In April, Steven Spielberg announced Sally Field as his choice to play the president’s wife in Lincoln, the feature film coming in 2012 to a theater near you. The director said he’d always wanted her for the part. Why? Because the two-time Oscar recipient could capture “all the fragility and complexity that was Mary Todd Lincoln.”
There’s no telling how much screen time Sally Field will actually get in the picture, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Goodwin’s story centers on Lincoln, his 1860 Republican presidential competitors (Edward Bates, Salmon Chase, and William Seward), and his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. But selecting Field to star opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, an “Abraham” with two Oscars of his own, suggests that Spielberg may intend more than a passing glance at Mary.
Given Field’s stature in American popular culture, even a few scenes in such a high-profile venture will affect the image of Mrs. Lincoln for a long time to come. Let’s hope that the screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, and Spielberg’s direction, will bring out the full “complexity” of Mary’s “fragility.”
For all her temperamental swings and failures of judgment, this perpetually insecure soul — emotionally shredded, like her husband, by the death of their 11-year-old son Willie in early 1862, and badgered by Washington critics as a pathetic Western parvenu, if not also a closet secessionist — managed somehow to keep her husband’s health and the Union’s welfare hovering near the front of her mind.
Too often her ups and downs are reduced to individual craziness, the product of her Todd family’s history of mental distress, aggravated by personal setbacks beginning when she was six with the loss of her mother. A discombobulated Mary is easily positioned, after Willie’s death, as a spiritualist crank and a continuing burden on her long-suffering spouse.
Lincoln’s forbearance in the face of her tongue-lashings and manic shopping binges bolsters his image as a selfless saint, safely detached from her disorders. But anyone who has ever been in a decades-long relationship will suspect this picture is one-sided.
Her splenetic displays, and his high-minded silence or forlorn withdrawal, were likely built into the relationship they’d created with one another. The sparks were part of the substance.
The essential corrective to the portrayal of Mary as an out-of-control, self-aggrandizing deviant — the perfect foil for a charitable servant of the people — is to insist on her intimate ties with Abraham over 22 years of marriage. In Springfield those ties included political as well as domestic intercourse. In Washington, she gradually lost her political role, but her civic enthusiasm, and her ardor for her husband’s success and well-being, never waned.
There’s no reason to think their “scenes,” as Mary labeled one of their White House spats, prevented them from enjoying, and needing, one another’s company. There’s every reason to believe their angry standoffs were followed, at least some of the time, by eager reconciliation. Their complexity as a couple helped shape her fragility as an individual.
Any depiction that takes Mrs. Lincoln as the nutty nuisance, the bothersome drag on the forgiving Mr. Lincoln, distorts their quarter-century of impassioned partnership. So does any portrayal that misses Mary’s ongoing public engagement after Abraham stopped soliciting (or even listening to) her political judgments.
Goodwin’s engrossing Team of Rivals devotes only a few pages to Mary, but it gives Kushner and Spielberg all the evidence they’ll need to show that this long marriage kept being renewed by mutual fervor for politics and public service.
Mary and Abraham had both fallen for Henry Clay’s Whig politics long before they fell for each other. They fell for each other in part because of their shared political vision. Once in the national capital, she sought out new ways to exercise her political passions. After Willie’s death, she poured herself all the more intensively into one of them: hospital work.
As historian Michael Burlingame points out in his biography Abraham Lincoln: A Life (vol. II, p. 495), “she won [occasional newspaper] praise for ‘the generous devotion with which she has tenderly cared for the sick and wounded soldiers.’” Praise came from her husband too, writes Burlingame: “Lincoln gave her $1,000 out of his own pocket to buy Christmas turkeys for the hospitalized troops and helped her distribute them.”
Catherine Clinton (Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, p. 196) observes that Mary “visited the hospitals two or three times a week,” undeterred by what one newspaper called “the fear of contagion and the outcries of pestilence.”
In Team of Rivals (p. 457), Goodwin notes that Mary brought the men “baskets of fruit, food, and fresh flowers . . . to mask the pervasive stench of disinfectant and decay.” She sat down beside them to write letters to their families. One young man learned who she was only after the letter bearing her signature had been delivered.
Urged by Lincoln secretary William Stoddard to curry general favor for her labors, Mary stuck with relative anonymity, having found, as Goodwin writes, “something more gratifying than public acknowledgment (p. 459).” She got the reward of registering firsthand the soldiers’ devotion to her husband and their fidelity to the Union cause.
In Lincoln, Spielberg and Kushner have the rare chance to give us the Mary who made her husband proud alongside the Mary who made him fret. The Lincolns collaborated in family building and public service. She shored him up even as she weighed him down. He let her find new purpose even as he left her aside, to embark on a presidential calling all his own.
A film centered on civilian leaders in wartime cannot attempt a full treatment of the Lincoln marriage. But it can let Sally Field signal a fully human Mary, courageous as well as distraught.