White House Halloweens: Jackie Kennedy, FDR, Reagan, Hillary & More in Costume

A Skeleton Band plays a mirthful dirge on the North Lawn of the White House, Halloween 2009 (Getty Images)

(Photo Gallery of Presidential Families in Costumes follow below this essay)

Halloween has been celebrated in the United States at parties for well over a century, but not until the 1950s did it go entirely mainstream with mass-produced costumes for children and packaged candy to give them as treats. So it was true among Presidential First Families.

During the 1950s, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower became the first known White House resident to officially mark the holiday by having the state floor rooms decorated with ghosts, goblins, spider, skeletons and cobwebs. In fact, during her large luncheons held at that time of the year, she had the State Dining Room outfitted with Woolworth paper skeletons hanging from the chandelier, paper black cats and witches placed around the tables and carved pumpkins as centerpieces. In some rooms, she had orange light-bulbs replace clear ones to cast a ghostly shadow and color for atmosphere. In the Cross Hall, she wrapped the stately white columns in orange and black crepe paper streamers and had bales of hay and cornstalks parked alongside them.

Mamie Eisenhower had the State Dining Room decorated with paper Fifties Halloween decorations for a 1956 autumn luncheon. (Eisenhower Library)

A few years later, in the early 1960s, the annual holiday celebration coincided with the White House residence of the very young children of the President and Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline and John who thus became the first First Daughter and First Son to mark Halloween in the old mansion.

Jackie Kennedy in her Halloween costume of a garment bag, walking to the West Wing.                                         (more images of her below)

But their mother, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy loved the holiday too – and became the first First Lady known to have dressed up in an adult costume of her own for a White House Halloween.

In 1962, she took a large black garment bag, cut out two holes for eyes and put it over her head.

With black stockings, black boots and black gloves, Jackie managed a few moments of anonymity even in the White House, welcoming the President’s sister Jean Kennedy Smith (who copied Jackie’s costume and wore a red garment bag) and her son Steve, in the allegedly haunted Lincoln Bedroom, along with First Daughter Caroline Kennedy.

Then the four went down the elevator from the family quarters and walked out along the West Collonade to the Oval Office where the kids “scared” the President.

Every First Family since the Kennedys has hosted a Halloween event of some kind, whether it was a private party for friends and family or a large Halloween party for local children on the South Lawn or in the state rooms.

During the 1990s, the Clintons held an annual Halloween party which they anticipated with delight, inviting friends, family and staff members, to help celebrate First Lady Hillary Clinton’s October 27 birthday in costume. President Bill Clinton was an especially good sport – becoming the Chief Executive who dressed up in more annual Halloween costumes than any other before or since.

A Halloween skull in the Blue Room near John Tyler’s portrait.

Long before, the children and adults who’ve called the White House home were planning and premiering their costumes on the annual Halloween holiday, however, they were wearing elegant eye-masks, disguises, turbans, hats and other bits of costuming for annual winter masquerade balls. Traditionally part of Carnival celebrations these were hosted just before the Lenten season began, usually coinciding with Valentines Day or George Washington’s Birthday, which Presidents once marked with elegant dance parties known as “the Birthnight Ball.”

Julia Gardiner Tyler, in the first photograph ever taken of an incumbent First Lady.

The exuberant dancer who popularized the polka, Julia Gardiner Tyler, in the first photograph ever taken of an incumbent First Lady.

The first documented costume party held at the White House was hosted by President John Tyler on February 22, 1844.

Widowed only seventeen months at that point, the 54-year old President became so smitten with the 24-year old debutante Julia Gardiner of New York, she recalled, that he chased her around tables and even abruptly asked her to marry him. She noted that she wore a Greek folk costume and that, in turning down Tyler’s proposal, she shook her head while repeating “no, no, no” so rapidly that the tassels of her cap swiped across the President’s face. They eloped four months later.

Tyler’s extensive First Family all liked dressing in costumes, apparently.  The first documented White House children’s costume party took place two months before the first hosted for adults, a December 1843 birthday celebration for the President’s granddaughter Mary Fairlee Tyler.

All  the invited children guests were dressed in different outfits and costumes, the party overseen by the elderly former First Lady Dolley Madison, the widower President and his daughter-in-law (Mary’s mother) Priscilla Cooper Tyler, who was then serving as First Lady (an engraving shown below).

A giant spider hanging over the North Portico.

Twenty-five years later, the outgoing President Andrew Johnson hosted an 1869 costume ball for his five grandchildren who had lived with him in the White House during his incumbency. The belle of the ball was none other than Belle, daughter of the President’s own daughter Martha Patterson, who served as the public First Lady for her mother Eliza Johnson, who suffered from mild tuberculosis (Belle Patterson in costume is shown below).

Although William Howard Taft and his wife First Lady Nellie Taft had enjoyed dressing up as the Doge and Dogess of Venice (the medieval role of governor of the once-independent state of Venice before the nation of Italy was created) for a Carnival Ball they hosted while he was the U.S. Governor-General of the Philippines, once they entered the White House five years later, in 1909, they held no costume party.

Performer in a bubble at the White House 2009 Halloween Party.

It was a century and a decade after President Tyler costume party before one of his successors hosted another one; this time it was the January 1934 birthday party of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dressed as the “Delphic Oracle” and First Daughter Anna Roosevelt came as a water nymph.

All other guests were expected to appear in ancient classic costume, and the rooms were filled with New Deal aides and advisers dressed in togas and Roman guard costumes.

Of course, none but the President would dare appear as the infamous dictator himself, Julius Caesar.


Presidential First Families in Costume at Halloween & Other Parties

Former First Lady Dolley Madison, her grandfather President John Tyler and her mother, surrogate First Lady Priscilla Tyler behind her, Mary Fairlee Tyler’s 1843 birthday party marked the first White House costume party.

