The new book, The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by former Bloomberg News reporter Kate Brower, is making waves.
The media dustup is not just over the book’s personal revelations about recent Presidents and First Ladies, but for the very fact that publishing stories culled from household staff members, is an egregiously unprecedented violation of executive privacy.
The Kennedy family members may be mortified by still more revelations of John F. Kennedy’s adultery.
Nancy Reagan may be upset at stories about her dominating her husband.
Bill Clinton may be furious at claims that Hillary volubly cursed him out.
George W. Bush may be embarrassed by accounts of puerile stunts he pulled to tease the staff.
Jimmy Carter may be furious that at reports that his sons smoked pot in the White House – and even more furious at his sons.
President Obama may be mortified by news that he sang along to Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” on his first Inauguration night.
If so, they are all in very good company, the likes of which include Dolley Madison, Lincoln, Grant, all the Roosevelts and every First Family since Harry, Bess and Margaret Truman.
In fact, tell-all memoirs by those who worked for or with Presidents and First Ladies is a rich, American tradition dating back a century and a half.
The first two published works of this genre were written by two African-American former slaves.
In 1865, Paul Jennings published his recollections of a harrowing moment in American history, the 1814 burning of the White House during the War of 1812.
A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison is a slim volume notable for its singular lack of bitterness towards this third slaveholding President and his wife.
Without indulging any slavish praise, Jennings had especial affection for Madison, having been held since he was only ten by the President and at his side until he died. Dolley Madison, impoverished as a widow, sought to sell Paul Jennings.
He was spared the potential of a hellish future if purchased for a hard-labor plantation in the Deep South when Daniel Webster stepped in to give Mrs. Madison the cash she needed and permitted Jennings to buy his own freedom. Despite this, Jennings said nothing overtly critical of her, dead for sixteen years by the time his book was published.
Or did he? In his account of her fleeing the White House when it was learned that British troops were advancing on Washington with the intention of burning the President’s House, Jennings left a detailed story which degrades Dolley Madison of her status as heroine for ensuring that George Washington’s portrait was safely removed from the mansion, lest the British take it as a central symbol of victory over the young nation.
In her 1868 memoirs, Behind the Scenes, Mary Lincoln’s seamstress Elizabeth Keckley revealed tender moments between the Lincolns, contradicting many of the nasty tales then being told about the assassinated President and his erratic wife.
Having also bought her own freedom from slavery before working for the Lincolns, Keckley believed that publishing some intimate letters between her and the former First Lady would help humanize her, but the presidential widow considered it such a violation of privacy that she permanently ended what had been an abiding friendship.
Keckley’s intentions indeed backfired. Rather than generate sympathy for Mary Lincoln it deepened the general public’s ambivalence towards her. Whether it was to denigrate Keckley for her race or the perception of her violating a code of Victorian privacy standards, her book was parodied by the publication Behind the Seams.
No other memoirs of those who worked for Presidents and First Ladies was published for the rest of the 19th century, but there were lots of staff members making notes.
In 1910, Through Five Administrations hit the nation’s bookstores. It was penned by Colonel William H. Crook a former White House bodyguard to Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, then made “Executive Clerk to the President” by Ulysses Grant, a job he held under Rutherford Hayes, James Garlfed and Chester Arthur.
Perhaps because he was able to offer an empathetic perspective on all six of these Presidents and their families, despite their great personal and political differences, Crook escaped press censure for printing some unusually intimate tales of them.
Crook drew a distinction between the large and loving Johnson, Grant, Hayes and Garfield families, lively and accepting of the fact that the public felt a right to know about their lives and activities with that of Chester Arthur.
A widower, Arthur was shown as practically paranoid in his protection of his young daughter from any press exposure, and strictly ensured that she not be seen in public and rarely even by the staff.
One of Crook’s colleagues, doorkeeper Thomas L. Pendel next published his memoirs,Thirty-Six Years in the White House in 1902. Covering practically the same range of Presidents as did Crooke (Pendel also had Cleveland, Harrison and McKinley),his book is less detailed or interesting and almost appears to be an effort of copying the format of the former’s work.
Three consecutive staff memoirs next appeared which broke new ground in not just disclosing the foibles of First Families but making harsh judgments on them.
Secrets of the White House, was published in 1926 by the recently-fired White House housekeeper Elizabeth Jaffray. The book had an especially petty tone, as she recalled anecdotes which showed little grasp of the unique pressures and anxieties under which the Tafts, Wilsons, Harding and Coolidges were functioning.
For example, she depicted Florence Harding as an agitated paranoid when a diamond sunburst pin was misplaced and jumped the gun to accuse someone on the staff of stealing it, Jaffray suggesting the item was a mere trifle.
She saved her most devastating depiction for President Coolidge, making the case that his efforts to save taxpayer money on entertaining costs were small-minded. So disgusted did he become with her disregard for costs that he had her fired, a fact believed to have fueled Jaffray into revenge authorship.
