For one of the few women to serve as First Lady without marrying a President, Lane made an indelible impression on the position. The orphaned niece of James Buchanan was akin to the Jackie Kennedy of her time. Often call the “Democratic Queen,” the 27-year-old Lane was delighted to act as official hostess for her lifelong bachelor uncle, a man she affectionately called “Nunc.”
Her fashion influence started at the get-go. Her inauguration gown was a scandalous, low-cut European-style dress that had a garland of flowers running down her chest and diagonally across her hips. The dress was an instant hit, and bodices dropped an inch or two overnight. Mary Todd Lincoln copied the dress for her inauguration four years later. Throughout her White House years, Lane carried bouquets of roses and vacationed at exclusive spas, which drew attention to her youth and beauty. There were flowers, perfumes, poems, babies, songs and clothing named for her.
Though Julia Tyler made concerted efforts to elevate the status of the President and First Lady, Lane’s natural charm furthered the practice of first ladies as pop culture icons. Her charisma and youth were a marked contrast to her grieving predecessor, Jane Pierce. She was the first First Lady to be regularly referred to as “First Lady,” the first First Lady to regularly invite non-political celebrities to White House functions, and the first First Lady to adopt a social cause—for Lane, it was living conditions on Native American reservations.
Lane was philanthropic as well as popular. In her later years, she founded a home for invalid children that is now part of Johns Hopkins Hospital, donated her art collection to help form the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and funded a building that sits on the St. Albans school campus in Washington, D.C.
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