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The Hidden Talents of 24 U.S. Presidents

You'll never guess what these presidents secretly did in their free time.

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George Washington was a dancer

Before he became our nation’s first president, Mr. Washington danced the night away at countless parties and balls, often with a new leading lady on his arm. Don’t miss these 11 facts about George Washington you never learned in school.

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Thomas Jefferson was an architect

President Jefferson wasn’t just a founding father; he was also the “father of national architecture.” He contributed to plans for the first government buildings in Washington, D.C., designed the University of Virginia, and oversaw construction of Monticello, his 5,000-acre plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Andrew Jackson was a master of duels

The war vet was a gunslinger even off the battlefield. He’s said to have fought up to 100 duels in his lifetime and was shot multiple times. In 1806, the future president killed Charles Dickinson in a duel after he cheated on a horse bet and insulted Jackson’s wife. Here are 44 fascinating facts about America’s first ladies, too.

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John Tyler was a musician

Being the 10th president of the United States wasn’t his first career choice. Tyler originally studied to become a concert violinist before switching to law and eventually the presidency, where he is said to have played violin at many White House parties.

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James K. Polk was a lover of brandy

President Polk was a sickly child, but he earned his tough-guy chops when, at the age of 17, he had urinary stones removed (while wide awake!), with brandy as his anesthetic of choice.

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Franklin Pierce had a supercharged memory

Pierce was the first president to recite his inaugural address from memory. He gave his entire 3,319-word speech without a single notecard. For more presidential trivia, check out these 12 surprising facts about the White House you missed in history class.

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Abraham Lincoln was a bartender

Long before he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln co-owned a tavern in Illinois. But his booze business was short-lived when the store fell into debt; Lincoln soon abandoned the pint glasses for law books.

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James Garfield was ambidextrous and multilingual

Double is no trouble for President Garfield. As if being a lefty wasn’t neat enough, Garfield could write with both hands at once—Greek in one hand and Latin in the other.

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Chester A. Arthur had expensive taste

Known as the “Gentleman Boss,” Arthur had elegant taste and an appetite for the finer things. But his passion ran up a big bill: he regularly hosted lavish, 12-course feasts at the White House, owned more than 80 custom-made suits, and took an ornate horse-drawn carriage to all of his social engagements.

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Jimmy Carter was a speed-reader

If reading were an Olympic sport, this president could be a national contender. After enrolling in a speed-reading course with his wife, Carter could read 2,000 words per minute with a 95 percent comprehension rate.

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Theodore Roosevelt walked on stilts

When Teddy wasn’t saving national forests, you could probably find him teetering around the White House on wooden stilts. It’s said that every member of the Roosevelt family owned a pair, including the First Lady!

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Woodrow Wilson was a singer

The founder of the League of Nations understood harmony long before his presidency. While attending the University of Virginia, Wilson sang tenor in the college’s glee club.

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Warren Harding was a titan on the tuba

Although he claimed to play almost every musical instrument out there, Harding’s specialty was the sousaphone, a tuba that wraps around the body to make it easier to carry in marching bands. Residents of the White House often saw him picking up an instrument to join the Marine Band’s rehearsals.

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Herbert Hoover was a drunken songwriter

Here’s some fascinating presidential trivia for you: In the late-1800s, as a 20-something gold-mining engineer, Hoover reportedly wrote a love song for an Australian barmaid. It is now displayed at the Australian hotel where they met.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an unwitting screenwriter

A fan of paperback mysteries, FDR pitched an idea for a mystery series to his magazine editor friend. The story was written by six writers and published in serialized form in 1935. One year later, FDR received writing credit when the series was turned into a motion picture.

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Harry Truman was a persuasive pianist

Despite practicing for hours each day and dreaming of a career as a concert pianist, Truman had questionable talent on the piano—and admitted it himself. After returning from Europe, he joked at a Missouri county fair performance, “When I played this, Stalin signed the Potsdam Agreement.”

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Dwight Eisenhower was a painter

This five-star general didn’t start painting until age 58, but once he began copying images from magazines and photographs he was unstoppable. He eventually branched out to landscapes and portraits, completing more than 300 original works of art over his lifetime.

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Lyndon B. Johnson was a radio DJ

It’s said that while he was governor of Texas, Johnson used his wife’s inheritance to buy a radio station. Over a few decades, the family business became worth millions and it’s still around to this day—the station is now called KLBJ-FM, one of the Southwest’s leading rock stations.

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Richard Nixon was a music junkie

Forget Watergate and prepare yourself for this bombshell. Nixon could play saxophone, clarinet, accordion, violin, and piano, and even wrote his own compositions. But here’s the kicker: He couldn’t read a lick of sheet music.

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Gerald Ford was a fashion model

As a male model in his late 20s, President Ford was featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan in 1942. His modeling career eventually led Ford to his future wife, Elizabeth Bloomer, who was also a model. Ford isn’t only known as a president and model. He’s also made a name for himself as a lousy tipper. Here are 13 other surprisingly frugal habits of past presidents and their families.

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Ronald Reagan was a sportscaster

Before his claim to fame as a movie actor, Reagan began his career as a radio sportscaster. He was paid $10 per game, plus transportation expenses—a far cry from his $11 million-dollar salary as an actor just 10 years later.

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Bill Clinton is a master of crossword puzzles

Clinton could solve the New York Times crossword in ink within minutes while simultaneously carrying on a serious political conversation. He even wrote clues for an NYT crossword called “Twistin’ the Oldies” in 2007. These are the 8 perks U.S. presidents get to keep after leaving office.

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George W. Bush is an amateur artist

After retiring from the presidency in 2008, Bush replaced his cowboy hat with a paintbrush. Now, his paintings are on display at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, sporting oil portraits of everyone from Vladimir Putin to Angela Merkel.

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Barack Obama is an award-winning author

As if winning the Nobel Peace Prize wasn’t enough, the 44th president is beloved in the pop culture world, too. In 2007, he won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for his memoir, Dreams From My Father. Don’t miss these 52 astonishing facts about U.S. presidents you never knew about.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Brooke Nelson
Brooke is a tech and consumer products writer covering the latest in digital trends, product reviews, security and privacy, and other news and features for

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