Washington Widow: Mary Borah

Washington Widow: Mary Borah

By Ray Hill

If there is anything sadder than a defeated and forgotten politician, it may well be a forgotten politician’s widow.

Once powerful politicians who wielded enormous influence, attended by staff and an abundance of friends, oftentimes find themselves bereft when out of office and without favors to dispense.  Many former friends disappear with the trappings of power.  Governor Gordon Browning spent an afternoon visiting with Senator Kenneth McKellar when both were out of office.  The two had long been bitter political enemies, but put aside their differences and enjoyed a pleasant afternoon together.  McKellar, once one of the most powerful men in the nation’s Capitol was, according to Browning, merely a lonely old man without friends or attention.

For the widows of once powerful men, it was frequently even worse.  Some were left without money and had to find not only something to do, but the means to live.  A singular few managed to become celebrities in their own right and parlay being a fashionable hostess into much more, as Pamela Harriman did.  Others kept up a busy social life in Washington society, vestiges of a time long since past.

Mary McConnell Borah was just such one widow, although her husband and family had left her enough money to live comfortably.

The daughter of Idaho’s third governor, William J. McConnell, Mary McConnell was a beautiful and fragile young woman who caught the eye of William E. Borah, one of the most prominent and brilliant lawyers in the American West.  Described as a “vivacious, blue-eyed blonde,” Mary McConnell would certainly have been quite a catch for any man.  Yet the Borah marriage may not have been as much the result of a deep abiding love than an unexpected pregnancy.  For years, Washington women gossiped that Mary Borah had become pregnant before she was married to Bill Borah and had an abortion, which left her unable to bear children.  Whether or not their union was one of love or convenience, the Borahs remained married for the rest of William Borah’s life.

Born at the turn of the century, William Edgar Borah went west to make his fortune and he rose to prominence in 1907 while prosecuting a case involving the murder of Frank Steunenberg, a former Idaho governor, who had been killed by a bomb rigged to the front gate of his home.

By the time Borah served as a special prosecutor in the Steunenberg case, Borah had already been elected to the United States Senate.  Borah would become nationally known as a member of the United States Senate and was reputedly one of the very few senators who could influence the outcome of an issue through his oratory.  A powerful speaker, Borah had a compelling personality and eventually became a living legend inside his adopted state.

Senator Borah was so highly esteemed in Idaho, he only attracted serious opposition once during his long career.  Incumbent Governor C. Ben Ross challenged Borah in 1936, a year Franklin D. Roosevelt carried every state in the nation save for Vermont and Maine.  Borah defeated Governor Ross easily while other Republican candidates went down to defeat.  Following the 1936 election, there were only sixteen Republicans left in the Senate.

Borah’s political independence was unquestioned and he was a progressive and  considered a constitutional expert by many.  Senator Borah was known for his personal frugality and his only indulgence seemed to be his fondness for expensive shoes.  “The Lion of Idaho” would become one of the most famous senators of his time.

While Borah and his wife were frequently together, the senator disliked parties and most social occasions.  He preferred to leave his office and spend his time in the spacious and comfortable apartment that was his home in Washington, D.C.  Mary, known as “Little Borah,” kept canaries and liked parties and social occasions as much as her husband disliked them.

Senator Borah was evidently not entirely anti-social.  He found time to have an affair with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, eldest daughter of the late President Theodore Roosevelt and perhaps the most famous of all Washington widows.

Like Mary Borah, Alice Longworth outlived her politician husband by many decades.  That affair would not have been all that unusual or extraordinary save for one fact: Alice Longworth became pregnant by Borah and gave birth to the senator’s only child, Paulina.  The Borah – Longworth affair was like most Washington secrets, not a secret at all, but the subject of intense gossip.  One Washington wag thought Alice Longworth’s daughter should be named “DeBorah.”  Others snickered about Paulina as “Aurora Borah Alice.”

Alice’s husband, Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth, may have been one of the few Washingtonians who was unaware of Paulina’s true parentage, as he doted on his ostensible daughter.

Unfortunately, Paulina would live a troubled and sad life, which she ended either accidentally or on purpose.

Borah enjoyed horseback riding and would ride his horse every morning through Rock Creek Park.  President Calvin Coolidge, noting Borah’s reputation for being contrary, wondered how Borah could bring himself to travel in the same direction as the horse.

Borah, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a committed isolationist and refused to see the war clouds gathering over Europe as Adolf Hitler’s aggression became more and more apparent.  President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull tried to reason with the stubborn Idaho senator who scoffed at their information, claiming his own sources of information were better and his “sources” may well have been merely British newsletters and magazines.

At seventy-four, William E. Borah apparently fell either in the shower or just after getting out of the shower.  He hit his head, which was bleeding when Mary Borah found him.  The senator died on January 19, 1940 following a cerebral hemorrhage.

