Virginia Clinton Kelley: Leading with My Heart (Book Review + More)


I’m friendly, I’m outgoing, and I like men.
– Virginia Clinton Kelley

First Mother Virginia Dell Cassidy Blythe Clinton Dwire Kelley bubbled with life.  She survived child abuse and domestic violence, but she did not survive breast cancer.  She passed away on January 6, 1994.  Over 3,000 people attended her funeral, and she was buried on Elvis’ birthday in Hope, Arkansas.  In her obituary, the Washington Post reported:

Bill Clinton is in every sense his mother’s son. . .her outward flamboyance. . .she had lost three husbands, including Bill Clinton’s father, a traveling salesman with a secret life of previous marriages and children, and his adopted father, a car dealer who drank too much and tormented the family with verbal and physical abuse.

But behind Virginia Kelley’s exotic public persona was a strong woman who more than anyone. . .shaped Bill Clinton and directed him toward what she long ago took to be his destiny at the White House. . .

A clear line can be drawn back from his perseverance in the political world to her resilience in the face of personal tragedy and trauma.  If he lost an election or an important legislative battle or she lost a husband or suffered from breast cancer, they kept going in similarly relentless, seemingly indefatigable fashion.

We have the Violence Against Women Act because former President Bill Clinton was determined to protect women walking in his mother’s shoes.

You know where I get my fighting spirit?
It all started with my mother.
– Gov. William J. Clinton

First Mother of the “Comeback Kid”

Mrs. Kelley’s colorful life is captured in Leading with My Heart:  My Life which she wrote with James Morgan.  The New York Times said the book ” fairly throbs with its author’s vitality.”  It opens at 4:30 AM on Inaugural Day, January 20, 1993, with a reflection on her life:

I’ve been dealt my share of tough hands. . .an Elvis song. . .”This time You Gave Me a Mountain”. . .many hills to climb. . .a few mountains. . .I wouldn’t change a thing.  I had a mother who met every day with anger and took it out on me and my father.  My firstborn son never knew his father. . .I had lost all three of those husbands ~ to accident, cancer, and diabetes ~ by the time I was fifty-one. . . .

I think I’ve done pretty darn well. . .I’ve loved, and I’ve been loved. . .joy of raising the two kindest, dearest sons. . .wonderful friends. . .stood by me through all the crises. . .a career that fulfilled me. . .you lead with your heart.

Virginia Dell Cassidy was born on June 6, 1923 in Bodcaw, Arkansas.  The family soon moved to Hope.  Her mother, Edith Valeria Grisham Cassidy, was abusive:

Those eyes could bore in on you and almost disintegrate you with their heat. . .temper. . .was uncontrollable. . .angry somewhere deep inside her, and she took it out on anybody who happened to be around. . .My mother created sparks. . .my father and I were the ones who got burned the most. . .nightly screaming fits. . .insanely jealous. . .vindictive, manipulative. . .would whip me furiously. . .drew blood.
Her father, James Eldridge Cassidy, was born on August 19 ~ the same day as his grandson.  He was “kind and gentle.”
 
Thank you, God, for letting me see another morning.
– Virginia Clinton Kelley’s morning prayer
“Airtight Box”  with Love Inside
Mrs. Kelley’s resilience is largely attributable to her ability to compartmentalize ~ a trait developed to shield herself from her mother’s abuse ~ a trait she taught her son:
I’ve trained myself not to worry about what-ifs. . .when bad things do happen, I brainwash myself to put them out of my mind.  .  .Inside my head I construct an air-tight box.  I keep inside it what I want to think about, and everything else stays behind the walls. . .
Inside is love and friends and optimism.  Outside is negativity. . .I just tell myself I’m going to be okay. . .I get up every day and I push ahead, and I never quit. . .focus ~ like a laser. . .on the good things.  That’s where your strength comes from. . .

Mrs. Kelley had a career as a nurse-anesthetist which funded her son’s education at Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale.  She was a planner rather than a dreamer.  While working as a student nurse, she met her first husband and Pres. Clinton’s father, William Jefferson Blythe III, in the emergency room at a hospital in Shreveport, LA.  After a whirlwind courtship, they married on September 3, 1943 in Texarkana.

She became a young widow on May 17, 1946 when Mr. Blythe had a car accident near Sikeston, MO.  A few months later, she gave birth to William Jefferson Blythe IV on August 19, 1946 [he changed his name to Clinton].

 The way I’ve gotten through life is by living in the present.
– Virginia Clinton Kelley

Mrs. Blythe married Roger Clinton, a car dealer, twice.  He put the “hot” in Hot Springs.  They were married the first time on June 19, 1950.  She tolerated his excesses until he shot at her when Bill was about five years old.  Mr. Clinton spent the night in the Hope jail.  After he beat her, she left:

I needed a room for a few nights. . .didn’t have any money [she had a thriving career]. . .that night was a turning point. . .I realized that a woman needs her own money. . .so that she can take care of herself and her children if need be ~ and she needs to pay enough attention to it so that she alone controls it. . .mad money shouldn’t stop once a girl is grown and married.  What if it turns out your husband sometimes goes stark raving mad. . .

