Was Mary Todd Lincoln Really “Insane”?

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 9 2012 3:17 PM

Was Mary Todd Lincoln Really “Insane”?

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On the left, Mary Todd Lincoln at age 43. On the right, Sally Field in Lincoln.

In 1875, more than a decade after her husband was assassinated, Mary Todd Lincoln found two men outside her room in Chicago. They had papers ordering her arrest. Taken immediately to a local courthouse, Lincoln found an all-male jury already waiting for her, set to determine if she should be institutionalized for insanity. The arrest—prompted by her only surviving son, Robert—was the culmination of decades of whispers about the former First Lady’s behavior, and it has shaped her legacy to this day.

Remarkably, though, we see only shades of that Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s sturdy new account of several pivotal months in the White House. This alone reflects how far popular thought has shifted on her. As written by playwright Tony Kushner and played by Sally Field, this Mrs. Lincoln is a sharp and cunning—if  sometimes fragile—fixture in her husband’s life. That take is the product of a decades-long and continually evolving argument among historians about just who she really was.

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Mrs. Lincoln acquired a spotty public image early on, partly due to a scandal over lavish White House expenses and partly due to her Southern roots. (Born in Kentucky, she had family in the Confederacy.) The term First Lady was not yet in wide circulation when the Lincolns reached the White House, and no previous president’s wife had stirred such controversy, according to Harold Holzer, a leading Lincoln historian based at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even so, contemporary media portrayals were fairly restrained, just as they were, Holzer says, for “all ‘the ladies,’ as they called them.” After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and the loss of a third son in 1871—two others died in 1850 and 1862—Lincoln’s emotional state deteriorated until, after some erratic behavior, the two police officers showed up at her door. She was institutionalized, released months later, and lived out most of her remaining years overseas.  

After her death in 1882, historians—all of them initially male—began to mine her legacy, advancing a questionable theory of lifelong mental illness that remains hotly debated today. “This is a really gendered subject, I’ve discovered—there weren’t a lot of women who wrote about her,” said Jean Harvey Baker, author of a 2008 biography. “She got an utterly raw deal.” Early portrayals of Mrs. Lincoln as unhinged and volatile were followed by claims that she suffered from bipolar disorder, a diagnosis which, of course, did not exist in her lifetime.

These accounts naturally influenced portrayals of the Lincolns, who became in fairly short order the most popular White House residents to fictionalize. Mrs. Lincoln was usually relegated to the shadows in these depictions, but she did emerge from the corners occasionally. In D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930), Kay Hammond plays Mrs. Lincoln with some real verve, but she is also pushy and shrill, scolding Ulysses S. Grant in an impromptu meeting because he fills a room with smoke. In Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Ruth Gordon plays Mrs. Lincoln as a tyrannical shrew with severe posture and a penchant for comically fierce staring. “Why do you take every opportunity you can to make a public fool out of me and yourself?” a weary but ever-compassionate Lincoln begs of her at one point.

Mrs. Lincoln fared somewhat better as time went on and views of her became more nuanced—particularly when new generations of historians began to reevaluate the traditional take on the Lincolns. (It helped that some of these historians were women.) Years of mostly inoffensive television portrayals followed, including one by Mary Tyler Moore. But even today, the old image persists: Not long ago, Gwyneth Paltrow, on Glee, crassly imitated Mary Todd as a loopy waif who self-identifies as bipolar. In an SNL sketch from just this past weekend, Louis C.K., playing Abraham Lincoln, referred to his wife as “historically insane.”

In contrast, Sally Field’s take feels informed by all 150 years of debate about her subject. “All everyone will remember of me was that I was crazy and that I ruined your happiness,” she says at one point in Lincoln—a handy summation of her portrayal over the years. But we also see the Mrs. Lincoln that Holzer and Baker describe, a towering figure herself in the contemporary political scene and an incalculable influence on her husband. In one of the movie’s best moments, Mrs. Lincoln drolly spars with Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) while her husband looks on in mild terror, capably lacerating him even to his own apparent amusement.

Call the scene revisionist, but it reflects the satisfying complexity Spielberg and Kushner see in Mrs. Lincoln, along with Field’s ability to embody her contradictions. Holzer credits Field’s take as “startlingly realistic,” and probably the richest he’s seen. Baker, who had not seen the movie yet, told me that she has long puzzled over history’s angry attitude toward Mary Todd. In her view, Mrs. Lincoln has mostly been used by Lincoln biographers to promote his legacy, a victim of “the need to make Lincoln into a great hero and to use her as a prop.”

Jeffrey Bloomer is a Slate assistant editor focused on video. Follow him on Twitter.