Season 2 | Episode 10 | “First Ladies” | Aired Sept 10, 2014
Drunk History has always been on a mission to tell history’s lesser known stories, so it’s fitting that the second season should end on America’s first ladies. No one seems to know anything about them, and when they do, they judge each woman based on how toned her arms are and how well she throws shade. First ladies have so much more to teach us. Let Drunk History show you the way.
1. Shine bright like your husband, the president, is telling you not to.
When Grover Cleveland (Bobby Moynihan) took over as president in 1885, he was unmarried. By default this made him the most eligible bachelor in the country, but he still needed his sister Rose to play his matchmaker, which doesn’t say anything good about Grover. Rose invited a woman by the name of Emma Folsom (Paget Brewster) to visit the White House, but Grover was more taken by Emma’s 21-year-old daughter, Frances (Alia Shawkat). Emma went so far as to send Frances to Europe to try to shut that down, but Grover proposed to Frances in a letter and she accepted. (“It was like a Khloe and Lamar sort of nine-day wedding situation.”)
The President’s new, young wife quickly became an “it girl,” and companies exploited her image to sell anything that needed selling. Frances decided to make the most of her fame. (“If everyone’s gonna be paying attention to me, let’s make sure they’re paying attention to me for the right reasons.”) She met weekly with the working women of Washington, who lined up around the White House to talk to her. An encounter with two young girls eating out of a dumpster inspired Frances to start a charity called The Home for Friendless Colored Girls. Like narrator Molly McAleer, “I’m gonna say, like, that’s a brutal name for a charity,” but the public loved her. Grover tried to put a stop to all of this activism, as he didn’t think any woman—much less his wife—should be engaged in politics, but Frances kept fighting for women. On her last day in the White House, 23,000 people came out to meet her. Remember Frances, and don’t let anyone tell you how to be famous.
2. With a few photographers and some strategically placed pillows, you too can run the country.
With 18 months left in the White House, Woodrow Wilson had a stroke. His wife Edith (Courteney Cox) knew that he would want to finish his term in office, so she hid his condition from the public and started making presidential decisions. (“Shut up. Sit down. I am in charge now. Can I get my cheesy bread I brought?”) She promised Congress that she was only there to run memos to her husband, but in reality, Edith was running the show.
Eventually, Congress grew suspicious and sent Senator Albert Fall to see about the president’s true condition. (This was actually an episode of Scandal, am I right?) Edith cleverly propped up Woodrow so that he looked like he was working, and Fall bought it. She later did the same thing with an official photographer to appease the American public. So basically, Americans find it easier to believe that a comatose man is running the country than to believe that a woman can do the same.
3. Parties can change history.
Dolley Madison (Casey Wilson) was first lady while the White House was still being decorated, which also happened to be during the War of 1812. British soldiers had landed and were heading for Washington, so President James Madison (Ian Roberts) decided to meet them himself. (“I’m gonna get on a horse and I’m gonna go there, and I’m gonna be like, ‘Guess what? Knock knock, president’s here.’”) Dolley was left behind at the White House. She was determined not to leave, to show everyone that they didn’t have to be afraid, but when even the men who were securing the White House fled, she realized that it was time to do the same.
Dolley collected the curtains and the fancy silver, and she instructed the servants to take a portrait of George Washington. She treated the painting with care and wouldn’t allow anyone to roll it. (“This is not a Jimi Hendrix poster.”) As they were leaving, Dolley remembered to grab the Declaration of Independence—imagine having so many nice things that you’re capable of almost forgetting the Declaration of Independence—and they were out of there just before the White House was burned to the ground. In the aftermath, Congress considered moving the capital to Philadelphia, but Dolley didn’t want anyone to make that decision out of fear. She threw four months of parties and convinced everyone that the White House was worth rebuilding. Now, Dolley’s portrait hangs directly across from George Washington’s, watching out for him.
4. British soldiers took selfies too.
When narrator Jenny Johnson pauses in the middle of her story to take a photo of the crew, we see a British soldier (Derek Waters) stop and take a photo as he prepares to burn down the White House. Historical figures: They’re just like us!
Casey Wilson, always a fun guest on this show, plays Dolley Madison with perfect party girl backbone, and Courteney Cox is exactly the right choice to bring to life a woman who ran the country. Monica Geller would have done the same. Paget Brewster also gives us some great scandalized faces as the mother of Alia Shawkat’s self-assured Frances. Were you familiar with these first ladies’ stories? And what were your favorite stories in this second season? Let’s talk about it!