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A Biography of the First Lady
By Julie Pace
By Darlene Superville
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The personal and political life of First Lady Dr. Jill Biden
From her earliest days dating Senator Biden, to her embrace of Biden’s young sons Beau and Hunter Biden and the birth of their daughter Ashley; her role by Joe Biden’s side through Senate reelection race after Senate reelection race; her years as Second Lady; to Joe’s successful third run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Jill has lived in the public eye. In this deeply reported biography, Julie Pace and Darlene Superville of The Associated Press, along with writer Evelyn M. Duffy, reveal some of the private sides of Jill Biden. We come to better understand her personality, which has held the Biden family together through tragedy and good fortune alike.
Dr. Jill Biden sat with the authors for three interviews in September 2021. We thank her for her time and candor. We interviewed many others, including family members, friends, and colleagues, both on background and on the record.
The summer after her junior year of high school, Jill Tracy Jacobs begged her parents for permission to relocate from Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, to work at the Jersey shore for a few months. When she got the okay, she and four girlfriends rented a house together and spent the summer in Ocean City.
It was 1968, and Jill was balancing the joys of youth with planning for the future. “When we were growing up, my parents didn’t give us a lot of money—because they didn’t have a lot of money to give us,” she said. “We weren’t spoiled in any way. So I realized early on that my parents could pay for college, but I would have to pick up a lot of the expenses.”
Jill got a job at a restaurant owned by one of her grandmother’s relatives called Chris’ Seafood, a dockside spot on the bay just off the Ninth Street Bridge, with a distinctive green fiberglass roof that had beach balls and American flags hanging from its rafters. The strong scent of fish caught fresh daily by the restaurant’s fleet of boats was ever-present.
Ocean City in those days was a small town whose full-time residents numbered only a few thousand. Recent construction of the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, and the Atlantic City Expressway made it easy for tourists from Philadelphia and beyond to visit for a day or weekend.
The town welcomed tourists but had long adopted conservative, family-oriented laws like a ban on all public alcohol consumption and blue laws that kept businesses closed on Sundays.
The Ocean City boardwalk boasted Shriver’s candy shop with its distinctive salt water taffy, Mack & Manco Pizza, and the amusement park rides at Gillian’s Wonderland Pier. Author Gay Talese, who grew up in Ocean City, said, “It was never a fancy place. It’s determinedly middle-class and conservative.”
Jill’s summer days went by languidly, filled with trips to the beach and walks on the boardwalk. Chris’ fed the staff dinner promptly at four p.m. “Then we’d waitress like till I guess nine thirty, ten. And then I’d go home, change my clothes, and like everybody else, we’d go out to a party somewhere.”
Jill didn’t have a bank account, so each night she’d come home to the rental house smelling of seafood and empty the cash out of the pockets of her blue apron into a bedroom drawer. She saved nearly all she made.
The pockets of that blue apron also gave her a place to stash food. Sometimes she’d save a lobster tail from being thrown out by tucking it away to eat later. Jill and her friends enjoyed their freedom and the easygoing nature of the shore—full of nice weather, fellow young people, and not much to do besides work, stroll up and down the boardwalk, and lay on the beach. “We dated the lifeguards. We’d date the guys who worked at the restaurants who were the cooks and flipped the burgers and made the sandwiches, and it was fun.” Occasionally she went out with a Marine she met in Ocean City.
It was a life removed from many of the worries the country was wrestling with in 1968. Racial tensions, war protests, the counterculture, and the women’s movement did not intrude.
A lot of the guys were surfers, including one Jill dated who made the sandwiches at Bob’s Grill. Jill decided to learn how to surf, buying a white board with a big butterfly on it. The sport didn’t come naturally to her, but the swells in Ocean City were the right size for a novice.
For Jill, it was also a summer that deepened her connection to the beach and the ocean. As a child, she’d run through the sand, her blond hair flying behind her. As an adult, the beach became a destination for celebrations with friends and family or quiet walks during moments of despair. “I have always had that vivid picture all my life of her sitting on the edge of the water and making sandcastles and collecting shells and running up and down and laughing,” her aunt Barbara Jacobs Hopkins said.
Childhood in Hammonton
Jill was born in Hammonton, New Jersey, on June 3, 1951, the first of Bonny Jean and Donald Jacobs’s five daughters. The Jacobses moved just over the state line to Hatboro, Pennsylvania, when Jill was a child, settling into a two-bedroom house that would quickly become crowded. Jill shared a bedroom with younger sisters Jan and Bonny. Three beds lined one wall and each girl had a dresser of their own. Her father worked at Hatboro Federal Savings & Loan.
