Used by permission from the Arizona Historical Society
“I think the American people … would welcome a plan that began to pay the bills as we go and in so doing relieve industry of the suspense and uncertainty that must be holding back the recovery program.”— Isabella Greenway, talking about issues facing Congress in 1935.
Isabella Greenway King was in her mid 30s when she came to Arizona in 1922. She was on her honeymoon, and it was her first real visit to the state. Just 10 years later she was so well known in Arizona that she was called “Arizona’s sweetheart.” She had made her name through business and civic activities in Tucson and as Arizona’s Democratic National Committeewoman and the state campaign chairman for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1933 she won a special Congressional election, thus becoming Arizona’s first congresswoman.
Isabella was born into a family that had wealth, fame and social standing. Nevertheless, her life was not an easy one; each corner she turned in life was marked by personal tragedy.
She was born Isabella Schnes on March 22, 1886, in Boone County, Kentucky. Her father, Tolden R. Selmes, was not a healthy man, so when Isabella was still a young girl, the family moved to a North Dakota horse and sheep ranch co-owned by her father and Theodore Roosevelt.
Isabella attended Chapin School for Girls in New York City, where she became close friends with Roosevelt’s niece Eleanor. In 1905 she was a bridesmaid in the New York wedding of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.
Not long after that, Isabella herself was married to a former Rough Rider, Robert Ferguson, who came from a wealthy and titled Scottish family. The couple had two children. With a family and a home in New York, Isabella must have thought her life was set. But in 1910 history repeated itself for her. Just as she and her parents had been forced to leave Kentucky because of her father’s health, the Ferguson’s had to move to New Mexico; Robert Ferguson had contracted tuberculosis.
The family homesteaded near Tryon and Isabella became active in state affairs, chairing the Women’s Land Army of New Mexico in 1918. Three years later, Robert Ferguson died, and Isabella moved her children to Santa Barbara, California. There she spent time with an old friend of Robert’s and another former Rough Rider, John Greenway. They were married in 1922 and Greenway, who managed the New Cornelia copper mine in Ajo, Arizona, moved his family there.
Greenway had developed a new method of refining copper that made copper mining more profitable. He was a wealthy and prominent man, one who could provide a comfortable life for Isabella and the children, including their son, John F. Greenway. Unfortunately, tragedy again struck Isabella’s life. In 1926, four years after they were married, Greenway died in New York from complications after surgery. Once more Isabella was left a widow.
Moving to Tucson with her children, Isabella turned her energy to business, operating the Double X Ranch near Williams and Gilpin Airlines, based in Los Angeles. In 1934 she built the Arizona Inn, an elegant Tucson resort often visited by the wealthy, the great and the famous.
Greenway had gained political experience serving as Democratic National Committeewoman and delegate to the national conventions in 1928 and 1932. She also played a decisive role in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s nomination to the presidency in 1932, seconding his nomination. She decided to run for Congress in a special election in 1933, with the support of newly elected President Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, her close personal friend. She won the election to fill Lewis W. Douglas’ un-expired term. She was re-elected for a second term by an overwhelming majority.
During her years in Washington, D.C., she was instrumental in obtaining protection for the U.S. copper industry from foreign producers whose low prices had forced the shutdown of some American mines. She worked to secure public health relief for transient families, fought cutbacks in veterans’ benefits, and, with the aid of New Deal funds, saw that homes were found for destitute families in Phoenix, Mesa and Casa Grande.
By 1936 Isabella was tired, however, and decided against a third congressional term in favor of going home to Tucson. She married Harry 0. King in 1939, and the couple made their home in New York City, returning to Tucson for occasional visits with her children. It was on one of those visits in 1953 that Isabella Greenway King died on December 18 at the age of 67.