|Sarah Novello stands between two Lincoln impersonators.|
Sarah Novello’s hobby is presidents – not only learning about them in the abstract, but visiting their homes and libraries, seeking out their artifacts, trying to understand them not only as historical personages but also as people.
At the end of the month, Ms. Novello’s passion will take her to back to Dallas, where President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s life will be celebrated on the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
It already has taken Ms. Novello, who lives in Bergen County, across the country; she has visited 12 of the 13 presidential libraries along with scores of houses and museums. In fact, as she commemorates President Kennedy in Dallas, she will complete her library list with a tour of the recently opened George W. Bush repository.
Not surprisingly, “I am a history buff and a presidential geek,” she said.
Ms. Novello’s interest in solid history began when she was a student at the Yeshiva Ohel Moshe in Brooklyn. “I learned about sites in Israel, and when I was 16 I went to Kever Rachel there,” she said. Rachel’s Tomb, outside Bethlehem, is a magnet for pilgrims and their prayers. “My love of history hit me when I was a young woman, and it has never left me.”
And her interests are in American and Jewish history because “that’s who I am, an American Jew,” she said.
Her focus on the presidency grew logically.
“Only 43 have held the position of president – have been ‘most powerful man in the world,'” she continued. “I wondered what drove them. I wanted to learn more about them – not just the mainstream things that you get from books – and I thought that it would be nice to see the presidents’ homes. And then I realized that they were available, and people could see them.”
She began close to home, with the Roosevelts; Franklin Delano in Hyde Park, N.Y., and cousin Theodore’s townhouse in Gramercy Park in Manhattan, and Sagamore Hill, his large house in Oyster Bay on Long Island. “He was a conservationist – all those animals he shot were thinning the herd,” she said, talking about the huge taxidermied animal heads that jut out aggressively, glassy eyes combative, at his Long Island estate. “The 150th anniversary of his birth was a big shindig,” she added appreciatively.
Ms. Novello went to Springfield, Ill., for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. “President Obama was there,” she said. “It was his first public appearance as president.” President Obama feels particularly close to President Lincoln for many reasons, including his service in the Illinois state senate, which meets in the state capital, Springfield. President Obama took his oath of office on Lincoln’s Bible, Ms. Novello said so there was even more resonance to his talk.
“My sister calls this my dead presidents’ tour, but on this one I was greeted by a living president,” she said. “And not only that – the current one!”
But back to dead presidents – she also traced the escape route that Lincoln’s assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, hoped would lead him to a new life, rather than to his death.
The sitting president sends a wreath to commemorate each earlier president on the day of his birth, and Ms. Novello has been to some ceremonies where the wreath is laid on the grave. She was at Calvin Coolidge’s grave in Vermont – he was the only president to be born on the Fourth of July, although three of them, Founding Fathers John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe, died on the Fourth. (The always-at-each-other Adams and Jefferson famously both died in 1831; Monroe died exactly five years later.)
As a Jew, Ms. Novello feels a special connection to President Kennedy, who, as “our first and only Catholic president,” broke some ceilings and rattled some chains. And he “opened doors for Jews in his administration,” she said. He appointed Arthur Goldberg as labor secretary and then to the Supreme Court, Abraham Ribicoff as secretary of health, education and welfare, and Mortimer Caplin as internal revenue commissioner. And a striking number of the non-Jews in his administration had Jewish roots: Speechwriter Ted Sorensen was a self-described “Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian,” while treasury secretary C. Douglas Dillon and White House aide Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. both had Jewish immigrant grandfathers.
As she has pursued her hobby, Ms. Novello has met some presidential descendants – Carolyn Kennedy; Gerald R. Ford’s daughter, Susan; Ulysses S. Grant’s great great grandson; Roosevelt’s great great nephews.
Her most surprising meeting was with the wife of the grandson of John Tyler. That’s Tyler as in “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too,” the Whig Party’s campaign song in 1840.
Remember “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too”? (Not firsthand, of course. If you are reading this, you couldn’t have, or we would be writing about you.) “Tippecanoe” was William Henry Harrison, who led his troops to victory in a famed 1812 battle near the Tippecanoe River. Harrison was elected president in 1840, but died just a month or so after his inauguration; Tyler became president.
Tyler was born in 1790. He kept very busy – his two wives (it’s okay; his marriages were serial, not bigamous) bore him 15 children. His second wife was 30 years younger than he, and his youngest child was born in 1860, when he was 70. Tyler’s grandson Harrison was born in 1928.
“There was a phone number in a book; it said to call to arrange tours,” Ms. Novello said. “I called – it was in Virginia – and a woman answered.” After arranging the tour, “I asked who I was talking to, and she said ‘Mrs. Tyler.’ I said, as a joke, ‘Any relation to the president?’ and she said, ‘Well, yes. My husband is his grandson.’
“What is even more amazing is that the family still uses the home,” Ms. Novello said. “Most presidential homes are museums, but this one” – the Sherwood Forest Plantation in Charles City, Va., which the Tyler family bought in 1842 – “is still in use.
“I saw the pipe that the president smoked, and I looked in the mirror and saw my reflection where he once saw his.
“I heard a grandfather clock tick in President Adams’ home.” (That’s the Old Home at Peacefield in Quincy, Mass.) “He heard it, and it is still running today.”