Helen Louise “Nellie” Herron was the fifth of 10 children born into a prosperous Cincinnati family. Her father, John Williamson Herron, had gone to college with future President Benjamin Harrison, and then formed a law partnership with another future head of state in Rutherford Hayes. It was during a trip to visit Hayes in the White House in 1877 that Nellie first determined she wanted to someday live there as first lady. Having developed an early love for the arts, she also dreamed of achieving success as a musician or a writer, and attended the Cincinnati College of Music.
Although the Herron and Taft families had been friends for years, Nellie didn’t know her future husband until meeting him at a sledding party as a teenager. They grew closer after he began attending the literary salon she founded in 1884 to engage in political and intellectual discussions. Fully realizing the obstacles facing a career-minded woman in that era, Nellie recognized in the Yale University and Cincinnati Law School graduate the potential for major accomplishments. They were married at the Herron home on June 19, 1886.
Nellie did everything she could to boost her husband’s chances of landing in the White House. When Taft was named solicitor general by President Harrison in 1890, she helped build his confidence and skills as a public speaker. Nellie also encouraged Taft in 1900 to head a commission tasked with establishing a civilian government in the Philippines, an experience that gave her a taste of life as the first lady of a territorial chief. And after Taft became Teddy Roosevelt’s secretary of war in 1904, Nellie leaned on the president to secure his support for her husband’s nomination in 1908.
Although Nellie was forced her to dial back her influence after suffering a stroke early in her husband’s administration, she nonetheless left a tangible legacy of her time as first lady. Recalling her days at the popular community festivals in the Philippines, she oversaw the construction of a bandstand and the formation of an outdoor concert series in West Potomac Park. Most famously, she was responsible for introducing the park’s famous cherry blossom trees. After the project was nearly derailed by the shipment of diseased trees from Japan, the first lady teamed with the Japanese ambassador’s wife to plant the first two specimens from a healthy crop in March 1912.
Having achieved her longtime goal of reaching the White House, Nellie became the initial first lady to publish her memoirs with the release of “Recollection of Full Years” in 1914. After her husband achieved his longtime goal of becoming chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1921, Nellie returned to Washington, D.C. and served as honorary vice president of the Colonial Dames and the Girl Scouts Association of America. Surviving until the age of 81, she was the only president’s wife to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery until being joined by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994.