Ellen’s father, William Lewis Herndon, was an accomplished U.S. Navy officer who explored the Amazon River in South America. He was in command of a merchant steamship that was caught in a ferocious storm off North Carolina in 1857, and went down with the ship after overseeing the evacuation of its passengers. Herndon earned a multitude of posthumous honors, and well-wishers sought to make things easier for his widow and only daughter. However, Ellen did not know her father well due to his frequent military assignments, and as such is not believed to have been overtly affected by his death.
It was her abilities as a songstress that helped corral the affections of Chester A. Arthur, a young lawyer who was roommates with her cousin Dabney Herndon in New York. In one of the surviving letters between the two before their 1859 marriage, Arthur wrote of longing to hear his “Nell” serenade him. Posessing a beautiful contralto voice, Ellen later performed with the renowned Mendelssohn Glee Club.
While Ellen lived in New York during the Civil War, her loyalties lay with her family in the South. This led to tensions with Arthur, a Union Army Quartermaster General and Inspector General of State Troops, who referred to Ellen as his “little rebel wife.” However, Arthur made sure to help out his wife’s family whenever possible, especially his old friend Herndon, then an officer in the Confederate Army. Risking his prominent military standing, Arthur discreetly arranged for Ellen to visit the imprisoned Herndon and negotiated his release.
Although she had long desired prominent political posts for her husband, Ellen wasn’t happy that his work for the New York Republican machine consumed much of his time and required frequent travel. She became especially distraught after her mother died in France in April 1878, with Arthur’s inability to accompany her to Europe adding to her woes. Ellen reportedly was considering filing for separation before she passed away in January 1880.
Ellen’s fatal illness was the result of waiting in the cold for a carriage after a New York City benefit concert. Consumed by political business upstate in Albany at the time, Arthur rushed home to be alongside his bedridden wife, with some accounts indicating she never woke up to see him. Devastated by the loss, Arthur left Ellen’s room in their New York brownstone untouched and placed flowers by her portrait in the White House. He never remarried before his own death in November 1887.