Here’s how 20 real-life first ladies compare to the actors who have played them

jackie kennedy

  • There have been 42 official first ladies, and 11 acting first ladies, as not all 45 of our presidents have been married.
  • We've found 20 that have been portrayed in movies and TV over the last few decades, and compared them to the stars who played them.
  • Many actresses have played Jackie Kennedy, including Natalie Portman, Minka Kelly, and Ginnifer Goodwin.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Over our country's long history, one of the most beloved roles is that of the first lady — and one of our most beloved traditions is the political biopic.

That means there are at least 20 first ladies who have been portrayed in media since 1944's "Magnificent Doll" (and before then), in which Ginger Rogers plays Dolley Madison.

Some first ladies have been portrayed a lot, like Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, while others only have one or two appearances under their belt.

Keep scrolling to see 20 first ladies, and how they compare to the stars who played them.

Here's a portrait of Martha Washington, our very first first lady.

Washington was in office from April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797. She lived another five years and died in 1802 at the age of 70.

Nia Roberts played Martha Washington in the History Channel miniseries "Washington," though a bit younger than seen in the portrait.

"Washington's" three episodes aired on February 16, 17, and 18, 2020, on the History Channel. 

Here's a rendering of the real Abigail Adams.

She was the first lady from March 4, 1797, to March 4, 1801. She died in 1818 at the age of 73 — she didn't live to see her son John Quincy Adams get elected in 1825.

Laura Linney played as Abigail Adams in HBO's "John Adams." She nailed Adams' dark hair and fiery personality.

Over the course of seven episodes in 2008, viewers watched the progression of the Adams' lives from 1770 to 1826.

Virginia Vestoff played Abigail Adams in the film adaptation of the beloved musical "1776."

Vestoff played the first lady in the original Broadway run, as well.

Michelle Trachtenberg took on Abigail Adams with a supernatural twist in an episode of "Sleepy Hollow."

In the 2015 episode, Trachtenberg played an Adams that was "as historically accurate as possible, with a little twist. She is trying to catch the big bad evil that is ruining her era and becomes a profiler of sorts."

There are no surviving portraits of Martha Jefferson, just this basic sketch.

It's because she technically was never the first lady of the US, just Virginia — she died in 1782, almost two decades before her husband would be elected the third president. He never remarried.

Blythe Danner played Martha Jefferson in "1776."

Danner is, of course, now best known as Gwyneth Paltrow's mom.

This is a portrait of the real Dolley Madison.

Madison served as the first lady from March 4, 1809, to March 4, 1817 — she famously saved a portrait of George Washington when the British burned the White House down in 1814. She died in 1849 at age 81.

Ginger Rogers played Dolley Madison in "Magnificent Doll." She has similar curls to the real Dolley.

In 1946's "Magnificent Doll," Madison is being wooed by both Aaron Burr and her future husband James Madison.

This is the real Mary Todd Lincoln.

She was the first lady from March 4, 1861, to April 15, 1865, until her husband's assassination. She lived another 17 years and died in 1882 at the age of 63.

Sally Field played Mary Todd Lincoln in "Lincoln." She gained 25 pounds to play the first lady.

Field received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the 2012 biographical drama.

She told Jay Leno that her weight gain "wasn't fun."

Mary Tyler Moore played Mary Todd Lincoln in the 1988 miniseries "Lincoln." She expertly adopted a Southern accent for the role.

Moore was nominated for an Emmy for her performance. Her on-screen husband was played by Sam Waterston.

Back in 1988, the Christian Science Monitor wrote that Moore was "having a ball … establishing the strong, turbulent personality of Mary." They added, "Southern accent at full throttle, she creates a shrewd ex-belle in readings full of nuance, bite, and furtive undertones that occasionally mock her listeners."

Mary Elizabeth Winstead played a younger version of Mary Todd Lincoln in "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," released in 2012, is based on the horror novel of the same name, which posits that Lincoln was actually a vampire hunter. 

