In 1987, I decided my college music-composition final project would be a very short oratorio, a concert piece that includes orchestra/instrumentation, soloists, and a chorus. My topic was to be Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign, concluding with his February 1861 departure from Springfield to Washington, DC.
One of the short movements was a duet for Lincoln and his wife which would include the chorus in a Greek chorus format. The movement was a sarcastic love song aimed at Mrs. Lincoln and titled from the inscription inside her Etruscan gold wedding band, “Love is eternal.”
I began researching the Lincolns, believing the common myths on Mrs. Lincoln: she was a shrew, crazy, and a horrible wife. I thought to myself, “poor Abraham Lincoln being married to Mary Todd.” After several months of researching their marriage, I began thinking, “poor Mary Todd being married to Abraham Lincoln.”
The project quickly developed into the possibility of a musical thus beginning a thirty-three year project of continued research and multiple rewrites extended by teaching, directing shows, working on other projects, marching band and show choir, and mostly, raising five adopted sons.
However, my fascination with Mrs. Lincoln’s story never diminished through all my busyness. I continued visiting Lexington, Kentucky and Springfield, Illinois, often taking my sons on these personal trips so that I could keep the passionate flame of her story burning in my brain and even deeper in my heart.
In 2008, a college friend introduced me to a Mary Lincoln presenter, historian, and author, Donna McCreary. We corresponded by email but I honestly cannot remember what they entailed.
I later remembered Ms. McCreary telling me about her Mary Lincoln group, “Mary Lincoln’s Coterie.” (Coterie: a small group of people with shared interests or tastes, especially one that is exclusive of other people) I joined The Coterie Facebook group and began a wonderful new adventure.
Mary Todd left her plush, but tension-ridden Lexington girlhood home to live with her older married sister, Elizabeth Todd Edwards, one of Springfield’s elite society matrons whose home was a magnetic haunt for the newly crowned state capital’s opulent and political upstarts. Miss Todd soon became one of Springfield society’s crown jewels for her intelligence, engaging humor, political savvy, good taste, and charm. Elizabeth’s husband, Ninian Wirt Edwards, claimed Mary “could make a bishop forget his prayers.”
The Edwards’ Clique grew as young prominent state and national politicians gathered in the Edwards’ fashionable parlors. At some point, the ensemble was christened, “The Coterie.” According to Ishbel Ross, author of THE PRESIDENT’S WIFE: Mary Todd Lincoln, The Coterie was “dedicated to the cultivation of the arts, to political happenings in their fast-growing state, to the causes that excited the scholars of the day. They were conventional but avant-garde, and they went in for a round of parties, dances, sleigh rides, political rallies, picnics and other excursions. Lincoln was more at home swapping jokes and stories with his cronies around the stove in Speed’s quarters, but John Stuart saw to it that he joined the Coterie gatherings and visited Mary.”
Following her husband’s assassination, Mrs. Lincoln wrote to her sympathetic friend, Mary Jane Welles (6 December 1865), “In our little coterie in Springfield in the days of my girlhood, we had a society of gentlemen, who have since, been distinguished, in a greater or less degree, in the political world. My great and glorious husband comes first, ‘a world above them all.’ Douglas, Trumbull, Baker, Hardin, Shields, such choice spirits, were the habitués, of our drawing room. Gen Shields, a kind-hearted, impulsive Irishman, was always creating a sensation & mirth, by his drolleries…”
The online Coterie became one of my social media nesting places. It became, and still is a comfortable online attic of contentment, scholarly and informal discussions, mirth, and a number of deep friendships.
For several years I tried to work around my sons’ schedules so that I might attend The Coterie’s annual July pilgrimage to Springfield to memorialize the life and death of Mrs. Lincoln, culminating with a ceremony at the Lincoln family tomb at Oakridge Cemetery.
Finally, the summer of 2015, I was in between sons living at home and I harnessed the opportunity to visit Springfield for the event. I became even more immersed in the life of this social media group and acquired a number of new friendships.
The following year I found myself unexpectedly “with child,” again, and the arrival of my newest adopted son bonded me in Kettering for the following three years.
With the 2020 pandemic drying up all activities, The Coterie leaders, Donna McCreary, Donna Daniels, and Valerie Gugala, created a number of online Zoom experiences in place of the Springfield gathering.
They were wonderful!
It soon became evident that Mary Lincoln’s Coterie of 2020 was taking on a new direction and life. The best part was getting to meet other Coterie members from around the country, even as far as Hawaii.
Our monthly gatherings have also become a Thursday online lunch crew.
This summer, several of our gatherings concluded with Donna (McCreary), Valerie, one or two other members, and myself chatting until 3:00 AM EST. After each of these delightful maratons I was too exhilarated the following day to even think of being sleep-deprived.
It’s funny how one moment in the expanse of time can lead to something more. In this case, it was an email to Donna McCreary.
From there, The Mary Lincoln Coterie has become one of my most beloved life experiences, sustaining and heightening my fascination for Mary Lincoln.