Any man who does not like dogs and want them about, does not deserve to be in the White House.
Few can question that Thomas Jefferson was the great gourmand to live in the White House. Jimmy Carter may be the most prolific to have lived there, even turning out a children’s book and holiday one. Among those who called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home, however, no other couple had a more abiding, intuitive love of those non-human beings we call animals than did President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge (August 3, 1923 – March 4, 1929).
For them, the numerous cats, dogs, and even raccoon were more than “pets.” Numerous still pictures and old newsreels show them focusing with what might be called a gentle respect for animals.
One picture, in particular, makes their attitude clearer than any words can.
So greatly did Calvin and Grace Coolidge want their white collie Rob Roy, to be seen by the nation as a literal part of their First Family that he was posed with them and their two sons, on the South Portico steps, the first time a White House dog was included in an official First Family photo portrait. No data was ever been taken to indicate just when American families began to consider dogs to be a genuine family member welcome inside the home, rather than as working animals be it to protect the house or heard the sheep. Certainly, the First Family portrait must have influenced their era’s pop culture and some attitudes about a dog’s role in a human’s life.
Taken on June 30, 1924, the image is all the more poignant: just after this picture, the two presidential sons changed clothes to play tennis on the lawn courts there. Sixteen-year old Cal (pictured at left) was in just a hurry, he didn’t wear socks. Running around in just sneakers, he developed a blister on a toe. It became infected and blood poisoning set in. In a day before antibiotics would have cleared his system of the spreading infection, Cal died just seven days after the picture.
As the following series of pictures show, in the nearly five more years she spent in the White House, with her son John away at Amherst College, Grace Coolidge became even more sensitive and overtly affectionate with animals of all sorts – and especially her great love, Rob Roy the white collie. Her natural warmth and gentleness is evident for not only animals but humans in this first of only three known recordings of her voice, made during a November 1929 newsreel she agreed to make on behalf of stamp sales to fight the “White Plague” (tuberculosis). Appropriately enough, one can hear a dog bark in the background. Often taking a dog along with her on short trips, it might very well be one of her canines, waiting in the wings off camera:
First Families are always sent animals as gifts without ever asking for them. The Coolidge were presented with a wombat, lion cubs, a pygmy hippopotamus, a mule, a bobcat, antelope, ducks, geese and a mare, among other creatures. When the Coolidges decided to keep a raccoon they were sent one Thanksgiving, they had no intention of killing it to be used in stew as the donors had hoped. Instead, finding it unusually docile, they named her Rebecca and kept her inside the White House. Presumably kept in a cage in the evenings, during the day she had a natural habit of tearing furnishings and clothes and after several months in residence, she was sent to the National Zoo.
While the Coolidges also had canary birds (Snowflake, Nip and Tuck) and cats (Tige and Blacky), they favored dogs. At different points in the Administration, the canine Coolidges counted a wire-haired fox terrier (Peter Pan), airedale (Paul Pry, allegedly from the same line as President and Mrs. Harding’s Laddie Boy), red chow (Tiny Tim), bulldog (beans), black chow (Blackberry), German shepherd (King Kole), collies (Calamity Jane, Ruby Rough, Bessie), and an English setter (Paulo).
It was after seeing a white collie perform in a circus shortly after she became First Lady in August of 1923, Grace Coolidge decided to have two of the breed come live in the White House. The one named Prudence Prim was purchased from the Shamont White Collie breeders Olive and Tom Shover in Monticello, Iowa. The second, from Wisconsin, came named as Oshkosh, but the First Lady changed it to “Rob Roy,” chosen with a bit of wit after the so-named famous alcoholic drink of that Prohibition era. The breed are sheep-herders by nature.
Throughout most of the Twenties, Rob Roy trumped all other White House dogs in terms of media publicity, frequently appearing with either the President or First Lady at numerous public events at the White House. Famous for chasing squirrels, Rob was allowed to sleep in the presidential bedroom and to join Coolidge on fishing excursions. Never comfortable in the White House elevator, he always pressed himself against the elevator floor for a sense of security.
Five months before the end of the Coolidge Administration, Rob Roy suddenly developed stomach torsion and was rushed into emergency surgery at Walter Reed Hospital. He did not survive, dying in September of 1928 having posed with the President, First Lady, John Coolidge and Prudence Prim just months earlier in their last official family photograph.
Before leaving the White House, while the First Lady insisted on having her famous white collie pose in her White House portrait, set against a blue sky, she debated whether to wear the bright red dress she finally decided on. The President, with his trademark dry wit, suggested she could still maintain a red-white-and-blue motif by just dyeing Rob Roy red, and wearing a white dress instead.
Despite belonging to different political parties, both John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy were ardent admirers of Grace Coolidge. The President, during his tenure as the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, actually came to know the former First Lady, when he agreed to help her fundraise for the Clarke School for the Deaf, where she had trained as a teacher of deaf children before her marriage, and where she resumed working as a board of trustee member after her husband died in 1933. Kennedy and Coolidge so got on, that he also agreed to serve on the Clarke School board.
Although Jackie Kennedy never met Grace Coolidge before the latter’s death in 1957, she declared the large and long portrait of her and Rob Roy to be her favorite, and even had it displayed for a time in the Red Room, despite the clashing red of the room’s wall color.
When asked if she would consider ever posing with one of the half-dozen pooches who shared the White House with her family, she mused that she could never just pick one from her canine menagerie to pose with.
She added a diplomatic afterthought: “I also just couldn’t bring myself to favor one of them and insult all the others.”
- The Cult Of Coolidge (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
- Calvin Coolidge On Our Foundations (samuelatgilgal.wordpress.com)
- Hot for Coolidge (slate.com)