White House Weddings: President Grant cries when daughter marries Englishman

Published 1:53 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2023

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By Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

The sixth wedding in the White House, which was the second wedding of a president’s daughter, was that of Elizabeth Tyler and William Waller, which was held Jan. 31, 1842, 10 years after the previous White House wedding, that of Mary Anne Lewis, a friend of Andrew Jackson’s, and Alphonse Pageot.

Elizabeth Tyler was the daughter of President John Tyler and his first wife, Letitia Christian Tyler. The Tyler/Waller wedding ceremony was performed in the East Room before the Cabinet members and their wives, diplomats and their wives, family members and close friends, which included Dolley Madison and other friends from Virginia.  The Rev. William Hawley, the pastor of St. John’s Church, which is across Lafayette Square from the White House, performed the ceremony.   

Vice President John Tyler became President when William Henry Harrison, the ninth President died unexpectedly after serving only 31 days of the four-year term to which he was elected.  Mr. Tyler was at his home in Virginia when the President died. He rushed to Washington either on horseback or in a horse drawn carriage.

Mr. Tyler was the first vice president to become president and there was some controversary about how much power he should have, etc. He let it be known that he would assume all presidential powers without restriction. Tyler thereby set a precedent that has been followed until the present time.

John Tyler’s wife, Letitia, was an invalid who stayed in the family quarters after the family moved to the White House. She had never appeared in public, but she did come to her daughter’s wedding. The presence of her mother was so important to the bride.

The following description of Letitia Tyler is found in Smith and Durbin’s book, “White House Brides”:  “She wore a perfectly faultless yet unostentatious dress, her face shaded by the soft fine lace of her cap, receiving in her sweet, gentle, self-possessed manner, all the people who were led up and presented to her. She was by far more attractive to me in her appearance and bearing than any other lady in the room.”

That was the way that Letitia’s daughter-in-law described her mother-in-law. Normally, Mrs. Tyler stayed in her room knitting with her Bible and Prayer Book nearby so making an appearance at her daughter’s wedding made that a special occasion for all.

There was not much public attention given to the wedding because it was private. A reception held the day was enjoyed by many guests.

After their wedding the Wallers went to Williamsburg to live, but they often went back to the White House to visit. Elizabeth’s mother died eight months after her daughter’s wedding. Two years after the death of his first wife, John Tyler married Julia Gardiner. Elizabeth had trouble accepting Julia, but, finally, she came to admire her.

Eight years after her marriage, Elizabeth died.  She and her husband had six children during their eight-year marriage, and it was following the death of the sixth child that she died.  Her obituary said, “In the bloom of Youth, not having reached her 27th year, has one of the loveliest of her sex, lovely in all the attributes that make up the perfect character, the beloved daughter, the adored, the Christian mother, descended to the tomb.” What a lovely obituary for an outstanding lady, the daughter of the tenth President of the United States.

It was 32 years before there was another wedding at the White House and that next one was one of the most elaborate that ever took place there.

That was the wedding of 17-year-old Nellie Grant to 23-year-old Algernon Charles Frederick Sartoris, an Englishman. President Grant was not happy when he placed his daughter’s hand in that of the Englishman. It is said that he had tears in his eyes. The date was May 21, 1874.

Nellie was determined to marry Algenon so her mother, Julia Dent Grant, decided that it must be the most beautiful wedding ever. She certainly succeeded according to people who were invited to the wedding, which was held in the White House East Room.  There were 200 people invited and most of those were present for the special occasion of the wedding of a president’s daughter.

The following is what the guests saw when they entered the East Room.

“The room was given the full neo-Greek treatment, with tall pillars jutting from the frescoed walls and ornate false beams that spit the ceiling into three sections.  Each section was dominated by a colossal $1,800 chandelier made up of thousands of pieces of cut glass.  The decorators added to all of this thousands of blossoms of tuberoses, spirea, lilies-0n-the-valley and other fragrant flowers that filled the sir with perfume. A dais at one side of the room was lavishly bowered with plants and evergreens.  A rug given by the Sulton of Turkey covered the dais and over it was a floral arch supporting a large bell composed of snow-white blossoms.  Hanging from the ceiling just behind the marriage bell was a horizontal band of flowers.  Near either end of it was a small floral circle, one bearing the bride’s initials and the other the bridegrooms.  White satin ribbons formed an aisle to this altar and the guests were grouped behind the ribbons.” That description is found in “White House Brides” by Smith and Durbin.

Nellie wore a $5,000  wedding dress, and she was accompanied by eight bridesmaids. The ceremony was performed by Rev. O. H. Tiffany of the Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church. The ceremony was followed by a dinner which probably lasted about three hours and may have had as many as 29 courses.  About twelve o’clock the guests were given a piece of the wedding cake to carry home.

The bride went upstairs where she changed into her traveling clothes. The newlyweds were then driven by the President’s four-in-hand team to the depot where a special Pullman car, which was decorated with flags, flowers and evergreens, was waiting to take them to New York.  The next day Nellie and her husband sailed on the ship, the Baltic, to England.

After such a tremendous beginning, it would be great to say that all lived happily ever after.  It did seem like a successful marriage for several years.  Nellie gave birth to one son and two daughters, and they came back to America most every year to visit her parents.

There were rumors that all was not well in the Grant/Sartoris marriage, but that was not evident for some time. However, 15 years after that glamorous White House wedding, Nellie admitted that her marriage was a failure, and she returned to the United States with her children.

By the time she returned, her father Ulysses S. Grant was dead, but her mother welcomed her with open arms. They lived in Washington where all doors were open to Nellie.

Years later Nellie married Frank J. Jones of Chicago, an Assistant Postmaster General in the Cleveland Administration.