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June 15, 2009

There are women whose eyes can see far, and although they never show off, they are able to influence the lives of their men, the thought of the society they live in and the customs of a nation.

Grace Coolidge was one of them.

“For almost a quarter of a century she has borne with my infirmities, and I have rejoiced in her graces.” So John Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, wrote in his  autobiography, when talking about his wife Grace.

Grace Anna Goodhue, only daughter of Andrew and Lemira Goodhue, was born in Burlington, Vermont on the 3rd of January, 1879. Her dark hair, gray eyes and her broad and sincere smile made her a fascinating woman. What is more she had a deep religious faith which she was able to turn to in the most difficult moments of her life.

After attending schools in Burlington, she graduated at the University of Vermont in 1902, and went to Northampton to teach at the Clarke School, a private school for deaf children.

In the spring of 1905 Grace met a young lawyer called Calvin Coolidge and a few months later she married him despite her mother’s opposition (her father had died in an accident when she was a child).

Calvin Coolidge was an intelligent man, with a sense of humour, even if reserved, taciturn and moody. Grace was always able to adapt herself to her husband’s changeable moods, and above all she never interfered with his political passion. Instead she preferred to remain in the shadows to take care of her family, even though she was the real director of Calvin's political success. This way of living her role as a wife made a complete success of their marriage.

They had two children, John and Calvin Jr., the latter died in 1924 when he was only 16 years old.

In 1920 the Republican Warren G. Harding became President of the United States and Calvin Coolidge his vice-president, so Coolidge had to leave the quiet life of the province and moved to Washington. Grace took her love of life, her simplicity and her exuberance to the capital’s political salons, and these qualities charmed even the most avid political opponents, so that she soon became the most popular woman in America. In 1923, when he was just fifty-seven, Warren G. Harding died and Calvin Coolidge succeeded to the chairmanship, becoming the 30th President of the United States, a position he held until 1929.

Grace Coolidge became the First Lady of America.

In the roaring twenties, the world had just emerged from the war and was eager to forget the horrors and make up for lost time. The women were looking for a new role free from the duties which had kept them confined to their houses and their families in previous years. Attitudes that were previously regarded as unseemly, like making themselves up or smoking in public, were now tolerated; skirts became shorter and the colour of their clothes brighter. The bands played jazz music in the streets, while emancipated women, with short hair and a lit cigarette between their fingers, stopped in front of the shop windows.

Grace Coolidge, with her dark hair and gray eyes, was a woman of her time, and gave a superb image of herself when she appeared in public accompanied by those two so striking dogs, her white collies.

Actually both she and her husband harboured a great love for animals, especially for dogs. As they said, they had always more dogs than their commitments would allow. "I am unable to understand - once wrote Grace - how anyone can get along without some sort of pet”; and her husband used to say: "Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House".

Collies were their favourite dogs. They had four, but we know very little of the first two: Rough Ruby, a dark sable bitch, and Bessie, a sable bitch.

The other two, Prudence Prim and Rob Roy, were white collies. Their presence at the White House made the breed very popular. Requests for white puppies multiplied, even if, as often happens, this sudden success was detrimental to the quality of the breed.

Prudence Prim came from the livestock "Shomont", whose white collies Grace and Calvin had seen performing at the Ringling Brothers Circus. The owners were Thomas and Olive Shover who bred white collies in Monticello, Iowa, and exported their dogs all over the world. The name of their kennel just derived from the union of the breeders’ name, Shover, with the name of the town, Monticello.

Prudence Prim was a very well-bred bitch, who knew her place in human society, and that’s the reason why she was allowed to attend the tea room, where, when entering, she was in  the habit of greeting each guest. She died at Fort Meade in South Dakota, in the summer of 1927. She was buried, as the president told, "in the shadow of Bear Butte where the Indians told the Great Spirit came to commune with his children".

Even Rob Roy was a white collie. At birth he was given the name of Oshkosh, but the President changed it with the name of the Scottish hero, Rob Roy MacGregor. He was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where Stephen Radford had set up an absolutely unique kennel, called "White Island".

Rob Roy had many difficulties getting used to the White House. He did not like narrow spaces and elevators caused him real panic attacks. Moreover he had not the same education as Prudence Prim, something that the Indiana Senator, Watson, from whose flat he had stolen a piece of sausage during a Rob Roy breakfast, knew well. But despite this, Rob Roy was a good collie and Grace loved him very much, so much that she wanted him with her in the official portrait that Howard Chandler Christy painted in 1924. This painting is still hanging on a wall of the China Room in the White House. Posing for the picture, Grace wanted to wear a red dress to contrast the collie’s white coat.

Rob Roy died at Walter Reed Hospital in October of 1928.

In 1929, at the end of the presidential term, the Coolidges returned to Northampton, where they had bought a large house. In that quiet place Calvin Coolidge died on the 5th of January, 1933, following a heart attack.

Having been left alone, Grace sold that house, bought a smaller one and finally was able to devote herself to everything she had been forced to give up because of the political commitments of her husband: that is flying on an airplane and travelling around Europe. However she never lost her reserved nature until her death on the 7th of July, 1957. Moreover, just before her death, she served her country as administrator of the Clarke School. The gratitude of the students of that school is still evident today.

Grace Coolidge received the gold medal of the National Institute of Social Sciences because of the influence she exercised in her role of First Lady, and was voted as one of the twelve greatest women of America in 1931.

The passion and love for collies, along with the charm that characterized her, reserve her a place among "the Collie’s ladies" whose leader was certainly Queen Victoria. They were all special women, whose memory is kept in the heart of every fan for their dedication to the breed. They turned some of their dogs’ virtues into rules of life: faithfulness, generosity, elegance, and giving an example with their lives, testified the quality of the breed they loved.