Hollywood Meets Mary Todd Lincoln

As you know, Spielberg’s Lincoln hit theaters this weekend.  I’m not sure if everyone has been inundated with details about the making of the film, but here in Lexington it has been big news.  Kentucky, and Lexington in particular, has close ties with Lincoln and the Civil War.  After all, Lincoln was born here and married a woman from a prominent Lexington family, Mary Todd.   Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was also born in Kentucky and was educated in Lexington at Transylvania University.  In fact, the house he lived in during college is only about four blocks from the Todd family home. So yeah, anything Lincoln is a big deal here.

What sticks out to me in listening to and reading about the making of Lincoln,  is the preparation that focused on objects and places from the past.

Part I: The Mary Todd Lincoln House

Sally Field, who portrays Mary Todd Lincoln, made more than one trip to Lexington to visit the Mary Todd Lincoln House, which was restored in the 1970s and is now operated as a museum.  Of the experience she said, “It’s important in understanding her makeup as a person that you take a look at her home.”

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Image via The PlayWright Flyer Guy

The Todd house was built sometime between 1810 and 1820 either by the original owner, William Palmateer, or by local builder Mathias Shyrock (father of the better known Central Kentucky architects Gideon and Cincinattus).  The house was operated as a tavern/inn until 1832 when it was purchased by Mary Todd’s father, Robert.  Robert Todd was a wealthy businessman and politician who rubbed elbows with the likes of Henry Clay, “the great compromiser.”

Mary Todd was 14 years old when the family moved into the house.   According to docents at the museum, Mary and her stepmother did not get along so Mary spent the majority of her time at boarding school, living at the Todd home only on weekends.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House after restoration. Image via Wikipedia

In 1839 at the age of 21, Mary left Lexington for Springfield, Illinois to live with her sister and her brother-in-law.  There she was the bell of the ball. She caught the eye of so many gentlemen that her brother-in-law remarked, “she could make a bishop forget his prayers.”  It was in Springfield that she would meet and marry the young lawyer and statesman, Abraham Lincoln.

Mary Todd Lincoln. Image via Women in History

After Lincoln won a seat in Congress, Mary and Abraham visited Lexington on their way to DC in 1847.  They visited again in 1849 after the death of Mary’s father during the cholera epidemic, and again in 1850 after the death of their son Edward and the death of Mary’s grandmother.  Mary’s stepmother sold the house in 1852 to settle Robert Todd’s estate.

After the Todd’s sold the property, the building was used for various purposes including a brothel (where the alleged inspiration for Margaret Mitchell’s madam, Belle Watling, in Gone with the Wind was employed) and a warehouse.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House as it appeared prior to restoration. Image via the National Register of Historic Places

In the 1970s, restoration of the property was undertaken. It was the first historic site restored in honor of a First Lady.  An inventory taken at the time the property was sold by the Todd’s guided the furnishing of the museum. It includes many objects once owned by the Todds and Lincolns.

This Tiffany silver chocolate pot was probably purchased after Mary’s return from Europe in 1871. Image via The Mary Todd Lincoln House

Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House, said Field was drawn to a number of family objects in the museum including Mary’s Tiffany chocolate pot and a mug given to her son Tad after the death of his brother. (According to an interview with Bob Edwards, Fields also visited several collections of Mary Todd Lincoln objects to better understand the woman she would be portraying.)

The Mary Todd Lincoln House was so important to Field’s preparation that she insisted her CBS Sunday Morning interview be filmed there.  During the interview she commented, “I think it’s important that we as a country respect our own history and preserve it.” And answered, “I wanted to bring her home in the public awareness.  I know it’s hard for these places to really keep them alive and keep them for posterity,” when asked why she wanted to be interviewed in Mary’s former home.

Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Image via Accio Sally Field

“Progress, the way we are, you’d want to bulldoze it under and put in another parking lot. I wanted to talk from my own perspective that it’s important that it be there, that you could sort of walk around and feel Mary Todd’s history.”

And there you have it. Sally Field is a building hugger. Who knew?!

Check back here tomorrow for Part II, an installment about hearing history in the sounds of Lincoln.


  1. Pingback: Part II: The Sounds of Lincoln « Bricks + Mortar
  2. msshe

    Reblogged this on mykentuckyliving and commented:
    Mary Todd Lincoln was from Lexington, Kentucky. The family home has been restored, and is open for tourists. I am waiting to see if it will be used in the Killing Lincoln film on National Geographic.

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