Julia Gardiner was born into a life of luxury on a family-owned island off the coast of Long Island, New York, circa May 1820. The third child of David Gardiner, a lawyer and future state senator, and Juliana McLachlan, daughter of a real estate mogul, she attended a prominent ladies’ finishing school and became one of New York City’s leading socialites. In 1839, she posed with an older man in a lithograph for a dry-goods and clothing emporium, a caption referring to her as the “Rose of Long Island.” It was the first commercial endorsement of a New York City woman, but her high-society parents were not impressed, and they whisked Julia away on a lengthy tour of Europe to avoid more embarrassment.
The Gardiners spent the 1841-42 winter social season in Washington, D.C., where Julia first met President Tyler. They returned the following winter, and while the beautiful socialite was courted by some of the biggest power players in town, she soon became a frequent guest of the recently widowed president. She declined his first proposal in February 1843, but after her father was killed in an accident aboard the U.S.S. Princeton a year later, she consented to marriage. Their wedding was held at The Church of the Ascension in New York City on June 26, 1844.
Julia sought to make the most of her eight months in the White House. Dubbed the “Lovely Lady Presidentress” by her press ally, New York Herald reporter F.W. Thomas, the young first lady cultivated an air of regality by driving a coach of matching white Arabian horses. She also threw lavish parties, and reportedly was the first to direct the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” when Tyler arrived at public events (a tradition also credited to Sarah Polk). But unlike the president’s first wife, Julia also had an interest in political affairs, notably demonstrated with her vocal support of the annexation of Texas.
Having grown up surrounded by slave laborers, Julia famously defended the practice in a published editorial addressed to British abolitionists in 1853. However, her Southern loyalties proved problematic for the former first lady when the country exploded into Civil War. After initially earning permission to bring her children to New York, she was later denied the chance to return without swearing allegiance to the North. Julia eventually wound her way to her mother’s home in Staten Island, New York, by detouring to Bermuda, but she was helpless to prevent the occupation of her two Virginia estates by Union troops.
In a far cry from the luxuries of her childhood, Julia endured financial hardship following her husband’s death. Saddled by mounting debts, she was forced to sell one Virginia home and nearly lost the primary one she shared with Tyler after the White House years. The awarding of a pension to Mary Lincoln in 1870 provided some hope for support, but it wasn’t until the assassination of President Garfield in 1881 that Congress agreed to allocate a $5,000 annual sum to all four surviving presidential widows. Able to enjoy a comfortable standard of living over her final decade, Julia died in the same Virginia hotel as her husband on July 10, 1889.