We aren't asking for much.
From the Garden
Doug Emhoff, Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, has now joined the ranks of the mostly sane Vice Presidential spouses who came before him. We’re beside ourselves with excitement at the prospect of analyzing Doug’s outfits for the next four years, though what we’ve seen so far is not exactly encouraging.
He’s the second Second Husband, to be clear.
Before we get to the outfits, we must take issue with Doug’s title. “The first Second Husband” has been bandied about with abandon. This is wrong. Doug is not the first Second Husband, because that honor went to James Buchanan in 1853. James had been living with closeted Vice President William King for fifteen years by the time William was sworn in as Vice President, and they were still together when William died a few months later. A surviving love letter from James to William suggests a deep romantic connection between them. Just because there was no name for or legal recognition of men’s male spouses at the time doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.
Why do we claim that Doug Emhoff’s predecessors were mostly sane?
We’re glad you asked. If you are not familiar with the Petticoat Affair, we’re here to help. In 1829, Floride Calhoun, Vice President John Calhoun’s wife, took issue with the Secretary of War’s wife, Peggy Eaton. Floride claimed, without evidence, that Peggy had committed adultery and was therefore unfit for polite society. Floride shunned Peggy at all state events, disinvited her from informal White House gatherings, and assembled a junta of cabinet members’ wives to back her up, who in turn nagged their husbands, until they too had picked sides. It was War against the Secretary of War and his wife. It got so bad that President Jackson had to dissolve and reform his cabinet; John Calhoun resigned as Vice President.
How many Second Ladies have there been?
We’re glad you asked. The Vice President’s spouse had no title until 1897 when Vice President Garret Hobart’s wife Jennie made one up. “I’m the Second Lady,” she said. “You’re welcome.”* Since then, twenty-five women have held the title.
What about all the spouses who came before Jennie? They were Second Ladies, too, they just didn’t know it. Fifteen spouses of Vice Presidents served before Jennie showed up, including Julia Chinn, who bore the unfortunate title of “legal concubine” (aka common-law wife) of Vice President Richard Johnson. She was also his slave. He never freed her.
Wives, secret husbands, enslaved concubines: it’s a diverse group.
We certainly didn’t realize just how diverse it was when we started out with the innocuous goal of discussing Doug Emhoff’s outfits. (We’re getting there). Certainly the Second Lady/Second Husband titles are as awkward and wrong as black tights worn with white shoes. But they’re all we have. When First Lady Dr. Jill Biden was Second Lady, she tried jokingly to change her title from Second Lady to Captain of the Vice Squad. It didn’t take, though we appreciated the effort.
Where were we? Oh yeah. Doug Emhoff and his outfits. At first, we couldn’t believe our good fortune that we would not have another four years of Karen “Mother” Pence’s monochromatic anti-fashion. Over the last four years, we’ve developed severe eyestrain headaches after trying in vain to separate Karen from the dark curtained backdrops she was determined to fade into at every state affair. Admittedly, Karen’s shoes were often celebrated during her tenure. Apparently, she wore black pumps with pointy toes in September, 2019, then she wore black flats in November, 2019. “Just kill me and get it over with,” we said to each other, drowning our woes in as much absinthe as we could stomach while we admired old red carpet photos of Billy Porter until we passed out.
Maybe Billy Porter could become the third Second Husband, after Doug Emhoff. Billy’s husband, Adam Smith, is a successful businessman who co-owns a fashion eyewear company. You might scoff and tell us that Smith’s prospects for President are slim, but if a failed businessman with six bankruptcies can be elected President, surely Adam Smith has a fighting chance. Who knows, maybe he could then distribute new fashion eyeglasses to every citizen, including us. This might alleviate our eyestrain headaches that Karen Pence brought on and which Doug Emhoff has only slightly improved. (We will get to Doug’s outfits—patience please!) With Billy Porter as third Second Husband, just think of the showmanship, the pageantry, the bejeweled elegance, and the outright finesse he’d endow upon our shabby world. These times are monochromatic and grim. The antidote? Boa and gold lamé, if you please.
Even First Lady Dr. Jill Biden is no Billy Porter, though we’re very pleased she’s back. Dr. Jill’s sole fashion fail was her Farrah Fawcett-style haircut in 2012. Otherwise, Dr. Jill embodies what the French call être bien habillée. She’s strategic, too. From selecting a garment with well-placed ruching that highlights her becoming figure, to sporting nude heels that make her legs look longer, Dr. Jill clearly has exhibited the confidence required to play the game. She even pulled off canary-yellow pumps with a high-necked long-sleeved conservative black-and-white forest-printed dress. What élan!
Are we going to talk about Doug Emhoff’s style choices or not?
We’re glad you asked. So far, we are underwhelmed. His inauguration outfit consisted of the following: black gloves, black shoes, a dark grey suit, a black overcoat, and a flag pin. Seriously? The inauguration is not a goddamn funeral, Doug! You must do better. As Billy Porter’s designer, Sam Ratelle, said, “Billy taught me to be more fearless about what I put on my body and how I act and speak, allowing me the courage to be myself. It might as well come from clothing.”*
It’s not like Doug has anything better to do than work on his trousseau. (Sure, he put his career on hold, but so did Marilyn Quayle. Nobody wanted to hear about her sacrifice either, obviously!) We aren’t asking for much. We simply desire to see outfits that are not invisibility cloaks. Outfits worthy of praise or evisceration—our enjoyment in bestowing one or the other is equally pleasurable. Just please, for the love of God, show up and shine, Doug! No more hiding behind Kamala’s pearls. We see you. Come out, come out, wherever you are, and play.
