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Telling Mary Todd Lincoln's story on her terms

Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, by Jean H. Baker. New York and London: W.W. Norton. 429 pp. Illustrated. $19.95. This is an excellent, enticing book. It turns biography into social history at its best. Women's studies has made wonderful strides during the last few years, and Jean Baker applies its insights with a sure hand to Mary Todd Lincoln's life, illuminating her marriage, childbearing and rearing, homemaking, letter writing, female and male relationships, medical problems, mourning, and more. This biography could not have been written a generation ago.

The focus is clearly on Mary and not her husband, Abraham. She would have loved such an approach - she sought to be noticed throughout her life. She needed to be ``different'' and had the good fortune of finding a mate who supported her needs - in part because he needed her emotionally as well as politically.

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She was born into the American aristocracy, in Lexington, Ky., in 1818 (in the year Nancy Hanks, her future husband's mother, died in a dirt-floored cabin in the Indiana wilderness). The author spares no detail in showing that, even as a child, Mary's losses were many and grievous. When she was 4, one of her brothers died. When she was 6, her mother died (Abraham was 9 at his mother's passing). When Mary was 7, her father remarried.

She loved her father and detested her stepmother. She obtained an unusually fine education and, as rapidly as possible, left for the frontier town of Springfield, Ill. There, according to Mrs. Baker, she was courted not only by Lincoln but also by Stephen A. Douglas. She chose the tall, uncouth lawyer because she saw future greatness in him and sensed that ``his instincts of justice and equality'' would extend to their marriage, too. She was right on both counts.

Bred with conventional ideas, Mary made her husband, their four sons, and their home her main concerns. Given also her deep ``unwomanly'' need for recognition, she developed a ``profound ambivalence about herself.'' All the same, she was a vibrant creature socially, intellectually, and politically. With her lawyering and office-seeking husband frequently absent, Mary ``created a nineteenth century version of the intense, mother-led, child-preoccupied modern family'' doing very well at her task.

Mary played a central part in Lincoln's rise in political life. She had, Baker thinks, an ``undaunted vision of the White House.'' ``Said Abraham in one reported conversation: `Nobody knows me.' Said Mary, `They soon will.''' So they did.

Yet, when her husband became president she lost her equal place beside him. She could not advise him on national politics as she had in Illinois and, in any case, they both had to contend with the almost unbearable, bloody fact of the Civil War. Her husband grew ``chronically depressed, distracted, and exhausted.''

Mrs. President Lincoln was lonely. She spent money lavishly, renovated the White House, entertained, followed the tastes of France's Empress Eugenie, traveled, and flirted - with affairs now, or earlier, Mrs. Baker thinks, not beyond the realm of possibility. She also peddled her influence blatantly and fought with her husband, at times in public. And yet they pleased and loved each other.

Then, after one child died at the start of the '50s, the Lincolns lost their favored son Willie in 1862. Mary mourned and sought consolation in spiritualism. There were seances in the White House, even Lincoln attended to please her. In rapid succession the war claimed three of her Confederate half-brothers. When Rebel Gen. Ben Hardin Helm died, his widow Emilie, Mary's favorite half-sister, stayed at the White House. The war years went by and then the President, too, was gone.

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She lived on for 17 more years wearing her widow's weeds relentlessly. Deep inside she felt life to be a series of abandonments, and increasingly she saw in them proof of her own worthlessness. The public often reviled her. Her third son, Tad, died six years after her husband, and eventually the sole survivor, Robert, had a court commit her to an asylum, though she was neurotic and narcissistic and not insane. Mary never forgave her ``monster of mankind son'' and ``ended her life childless.'' She spent many of her last years in exile in France, whose language she had learned as a young girl. At last she came home to die.

The sentimental tellers of the epic tale of Mary Todd Lincoln's life always included the words of the minister who at her funeral ``spoke of two pines that had grown so close that their roots were intertwined. When one was struck by lightning, the other wasted away.''

But after all, as Baker shows, she had not wasted away following her husband's assassination, indeed she fought battles royal: about the placing of his grave; for the right to publicly sell her clothes and demonstrate her poverty; for pensions from Congress; for the right to get out of the asylum. She lived on.

Baker, who is teaching at Harvard this year, visiting from Baltimore's Goucher College where she is a professor of history, tells Mary's life on her terms, women's terms. The book is wonderfully enticing to an audience living in the last part of the 20th century. Yet Abraham was a deeper part of Mary's life than one can gather from the biography. And so, as so often with history books, Jean Baker's superior ``Mary Todd Lincoln'' tells us much about this lively and tragic woman - and something about our own times, too.

Gabor S. Boritt collaborated with Mark E. Neely Jr. and Harold Holzer on the recently published ``The Confederate Image: Prints of the Lost Cause'' (University of North Carolina). He teaches history at Gettysburg College.

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