by Spencer Howard
Presidential campaigns have changed tremendously over the last 70 years, but one aspect that continues to this day is the ritual unveiling of skeletons from the candidates’ metaphorical closets. One example from early 1928 was the shocking revelation by the New York Sun that Mr. and Mrs. Hoover had been married by a Catholic priest. The fact, though not well known, was no secret, and the revelation was probably an attempt to mute the anti-Catholic sentiments aimed at the leading Democratic candidate, New York governor and Catholic, Alfred E. Smith.
The basic fact, which was publicly confirmed by the Hoovers, was that they were married in the living room of Mrs. Hoover’s parents’ home on February 10, 1899 by Father Ramon Mestres, the local Catholic priest in Monterey, California, even though the bride was Episcopalian and the groom was a Quaker. Subsequent stories in numerous newspapers offered various explanations and further details, usually attributed to Father Mestres or relatives of the Hoovers. One aspect of particular concern to a number of newspapers around the country, if not to their readers, was whether the Hoovers’ marriage was legal and valid. (There was still much animosity between Catholics and Protestants at that time.) Another question was whether Father Mestres had permission from his bishop to perform the marriage, and various stories emerged describing how the Hoovers, or perhaps their friends or relatives, had appealed to the bishop in dramatic fashion for a special dispensation. Other reports, however, explained that the priest would not have needed permission to perform what was essentially a civil ceremony. Mrs. Hoover’s correspondence files reveal that many of the reported details, and all of the supposed “first hand” accounts, were largely fabricated.
In a personal letter to Father Mestres, who still lived in Monterey at the time, Mrs. Hoover noted that “it was adopted as a policy by my husband to take no cognizance of any of the slanderous and otherwise inaccurate statements…all the weird accounts were either circulated as trouble makers by the ‘opposition’ or by overly enthusiastic supporters of my husband who were using their imaginations as a basis instead of ascertaining facts.”
The whole issue came up again in 1930 when Father Mestres passed away, and new versions of the same stories emerged. Again the Hoovers ignored the press coverage, and the issue was soon forgotten. But Mrs. Hoover took the opportunity to write a lengthy personal account for the benefit of her family and friends, a copy of which can be found in her papers. It reveals the simple story that is much less exciting than the widely circulated rumors.
Mrs. Hoover described how her family had been acquainted with Father Mestres for many years, but that she best remembered him as the person who had organized a variety of sports and games in which she had participated as a child. When she and Mr. Hoover were planning their wedding, they intended to be married by Dr. William Thoburn, a Methodist minister and a professor at their alma mater, Stanford University, but Dr. Thoburn died of pneumonia just weeks before the wedding. Not being acquainted with any Protestant clergy in Monterey, the young couple appealed to the family friend, Father Mestres, to substitute, which he did without hesitation.
The only scandal, if it can be called one, was that the groom’s brother, Theodore Hoover, forgot to arrange for a carriage to take the young couple to the train station, and they almost missed their train!