Even more hard-hitting and covering far more presidential families in detail was the 1935 book Forty-Two Years in the White House.
It was written by Irwin Hood “Ike” Hoover who headed up the entire domestic staff force as “Chief Usher” of the White House, a position he essentially created by the fact that he held the powerful job, along with that of usher and electrician for nearly half a century.
First coming to the White House as an electric company employee charged with outfitting the house with its first electric lights and an electric bell system, he was kept on by the incumbent President Benjamin Harrison to literally turn the lights on and off, because the Harrison clan feared electrocution of they touched any of the new technology the wrong way. Eventually taken on as an usher and then as the Chief Usher, he served Grover Cleveland during his second non-consecutive term, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt during his first six months.
Based on voluminous scribbled notes he made during his many decades in the White House, Hoover compared and contrasted Presidents and First Ladies for their cheapness, laziness, humorlessness, flirtations, and other elements which humanized rather than lionized them.
He gave especial attention to Woodrow Wilson, traveling with him to Europe during the Versailles Treaty.
He saved his most biting remarks for Edith Wilson, who is depicted as ruthlessly possessive of the President, and Herbert Hoover, who he found cold, distracted and cut off from reality.
When Hoover’s memoirs were published, former First Lady Grace Coolidge wrote to Lou Hoover with astonishment at how poisoned a pen the seemingly benign “Ike” truly was: her husband was depicted as peculiar and peckish.
In 1946 Starling of the White House; The Story of the Man Whose Secret Service Detail Guarded Five Presidents From Woodrow Wilson to Franklin D. Roosevelt was published by Edmund W. Starling, the first agent to go public with the story of what it was really like to protect a President, First Lady and their family members.
Starling gave especial emphasis to his work guarding Woodrow Wilson, recounting the private details of his courtship of then-widow Edith Galt and their hasty marriage, as well as their unprecedented journey to Europe for the Versailles Treaty negotiations and signing.
Starling had the extra benefit of seeing the First Family in their most private White House moments, but also on excursions away from Washington. He provided great detail about the 1923 transcontinental trip by the Hardings and their voyage to Alaska after which the President fell ill by seemingly suspicious circumstances, eventually dying in San Francisco.
He also depicted Calvin Coolidge as a stern, even harsh father. Starling really had the inside scoop on the First Son John Coolidge: the President forced Starling to become his son’s college roommate at Amherst and to keep a close eye on his activities.
Another such memoir which softened no edges in its revelations about the real human beings who served as national symbols was the 1949 “Dear Mr. President…” The Story of Fifty Years in the White House Mail Room, by mail clerk Ira R.T. Smith.
In his book, First Ladies were given no white-glove treatment: Nellie Taft was a nag, Florence Harding overbearing and Edith Wilson imperious.
His most devastating account was saved for snobbish Edith Roosevelt. Smith was the first to publicly disclose the friction between her and stepdaughter Alice Roosevelt and the harsh lengths to which she went to reprimand staff:
“Princess” Alice, as she was called, didn’t get along especially well with Mrs. Roosevelt, who was her stepmother. My sympathies were on Alice’s side. One reason was that I felt that Mrs. Roosevelt had a rather overbearing attitude toward the staff in general and, as a result of one incident, toward me in particular.
I played baseball in college and have always kept up with the game. Several of us had a habit of playing catch on the White House lawn during the luncheon hour….The first time we did it after T.R. came in, Mrs. Roosevelt looked out the window and was shocked to see young men with their coats off disporting themselves on the lawn. Mrs. Roosevelt called the office and told off Rudolph Forster, the executive clerk, who assured her that it would not happen again. She was not satisfied, however, and she telegraphed to the President, who at the time was out in Yellowstone National Park. T.R. replied that a reprimand was being dispatched, but that still wasn’t enough. Mrs.Roosevejt felt that we ought to be deprived of our annual leave. The President eventually agreed with her and issued the order, but when the time came it was not enforced.
Smith’s book went further than any previous White House memoirs by making the distinction between a President as a private person and public persona. He said this about Coolidge:
Calvin Coolidge appeared to the voters as a shrewd, unruffled New Englander who kept government waste down and business profits up, but at home he rambled restlessly from cellar to attic fussing with petty details, and sometimes seething with suppressed irritability when he found something wrong.
And this about Taft:
To the public he was a fat, good-natured, smiling man whose administration was not especially good and not especially bad. But inside the White House he was unhappy; his feet hurt, he overate, and he often fell asleep and snored at his desk.
The Ira Smith book, unlike those previous memoirs spilling the beans about Presidents and First Ladies in their most intimate of moments, created some media controversy about just how much right the public had to knowing such truly personal details, there seemed to be a backlash against such publications.