Borah’s body was taken back to Idaho where he was buried; one of the majestic peaks of the Lemhi mountain range is named for Borah and there is a monument to the “Lion of Idaho” in Boise.

Mary Borah would outlive her husband by almost forty years and live to the ripe old age of 105.

A Scripps-Howard writer wrote a column about Mary Borah in 1965 and noted the widow refused to reveal her age, but concluded she must be around ninety (she was actually around ninety-five at the time).  Mrs. Borah lived in the same apartment she occupied with her late husband, attended by a maid who seemed to be every bit as old as she.  Daisy Williams had been employed by Mrs. Borah for forty-five years in 1965.

The writer noted Mrs. Borah still kept her prized canaries and was “lively” and that she lived in “lonely comfort.”

Mrs. Borah remembered her husband fondly, telling the writer, “Billy was such a strong-minded man people just didn’t realize all his warmths and kindnesses.  He was a sweet man and a fine husband.”

The widow Borah proceeded to talk about the late senator’s favorite horse, Jester, whom the Lion of Idaho referred to as “the Old Philosopher.”  Mrs. Borah recounted how the senator especially liked to ride Jester when he had something important on his mind and would let go of the reins and allow himself to be carried whenever the horse wanted to go.  One day when caught up in his thoughts, a squirrel scurried by the horse, startling him and Jester reared and quite nearly tossed the senator out of the saddle.  Senator Borah used a switch on the horse’s hind end, which injured Jester’s feelings.  Borah was astonished when Jester refused to even look at him and turned his head away when the senator offered the traditional lump of sugar he always provided after every ride.

Senator Borah was upset that Jester was unhappy with him and tried to cajole the horse by petting him and even tried to comfort his sullen companion with sweet talk. Borah was so upset he confided his unhappiness to his wife and found he couldn’t keep his attention on his work.  Borah left the Senate to return to the stables and eventually Jester forgave the Lion of Idaho, nuzzled the senator and accepted a lump of sugar.  Borah never used a switch on Jester again and they remained friends until the senator’s death.

Largely confined to her apartment by old age and her infirmities, Mrs. Borah was philosophical, saying, “But I’m so lucky.  Most of my friends are gone or are bedridden.”

After a moment, Mrs. Borah added, “Sometimes I think I’m a good deal like Lord Byron’s ‘Prisoner of Chillon’.  I could never have dreamed of being shut in, unable to go where I wanted to go.”

When asked if she thought she would have been happier had she returned to live in her native Idaho after her husband’s death, Mrs. Borah replied, “I tried it and stayed almost a year, but Washington called me.  My interests, his interests, were here.  Every Friday, as long as I could, I went to St. Elizabeth’s to visit with the boys there.  They needed me and I needed them, too.  I started going after World War I – – – just to see Idaho boys, but I accumulated friends from everywhere.”

Mrs. Borah had made weekly visits to St. Elizabeth’s, a mental hospital in the Capitol.

The widow Borah admitted that the young men and friends she had made at St. Elizabeth’s was one of the reasons she had decided to return to live in Washington, D. C.

“Those visits and the pull of friendships here brought me back to Washington.  I couldn’t stay away,” she admitted.

Her soft voice trailing, she added, “But now my generation has gone.”

Mary Borah had another twelve years to live.

In 1976, the University of Idaho Press published her memoirs, “Elephants and Donkeys,” recalling her memories of the famous people she had known during her time in Washington.

When she was 101, Mary Borah participated in something of an oral history and her memories were recorded.  Increasingly frail, she moved to Beaverton, Oregon where she lived in a nursing home.

Despite her age, Mrs. Borah remained a lively conversationalist, recalling when her grandmother had taken her, without the permission of her parents, to have her examined by a specialist, as the grandmother thought infant Mary was “disfigured.”

Mrs. Borah recalled her experience in buying an “expensive” gown for a White House dinner.  Mrs. Borah had not even considered what color gown she would wear and noted the salesgirl rapidly lost interest in her.

The “young thing” who was the salesgirl lazily inquired, “Is the dinner you’re going to a formal dinner?”

“I presume so,” Mrs. Borah replied.  “It’s at the White House.”

The salesgirl suddenly became much more interested.  She then thought to ask her client’s name and when she discovered Mary was the wife of Senator Borah, her attitude underwent an astonishing transformation.

Mrs. Borah emerged with a beautiful pink gown, but she feared the thrifty Senator Borah would have a fit when he got the bill.  Much to her surprise, Senator Borah told her he wanted her to have the nicest gown possible and seemed indifferent to the cost.

A painting of Mrs. Borah wearing the gown later graced the dress shop.

Perhaps the most poignant part of Mrs. Borah’s interview was her memories following the death of Senator Borah.  She said Idaho “had changed, everything had changed.”

The interview, conducted on October 15, 1971, revealed Mrs. Borah lived in the nursing home with her sister.

Mary McConnell Borah lived until 1975 when she passed away at 105.

 

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