Calvin Coolidge, who became president on August 2, 1923 after the death of Warren Harding, oversaw a period of tremendous prosperity—the Roaring Twenties. Born in Vermont and a former governor of Massachusetts, he earned respect for his steady leadership style. He also was known for taciturnity and an acid sense of humor. According to one anecdote, a woman seated next to Coolidge at a dinner party revealed that she had taken a bet that she could get him to say more than two words. “You lose,” he replied, and lapsed into silence for the rest of the evening. Another person described him as “sharp and cold as a frost-etching on a windowpane.”
Most people attributed Coolidge’s coldness to his stern New England personality. Yet his stern exterior belied a man who was in—fact–deeply sensitive, and who cared particularly for his family: his wife Grace Anna Coolidge, and their sons John, born in 1906, and Calvin, Jr., born in 1908. The shocking, premature death of Calvin Jr. devastated President Coolidge; it permanently soured his personality and behavior in public, and shortened his life.
John Arthur Coolidge:
Born on September 7, 1906 in Northampton, Massachusetts, the elder Coolidge child was in personality most like his father, who fondly recalled the moment of the boy’s birth: “The fragrance of the clematis which covered the bay window filled the room like a benediction where the mother lay with her baby. It was all very wonderful to us.” Calvin encouraged the boys to adopt a strict work ethic. John accepted the instruction easily. Mechanically minded, he constructed a soapbox automobile by hand, and did his chores thoroughly and well.
John and his younger brother Calvin, who preferred playing his mandolin to doing chores, were raised in a loving household. Their mother Grace, an elegant and good-humored woman, raised them herself, refusing to employ servants. A reporter who visited their home in 1920 found her just returned from buying their lunch at a local supermarket, and noted the caps, jackets, and baseball paraphernalia strewn about the living room just like in any other middle-class American home with two teenage boys.
John graduated in June 1923 from Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, where he led the track team, excelled in his studies, and delivered a graduating oration on “Perseverance.” He then went on to attend the Citizens’ Military Training Corps at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, where he was known simply as “Private Coolidge” and learned how to drive tanks. Refusing special treatment because of his father’s status as vice president, John earned respect for not showing any “swell-headedness.” The “unanimous verdict” of John’s comrades was that “he is a real chap, one who can mix in and pal around, play ball, or go swimming, and in general act just like any normal youth of his age.” As John stood in line for breakfast on August 3, his captain bluntly told him that “your father is president of the United States.” John left camp at the end of the month and joined the rest of his family in Washington, D.C.
In Washington, John displayed the quiet, serious side of his personality but nevertheless participated easily in family and public activities. He knew, however, that his easygoing younger brother Calvin was his father’s favorite, and accepted that fact without resentment. When Calvin died in July 1924, John shared in his family’s grief before leaving to attend Amherst College. Here he was known as “just another good fellow,” studying well but not seeking any particular distinction; on graduation in 1928, he was described as “a tall boy, with well-groomed black hair and an engaging smile.”
John Coolidge’s girlfriend Florence Trumbull, daughter of the governor of Connecticut, quipped when he graduated from Amherst that they were “not engaged—yet.” But they soon were, and married the following year. They would have two daughters together. John spent his career in a number of executive posts in railway and farming businesses, eventually running the Plymouth Cheese Corporation which manufactured “Coolidge cheese”: “true, old-fashioned American store cheese, carefully aged and naturally cured.” In 1956 he and his mother Grace, who died the following year, donated to the state of Vermont the buildings and lands that would make up the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site. John lived nearby at Plymouth Notch, Vermont, until his death in May 2000.
Calvin Coolidge, Jr.:
Born on April 13, 1908, the younger Coolidge son enriched his family with his bright personality before his life came to a tragic end on July 7, 1924. Relaxed and creative like his mother, Calvin, Jr., was physically a “ringer” for his father. “He’s a real boy,” enthused a newspaper when he was twelve; “his yellow hair often tumbles down over his eyes.” Slighter of build than his brother and not so studious, Calvin, Jr. nevertheless loved baseball and was a fervent boy scout. He also had an easy sense of humor that defused his father’s occasional forbidding moods.
Calvin Jr., attended Mercersburg Academy with his brother John, but did not take as easily to his father’s strict regimen of hard work. Still, in the summer of 1923 while John was undergoing military training at Camp Devens, young Calvin, Jr. was working—no doubt at his father’s behest—as a field hand on a tobacco farm in Massachusetts for $3.00 a day in “khaki trousers, an old shirt and well-worn shoes.” But he came to love the job, and begged to be allowed to stick to it even after his father suddenly became president.
Calvin, Jr. and his brother enjoyed living in the White House—and especially relished playing tennis on the lawn. In July 1924 the boys engaged in a long tennis match; Calvin, Jr., liked it so much that he refused to stop so he could go get socks to wear under his shoes. A blister formed on one of his toes, which quickly developed into a staph infection; then, blood poisoning. His parents rushed him to Walter Reed Hospital, but the technology of this pre-penicillin era left doctors with no means of saving him, and after a struggle of five days the boy passed away.
Calvin, Jr.’s body lay in state in the White House East Room, attended by an honor guard of Marines and sailors. The Boy Scouts decorated his bier, and attended his body as it was taken for burial to the Coolidge family plot in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. President Coolidge, regarded as being steely and strict, broke down at his favorite son’s side. He was never the same. Coolidge’s sense of humor, usually hidden –until Calvin, Jr.’s teasing brought it out– disappeared for good. In 1928 President Coolidge refused to run for another term in office, although he probably would have easily won; he forfeited the opportunity to Herbert Hoover, retired from public life, and passed away in 1933—many said—from the ongoing grief over the death of his son.