Julia and I first became acquainted more than 20 years ago, in the pages of Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789-1961. His deft telling of Julia’s life, interwoven with the journeys of other first ladies, left me wanting more. I was surprised to find there was no full-length biography. The closest anyone had come was Robert Seager II in 1963, with his joint biography of Tyler and Julia, And Tyler, Too: A Biography of John and Julia Tyler. Seager’s book is masterful, pulling together incredible amounts of information and making the Tylers come alive. But 1963 was more than 50 years ago and much historical work has been done on women, enslaved people, and the economic realities of the nineteenth century that will enrich our understanding of Julia’s story.
I looked for more. During a trip to Washington, DC, I visited the Library of Congress and found a 1995 dissertation on Julia and the papers of her longtime attorney, which included letters from Julia about her struggle to make Sherwood Forest (the Tyler family farm) a success after the Civil War and about her hopes and dreams for her children.
I went to Williamsburg, to the Swem Library at The College of William and Mary and spent many happy hours reading Julia’s wonderful letters, her own voice loud and clear from the nineteenth-century. I learned to listen for both her words and her silences. I explored the extensive Gardiner papers at the Sterling Library at Yale University. I have been collecting information on her for years now, becoming ever more fascinated.
I longed for a biography of her, in the model of Carl Sferrazza Anthony’s Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President (William Morrow:1998.) Anthony’s work gives his readers Florence Harding and the world around her. I wanted Julia set in context, with all the contrasts, contradictions and compromises her life emblemizes. I wanted to read a biography that would be as lively as Julia was.
Finding no such biography, I decided I would write it.