Francesca Maria Barbara Donner (Korean: 프란체스카 도너; Peurancheseuka Doneo; June 15, 1900 – March 19, 1992) was the second wife of Syngman Rhee, and was the inaugural First Lady of South Korea, from 1948 to 1960.
According to birth documents, she was born Franziska Donner. She later used the spelling Franzeska Donner (even in official documents). Otherwise, the most common spelling of her name was the Italian form, Francesca. This version is used in all of her Korean documents (including her passport).
Early life and education
Donner was born in the municipality of Inzersdorf, which would be incorporated into Vienna in 1938. She worked at the League of Nations in Geneva as an interpreter, diplomat, and hostess. In 1933, she met Korean politician Syngman Rhee (Yi Seung-man 이승만) in a Geneva hotel. At the time Rhee was living in the United States, he was only on a visit in Geneva. He visited her shortly afterwards in Austria and asked to marry her. Donner followed him to the United States, and the marriage took place in 1934 in New York. For both, it was a second marriage.
Donner and Rhee lived initially in New York and Washington, D.C., and then in Hawaii, where a large Korean expatriate community-in-exile was politically active. Donner worked in the U.S. as Rhee's secretary, particularly in the preparation of the book Japan Inside Out (1940).
After the defeat of the Empire of Japan in World War II, Rhee returned to Korea in October 1945 with the support of the U.S. government; Donner followed him there a few months later.
In March 1948, Rhee was elected first president of South Korea, an office he held until 1960. "Francesca Rhee" was from 1948 to 1960 the first First Lady of South Korea. She appeared at her husband's side in almost all public functions.
When the Rhees were forced into exile in 1960, they settled in Hawaii. Donner cared for her husband after he suffered a stroke and until his death on July 19, 1965. She then returned to Austria.
After five years of residence in Austria, which she had left more than 30 years earlier, Donner returned to South Korea in 1970. She lived from 1970 to 1992 in Seoul, specifically in the Ihwajang, the former home of President Rhee, together with their adoptive son, Rhee In-soo (Korean: 이인수; Yi In-su) and his family.
Donner died on March 19, 1992, in Seoul, South Korea.