Grace Coolidge, her White Collies, Coolidge Animal Love & Why JFK and Jackie Kennedy Liked Her: A Photo Essay

Rob Roy and the First Lady keep on dancing for the cameras.

Rob Roy and the First Lady keep on dancing for the cameras.

Any man who does not like dogs and want them about, does not deserve to be in the White House.

Calvin Coolidge

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.

The first official First Family photo to include a dog, taken on June 30th 1924: Cal, Jr., the President, Rob Roy, the First Lady, John Coolidge.

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.

The First Lady lets a homing pigeon fly free.

Grace Coolidge greets a horse after a race.

Mrs. Coolidge gives the horse a second pat.

The First Lady and her sons John and Cal, Jr. watching a seal being fed at the National Zoo, 1924.

The Coolidges on vacation in Upstate New York with Rob Roy and Prudence Prim.

President Calvin Coolidge With Rob Roy at the temporary White House on Dupont Circile, 1927

The President shows off fish he caught, a fact of equal interest to his dogs as his wife.

Grace Coolidge brings out her raccoon Rebecca her first – and last – public appearance at the White House Easter Egg Roll.

Grace Coolidge babies her Rebecca.

A firner grasp on the unpredictable raccoon.

Mrs. Coolidge brings Laddie Boy and Rob Roy to the 1924 Easter Egg Roll.

Grace Coolidge walks the Harding dog Laddie Boy, whom she foster-cared for a time, walks near the Lincoln Memorial; her Secret Service agent Jim Haley at far right.

Rob Roy with Mrs, Coolidge, with the Harding Airedale Laddie Boy, whom she foster-cared until he was adopted by a Secret Service agent.

Mrs. Coolidge helps Rob up.

Rob Roy ready to dance with the First Lady.

Rob Roy is right behind his mistress at a White House lawn reception for wounded World War I veterans.

Mrs. Coolidge dons a second white collie in the family, Prudence Prim, with a bonnet; Rob in the background seems disinterested.

There’s Rob again, as Mrs. Coolidge fills out an absentee ballot form, to encourage citizens to also do so if unable to make it to the polls in 1924

Rob Roy distracts himself while Mrs. Coolidge greets the “White Stamp” girl there to promote the fight against tuberculosis.

The Coolidges with Blackberry and Rob Roy.

Blackberry the chow with the President and Mrs. Coolidge.

The Coolidges and Rob Roy in 1926.

Rob Roy dances it up with the President as well.

Another shot of the President and Collie, dancing.

Prudence Prim on vacation with Grace Coolidge in South Dakota.

The Coolidge bring Rob out for a photo op.

Rob gives a look to the cameramen.

A good Rob sits, even making the President smile.

Rob can’t help dancing again with Grace.

President Coolidge defers to his dog, letting Rob dance with his wife.

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.

A far more somber First Family portrait, their last before leaving in 1929, this one also included Prudence Prim as well as Rob Roy.

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.

The Official portrait of First Lady Grace Cool...

Wanting her beloved Rob Roy to be remembered for posterity, Grace Coolidge posed with the white collie for her official White House portrait by famous illustrator of the era Howard Chandler Christy.

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.

Grace Coolidge meets John F. Kennedy, 1956.

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.

The Kennedys in front of the portrait of Grace Coolidge and Rob Roy, which Jacqueline Kennedy had hung in the Red Room before she later refurbished it.

The Kennedys in front of the portrait of Grace Coolidge and Rob Roy, which Jacqueline Kennedy had hung in the Red Room before she later refurbished it.

The Kennedys with their dogs: German Shepherd Clipper, Welsh terrier Charlie, Irish Wolfhound Wolf, Irish spaniel Shannon and two of the four puppies born to Charlie and the Russian Space Dog Pushinka, Blackie and White Tips. 

Jackie Kennedy was herself a great lover and companion to a lifetime of dogs.

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.”

Categories: Calvin Coolidge, First Ladies, Presidents and Animals, The Coolidges, The Kennedys

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16 replies »

  1. Love this! Wow! I never knew anything about Grace! So actually, Cal was the first POTUS with a Blackberry! Thank for the wonderful history!

    • Thanks – well, as time goes on it’s easy for people to forgot (or never be taught) about those like the Coolidges from the past; she was also a teacher of deaf children, with an interest ranging from sign language in the 1900s to electronic audial aids of the 1950s, a fact I believe which correlates with her great degree of sensitivity and patience. I appreciate your reading the piece and commenting!

  2. Darling, this one is just,awe, awe, superb,just superb, astonishing…as you know i intend to consider those amazing creatures my true real friends. What a beautiful rythem this whole story had… Absolutley one of your best ones. Bye bye now darling…watching you from above…and kindly thank you for bringing me back.

  3. So Amazing! Only you, could dig up a picture of two First Dogs, Laddie Boy Harding and Rob Roy Coolidge, owned by two different Presidential families! Such interesting little tid-bits— I never knew Mrs. Coolidge cared for Laddie Boy. I wonder why he didn’t stay with the Coolidges, permenately.

    • Thanks for that kind remark. From the few sources I found on Laddie Boy, it seems that Mrs. Harding had given him to her Secret Service agent Harry Barker. Barker remained working in Washington through the spring of 1924 but then was assigned to his home area in Boston, and he lived in Newton, Massachusetts with his family there – and that is where Laddie Boy went and where he died in the late 20s, I think 1928.