The Jacobs family was part of a postwar population boom in Hatboro. Job opportunities in aviation manufacturing and a nearby naval air station drew many residents to the area. Hatboro was connected by train to Philadelphia and developed into a small commercial hub for the neighboring communities.
In the summertime, kids would pour out of all the houses to play outside. “You’d wake up, you’d eat your bowl of cereal, you’d run out the door, and you wouldn’t come home until the streetlights went on,” she recalled.
Her childhood was “really beautiful, idyllic,” Jill said. She characterized it as a cocoon-like Leave It to Beaver type of upbringing—she explored the woods, played with dolls, and voraciously read Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins books. Jill played Spring in the kindergarten play, joined the Brownies, and was later a Girl Scout. “One of the things that my parents created was a very safe and secure environment. I never really worried about anything as a child.”
Jill walked to school or rode her bike. “There were lots of houses, lots of kids.” Jill and her friends played at each other’s houses and in the woods. They played with dolls and played kickball and kick the can. She was never bored, and rarely watched TV. “There was just something going on all the time.”
A highlight of the year was Halloween, when the Jacobs family would pull out a big cardboard box filled with costumes—a time capsule of sorts from holidays past. There was a bee costume, a scarecrow, a gypsy. Jill and her sisters would head out with their Acme grocery store paper bags and trick-or-treat around their neighborhood until late at night.
Jill grew up surrounded by a sprawling, but tight-knit, extended family—grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins—who all lived nearby in Hammonton, where her parents had grown up.
Hammonton was an affluent farming town of about ten thousand people. It was especially known for its blueberries, but also grew peaches, strawberries, tomatoes, and grapes, which were often used to make homemade wine in the cellars of the area’s Italian families. The town had several clothing factories that produced high-end men’s suits, ladies’ coats, and raincoats for the military. Pharmaceutical labs manufactured and packaged pills on huge assembly lines. The population was mostly white, with periodic influxes of ethnic diversity through seasonal farmhands from Philadelphia and Puerto Rico.
Jill’s mother was raised on the more attractive side of town, where there were big homes with manicured lawns. Her father grew up on the other side of the railroad tracks that divided the city, which Jill described as “not the nicest part.” Hammonton’s cultural divide between Catholics and Protestants was deeper than that marked by the tracks. Each July, the Catholic festival of the Lady of Mount Carmel drew more than sixty thousand Italians to Hammonton, where they processed through the streets with statues of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other saints.
Jill’s father, Donald Jacobs, came from a blue-collar, immigrant family and had parents who worked at a furniture store and did home-care nursing. Donald left for Navy service in World War II at seventeen. As a signalman, he used flags, semaphores, and signal lights to communicate between ships, and transmitted Morse code with shuttered searchlights.
When he returned, he joined the eight million World War II veterans who received education or job training through the GI Bill, using it to go to business school in Philadelphia.
Hammonton’s Bellevue Avenue, about a third of a mile long, was lined with restaurants, shops, and ice cream parlors frequented by the teenagers who drove up and down the main drag. Seeing friends for pizza and vanilla floats was the thing to do. Godfrey’s Rexall Drugstore stood at one end of it. When Donald returned to Hammonton to work as a bank teller, he’d frequently stop in at Godfrey’s.
There he met Bonny Jean Godfrey, who worked the soda fountain. Her parents, Harold and Mabel Godfrey, owned the store; Harold was a pharmacist and Mabel, whom the family called Ma, was a teacher. Against her parents’ wishes, Bonny Jean and Donald fell in love. “They weren’t quite the Montagues and Capulets,” Jill later wrote, but something like them.
Howard and Mabel Godfrey were an unusual couple for the time in that both had gone to college, and they wanted their daughter to as well. They forbade her to see Donald, believing he wasn’t good enough for their daughter and didn’t come from a wealthy enough family. But unknown to the Godfreys, Bonny Jean and Donald had been secretly married for a year, eloping to Elkton, Maryland, and returning to live apart, before having a second, more public wedding that their families attended. Jill was born more than a year into the young couple’s second marriage.
Donald and Bonny Jean and their growing family stayed close with both sets of grandparents. But Jill grew up highly aware that her mother’s mother, Ma Godfrey, had a certain ambivalence toward her as the oldest grandchild, the glue that held Bonny Jean and Donald’s marriage together.
“My mother’s mother realized that there was no way she was ever going to get my parents to separate,” Jill said. “I had sealed the deal, my birth.”
Jill always felt there was an edge in Ma’s voice when they spoke. All the grandchildren talked back at times, but Jill noticed she was the only one who got a beating. “Ma wasn’t a warm woman, not with any of us girls, but her lack of affection seemed most pronounced with me,” Jill wrote. It was a bitter dynamic. “We all just ended up sidestepping her anger.”
