Set during the first Clinton presidency, Clinton the Musical hilariously chronicles the ups and downs of that administration, from Hillarycare to Monica Lewinsky. When you see the show, you might notice something strange about the presidential portraits staring down on Bill and Hillary from the walls of the White House: Embedded within each canvas is a smaller portrait of that president's secret lover, framed by a heart.
The show's set designer Beowulf Boritt came to this conceit through his ambitious goal of reading a biography of every single American president. He's already read several and noticed at least one remarkable pattern: Many of our commanders-in-chief had a piece (or several) on the side. "The act of infidelity wasn't something unique to Clinton, so this set is my dorky joke about that," Boritt explains, hastening to add, "They're all fairly well-documented."
Here are some of the philandering chief executives featured on the set of Clinton the Musical, along with commentary from our esteemed set designer/historian.
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings
The tradition of presidential sexual dalliances stretches back to the founding fathers. Jefferson (our third president) fathered at least six children with Hemings, who remained his slave until his death in 1826. Historians denied the relationship for years, but a 1998 paternity study by Professor Eugene A. Foster (the Maury Povich of American history) conclusively put the controversy to rest: Jefferson was undeniably the father of Eston Hemings Jefferson, Sally Hemings' youngest son.
Boritt: "This one we've got the DNA on."
James Buchanan and William Rufus King
From 1834 to 1844, Pennsylvania Senator James Buchanan spent a great deal of time in the company of Alabama Senator William Rufus King. The two would regularly attend social functions together and even shared the same Washington, D.C. residence. President Andrew Jackson is alleged to have referred to the pair of cohabiting senators as "Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy." When King left Washington to become U.S. minister to France, Buchanan was heartbroken, writing to his friend Cornelia Roosevelt, "I am now 'solitary and alone,' having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a-wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them." He never did find a replacement for King. Buchanan was elected president in 1856, becoming the only lifelong bachelor to occupy the White House. While their relationship was not adulterous in the truest sense, it was undoubtedly illicit for its day.
Boritt: "Unless you count precipitating the American Civil War, this is the only interesting thing about Buchanan as a president."
James A. Garfield and Lucia Gilbert Calhoun
When he was still an Ohio congressman during the Civil War, Garfield began a brief affair with a young New York Tribune reporter named Lucia Gilbert Calhoun. Few details are known of their relationship, but we can ascertain from Calhoun's writing and unlikely profession that she was a thoroughly modern woman for her day. In her 1868 introduction to a series of essays titled Modern Women and What Is Said of Them, Gilbert wrote, "The remedy seems to be to give women as thorough mental training as men receive, to make their training tend directly to the business of earning their bread and their pretty feminine adornments, and for the same work to pay them the same wages." American women are still clamoring for that last part, lo these 147 years later.
Boritt: "She was the one person I couldn't find an image of, so I gave her a silhouette."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer
Lucy Mercer took a job as Eleanor Roosevelt's social secretary in 1914. Shortly after, she began sleeping with Eleanor's husband, Franklin (who was then serving as assistant secretary of the Navy). Eleanor was incensed by the affair and threatened divorce, but the Washington power couple eventually decided to stay together, for the sake of both of their public careers. That sounds an awful lot like another political couple we all know.
Boritt: "Like many presidents, Roosevelt had multiple girlfriends… however, I chose to only depict Lucy Mercer."
Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok
Roosevelt's despair at her husband's infidelity didn't preclude her from engaging in her own affair decades later. In fact, she might have felt justified in her secret love when she fell for reporter Lorena Hickok during the 1932 presidential campaign. The two spent countless hours in each other's company, writing voluminous love letters when they could not be together. "I can't kiss you," Roosevelt wrote "Hick" (as she was fond of calling her), "so I kiss your picture good night and good morning!" Theirs was a love for the ages.
Boritt: "Obviously, she's not a president, but this is another famous affair. Her position on the set mirrors FDR."
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kay Summersby
Summersby was General Eisenhower's chauffeur during World War II when he was serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. The two were extremely close, sharing many secrets and private moments. By the time Eisenhower became president, Summersby was married to another man and their relationship was certainly over… if there ever was one at all. Summersby remained tight-lipped on this matter until her death-bed memoir, Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower, in which she let the world know about her passionate romance with the famously stolid military man.
Boritt: "Eisenhower was a Republican. There were actually more Democratic presidents with mistresses, but it's almost even when you do a full count."
John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, Blaze Starr, Judith Exner, Jayne Mansfield, Pam Turnure, and Jill Cowan
The exploits of our most famous president lothario are legend. Boritt only regrets that there was not enough space on the canvas to depict them all.
Boritt: "I wanted to give Kennedy a lot."
George H.W. Bush and Jennifer Fitzgerald
Bush met Fitzgerald when she became his personal assistant in 1974. He was serving as special envoy to China at the time, but Fitzgerald stayed on, following Bush Sr. to his post at the C.I.A. and as Ronald Reagan's vice president. According to former U.S. diplomat Louis Fields, Bush and Fitzgerald shared a private cottage in Switzerland during an official visit in 1984 (all the while, Barbara Bush was out promoting her book C. Fred's Story, about the Bush family dog). Much to the frustration of the Clinton camp, this story never received nearly the coverage of the 42nd president's numerous affairs. That's not for lack of trying, either: In a May 1992 interview with Vanity Fair, as her husband was being dogged by allegations surrounding his affair with Gennifer Flowers, Hillary Clinton was quick to remind everyone that President Bush had his own Jennifer. Few people listened then, but now that Hillary is a candidate in her own right, will her cries of hypocrisy gain more traction should her husband's sex life become an issue again? (And it probably will.)
Boritt: "This is why so many Democrats were outraged that Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky became a scandal. Rightly or wrongly, the president's private sexual life wasn't something the press talked about before Clinton."
- Hillary Clinton
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt
- White House
- World War II
- Beowulf Boritt
- Civil War
- Clinton the Musical
- Eleanor Roosevelt
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