AN UNCOMMON WOMAN
Throughout her life, Lou was very much her husband's partner in everything he did, whether pursuing the history of mining, caring for Americans stranded in Europe by World War I, feeding desperate Belgium, or convincing her countrymen to voluntarily reduce their food consumption during the war in order to aid the Allies. When Prohibition became law, the man of the house emptied his cellar of the finest port in California. "I don't have to live with the American people," he told a friend. "But I do have to live with Lou."
Not until Jacqueline Kennedy restored the White House in the 1960s would a First Lady lavish so much time and energy on the old house. Lou turned the second floor West hall into a gracious room filled with bookcases and palms and transformed the shabby first floor into a showcase for American art and antiques.
When the Great Depression cast a shadow over her husband's presidency, Lou hired secretaries to channel assistance to victims of hard time, after first concealing her own involvement. She also accompanied the president on his unsuccessful 1932 re-election campaign. At the end she still managed a smile for reporters. "See, we are carrying on," she said. And so she was.
Turn of the century China posed an even greater challenge. During the Boxer Rebellion, Lou did not huddle in basements but nursed the wounded, scrounged up food, medicine and clothing for the injured, and even stood guard duty on barricades. When an eyewitness wrote later that this extraordinarily brave young woman actually seemed to "enjoy" the whole harrowing experience, she only reflected Lou's own feelings. As Lou told a friend, "You missed one of the opportunities of your life by not coming to China in the summer of 1900...the most interesting seige of the age."
Placid by comparison, Lou's subsequent travels took her to Egypt, Burma, Australia, Japan, Russia, Germany, Belgium, France, New Zealand and Great Britain. She visited World War I battlefields and in 1921 drove her own car from California to Washington D.C. Another joy was camping trips by pack mule through the Sierra Mountains. In 1923 she took part in the founding of the National Amateur Athletic Federation. She remained active in the NAAF's Women's Division which encouraged participation by all girls and young women in the adventures of organized competition.
Lou wrote biographical sketches of the Dowager Empress of China and as First Lady prepared an exhaustive social history of the White House. She also assembled an impressive collection of historical prints relating to the White House and early Washington D.C. Her sophisticated musical tastes led to concerts in the East Room featuring such celebrated artists as Rosa Ponselle, Vladimir Horowitz, and Jascha Heifetz. At her behest, pianist Ignace Paderewski performed benefit concerts for the unemployed and the White House played host to Black choirs from Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes.
Lou was a gifted linguist, artist, and photographer, who traded in her box Brownie for an 8mm motion picture camera used to record family activities and her work with the Girl Scouts. On top of everything else, Mrs. Hoover was an amateur architect largely responsible for the house on San Juan Hill at Palo Alto and the presidential fishing camp built in 1929 along the Rapidan River.
Earlier still, following her 1898 graduation from Stanford, Lou joined the local Red Cross chapter and rolled bandages for soldiers in the Spanish-American War. In 1914, she organized efforts to care for U.S. tourists stranded in Europe by the outbreak of World War I. She saw to child care, food, lodging, wardrobe and even concerts and tours to divert anxious Americans from their plight. Later, she took part in promoting her husband's war work through the United States Food Administration. Her domestic "hooverizing" brought her considerable publicity, and she was not bashful about making speeches for the cause.
None of these outside activities caused Lou to neglect her family. Constantly she reminded her sons of the importance of doing something worthwhile with their lives. As she put it in a 1914 letter, "The ambition to do, to accomplish irrespective of its measure in money of fame, is what should be inculcated. The desire to make the things that are, better, in a little way with what is at hand - in a big way if the opportunity comes."
Having never had a daughter of her own, Lou once said she would not know what to do with a girl. In this as in so much else, she was being unnecessarily modest. For in truth, she adopted more than a million girls in green and brown uniforms, anxious to introduce them to the outdoor world she had first encountered as a ten-year-old tomboy on the Cedar River.
Throughout the 1920s she held office either as president or vice president, positions she filled on an honorary basis during and after her years in the White House. In 1929 alone she raised over half a million dollars to help realize a five year plan of organizational development. She is also credited with the first sale of Girl Scout cookies during her second term as president.
Lou Hoover was considered a highly effective spokesperson and role model for young women. Said one observer: "Mrs. Hoover is just the type of person one would expect young girls to adore. She has a charm of manner that immediately attracts one." She certainly attracted many young women to Scouting. In 1927 there were some 168,000 Girl Scouts in America. By the time of Lou's death in 1944, their ranks had swelled to 1,035,000.
Rapidan was Lou's creation as much as her husband's. She designed a four tier stone fountain as a centerpiece, adding blackeyed Susans and larkspur to complement the lush mountain laurel. It was Lou who left explicit instructions that the President's Cabin incorporate and not destroy a majestic old hemlock tree - Lou who refused to burn live wood, coal, or oil - Lou whose scruples made for chilly nights but a warm conscience.
When the Hoovers discovered that local children had no school they donated funds to build one and to hire a teacher. Most days the First Lady rode horseback, occasionally stopping in nearby Madison to patronize local rugmakers or furniture craftsman. In the evening Lou invited guests to join her as the moon rose over Fork Mountain. It was a welcome alternative to the tumult of politics and dinners for visiting royalty.
Among the distinguished visitors to Camp Rapidan were British Prime Minister James Ramsay-MacDonald, who protested, "I can't go to the mountains in this cutaway and striped trousers," before Hoover loaned him clothing from his own wardrobe; Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh, Vice President Charles Curtis, Philosopher Will Durant, newspaper publishers Adolph Ochs and Eugene Meyer, industrialist Harvey Firestone, and numerous members of the Supreme Court and the Cabinet.
Each visitor left his or her name in a special guest book to commemorate their time along the Rapidan. "This civilization is not going to depend upon what we do when we work so much as what we do in our time off...We go to chain theatres and movies; we watch somebody else knock a ball over the fence or kick it over the goal post. I do that and I believe in it. I do, however, insist that no other organized joy has values comparable to the outdoor experience...The joyous rush of the brook, the contemplation of the eternal flow of the stream, the stretch of forest and mountain all reduce our egotism, smoothe our troubles, and shame our wickedness."