Ma Godfrey never came around; she always believed that Donald wasn’t good enough for her daughter. For the rest of their lives, Jill’s maternal grandparents never found out about the elopement. “We all knew,” Jill recalled. “It was like a family secret that we knew, but we could not tell my mother’s parents.”
In the face of that adversity, Jill saw her parents’ marriage as the model for real love. “Give me a love like theirs,” she prayed. “Give me a family of my own.”
While their secret elopement showed a daring side to Donald and Bonny Jean, their home life after marrying hewed to tradition. Donald was a banker who would return from work in the evenings, settle into his chair, and read the newspaper. Bonny Jean was a stay-at-home mom, forging a close bond with her five daughters.
Every day, Jill would arrive home from school, come in the front door, and yell to her mom that she was home. “I can maybe remember twice in my life” that she wasn’t there, Jill recalled. “She wanted to be a mom, and she did a great job.”
Jill and her sisters Bonny and Jan were close in age; twins Kim and Kelly arrived when Jill was already in high school. There were the occasional fights between Jill and her sisters, but none of them had a contentious relationship with their mom. “We were all so close to my mother, every one of us,” Jill recalled. She once pranked her mother with this note as a child:
I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I hate you.
As a banker, Donald got off work right at five p.m. Some of Jill’s earliest memories are of waiting at the end of her street for his car. When he got there, she’d climb on his lap and he’d let her drive down the street to the house.
“I have all those really good memories of my father,” Jill said, but “fathers now are more involved with their kids’ lives.”
“Don’t disturb Daddy,” Jill’s mother would tell her.
They would watch Phillies games together on the black-and-white Philco TV.
On Sundays, her father would often take Jill and her sisters to the memorial for Hammonton’s World War II veterans, erected less than a year after she was born. The gray obelisk is carved with a likeness of an eternal flame and the insignia of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, and bears the names of men from Hammonton who fought in the war. Donald and his daughters would polish the bronze plaques filled with names of war veterans, including his own. “A constant source of inspiration to the living men and women of this community,” read the memorial.
Later Jill recalled, “It was a small thing that he could do—a communion with his brothers in arms, a way of honoring the bond that they had with each other and the sacrifice they made together.”
Donald was proud of his service as a Navy signalman in the South Pacific, and proud of his country. He always had a flag on the front lawn, and took the girls to parades. There was, Jill said, “a lot of patriotism growing up.”
Jill’s Aunt Barbara was fourteen years older than Jill, and loved spending time with her eldest niece. “She was kind of my little sidekick,” Barbara recalled. “She spent a lot of her years sitting on my hip because I would just tote her around and be with her, be close to her, talk to her.” They became more like sisters.
When Barbara was eighteen, she decided to take four-year-old Jill on a field trip in the new car her brother Donald had just helped her pick out. She took Jill out to the Pine Barrens and they walked around the ruins of Batsto Village—wandering through the grounds, smelling the magnolias, looking at the stream, and taking pictures of the collection of buildings built around an ironworks dating to the mid-1700s. Barbara investigated the cemetery’s old headstones, but Jill wouldn’t get close.
On the way home Barbara made a wrong turn and got a little lost. There were no cell phones, no way to call home to tell Jill’s parents they would be late.
“We got home and Jill’s dad really yelled at me. We were gone such a long time,” Barbara recalled. “He was so worried.… He was worried about this little girl. Her dad was overprotective, that’s for sure.”
It was Aunt Barbara who helped spark Jill’s love of education and her desire to be a teacher. After Barbara became a teacher, she would bring a young Jill to her classroom for visits.
Education, it turns out, would also become a bridge between Jill and Ma Godfrey, who had been a teacher for fifty years. Despite her lack of warmth toward Jill, she brought her granddaughter to her school as a girl, showing her the one-room schoolhouse where children were educated across multiple grades—one row for first grade, one for second, one for third, and so on. Jill sometimes would get to ring the brass bell that called the students to class.
Many of Ma’s students came from poor homes and Jill recalled every year her grandmother distributing coats, gloves, and scarves to students who needed them and pushed them to do their best. She particularly enjoyed reading to her students, pushing Jill as well to develop a fondness for books.
“That grandmother taught me my love of reading, I have to say,” Jill recalled. “She would give me a subscription to book clubs, and the Weekly Reader, I mean, all of that. Scholastic.” Some of her favorites were Nancy Drew, Mary Poppins, Old Yeller, and The Incredible Journey.
