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Robert McNamara

Elizabeth Keckley

By January 28, 2013

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An unlikely but genuine friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and a former slave, dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley, is depicted in the Steven Spielberg film "Lincoln." In the movie version, Keckley, played by actress Gloria Rueben, has a pivotal scene involving a late-night conversation with Abraham Lincoln.

The real Elizabeth Keckley did often spend time with the Lincoln family, and later produced a memoir which, while controversial when published, is generally credible. Many details about the Lincolns, such as the intense grieving after the death of their young son Willie in the White House, first appeared in Keckley's book.

Born a slave in Virginia, Keckley learned to sew, and was eventually able to buy her own freedom. After establishing a dressmaking business in Washington, she attracted notable clients. When Mary Todd Lincoln arrived in Washington as the new first lady in early 1861, she hired Keckley and the two women began spending many hours together.

All connections between Mary Todd Lincoln and "Lizzie" Keckley were severed when Keckley's book was published (and Lincoln's son Robert tried to suppress it). But during her years in the White House, Mary Todd Lincoln's closest friend had been a former slave.

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Illustration: Elizabeth Keckley/Getty Images


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