Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
When Grace Goodhue first set eyes on her future husband, Calvin Coolidge, it wasn’t love she felt welling up inside her. It was laughter.
She was watering flowers one morning outside her dormitory at the Clarke Institute for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she taught. Grace glanced up from her work and into the window of the building across the street. There, standing in the window, was a man dressed only in his underwear – a union suit – and a derby. And he was shaving.
Grace couldn’t help but laugh. Calvin heard it and paused, face coated in lather, and gazed down at the street, where he caught sight of a beautiful, dark-haired woman in a long skirt, blouse and magenta tie around her neck. Perhaps a bit embarrassed, Grace returned to her watering and soon wandered back into the dormitory.
Their meet-cute left Calvin intrigued. Grace was also curious about this handsome, if oddly attired, man.
The two met soon afterward. Grace explained years later that the same janitor worked in her building and Calvin’s, so she asked the man to deliver a potted flower, a nasturtium, to Calvin. The janitor returned to Grace with a note from Calvin, asking if might pay her a visit.
Another version of the story says it was Calvin who was trying to track down Grace. Perhaps both were true.
Either way, the two soon arranged to meet through a mutual acquaintance, Robert Weir, who worked at the school. When Weir spoke with Grace about his quiet friend Calvin, he quipped that since she had taught the deaf to hear, perhaps she could make the mute speak.
Calvin was eager to speak with Grace, wanting to explain his strange attire the other day. He had a habit of wearing a hat while shaving, he explained, because it was the only way to keep an unmanageable lock of hair out of his eyes.
The two seemingly had little in common, other than that they were both Vermonters away from home. Grace had grown up in Burlington, Calvin in Plymouth. The differences were more obvious. The Goodhues were a prominent Democratic family in the state’s largest city. The Coolidges, while also an upstanding family, lived in a relative backwater. And they were staunchly Republican.
But the most obvious difference between Grace and Calvin was their temperaments. Grace was fun loving, quick to laugh (as Cal learned from the start), and charming. Calvin was serious, shy and reserved almost to the point of impenetrability.
Grace, however, saw through his silences. She also learned that when he was around friends, and only friends, Calvin was happy to talk, especially if the subject was one about which he cared deeply.
But Calvin could still be stiff in social settings. The winter after they first met, Grace took Calvin skating on the Connecticut River. She was a graceful skater; Calvin, not so much. But he was game enough to try. After a couple of falls, however, he was ready to quit. “Guess we’d better go home,” he announced suddenly.
Calvin seemed willing to endure almost anything to woo Grace. He accepted her invitations to go on picnics, which he disliked because of the ants, the mosquitoes and the mess. So people who lived in their neighborhood were treated to the romantic sight of Grace lowering a pair of wrapped sandwiches out her window on a string down to Calvin.
At one picnic with friends, Calvin discovered at the end of the meal that the group had only half a macaroon left. Someone had eaten more than his or her share. With mock seriousness, he interrogated each of them to see who the culprit was.
More often, however, Calvin was quiet. Some of Grace’s friends read the worst into his silence. Others trusted Grace’s judgment.
Wanting a second opinion about her suitor, Grace arranged for a childhood friend, Ivah Gale, to take a several-hour-long carriage ride alone with Calvin. When they returned, Grace took Ivah aside and asked if Calvin had talked. “Yes,” Ivah responded. “I liked him.” The first part was a lie. Calvin hadn’t said a word, but the second part was true. Ivah found something to like in the man.
If Calvin seldom spoke, he made up for it by writing faithfully to Grace, even though they lived across the street from each other. The two first met in the spring of 1904. By June, he had started a steady correspondence. That fall, he kicked into high gear, writing her about 10 letters a month, a habit he would maintain throughout their courtship. In October, he joked in one note, “I just bought 100 stamps so look out.”
The letters, which Grace kept and which are stored today at the Vermont Historical Society library in Barre, are hardly overflowing with passion: He was a Coolidge, not a Casanova. But the letters express Calvin’s growing interest in Grace, which bloomed into love.
In June 1904, perhaps referring to the nasturtium she had given him, he wrote: “What shall I do with so many blossoms with no one to help me look at them?”
In July, writing to her in Burlington, where she was visiting her family, Calvin nearly gushed, by his standards: “How like your own self your letters are – and you, you are like the morning in my own Green Hills…” By August, he was mentioning that she had appeared in one of his dreams.
Still, Calvin maintained a veneer of formality. One of Grace’s friends, who had seen some of the missives, said she wouldn’t have known they were love letters if Grace hadn’t told her so. He kept addressing them to “Miss Grace Goodhue” and signing them “Calvin Coolidge.” That changed in December. On the second, he finally addressed her in a letter simply as “Grace” and signed it “Calvin.”
The two visited their families in Vermont. The Coolidges fell for Grace almost as hard as Calvin had. “That’s a likely looking girl,” his grandmother told him during their visit. “Why don’t you marry her?”
“Maybe I will, Grandma,” Calvin replied.
Visiting the Coolidge homestead, Grace perhaps began to understand Calvin better. She met his father and learned that strong, quiet types ran in his family. She also glimpsed the depths with which this silent man could love. While in Plymouth, they visited the grave of his mother, who had meant everything to her son and who had died when he was just a boy.
The couple’s visit to the Goodhues went less smoothly. Grace’s parents seemed to think their daughter could pick a more appropriate partner, one who was more like her. Grace’s father eventually came around, but her mother, Lemira, never completely did. Later, when people asked whether she was proud that her daughter was married to the president, Lemira had said he never would have made it without Grace.
During a visit to Burlington in the summer of 1905, Calvin proposed to Grace. He was nervous and the words slipped out awkwardly. “I am going to be married to you,” he said.
Grace’s mother urged her to put the wedding off a year, hoping her daughter would come to her senses. Lemira argued, rather lamely, that her daughter wasn’t ready to be a wife, she didn’t even know how to make bread. Calvin responded that he could buy bread.
Seeking to delay the wedding, Lemira held out for a November date. Calvin insisted on October, and won the argument.
Grace and Calvin planned to marry at her parents’ home on Oct. 4, 1905. When the day came, showers arrived with it. When his aunt commented on the weather, Calvin was undisturbed. Displaying his typical resolve, he supposedly replied, “I don’t care anything about the rain, so long as I get the girl.”