zelda was hospitalized in 1930 she was immediately diagnosed as schizophrenic (most likely incorrectly diagnosed) and moved (was forced?) into the next phase of her life: 18 years spent in and out of mental institutions. As part of her therapy she painted and wrote an autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, that allowed her to tell her story through her lens, not Scott’s. She sent it to Scott’s publisher behind his back, but in the end he still managed to put his imprint on the book.



We tell a lot more of Zelda’s story in the podcast, give anecdotes and opinions to fill in the black and white impression that many have of her very colorful life.

Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940. Eight years later, on March 10, 1948 Zelda was locked into her room for the night at Highland hospital in Ashville, North Carolina, the psychiatric facility where she had been living, when a fire broke out and she died. She was 48 years old. She is buried with Scott and Scottie (who lived a long and pretty normal life) in Maryland.  The words on their tombstone is the final sentence from Scott’s most famous book, The Great Gatsby:

“So we beat on; boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

flikr cc Mr.TinDC

Even in death, Scott got the last word. Maybe spending an hour listening to her story will let Zelda’s voice be heard.



We dug up a hefty collection of links and materials that would make Zelda blush with pride. Probably.

We’ll start off by bucking convention (Zelda would have it no other way) and get you in the mood with the end song that we didn’t play. Tiny Victories, Scott and Zelda


You want to see her art (you do, trust us) and instead of breaking copyright laws we’ll simply send you to ART.COM. (Not sponsored, we always tell you if something is.) 

Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery Alabama, housed in the last house the couple rented 1931-’32. Going would be your best bet, but clicking through the collections online is a good second place.

Fitzgerald Museum

Fitzgerald Museum

Scott and Zelda website, by their family– it’s pretty.

You really, really  REALLY ought to go check out our Pinterest board for Zelda.



Edited by Matthew Bruccoli

Edited by Matthew Bruccoli

2011 Nancy Milford

2011 Nancy Milford

2012 Sally Cline

2012 Sally Cline

Theresa Anne Fowler

Fiction: Theresa Anne Fowler


We didn’t talk much about it but did touch on the 2011 Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. Here is a scene, you tell us if you think Alison Pill as Zelda is what you imagined her to be.

Zelda Fitzgerald: The Musical, You can watch the whole thing on this site. Theater! Without leaving the house! In your jammies or MeUndies loungewear! (That is totally sponsored)

Not a movie, but the Amazon Prime original,  Z: The Beginning of Everything has one episode with Christina Ricci as Zelda available to stream for the low, low price of $0.00.

We couldn’t help (when we lined-up with Team Zelda) but think back to Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman, the 1944 movie about a man who makes his wife believe that she is crazy.


Do you find yourself on Team Zelda? We have a shirt for that. Check out our shop for all our Chick Gear.

History Chicks Baby/Pet/Car Name Guide entry: Zelda. Read all about the name at Appellation Mountain.

You guys all know to Snopes something before you share it, right? (It’s okay, we’ve all done it once or twice). Here is the story behind the List of Reasons for Admission to an Insane Asylum, early 1900s. 

If you are drawn to Zelda because of an interest in psychotherapy (as in learning about it, not necessarily undergoing it) (not that there is anything wrong with that) here is the handy dandy guide that Beckett mentioned comparing Jung and Freud. 

They make it look so easy…and no Dippity Do! (Which, apparently, is still a thing! Dippity-Do.com)


And finally, super special thanks to this week’s sponsors, MeUndies and Green Chef!


Episode 65: Miss Potter Moviecast

Posted 2 April 2016 by
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In the middle of recording the media section of the Beatrix Potter episode we started to discuss the 2006 movie, Miss Potter starring Renee Zellweger as Beatrix when we realized that we both had a lot to say about it.

“Let’s do a moviecast!”

So we did.film-158157_1280 poster


Episode 64: Beatrix Potter

Posted 26 March 2016 by
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Once upon a time there were four little rabbits with very familiar names who knew a quiet girl named Beatrix Potter. Beatrix loved animals, nature and art…and one day she would make them the most famous rabbits in the world.

Beatrix, 1913 (wikicommons)

Beatrix, 1913 (wikicommons)

Helen Beatrix Potter was born July 26, 1866 to Rupert and Helen Potter. Her little brother, Bertram, was born six years later. Rupert was professionally a lawyer, but recreationally an art collector and amateur photographer. Helen was involved in some philanthropic organizations and ran a very tight ship (trying to be nice here).

Beatrix and Helen. She wasn't a mean, horrible, abusive mother she was just hired the right staff so she could be protective by proxy.

Beatrix and Helen. She wasn’t a mean, horrible, abusive mother she simply hired the right staff so she could be protective by proxy.


Episode 63: Catherine the Great Part Two

Posted 4 March 2016 by
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When we last left the Grand Duchess Catherine, she was feeling alone, unloved and unnecessary. She had just given birth and the child, Paul, heir to the Russian Empire, was ripped from her arms to be raised by Empress Elizabeth. Not cool, Elizabeth, not cool at all.

Still a Grand Duchess (wikimedia commons, public domain)

Still a Grand Duchess (wikimedia commons, public domain)

Catherine’s postpartum solitude did afford her time to read…and think…and plan. Elizabeth wasn’t getting any younger and it wasn’t that hard to imagine Peter as a very inept Czar. All of Catherine’s reading about historic rulers and enlightened thinkers was helping form ideas on how best to rule Russia. Once she stepped back out into society she transitioned from, “Charming But Decorative” to “Charming and Fierce.” She began to not only call out people who wronged her, but –in Survivor terms– she played a really strong social game. She spotted her allies and brought them into her circle, and the rest? She kept track of their moves, distanced herself when necessary, played them when required and kept them guessing. Smile. Charm. Don’t let them see you scheme.

Good plan. (more…)