About Grace McKinley Heidt
Grace Howe McKinley Heidt was a teacher who became best known as the niece and adoptive daughter of President William McKinley. She became internationally famous for temporarily serving as Mistress of the White House while her aunt, the First Lady, was ill.
According to her Iowa marriage record, Grace was born in 1878 in San Francisco, California. Her childhood was marked by repeated tragedies. At the age of 3, she lost her mother. At the age of 10, she lost her father. Two of her sisters also died while Grace was very young.
As a result, her uncle, future president William McKinley, became her adoptive father.
White House Life
Grace had turned down offers to move to the White House with her family upon the President's election, but when the First Lady became ill, the President asked Grace to come manage the household. She spent one year living in Washington, running the day-to-day operations of the family and also filling the role of First Lady as necessary. She also met her future husband during this time, though the encounter was brief and they did not formally court.
Her period in Washington was not a particularly enjoyable one for Grace, and after only one year, she decided to leave. It was during her time at the White House that she began to think about she wanted from her own life, and she began to feel a strong pull towards a teaching career.
Education & Teaching Career
Since she wanted to teach, Grace knew that she needed to be well-educated herself. She immediately enrolled at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts upon leaving the White House. At Mount Holyoke, she was known for being an exceptional student, ultimately receiving her Bachelor's degree at the top of her class. The President and the First Lady attended her graduation ceremony in 1899, causing much excitement in the rural Pioneer Valley.
After her graduation, Grace was highly regarded enough to become a teacher at her alma mater. After teaching there, she decided to teach in the Philippines, where her brother (Capt. James McKinley) was stationed and where she knew the demand for American teachers was great. It was during this time that she formally dated her future husband. She would later teach again at Mount Holyoke and also at Middletown, Connecticut.
Capt. Grayson Villard Heidt was a West Point alumnus from Atlanta, Georgia and the son of a preacher. He was stationed in the Philippines at the same time that Grace was teaching there. The couple met through James McKinley and courted for approximately two years due to Grayson's busy schedule and Grace's own career. When the time came to marry, Grayson said that the Philippines was not "fit for a white woman" to be married there, so they waited until he returned to the U.S.
The couple's wedding was held on July 18, 1906 at James McKinley's home at Fort Des Moines, Iowa -- where Grayson had since been deployed -- and was officiated by Rev. John Heidt, the groom's father. The matron of honor was Mrs. George Fabyan of Chicago and the maid of honor was Miss Caroline Harter of Canton, Ohio.
Immediately after the wedding, Grayson was sent back to the Philippines, sailing from Seattle. The couple moved many times due to Grayson's military service, living at various times in Iowa, Hawai'i, Texas, and other states and territories.
Grace and Grayson had two children:
- Unnamed infant daughter, born and died in 1907
- Helen Heidt, born in 1912
According to the McKinley Presidential Library, little is known about what happened to Helen Heidt. She may have married a man with the surname Magee and settled in either Texas or California.
Death & Legacy
Grace died on January 1, 1943 and was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas on January 4. Her burial records state "US Army Air Forces, 2NDLT," likely indicate Grayson's rank at the time of her death. His own records say that he died on September 8, 1945 as "US Army, COL."
Grace was a private woman who did not attract much attention to herself related to her presidential connection or time at the White House. She granted a rare interview to McKinley biographer George S. Olcott for his book published in 1916. The only major news reports about her after her uncle's death were related to her wedding, and newspapers were only alerted regarding the impending marriage by people other than the couple. Likewise, her decision to live as a military wife meant that she moved frequently, preventing her from becoming particularly noted in any one area. Her descendants also did not promote their connections to the White House, preferring instead to live as average Americans.
- "Featured Anecdotes." William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, October 2005.
- "Grace Howe McKinley 1899." Alumnae Association of Mount Holyoke College, 1937.
- "Miss McKinley's Wedding." New York Times, July 14, 1906.
- "Niece of McKinley Weds." New York Times, July 19, 1906.
- Olcott, Charles S. William McKinley, Vol. I. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916.
The above biographical sketch was written by J. Ashley Odell in June 2011. Please do not repost it without attribution.
Lebenslinie von Grace McKinley Heidt
San Francisco, California, United States
1 Januar, 1943
San Antonio, Bexar, Texas, United States
4 Januar, 1943
San Antonio, Bexar, Texas, United States
South Hadley, Massachusetts, United States