More than a decade ago, I was researching antebellum and Civil War-era quilts for my fourth novel when I discovered a photograph of an antique masterpiece.
Arranged in the medallion style, with appliquéd eagles, embroidered flowers, meticulously pieced hexagons and deep red fringe, the quilt was the work of a gifted needleworker, its striking beauty unmarred by the shattered silk and broken threads that gave evidence to its age.
The caption noted that the quilt had been sewn from scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln’s gowns by her dressmaker and confidante, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley. I marveled at the compelling story those brief lines suggested—a courageous woman’s rise from slavery to freedom, an improbable friendship that ignored the era’s sharp distinctions of class and race, the confidences shared between a loyal dressmaker and a controversial, divisive First Lady.
A few years later, while researching my Civil War novel, The Union Quilters, I realized that many of my secondary sources cited the same work—Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, Elizabeth Keckley’s 1868 memoir. I immediately found a reprint and plunged into her story, which told of her harrowing years as a slave, her struggle for freedom and her ascendance as the most popular dressmaker of Washington’s elite, including the new president’s wife. Sewing in the Lincoln family’s chambers within the White House, Keckley observed Abraham and Mary Lincoln in their most private, unguarded moments, and with them she witnessed some of the most glorious and tragic events in the nation’s history.
For years afterward, I longed to delve more deeply into Keckley’s story, to learn about the woman she was beyond her friendship with Mary Lincoln, to discover what had happened after the closing passages of her memoir and to uncover the details of everyday life in wartime Washington. How, I wondered, had Keckley spent that tense and fateful day in 1860 when the increasingly divided nation awaited the results of the election that would send Abraham Lincoln to the White House? What emotions had swept through her when invasion by the Confederate Army seemed imminent? What sights, sounds and smells had she encountered while all around her the capital became an armed camp?
And the most provocative question of all: How had the publication of her memoir transformed Keckley’s life?
As she awaited the publication of Behind the Scenes, Keckley worried that she might be criticized for revealing too much about the private lives of President Lincoln and the First Lady. Her fears proved all too prescient, making the last chapters of her remarkable life as compelling as any that had come before.
Elizabeth Keckley’s relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln is the focus of Jennifer Chiaverini’s new novel, Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, a compelling fictional account of Keckley’s life.