AUGUSTA — According to author and historian Andrew Och, George Washington “married up.”

“She was young, she was rich and she was hot,” Och said Tuesday afternoon during a talk at the Maine State Library.

Och is the author of a recently published book titled “Unusual for Their Time: On the Road with America’s First Ladies,” and he shared stories and little-known facts about many of our country’s first ladies to a group of more than 30 people.

The author explained to the engaged, attentive crowd that George Washington’s wife, Martha, made him more at ease and was able to handle a lot of the day-to-day life at home, enabling him to focus on leading the Continental Army.

“If George hadn’t married Martha, we’d be living in a place with a different name, with at least different accents, maybe a different flag,” Och said. “The saying that behind every great man is a great woman was never more true.”

Martha Washington, like a lot of people in those days, burned any letters, Och told the audience; but he came across some rare correspondence between Martha Washington and Abigail Adams. One of the letters from Adams asked Washington for advice on how to handle the role of being the first lady. Washington responded that Adams was smart and capable.


Throughout his talk, Och showed historical photos, videos and spoke about the most famous first ladies — Washington, Adams, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt — but also about some that weren’t mentioned in school history texts.

“They all did things that were unusual for the time, and a lot of them were the reasons their husbands were president,” he said. “The guys needed these women to get where they were.”

Some of the first ladies he mentioned included Helen Taft, Lou Hoover, Grace Coolidge and Edith Wilson.

Helen Taft is the reason there is a first ladies’ dress collection in the Smithsonian Institution, she’s the first to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery and she’s the one who arranged to plant cherry trees around Washington, D.C., Och said. Lou Hoover spoke seven languages and helped start the Girl Scouts of America and its famous cookie drive.

Wilson’s husband Woodrow, the 28th U.S. president, had a severe stroke in October 1919, and there are official documents and policies that have her handwriting on it. She was in the position to make executive decisions and help her husband make executive decisions.

“There’s so much influence from these women,” Och said.


Och was raised in Maryland a short drive from the nation’s capital and was a film major at the University of Maryland in College Park. His parents were history buffs, so he spent a lot of time as a boy touring historical sites, battlefields and museums. Even so, he didn’t grow up expecting to be a first ladies historian.

He said he was a producer “in the right place at the right time” on CSPAN’s series about first ladies and was the producer tasked with traveling by himself across the country to every “library, museum, church, farm, train station, school, farm, cemetery, birthplace and plantation” for every first lady from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. He was alone for nearly 14 months except for seven cases of gear.

“This story of these first ladies hadn’t been told yet,” Och said. “We know about their time in the White House, but I wanted to know who these women were outside of the public eye.”

During his journey, people wanted to show him all of their best historical documents and relics, and he said they were opening up vaults, attics, storage facilities, back rooms and more.

“They wanted to bring it out to the public because not a lot of people have or will ever see these artifacts,” Och said.

Although he didn’t think this would be his career, Och said he fell in love with the information and the history.


“When you see the places these women were born, where they grew up, where they died, and you read letters and journals of their most intimate and private moments, and you learn about them as not figures in the White House or in oil paintings; they become real people,” he said. “Their stories affected me, and it was a momentous adventure, and I had to dig in fully.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.