Belle Patterson, President Andrew Johnson’s granddaughter who lived in the White House, costumed as “Lady Columbia” in red-white-and-blue.

William Howard Taft, his wife Nellie Taft and their son Charlie at their 1904 costume party themed Carnival in Venice.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Roman Emperor, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt behind him at left, First Daughter Anna Rooevelt Dall behind him at right. (see description above (FDRL)

Caroline Kennedy with her brother while their father the President works behind them, Halloween 1963.

President Kennedy with his son and daughter Caroline and John on Halloween 1963.

First Lady Jackie Kennedy (in black), First Daughter Caroline Kennedy, Presidential sister Jean Kennedy Smith (in red) and her son Steve, Halloween in the Lincoln Bedroom 1962.

Jackie Kennedy in back suitbag costume (far right) watches her daughter Caroline and nephew Steve Smith scare President Kennedy in his office, 1962.

Lynda Bird Johnson hosted a 1965 costume party for friends.

First Lady Lady Bird Johnson (second rom left) and First Daughter Luci Baines Johnson (fourth from left) at a costume party 1966.

Tricia Nixon welcoming her Halloween Party guests on the North Portico in 1969.

Tricia Nixon with White House staff members in Halloween costumes, 1969

Gerald and Betty Ford during his tenure as Vice President stepping out of their Alexandria, Virginia home for a costume party, 1973.

President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Fist Daughter Amy Carter, and the President’s grandson James Carter, at Halloween on the North Portico; guests entered the party through a massive pumpkin at the front entrance, 1977.

The President and Mrs. Carter and First Daughter Amy Carter, Halloween 1977.

Simple as it was, President Reagan didn't fail to find a way to mark Halloween one year.

Simple as it was, President Reagan didn’t fail to find a way to mark Halloween one year.

The President and Mrs. Reagan at her 1983 Wild West costume birthday party, their son Ron looking on.

First Son Marvin Bush wears a Halloween mask depicting his mother Barbara Bush – with the real Barbara Bush on the 1992 campaign plane.

George and Barbara Bush with daughter-in-law Margaret welcome Halloween guests to their 1989 lawn party, the President’s grandson next to the First Lady.

President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton as James and Dolley Madison at their 1993 Halloween party in the East Room.

The Clintons at their 1994 Halloween party, dressed as 1950s motorcycle tough and bobby-soxer with radio personality Kasey Kasem acting as emcee.

The President and Mrs. Clinton costumed as country-western singers at their 1995 Halloween party for Hillary Clinton’s annual birthday.

George W. Bush picks out a pumpkin in the fall of 2004.

The pets of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush pose on the Blue Room balcony for a Halloween 2008 card, left to right, Miss Beazley, Willie the cat, and Barney.

First Lady Michelle Obama dresses as a catwoman on Halloween at the White House. (Reuters)

The President and Mrs. Obama, First Daughters Malia Obama (as Morton Salt girl) and Sasha Obama, director Tim Burton and actors depicting Alice in Wonderland characters at the 2009 White House Halloween party. (burtonland.au)

The Obamas hand out Halloween treats in 2009 at the White House.


Categories: First Families, First Ladies, Presidents, The Bushes, The Carters, The Clintons, The Kennedys, The LBJs, The Nixons, The Obamas, The Reagans, The Roosevelts, U.S. Holidays

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11 replies »

  1. What a treasure trove of photos! I love this post and hadn’t seen a single one of these photos before. I so hope you can keep this website going. It is also a treasure.

    • Val – Thanks for the vote of confidence. I do try to bring out new images and story angles, or those forgotten – especially when it credits someone who gave society something but has been essentially lost. The search and discovery proves compelling for me to use time I could be expend towards earning to instead just “contribute” in a sense. Perhaps this a a stupid decision on my part. But I believe it also ultimately focuses my storytelling and writing skills (I hope it does). These sorts of pieces were once a staple in major national newspapers and magazines so maybe people will discover the site. Do share it with those you believe might enjoy it – and thank you for writing.

  2. What a fun collection of photos! I love this stuff. :)

  3. I confess, even though they were probably the most simple of the costumes, I prefer the costumes worn by JFK’s family. Those tacky plastic masks with the tacky outfits that looked like pajamas remind me of when we were kids too. Yes, many of the others were much more fancy, but the simplicity of childhood is best displayed in the Kennedy kids, IMHO. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Well they certainly offered the easiest answer for parents – and they also gave kids a chance to dress as the hottest kiddie celebs of the moment..usually cartoon characters or kiddie show heroes….off course the masks might have been from synthetic materials but really the “mask” is still and has been since ancient times the best way to most thoroughly assume a different character. Thanks for the observations Lisa – I agree with it.

  4. Thank U Carl: This was truly a “treat” of a history lesson. Mamie Eisenhower once again blew me away with her originality! Who would think this most “straight laced” appearing of First Ladies had it in her to celebrate Halloween in such a joyful manner. I read your description B4 seeing the pix, and I’m glad I did, or I would have missed some of the great detail. It’s a bit more formal looking than most Halloween celebrations, at 1st glance, but once U take into account all the details & work she put into this. One of these days, I’m going to have to give my Mamie Eisenhower books higher priority. As U know, some historians choose to leave her out of WH antholgies because they felt she was “irrelevant” and just too inactive. That arrogant ‘tude re Eisenhowers seems more & more like a dis-service to this great couple, as I learn more about them.

  5. That’s Barnabas Collins, Jonathan Frid, from the original Dark Shadows with Tricia Nixon. (He just died last April.) How cool it must be to be the President’s daughter and be able to have a command performance from your favorite tv celebrity.


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