While the real woman was known to have suffered from some form of mental illness, this version of her is bold, takes no prisoners, and is fiercely independent.

This is the real Edith Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was the president's second wife, as his first wife Alice died in 1884. She married him in 1886, and was in the White House from September 14, 1901, to March 4, 1909. Roosevelt died in 1948 at 87 years old.

Illeana Douglas played Edith Roosevelt in "Rough Riders." She nailed the hair.

The TNT miniseries aired in July 1997 and focused on the Roosevelts' lives pre-presidency.

This is the real Ellen Wilson.

She was Woodrow Wilson's first wife — she was only in the White House from March 4, 1913, to August 6, 1914, before she died at age 54 of Bright's disease.

Ruth Nelson played Ellen Wilson in "Wilson" — this is earlier on in life than the photograph of the real Wilson.

"Wilson" was released in 1944.

This is the real Edith Wilson, President Wilson's second wife.

President Wilson remarried around a year after his first wife's death. Edith Wilson was the FLOTUS from December 18, 1915, to March 4, 1921. She's best known now as the de facto president after her husband's debilitating stroke in 1919.

She died in 1969 at 89 years old.

Geraldine Fitzgerald played Edith Wilson in "Wilson." The real woman had much fuller eyebrows.

Fitzgerald was Irish in real life, and had to put on an American accent for the film.

This is the actual Florence Harding — in real life, she wore spectacles.

Harding was in the White House from March 4, 1921, to August 2, 1923, until her husband Warren died while in office. She died just over a year later in 1924 at age 64.

Celeste Holm played Florence Harding in "Backstairs at the White House," with no glasses to be seen.

"Backstairs at the White House" was a miniseries that aired on NBC in 1979 that tracked decades in the White House, from Presidents Taft to Eisenhower.

This is the actual Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most well-respected first ladies of all time.

As her husband served four terms, she is also the longest-serving first lady as well — she was FLOTUS from March 4, 1933, to April 12, 1945. She lived until 1962 and died at age 78.

Lois de Banzie played a young Eleanor Roosevelt in 1982's "Annie."

Yes, the Roosevelts play a semi-prominent role in "Annie," as Mr. Warbucks takes Annie to the White House to meet Eleanor and Franklin.

Jane Alexander played Eleanor Roosevelt in "Eleanor and Franklin" and "Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years" — this is her playing an older Eleanor, with her signature waves.

Alexander and Edward Herrmann were forever linked to the Roosevelts after their portrayals of Eleanor and Franklin in the beloved ABC television films, which aired in 1976 and 1977.

Olivia Williams played Eleanor Roosevelt in "Hyde Park on Hudson," a 2012 British historical comedy. She looks significantly less put-together than the real woman.

In "Hyde Park on Hudson," FDR is played by none other than Bill Murray.

June Diane Raphael tried her hand at playing a tongue-in-cheek version of Eleanor Roosevelt in "Another Period."

"Another Period" was a satire on shows like "Keeping Up With the Kardashians"— except focusing on the Bellacourts, a powerful Rhode Island family in the early 1900s.

Eileen Heckart played a glamorous fur-wearing Eleanor Roosevelt in "Backstairs at the White House."

Heckart appeared in two of the four episodes.

Harriet Sansom Harris is the latest actress to play Eleanor Roosevelt in the Ryan Murphy miniseries "Hollywood." She also rocks her wavy hair.

In "Hollywood," Roosevelt pops up in episode four as a friend of Patti LuPone's character Avis.

Here's the real Bess Truman.

She still holds the record as the longest-lived first lady of all time, as she lived to be 97 years and 247 days old. She died in 1982. The Trumans were in the White House from April 12, 1945, to January 20, 1953.

Diana Scarwid played Bess Truman in "Truman" — the resemblance is clear.

"Truman" was released on HBO in 1995, and starred Gary Sinise as President Truman. The New York Times called Scarwid's performance "impressive," and said her version of the first lady was "a tower of common sense."