  4. I was wondering if you had some information on Charlie. I know that Joe Kennedy purchased Charlie in 1958. but would you happen to know from where?

    • I sure don’t – sorry about that Michelle. I do know he was still with the family as late as August 1963, from the pictures of them all at Hyannis, but then, I’ve never seen him show up in any other pictures. I’m not sure he came to New York with Jackie Kennedy and her kids in 1964. I know they had a brown cocker spaniel but no sign whatsoever of Charlie. Similiarly, I have wondered what became of the beautiful shepherd that belonged to the First Lady by the name of Clipper. The last image I saw of him was in late October 1963 at their Virgina mountainside weekend place. Perhaps the JFK Library has more information.

  5. Hi Carl,
    I am so glad that you have posted the video clip of Grace Coolidge’s first recorded speaking video. In this clip, it is apparent that she was a natural at speaking before movie cameras, more so than her husband “Silent Cal”. The first First Lady to do so. In this clip, Mrs. Coolidge was able to even use humor to get laughter from the audience, something her husband probably could not naturally do. I believe if she were a twenty -first century First Lady she would be a hit! Mrs. Coolidge’s still pictures and silent videos show only at tiny glimpse of her sunny personality, but the movie newsreel clip reveals that Grace Coolidge had a natural skill to connect with people, which her contemporaries had written and talked about in the Washington circle of the 1920’s. Sadly, this skill was sequestered in Silent Cal’s private world and not widely shared with the American people through the movie newsreels, radio broadcasting, or public audience speaking. As a result, Grace Coolidge has been lost in the annals of American First Ladies. She will always be remembered by White House guests and tourists as the lady in the portrait with the red dress and white collie, nothing more and nothing less.
    I would also like to know if there are any more talkie movie newsreels of Mrs. Coolidge and other First Ladies of that era? Are there any talkie movie newsreels of Edith Boiling Wilson, Helen Taft, Edith Roosevelt, and even Frances Cleveland? All of these ladies lived long after the use of talkie newsreels was common in American life. If so please post them, they would be gems for historians!

    • Marvin – thank you for such a full and appreciative message. I entirely agree with you about the difference it makes hearing and seeing Grace Coolidge speak, rather than just seeing her in photographs. I do have many other historical newsreels of early 20th century First Ladies but they must be transferred to digital and edited to a small degree (just blotches and other visual errors), and then placed into an article on the website here – and I expend all these hours and efforts without any compensation (yet!) so can only do so when I think there is some “free” time – but eventually all of them will be posted here. You can keep updated on these for free by signing up (you might have done so already)- I am trying to build the number of subscribers, which is one way I will be able to eventually justify the website as a good place for advertisers. In any event, I would also add that I found Mrs. Coolidge’s speaking voice to also be one of great clarity and without a trace of a regional accent – I believe her careful enunciation and articulation was a result of her training as a teacher of children who were partially hearing-impaired or unable to hear at all and taught to read lips. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  6. What charming pictures and an article filled with information new to me! The more I read of the Coolidges, the more endearing I find them. Grace truly seemed to exemplify her name. I’m happy to hear of the affinity the Kennedys had for her as well, always having been a great fan of Jackie. She was right about Mrs. Coolidge’s official portrait, its wonderful!

  7. Prudence Prim was bought by Calvin and Grace Coolidge from my Grandparents (Olive and Tom Shover), who were the owners of Shomont White Collies (Monticello, Iowa). The kennel named was derived from the last name “Shover” and the town in which they were located (Monticello), making Shomont. I have several pictures that were sent to my Grandparents from the Coolidges of them with Prudence Prim. I just wanted to correct the error. Rob Roy was from Wisconsin. My Grandparents provided dogs to P.T. Barnum for use in the Ringling Brothers dog acts.

    Thank you.
    Justin Shover

    • Thank you Justin – How great to have that clarification. I’m certain your eye is far keener at being able to distinguish between Rob Roy and Prudence Prim! I appreciate your making the time to leave the comment.

  8. Prudence Prim was purchased from Shomont White Collies (it was misspelled in your article) in Monticello, Iowa. My Grandfather and Grandmother (Thomas and Olive Shover) were the owners. They also sold collies to P.T. Barnum for use in the circus, which was where the Coolidge’s learned of Shomont White Collies (Sho=Shover; Mont=Monticello, Ia.). During that time it was the largest kennel in the world. My Mother and Father kept the kennels going through part of my childhood. I have numerous photos from the White House photographers that the Coolidge’s had sent to my family. They are prized possessions. I would be happy to share some with you if you’re interested. I look forward to seeing the corrections. Thank you very much.

    Justin Shover

    • PS – I went in and did make the correction. I imagine your grandparents might have sold collies to other founders of the famous circus other than P.T. Barnum, since he died in 1891 – unless they were breeding the dog as early as that time. Perhaps it was John Ringling, who was something of a society figure in Florida and a friend to several Presidents?

  9. That is truly a fascinating story – poignant even. I know there are all sorts of supposed claims of levels of intelligence based on dog breeds but I think it is a matter more of how much time and training and attention we give them. Thanks for sharing this bit about good ole Rob Roy. I don’t think it has ever been printed before. Certainly, I’ve never read it anywhere. Thanks


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