Too many women are economic slaves to their husbands, and too many husbands enjoy exercising the upper hand.  I might’ve been a slave, too, without good friends and a backbone. . .I made a vow. . .Never again will I be without money to protect us.

The couple reconciled, and Roger was born.  When Bill was fourteen, he burst into their bedroom during one of Mr. Clinton’s rages:

Bill said, “Daddy, stand up.”  Roger couldn’t [he was “terribly drunk”].  .  . “Daddy, I want you on your feet.”

 . . .Bill lifted Roger. . .I’ll never forget how straight Bill looked him in the eye.  “Hear me. . .Never. . .ever. . .touch my mother again.”

The couple divorced in 1962, and Bill Clinton took his stepfather’s name.  He was not pleased when his mother decided to take her ex-husband back because she felt sorry for him.  Again, Mr. Clinton came home drunk and held his wife on the floor of the laundry room with a scissors at her throat.  Bill intervened:  “If you hit them [his mother and Roger], you’re going to have to go through me.”

Bill left for college at Georgetown.  In 1967, Mr. Clinton died from cancer, and Mrs. Cassidy died two months later.

On January 3, 1968, Mrs. Clinton married her hairdresser George Jefferson Dwire, who had always protected her and treated her like a queen.  He persuaded her to keep the gray streak in her hair and to wear black ~ her color ~ rather than the bright colors she loved.  He went to prison for stock fraud.  Bill graduated from Yale’s law school and returned to Arkansas to teach.  During his first campaign in 1974, Mr. Dwire died from diabetes complications.

Bill Clinton and Virginia Clinton Kelley

I believe deeply in the principles of trust and loyalty.
– Virginia Clinton Kelley

An “American Original”

Bill married Hillary Rodham on October 11, 1975 and was elected Arkansas’ attorney general in 1976.  In 1978, he was elected governor.  Chelsea was born on February 27, 1980. Gov. Clinton lost his bid to be re-elected in 1980, and Mrs. Dwire’s career went up in smoke.

The bright light in this horrible year was Richard Kelley, a food broker and horse racing enthusiast.  When he started dating the widow Dwire, Gov. Clinton was elated.  He told his mother:

I thought he was the most stable man you’d ever been with. . .an anchor. . .a rock.

The Kelleys were married on January 17, 1982 and moved to their Lake Hamilton house.  Roger was convicted on drug charges and went to prison.  Bill was again elected governor in 1982.

During his 1990 campaign, Mrs. Kelley discovered she had breast cancer. While Bill was running for president, she discovered the cancer had spread.  She was able to witness Bill get nominated at the Democratic Convention in New York:

You have to celebrate life, not brood about death. . .not stand around waiting for the grim reaper to show up. . .you have to try in this life to do what makes you happy.  Other people are going to try to stand in your way, but you can’t let them.

On Inaugural Night, 1993, the Kelleys slept in the Queen’s bedroom in the White House:

I wished my daddy could’ve been there to watch his grandson become President. . .his daughter stretched out on the Queen’s bed.  What a journey it had been.  Lord, the hills we had climbed.

She was like this fairy godmother. . .
She knew how to wring every morsel out of life.
Every moment of joy.
– Barbra Streisand

The Kelleys flew to Las Vegas to hear Barbra Streisand sing at the MGM Grand Hotel on New Year’s Eve.  Mrs. Kelley passed away a week later in her sleep.  At her funeral, Rev. John Miles eulogized:

Virginia Clinton Kelley. . .was like a rubber ball.  The harder life put her down, the higher she bounced.  She didn’t know what the word quit meant.

She loved life:

$2 bets on horse races, bright lipsticks, and Elvis.

Every morning she spent 45 minutes “painting” her face.  In her autobiography, she joked that she had “lost twenty-five years of sleep because I have to jump up and start drawing on my face every morning.”

Virginia Kelley Drive in Little Rock

Virginia Kelley Drive

Last month at the dedication of the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge in Little Rock, Arkansas, North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays presented former President Bill Clinton with a street sign bearing the name of his late mother, Virginia Kelley Drive. The city named a street for Mrs. Kelley.

Bill Clinton and me

In 2004, former Pres. Clinton granted me permission to write about his mother.  He said, “I would be honored” as tears sprang to his twinkling blue eyes.

She survived child abuse and domestic violence.  She thrived and found joy.  She was the inspiration for the Violence Against Women Act.  Her son became president.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month.  Please join me in wearing your purple and celebrating survivors.

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