Here's the real Jackie Kennedy, whose life has captured our minds and hearts for decades.

Of course, her world was turned upside down when her husband was assassinated while sitting next to her in 1963 — but she continued to fascinate the public until her death in 1994 at age 64.

Natalie Portman played Jackie Kennedy in the 2016 film "Jackie." Here she is wearing a version of Kennedy's iconic red suit.

Portman was nominated for an Oscar for her performance. W Magazine called the performance "studied," and said "her unplaceable, transatlantic accent honed from watching countless hours of the First Lady on film."

Minka Kelly channeled Jackie Kennedy in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" in 2013. Here, she's wearing a string of pearls, Kennedy's favorite.

Her on-screen JFK was played by James Marsden.

Caprice Benedetti played Jackie Kennedy in the time-travel film "Timequest" in 2001.

The film revolved around two time-travelers trying to stop the assassination of JFK.

In 2013, Ginnifer Goodwin played Jackie Kennedy in the TV film "Killing Kennedy." This is her wearing the famous pink suit Kennedy wore when her husband was assassinated.

In this iteration, JFK was played by Rob Lowe.

"I found the voice to be very difficult. We don't have much of her speaking in private. Whenever she's being interviewed on camera, she spoke in a very, very specific way. I'm not convinced that that's how she spoke in private with her husband. So that's not how I spoke in private with [Lowe]. I tried to incorporate her vocal stylings, taking into consideration the time, her time at boarding school, and her being incredibly nervous on camera. Also, I had to remember that she was a massive chain-smoker, which I am not," Goodwin told HuffPost.

Katie Holmes starred as Jackie Kennedy in "The Kennedys" and "The Kennedys: After Camelot." She channeled the first lady's iconic bob.

The first eight episodes were released in 2011 on the Reelz Channel. In addition to Holmes, the series starred Greg Kinnear as JFK and Barry Pepper as RFK.

"After Camelot," another two episodes, was released in 2017.

According to Racked, "Katie Holmes is as close as any actress (and there have been nine of them) has come to looking like Jackie Kennedy."

Jodi Balfour tried her hand at playing Jackie Kennedy in season two of "The Crown." She has similar eyes to the real Kennedy.

In "The Crown," the Kennedys show up in an episode depicting their one and only visit to Buckingham Palace.

Slash Film called Balfour's performance "more subtle, more believable" than her on-screen husband's, played by Michael C. Hall.

Jeanne Tripplehorn played an older Jackie Kennedy in the 2009 remake of "Grey Gardens."

The 2009 film is based on the real story of her aunt and first cousin, both named Edith Bouvier Beale — the documentary about their real lives was released in the '70s.

Here's the actual Lady Bird Johnson dancing with her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Johnson immediately succeeded Jackie Kennedy as first lady, and held the title from November 22, 1963, to January 20, 1969. She died in 2007 at age 94, outliving her husband by 30 years.

Jennifer Jason Leigh played Lady Bird Johnson in "LBJ" — she was hidden under makeup and latex.

In the 2016 film, her on-screen husband was played by none other than Woody Harrelson. The New York Times didn't recognize Leigh until she started speaking, the makeup was that intense.

In "Jackie," Beth Grant played Lady Bird Johnson. She was slightly older than other on-screen interpretations of the first lady.

Grant is best known to audiences now, probably, as Beverly in "The Mindy Project." She called getting to play Johnson "one of my life dreams."

Melissa Leo put her own spin on Lady Bird Johnson in TV film "All the Way." Her look was a bit more subtle, but she did resemble the first lady quite a bit.

Leo was nominated for an Emmy and a Critics Choice Award for her performance.

Felicity Huffman also played Lady Bird Johnson in "Path to War" — the take on Johnson's hair in the film was a touch extreme.

The 2002 HBO film starred Michael Gambon as President Johnson.

This is the real Pat Nixon.

She was first lady from January 20, 1969, to August 9, 1974, until her husband's resignation. She died in 1993 at 81 years old.