My Cat Knows
A cat ignores an effusive tribute.
Worse I May Be Yet (excerpt)
Wednesday, June 23, 1897
1904 Franklin Street, San Francisco
“El!” said Anson, looking up from papers on his desk, setting his pen down, his hair glossed into place, his attire equally perfect. He rounded the corner of his campaign desk with his arms out toward her and a lovely smile, but his jacket pocket caught on the corner and sent the desk and its stand crashing to the carpeted floor with a rich, final thud.
Ella bent to help gather the strewn folders, envelopes and loose sheets. Anson found the hinged handles on the desk and picked it up to lean it against the mantle as he set the folding campaign stand back up. As he stooped to swing the leg locks into place, Ella saw that his pocket had torn down the side and a fancy ivory envelope within was about to fall out.
Anson then bent to retrieve the inkwell and gawped a little at a thick, oily inkblot the size of a baby’s shoe as he lifted the fallen well and held it gingerly, searching for any paper that was disposable enough to place it onto. Ella scanned the room and saw a newspaper on the arm of a chair in the corner. She slipped past, grabbed it and held it up.
“Perfect!” Anson said, reaching for it.
“I’ll go get Sipo to take that ink up from the floor, and I’ll bring your jacket to Marie so she can mend it. You have a bit of a tear.” Anson slipped out of his jacket and handed it to her as he looked again at the ink spill, which had spread down into the seam between the soapstone hearth and the floor and was penetrating the grain of the wood.
In Ella’s sitting room, Marie was arranging the ribbon trims in her sewing basket, using hat pins in the padded siding to secure the folded bundles. Through the portières, Ella saw the boxes and tissue from her recent purchases of shirtwaists and hose strewn on the bed, and the two smaller boxes for Anson still stacked neatly to the side. She went in and saw that Marie had put away her new things neatly in the dresser.
“Chère, will you put the rest of this away for Anson, and take a look at this jacket of his? The pocket tore just now, and I’m hoping it’s an easy mend.” Marie came to inspect the pocket. Ella again noticed the protruding envelope, and slipped it into her waistband so she could bring it back down to the study. She also grabbed the boxes and tissue to give to Sipo to dispose of.
The servant whisked them from her as Ella dipped back into the study. “Darling,” said Ella to Anson, “Marie is putting away some new clothes I bought you at Curtin’s—utility stuff, nothing too exciting. I couldn’t help it, the bargains were just too good. I also asked her to look at your jacket pocket, the one that ripped just now. She’ll make short work of it.”
Anson looked a little distracted, or confused, she couldn’t tell which. He sat at his desk with its drawers a bit open, his papers neatly stacked again. Ella stood behind his chair at the desk and put her hand on his shoulder, admiring her two small gemstone rings and good skin. “Has Sipo looked at the floor?” she asked, as she looked over again at the spill.
“This afternoon,” he said. "El, did you happen to check the pockets of my coat when you gave it to Marie? I’m missing a note. Invitation of some sort. I barely had a chance to look at it.”
Ella heard herself speak as her fingertip grazed the edge of the envelope at her waist, “No, sorry. I should have. Shall I ask her to check?” Her husband moved his chair back and stood.
“No, I’ll go see.”
As he ascended the stairs, she brought the envelope out in front of her so she could look at it before placing it on his desk. She wasn’t sure why she’d lied.
The polished vellum of the envelope contrasted with the rougher, more temporal business papers in the room. Its surface was almost like soft skin.
On it was written in a feminine hand, Don’t forget!
Ella held the envelope flat between her palms, sliding them back and forth over its surface. This was not a business paper, nor a note of invitation to anything she understood. Their friends sent formal invitations only after making sure they could attend.
She lifted the flap and removed a card from inside. The back of the card had a printed blurb:
From William Sharp’s Victoria Regia, 1854.
Reproduced by permission.
She turned it over to see a plate colored in pink, white, and green. It was a detailed illustration of two monstrous flowers. She looked more closely. The flowers were waterlilies, she could tell by the green disk with its turned-up-edges in the background, the same South American waterlilies the Conservatory in the park had so proudly displayed for the first time in North America. She’d seen them, but they hadn’t made much of an impression.
These, however, as they were depicted, were...disgusting. Both blossoms had round recumbent skirts of pristine and proliferating white petals, but where one projected an erection of stiff mauve inner petals in an upright column, the other blushed bright pink across the top of its skirts and formed a tight round cushion in its center. As she regarded a perfectly scrotal brown and hairy object bobbing in the water next to the lilies, Ella felt a small panic, which spread like fire to her face.
This pornographic botanical with its grotesque sexuality had not been cheap. Her fingers grazed its surface. The card must have cost twice what she normally paid. She opened the card and smoothed it against the envelope.
You said I shouldn’t come, but Angel don’t forget that I said I will anyway. I know you want me to. You know where to find me.
Ella made an effort to loosen the hard line of her mouth and her knotted eyebrows, which had a calming effect. The feminine hand was swift and unselfconscious, and the three lines sloped a little downward. There was no signature.
Ella stared hard at the note for several minutes, making a picture of it in her mind and finding a recess there in which to store it. She knew she would never look at it again, that she would give the upturned skirts and eager genitalia on the front a similar preserving stare, that she would slip the card back into its casing and find a way to reintegrate it with her husband’s things and go on as before.
View of a reservoir after a rainstorm.
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