Jill, along with her sisters, also sometimes attended services with Ma Godfrey at her Presbyterian church. Her parents weren’t religious, but Jill found comfort in the dark wood and stained glass, and was touched by the music. “I loved listening to Ma sing the hymns in her strong alto,” Jill recalled.
Still, the relationship between Jill and her maternal grandmother never warmed, and Ma Godfrey never stopped making clear her disappointment with the marriage that led to Jill’s birth.
“You know, Jill, you’re not a Godfrey, you’re a Jacobs,” she would say.
It didn’t help that Jill took after her father in both looks and temperament. She had his family’s blond hair and blue eyes, and was built more like him than her mother. Her sisters looked more like her mother, brown-haired and brown-eyed.
Jill’s relationship with her father’s parents was the opposite. As the eldest granddaughter, and perhaps to make up for the chill on the other side of the family, Jill received royal treatment in the Jacobses’ home. Her grandmother “just was so warm and loving and welcoming,” Jill recalled. Jill would arrive at the house and her grandmother would rush down the steps, throw her arms around her, and kiss her.
As Donald moved through the ranks of local banks, the Jacobs family settled in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, a leafy, middle-class suburb north of Philadelphia. The area was famous for Willow Grove Park, an upscale amusement park that drew Philadelphians out to the suburb by trolley and bus. “Up there where life is a lark, you bet, it’s Willow Grove Park. Not far from Phil-a-delph-i-a, they’re happy and gay,” went its well-known jingle.
Though the Jacobses’ house wasn’t huge, it did afford the family of seven more space. Jill, now in fifth grade, finally had her own bedroom. A stream ran behind the house and quickly became a regular play area for the Jacobs girls and their extended family. “I always took a change of clothes because I knew for sure, without fail, that my kids were going to go into that stream and get all wet,” Barbara recalled.
On Sundays, Jill and her family would make the hour-long drive from Willow Grove to Hammonton for dueling family dinners, one right after the other.
“The grandmothers would compete against each other,” Jill remembered. “We’d drive through all the row homes in Philadelphia, over the Tacony–Palmyra Bridge, down the Black Horse Pike, and so I would stay with my father at his parents’ house, only me, and then my sisters would stay with my mother’s parents.” She never slept at her other grandparents’ house.
In the morning, a buzzer in her paternal grandparents’ kitchen would ring upstairs to wake Jill and her dad. Jill would go down to the kitchen and take in the scents of Italian bread and coffee. Her grandpop would sit at the table beside the toaster, dunking his toast in his coffee while her grandma made oatmeal. Jill would duck under the toaster cord to make her way to the table, where a cream donut and cantaloupe—her favorites—awaited. “I was treated special, like I was special,” Jill recalled.
The house was small and a little shabby, but it felt like home. Her grandparents kept photographs of Donald in his Navy uniform all over the house, and he once gave Jill his sailor cap while they were there.
Her grandfather loved to fish off the Seven Bridges Road. “My grandfather would come home with this big catch of fish,” Jill said. “I don’t mean like three. I mean like twenty. And all the fish would be all over the kitchen counters, all over the little back porch, all over the railing, on the back porch, these black shiny skins of black fish.” Her grandmother swore at her husband in Italian—the only Italian she knew was curse words—as he covered all the surfaces of their home with fish. “Maledetto!”
Her grandmother usually wore a housedress and an apron, and black shoes that laced up. Her knee was wired together—a relic of a car accident on an icy night in her twenties that had killed a friend of hers—but Jill remembers the beauty that still radiated from her. “She just had beautiful skin.”
It was in that tiny kitchen, with the washing machine sandwiched next to the fridge, that Jill’s Grandma Jacobs taught her how to cook. They would go shopping at the grocery store right across the street, which became Bagliani’s Food Market in 1959, for all the things they’d need for the evening. Bagliani’s remains to this day a quintessential Italian market with old-world staples and fresh produce. Grandma Jacobs’s family was Dutch and German, but after marrying Dominic—whose family name was changed from Giacoppa when his grandfather emigrated from Italy—she’d learned to “cook Italian like a champ,” her daughter Barbara recalled. She made her own noodles, “phenomenal chicken soup,” and canned vegetables from her large garden.
There would be flour strewn all over the little kitchen table. “We’d be rolling out the dough for pasta and cutting it,” Jill remembers. “And then she’d have the racks where we would put the noodles and the noodles would be drying. She’d be cooking braciole,” a flat steak made with chopped-up boiled eggs, parsley, salt and pepper, and bread crumbs. “And then you roll it up and you put the toothpicks in and then string to tie it,” and bake the rolled-up mixture in the oven with tomato sauce.