Joan Allen starred as Pat Nixon in "Nixon." She looks remarkably like the real Nixon.

The 1995 film starred Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon, one of the most embattled presidents of all time. Allen was nominated for an Oscar.

"On-screen, though, with brown contact lenses and Mrs. Nixon's blond bubble hair and taut posture, the similarity is startling," the Los Angeles Times wrote of her performance.

Patty McCormack played Pat Nixon in 2008's "Frost/Nixon." She also nails the distinct hairstyle.

McCormack's President Nixon was played by Frank Langella, who was nominated for an Oscar.

The real Betty Ford is pictured here.

Ford was in office from August 9, 1974, to January 20, 1977. After her husband was out of the White House, Ford co-founded the Betty Ford Center, a rehab, in 1982. It's still operational to this day.

She died in 2011 at 93.

Gena Rowlands' version of Betty Ford in "The Betty Ford Story" has longer hair than the real Ford.

Rowlands, who might be best known to modern audiences as the older Allie in "The Notebook," played the first lady in the 1987 TV film. She earned an Emmy for her performance.

This the real Nancy Reagan wearing her signature red suit.

The Reagans were in the White House from January 20, 1981, to January 20, 1989. She died in 2006 at age 94.

Jane Fonda played Nancy Reagan in "Lee Daniels' The Butler." She clearly resembles the real first lady with her perfectly coiffed hair and red suit.

Fonda was another star who appeared in "The Butler." Her on-screen was husband was played by Alan Rickman.

"I might not have always agreed with Nancy Reagan, but I admire her, and I'd never try to insert my views when playing her," Fonda told the Hollywood Reporter. "I tried to be who she was: a forceful, loyal, powerful first lady."

Holland Taylor played Nancy Reagan in "The Day Reagan Was Shot."

Taylor played the first lady in the 2001 made-for-TV film which centered around the crisis and chaos in the country after President Reagan was shot in 1981.

Judy Davis played Nancy Reagan in the 2003 miniseries "The Reagans." She looks less like the real Reagan than some of the others who have played her.

Davis played the FLOTUS, while James Brolin played POTUS.

This is the real Barbara Bush.

Bush was the first lady from January 20, 1989, to January 20, 1993. She and President George H.W. Bush were married for 73 years before her death in 2018 at age 92.

Ellen Burstyn played Barbara Bush in the 2008 film "W." She looks very similar to the actual woman.

In "W.," Burstyn mainly appears as the former first lady, as her son George W. Bush became president in 2001.

Here's the actual Hillary Clinton.

Clinton, 73, was first lady from January 20, 1993, to January 20, 2001 — but of course, she has continued to have a political career since then, as a US senator, the Secretary of State, and the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. 

Hope Davis played Hillary Clinton in "The Special Relationship." She has the distinctive Clinton bob.

"The Special Relationship" was released in 2010, and starred Dennis Quaid as President Bill Clinton. Both Quaid and Davis received Emmy and Golden Globe noms for their work.

This is the real Laura Bush — see the hair?

Bush, 74, was in the White House from January 20, 2001, to January 20, 2009. She remains one of the most popular first ladies of all time.

Elizabeth Banks played Laura Bush in "W." While the resemblance isn't too strong, Banks has the exact same hair as the real Bush.

Banks said, at the time, that she "just want[ed] to honor her voice, her stillness, and her hairstyle."

Here's Michelle Obama during her first year as FLOTUS.

Obama, 56, was first lady from January 20, 2009, to January 20, 2017. When her husband was inaugurated, they became the first Black president and first lady in history.

Tika Sumpter played a young Michelle Obama in 2016's "Southside with You."

"Southside with You" explores the very beginning of the Obamas' relationship — specifically, their first date.

According to the New York Times, "To prepare, [Sumpter] worked with a vocal coach to master Mrs. Obama's speech patterns, and watched videos to see how she walked and carried herself. "

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