Julia Gardner Tyler
“The Rose of Long Island”
By Anne Adams
The idea of a “May and December” marriage where an older man marries a much younger woman often attracts our interest because we are fascinated about the romance of the subject. And when the man is an important political figure – even an American president – there is an additional interest. While there have been youthful First Ladies such as Jacqueline Kennedy there have also been at least two presidential wives whose husbands were much older. One of these younger brides, Frances Folsom, was married to Grover Cleveland in the White House. The other, while not actually married in the White House itself, also brought youth and beauty to not just her older husband but also to the Executive Mansion. However, Julia Gardiner Tyler was more than First Lady –she was also a society beauty, commercial spokeswoman and mother of Tyler’s second family of 7 children.
Julia’s father David had made his fortune with a brewery and New York City real estate and at one point established a home and farm for his family on a 3000 acre island off Long Island. There on what was logically known as Gardiner’s Island, Julia was born in 1820 yet the family soon returned to their East Hampton home on Long Island when the Gardiner’s Island farm proved unprofitable. Julia’s two brothers were sent away to school, while Julia and her sister were educated at home, but Julia did attend a New York finishing school for two years. There she received a smattering of literature and languages but also entered a more exciting world of parties, high fashion and young male admirers. She finished school at age 17 and returned home.
For the next several years Julia unsuccessfully urged her mother to take a house in the city to let her resume her life in society. Mrs. Gardner was proud of her wealth and position but did not share Julia’s intense interest in participating in the social scene. Finally Julia found her own way to create some excitement. .
To her parents’ shock, Julia’s picture appeared on a widely distributed flyer issued by a city fabric dealer. She was pictured in an ornate gown, leaning on the arm of an unidentified gentleman, and carrying a placard recommending the store’s products as being “beautiful and astonishingly cheap.” The identifying caption labeled Julia as the “Rose of Long Island.” In an era when the name of a respectable lady only made the newspaper at birth, marriage and death, Julia’s appearance was questionable by the standards of the time. Her parents got a second shock when there was published on the front page of a Brooklyn newspaper a poem about Julia, purportedly authored by Romeo Ringdove expressing his admiration for “The Rose of Long Island.”
Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner decided to remove their daughter from further publicity and took Julia and her sister on a European tour, hoping that after a year abroad the unpleasant notoriety would be forgotten.
However, upon their return Mrs. Gardiner decided that if Julia was still society minded then she should do it in Washington and not New York, so the family moved to the capital city. The small and dark-haired Julia charmed Washington society just as she had New York and soon she had several high placed admirers including a Supreme Court justice and even the President.
John Tyler’s first wife Leticia had died in the White House in September, 1842, leaving seven children, the youngest an 11 year old boy still at home. Tyler had been a widower for just a few months when he reportedly became enamored of Julia and according to her later account actually proposed to her at a costume ball where she was dressed as a Greek maiden. “I had never thought of love, so I said, ‘no, no, no’ and shook my head with each word, which flung the tassel of my Greek cap into his face with every move…”
When Julia told her mother about the president’s interest, Mrs. Gardiner discouraged any further involvement by taking Julia back to New York. There she remained, but corresponding with Tyler all through the fall and winter of 1843. Then in February, 1844 Mr. Gardner, Julia and her sister returned to Washington. They arrived in the city in time to join a group of visitors to a naval vessel where the captain had arranged a cruise for high-ranking officials, including the President and his cabinet.
During the cruise down the Potomac the captain arranged the firing of a new gun to impress the visitors then the visitors retired to the cabin below for refreshments. Then when several men guests asked for another demonstration, and the gun was fired again this time there was a dreadful explosion. It killed several onlookers, including David Gardiner. President Tyler, below with the other guests, charged topside to begin organizing rescue efforts then returned below to Julia, who had fainted at the news of her father’s death. The President personally carried the unconscious Julia to safety and directed she and her sister be removed to the White House. Julia revived in time to become overcome by the compassionate care that Tyler had provided. It was enough to remove any doubts she might have had about such a union.
After a respectable interval Tyler wrote to Mrs. Gardiner asking to marry Julia, and she gave her consent provided the president provided Julia with the “necessary comforts and elegancies of life” to which she was accustomed.
They were married quite privately at a New York City church in June, 1844 with Julia’s sister and Tyler’s son as attendants and Julia’s mother, brothers and several other Tyler friends present.
Tyler and Julia spent part of their honeymoon in remodeling the Virginia plantation Sherwood Forest where Tyler hoped to retire after leaving the White House. However, they returned to a dingy and run down White House but it would remain so because Congress would not provide renovation funds. Still, Julia resolved to preside over an active social season in the few months left in Tyler’s term.
Julia’s “reign” as she called it, added dancing parties to the usual receptions and dinners. One Washington contemporary wrote that Julia was the source of some comment because she drove four horses (finer than those of the Russian minister) and because she received [guests] seated, her armchair on a slightly raised platform, in a velvet gown with three feathers in her hair.” It was also reported that Julia impressed even her husband’s critics, who were charmed by the President’s lovely young wife.
Julia brought in several young lady relatives to receive with her and circulate in Washington society, and the social season brought great acclaim by those involved. At her final grand ball in February, 1845 Tyler was reported to have proclaimed, “They cannot say that I am a president without a party,” a reference to his previous political difficulties.
After the Tylers retired to Sherwood Forest Julia set about establishing her own household, and as she did so never letting anyone forget that she was formerly “Mrs. President Tyler.” Except for one Tyler daughter, Julia also gradually won the friendship of all her step children as well as demonstrating great interest and sympathy in the Southern culture of her neighbors. Her first son was born in 1845, and there followed other children in 1848, 1849, 1851, 1853, 1856 and her last daughter Pearl in 1860.
Pearl was two years old and Tyler was 70 when he died in 1862 at the time serving in the Confederate House of Representatives. During the Civil War Julia left Virginia to take most of her children to join her mother at her estate on Staten Island. She returned to Sherwood briefly to hire a manager and then returned to New York. However, while she was gone the Virginia estate was partially destroyed by local intruders and though it was partially restored later Julia spent many years attempting Federal reimbursement for the damage. Her legal expenses and extravagant living kept her financially limited though she received some help with a presidential widow’s pension in 1881. She was 79 when she attended the graduation exercises at William and Mary College where her son was president, and then stopped at a Richmond hotel. There in the same establishment where her husband had died, she followed him on July 8, 1889.
The society beauty that had found a true and lasting love with an American president and brought youth and beauty to the White House as well as the life of her husband would enter American history as a most unique First Lady.
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968). A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”