top of page

The Only First Lady, Part Four

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

Varina's story concludes. Click here for Part One, here for Part Two and here for Part Three.

The reasons for the move to New York City were straightforward enough. Varina's doctors recommended a cooler climate in which to live, far from the malarial heat of Mississippi and her finances were dismal in the wake of Jefferson’s death. By accepting the Pulitzer's offer and relocating to the publishing capital of North America, she could foster her daughter Winnie’s literary aspirations and perhaps earn a living herself. There, like an eccentric museum piece, she held court once again, the wizened and regal symbol of a dead cause that everyone wanted to remember as noble and romantic. She wrote articles, made appearances at all the right occasions, and became an unlikely fixture in the city’s publishing elite. She even changed her name to Mrs. V. Jefferson Davis, galvanizing the association with history that gave her a place and an income. Her twilight years were never free of financial worry, but they were at least worthy of the witty belle from Natchez who had become a living curiosity.

Mother and daughter led a middle-class lifestyle, residing at the Gerard Hotel in what is now the theater district in Manhattan, receiving Northern relatives, and making new friends from all sections and all social backgrounds. When conservative white southerners criticized her behavior, she explained to the press that she felt uncomfortable at Beauvoir, and because her husband had left her little property, she was forced to work for a living. She did not mention another key reason: she enjoyed living in the great metropolis. Since New York was full of famous people, she usually could go about her day unnoticed by strangers. The city of Richmond offered her a house free of charge, but she politely refused.

During this time, Winnie wrote for magazines, such as The Ladies Home Journal and authored two moderately successful novels – often dubbed Victorian romance novels: The Veiled Doctor – A Novel (1895) and A Romance of Summer Seas (1898).

In the meantime, Jefferson Davis also had one more move of his own to make. After his death, many tourists in New Orleans visited the mausoleum in the Army of Northern Virginia tomb at Metairie Cemetery. Several other locations in the South wanted Davis's remains. Louisville Kentucky, Memphis, Tennessee, Montgomery, Alabama, Macon and Atlanta, Georgia and both Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi petitioned for him to be reinterred in their cities. Richmond mayor and Confederate veteran J. Taylor Ellyson established the Jefferson Davis Monument Association, and on 12 July 1891, Varina revealed in a letter to Confederate Veterans and people of the Southern States that her first choice would be Davis's plantation in Mississippi, but because she feared flooding she had decided to urge Richmond as the proper place for his tomb. So, in 1893 Jefferson was reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Per the association's agreement with Varina, their children's remains were exhumed from Washington, D.C., Memphis and another plot at the Hollywood cemetery, to rest in the new family plot.

Julia Dent Grant (1826-1902)

In New York, Varina became an open advocate of regional reconciliation. She met Julia Dent Grant, the widow of Union general and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, by accident on a June Day in 1893 at a Cranston’s-On-Hudson resort. Varina had arrived to watch a cadet parade at West Point. Mrs. Grant had been staying there for some time and when she heard that Mrs. Jefferson Davis was a fellow guest she went to Varina’s room to welcome her. The two had dinner together, after which they sat together on the piazza, the other guests watching this curious tableau with interest. When Varina went to bed, the widow of the Union General remarked, "She is a very noble looking lady. She looked a little older than I had expected. I have wanted to meet her for a very long time." Varina felt no ill will toward the late General Grant, who she thought had treated her husband fairly during the end of the war and his subsequent imprisonment.

They had a good deal in common and genuinely liked each other. Varina and Julia no doubt had much to talk about. Both had been controversial first ladies. Varina had been accused of being anti-Southern, fatalistic, crass, biracial and rude. Julia had been charged with being haughty, having too much influence on her husband, and of using her position for material and political gains. Varina's loyalty to the cause during the war had also been questioned because of her Southern roots, causing her to once admonish a detractor, “No, indeed, I am the most loyal of the loyal.” Both had seen the horrors of war, the weakness of man, and considered the Civil War years to be a troubled “dream.”

