A Woman of Adventure: The Life and Times of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover
by Annette B. Dunlap
Published: June 2022
Annette Dunlap’s biography “A Woman of Adventure: The Life and Times of First Lady Lou Henry Hoover” is the first comprehensive biography of this former First Lady in two decades. Dunlap is also the author of biographies of America’s youngest first lady Frances Folsom Cleveland and former vice president Charles Gates Dawes.
First ladies often prove to be fascinating individuals overshadowed by their more conspicuous spouses. This is certainly true for Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944) who was the only female in her graduating class at Stanford, a noted linguist, president of the Girl Scouts, a private philanthropist and widely-recognized humanitarian. Her better-known husband ranks in the lowest rung of former presidents but also led a surprisingly interesting and consequential life…before entering politics.
Prior to publication of Dunlap’s biography, the most recent serious work on Lou Henry Hoover was Anne Beiser Allen’s biography published in 2000 (which can be hard to find and costly to acquire). A director at the National First Ladies’ Library suggested that Dunlap consider writing a biography of the notoriously publicity-shy Hoover, whose accomplishments were neither widely recognized nor fully appreciated. Dunlap accepted the challenge.
The resulting narrative spans 240 pages, covering Hoover’s entire life including attention to her family and her professional and philanthropic accomplishments. The writing is fast-paced, generally lively and uncommonly accessible. It generously incorporates Hoover’s own voice where appropriate and contains almost none of the stiff, erudite language that can burden some biographies.
Lou Henry Hoover’s life was remarkably purposeful and from an early age she was poised to leave her impression on the world. Even before future first lady Eleanor Roosevelt blazed her own bright path, Lou Henry was capable and cocksure. Dunlap is consistently attentive to Hoover’s unique combination of grit, gumption and achievement.
But for all this biography’s merit – and its enormous potential – the book’s pace is too brisk. Whether this is due to a tight editorial filter or, more likely, a lack of primary source material, the result is the same: there is a pervasive, unshakeable feeling that a great deal of important “connective tissue” is missing and that only part of the story is being told. Unfortunately, the author never discusses the constraints she encountered in researching her subject, and there is no bibliography for the curious reader to peruse.
In addition, Dunlap is so focused on laying out the known facts of Hoover’s life that she often fails to fully develop her subject’s most important (and seemingly interesting) relationships. More deeply explored, her closest interpersonal connections could add a great deal of color and texture to Hoover’s somewhat flat portrait.
Overall, Annette Dunlap’s biography of former first lady Lou Henry Hoover is a welcome addition to the limited body of work covering this talented and under-appreciated woman. But for all the book’s value in revealing Hoover’s talents and triumphs, her penchant for privacy is an obstacle Dunlap is never able to fully overcome.
Overall rating: 3¼ stars