Keeper of the Governor’s Public Image: Mabel Martineau (First Lady of Arkansas, 1927-1928)

Old State House Museum - Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Mabel Martineau, circa 1930In an age in which wives of public figures were more often than not out of the limelight, especially in traditionalist Arkansas, Mabel Martineau was a magnetic personality.

As a hostess, it was said that she had no peer in her day, so much so that she inspired others of her station in life to try to follow her example. But like First Ladies at the national level in her day, such as Edith Wilson, Florence Harding, and Grace Coolidge, Mabel Martineau performed a function for her husband that had rarely if ever been exercised by her predecessors in Arkansas: as keeper and enhancer of the governor’s public image. There was little doubt that she was very successful in this regard.

Born in 1870 at Des Arc, she attended school in Arkansas and Kentucky and was especially talented in music and voice. Widowed twice before meeting John Ellis Martineau, she would reminisce later that she had three happy marriages, but John was the love of her life. They married in May 1919 and established their home in one of Little Rock’s finest neighborhoods. Here she enhanced her reputation as one of the capital’s most popular hostesses.

Her perfectionism extended into both hers and the future governor’s wardrobes. She wore bobbed hair before it became a national fashion trend and had a distinct clothing style, as reflected in her inaugural gown. She also assumed the responsibility for her husband’s wardrobe and public appearance as he grew in political prominence. She went so far as going out on her own during Judge Martineau’s 1924 and 1926 campaigns for governor, making numerous speeches, helping with strategy at the headquarters, as well as representing her husband with
visiting delegations and supervising the distribution of campaign material.

A popular first lady, she performed the role for 14 months until President Calvin Coolidge appointed the governor as federal judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas, which he held until his death in 1937. She spent her final years active in Little Rock’s social and civic scene until she passed away on Thanksgiving Day, 1952.

Anne McMath felt it interesting that “this lady who so loved a celebration was born on Christmas Day, married on May Day, and died on Thanksgiving Day.” It’s truly easy to agree with Mrs. McMath.

Mabel Martineau's inaugural gown will be on display in the redesigned exhibit, "First Ladies of Arkansas: Women of Their Times," which opens to the public Sept. 14.