Braciole, meatballs, tomato sauce, handmade noodles—Grandmom Jacobs made it all, and she let Jill be a part of it.
“I could still picture Jill in the kitchen with my mom, laughing,” Barbara said. “And I remember her rolling the pasta, cutting it up for the chicken soup.”
The whole family would finally sit down to the meal together. “My mother would put out a feast for all of us to eat and laugh and talk, and it was a very warm and happy get-together,” Barbara said.
After eating with the Jacobses, Jill’s family would immediately head over to Ma Godfrey’s house for a second dinner. The Godfreys’ house, in contrast, was well-appointed and immaculate, with a perfect lawn and rose garden.
Ma Godfrey drew on her English Scottish heritage for Sunday dinner, serving roast beef with gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, and homemade coleslaw, followed by cake for dessert. Dinner was always served on Lenox china with the good silverware.
The double dinners made for hectic, full Sundays, and usually ended in a stomachache for all the kids.
Leader of the Pack
Jill’s family tradition at Christmas was to make Christmas Eve the big night. After a pasta dinner and bedtime for the kids, her parents would decorate the tree and then wake Jill and her sisters at one or two in the morning.
“Santa’s been here, Santa’s been here,” her parents would say.
Jill and her sisters rushed down the stairs and opened their gifts. Their exhausted parents soon headed off to sleep, and “we would pretend we were going to bed. But once they got in bed, I would wake up my sisters and we would go down and we would play with our toys like at three and four and five in the morning,” Jill said.
Christmas Day was spent with their grandparents. Her grandmom Jacobs’s house always had a small tree and stockings up. “No matter what else was in it, we always got the orange” in the toe of the stocking, she recalled, in remembrance of her grandparents’ experiences in the Depression, when fruit was scarce.
Christmas, like Sundays, came with the two grandmothers fighting their battles through the preparation of two full, separate dinners. An Italian feast at the Jacobses’ was followed by an American one at the Godfreys’.
Politics played little role in the Jacobses’ family life. Donald and Bonny Jean were Republicans, but they rarely talked about politics with their daughters.
“I wasn’t political, really, or I didn’t really pay attention to politics that much,” Jill said. “I wasn’t really wrapped up in the current events. You know, I was typically leading my own life.”
Still, there were moments that burst through.
Jill was twelve years old on November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald as his motorcade left downtown Dallas.
“I’m pretty sure it was a Friday,” she recalled correctly, nearly sixty years later. “I think I was in eighth grade. They called us all into the gym in our middle school and told us the news.”
The entire school gathered silently in the gymnasium. It was only a year past the anxiety of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when reconnaissance photos revealed that the Soviets had been installing nuclear missiles in Cuba—missiles that could kill millions of Americans within minutes—and President Kennedy scrambled military forces for a potential invasion. The students sat in shock, “and then they dismissed us all to go home on the buses.”
- "Up to date through late 2021, this is a satisfying, enlightening profile of a talented woman redefining the role of First Lady."—Booklist
- “Pace and Superville draw on memoirs by Jill, Joe, and Hunter Biden; published interviews, articles, and biographical material; and an interview with Jill herself to create an admiring biography of the first lady… The authors portray Jill as a devoted, practical, energetic mother and wife, able to juggle family life, public responsibilities, and teaching, to which she is wholly committed. In short, brisk chapters, the authors recount Jill’s busy, productive life: engaging in Joe’s presidential runs, supporting military families, and responding to family challenges, including the death of Beau Biden from brain cancer and Hunter’s problems with addiction. A fond portrait of a woman anyone would want as a friend.”—Kirkus Reviews
- "In Jill: A Biography of the First Lady, authors Darlene Superville and Julie Pace chart the story of Jill meeting Joe (and making him propose five times!), becoming a mother to Beau, Hunter, and Ashley, going through three presidential elections, and breaking barriers with her decision to work outside the White House."—Vanity Fair
- "With Jill: A Biography of the First Lady, AP reporters Darlene Superville and Julie Pace shine a light on the lifelong educator and Biden family protector."—Elle
- “Associated Press journalists Pace and Superville offer a deep dive into the personal and political life of first lady Jill Biden in this deeply reported biography of the woman who holds the Biden family together.”—USA Today
- “[Dr. Jill Biden’s] devotion and vigilance – often enacted publicly but deeply ingrained in her private self – are explored in depth…the book is extensively reported and features interviews with some of the first lady’s dearest relatives and friends.”—People
- “Jill: A Biography of the First Lady examines how Biden’s commitment to her work has defined the first family as much as her husband’s own political career and ambitions.”—The 19th
- On Sale
- Apr 19, 2022
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company