Their friendship was celebrated in much of the national press, although it was ignored by the most conservative white southerners. The Northern press had a field day with this most symbolic of meetings. One fellow hotel guest claimed, "They constituted the perfect symbol for the end of sectional rancor." In New York, they would go on long drives and would often lunch together while on vacation at popular health resorts. Their two daughters also became close friends. Each woman also fervently believed in the importance of the reconciliation of North and South. They were politically savvy enough to know that articles about them riding together and praying at Grant’s Tomb would have a healing effect on the still, in many ways, divided nation. Varina believed "northerners and southerners had more in common than they knew."

Varina attended reunions of veterans from both armies, and she was a member of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1901, she met the African American leader Booker T. Washington in New York, and they had a brief, civil conversation. The same year, she proclaimed in an article in the New York World that God "in His wisdom" had allowed the North to prevail and the United States to survive, stating in public what she said in private in 1862.

In July 1898, Winnie was drenched in a rainstorm at a Confederate Veterans’ Reunion in Atlanta, Georgia. The following day, she traveled by train to meet her mother in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island, where she and her mother vacationed every summer at the Rockingham Hotel. Winnie became deathly ill with what her doctors termed "malarial gastritis." She suffered for weeks from fever, chills, and loss of appetite. The Rockingham was scheduled to close for the season in early September, but the management allowed Winnie and Varina to stay on. Winnie died there on 18 September 1898 at the age of thirty-four. She was interred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, adjacent to the graves of her father and brothers. Due to her service to Confederate veterans’ groups, she was buried with full military honors. A year later, on 9 November 1899, a monument depicting a mourning angel was unveiled at her gravesite. It was a devastating personal loss for Varina. She received sympathy messages from citizens all over the country. She also received more calls to return to the South but again declined.

Sarah Dorsey's bequest had made Winnie Davis the heiress after Jefferson Davis died in 1889. After Winnie died, Varina inherited the Beauvoir plantation. In October 1902, she sold the plantation to the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) for $10,000 after she previously refused $90,000 from a Northern hotel syndicate. She stipulated that the facility was to be used as a Confederate veterans' home and later as a memorial to her husband. The SCV built barracks on the site and housed thousands of veterans and their families. It is now home to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library.

Over the years, the Varina and Julia's friendship grew deeper and stronger and the press continued to take note of this connection that would have been impossible just three decades before. "There is something impressive in the great friendship," the Kansas City Star reported in September 1902. When Varina heard of Julia Grant's death four months later, she fell to her knees and began to pray. She would publicly defend both of the Grants for the rest of her life. In 1905, she would tell a reporter she felt for Julia a "great respect and sincere affection."

Varina enjoyed her old age in the big city, hosting visitors, writing letters, reading books, going to the theater, and taking a daily ride in her carriage through Central Park.

In October 1906, Varina was 80 years old. She had seven attacks of pneumonia during the prior year and only her strong constitution enabled her to recover from them. Following a slight cold, she contracted double pneumonia. From the start it was considered extremely doubtful that she would recover. As she lay on her deathbed, Varina rasped to Margaret, her last surviving child, “My darling child, I am going to die this time but I’ll try to be brave about it. Don’t you wear black. It is bad for your health and will depress your husband.”

Varina died on 16 October 1906 at 10:25 p.m. in her apartment in the Hotel Majestic overlooking Central Park.

Julia’s son General Frederick Grant sent an artillery company to escort Varina’s cortege as it made its way out of New York City. President Theodore Roosevelt sent condolences and directed that a suitable floral tribute be sent to the funeral from the White House conservatories.

New York City mourned her passing, but Dixie got her back in the end. Given a military funeral, she was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery with the rest of her family. A local paper called her “one of the last living mementoes of the Confederate Government, one of the last of all to die.”


bottom of page