Although the White House never forbid any staff members from later publishing their recollections, something of a code seemed to fall among the staff.
In fact, before publishing what became the next in the early series of White House staff memoirs, White House butler Alonzo Fields asked Harry Truman if he was comfortable with this. Truman encouraged Fields.
And in Fields’ 1961 book, My 21 Years in the White House, 1961, the Trumans both came off well.
In it, the butler recounting how they met in private, behind firmly-shur doors the 1945 night before the President decided to drop the second atomic bomb, on Nagasaki.
Although he did not explicitly credit Bess Truman with advising the President to do so, he certainly suggested that she did.
What may be the most significant aspect of the Fields memoirs is that he finally, overtly addressed the hypocrisy of serving the leader of world democracy while he himself was treated as a second-class citizen due to his race, a black White House servant separated from the white ones:
“We all worked together, but we couldn’t eat together. . . . Here in the White House, I’m working for the President. This is the home of the democracy of the world and I’m good enough to handle the President’s food—to handle the President’s food and do everything—but I cannot eat with the [white] help.”
More revealing in a chatty format was Backstairs at the White House, published in 1961 by former White House maid and seamstress Lillian Rogers Park.
Park’s chronicle reached back to include stories from her mother Maggie, first employed under Taft as a maid, and concluding with the author’s own employment history at the White House into the last days of Eisenhower.
Franklin Roosevelt is shown as warm and accessible, even during the most strenuous days of World War II, always insisting that Parks, who had polio and relied on crutches, ride the presidential elevator with him, since he was confined to a wheelchair by the same affliction.
Notably, in the Parks book, Florence Harding is finally presented not as a caricature but as a warm, if excitable person, nervous about her husband’s romantic interests outside of their home.
She detailed the moment when Mrs. Harding leaned over the banister and shouted at the President within earshot of the staff that she knew about a girlfriend of his and demanded that he not “leave this house tonight!” He did anyway.
Lillian Parks had also felt ambivalence about going ahead with her book, but was strongly encouraged by Eleanor Roosevelt to do so for the sake of history. The Parks book, however, left Jacqueline Kennedy, who’d just become First Lady at the time of its publication, paranoid about maids and plumbers noting her every cigarette enjoyed in private.
She made the White House counsel draw up documents for all the staff to sign, promising they would not violate the Kennedy family’s privacy.
It was not legally enforceable, however, and the first to violate it was her own personal secretary Mary Gallagher, though the book covered the period before and after the White House.
Ironically, one person Jackie Kennedy failed to remember to ask to sign the pledge not to write a book was the one man on the domestic staff with whom she maintained an especially affectionate relationship, White House Chief Usher J.B. West.
In his 1973 book Upstairs at the White House, West seemed to have genuinely liked all of the First Ladies he served – Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and, briefly, Pat Nixon.
Still, between the lines one got a sense of his true feelings towards them as people: Lady Bird Johnson was gracious but a bit “protected” in a “bubble” she created around herself in which she never seemed to drop a folksy front. Bess Truman was funny, but remote. Eleanor Roosevelt was described in her legendary yellow rubber bathing suit, padding her wet feet across state floor carpeting.
He also made clear that despite their maturity, Harry and Bess Truman had an active sex life, once breaking the bed.
A bed was also shared by the grandparents Ike and Mamie Eisenhower, and she once awoke in the morning to find out that during the night what she thought had been a a bedside jar of nasal ointment to clear her sinuses was actually an open canister of ink.
The next morning, everything from her Mamie Pink bedsheets to the shining, bald head of the President were covered in ink spots.
Mamie Eisenhower came across as demanding yet effusively generous. He recalled her many admirable tactics on how to save the government money while getting new curtains for family rooms and how to fund a redecorating at Camp David.
He also made clear how strongly Mamie Eisenhower disapproved of “that girl,” meaning the young Jackie Kennedy who succeeded her.
Although West remained close to Jacqueline Onassis until his death in 1983, he was not above revealing her sarcastic quip when she found another woman’s undergarments in the presidential bed and waved them at the President asking him to find out who they belonged to – because they weren’t her size.
More directly, the matter of John F. Kennedy’s flagrant adultery was spelled out with anecdotes by none other than the White House dog keeper Traphes Bryant in his 1974 memoir, Dog Days at the White House The Outrageous Memoirs of the Presidential Kennel Keeper.
He also included somewhat embarrassing moments such as Pat Nixon being knocked to the ground by the family’s Irish setter dog, Richard Nixon’s frequent calls to have the dogs brought out to him for photos ops, to humanize the perception of his presidency.
By then, however, the floodgates had long been opened, and there was an ever-growing list soon published of tell-all memoirs written by the full gamut of those who had worked for Presidents and First Ladies, East Wing to West Wing, chefs to florists, pilots, designers, doctors, press secretaries, and social secretaries.
What is the ultimate affect of such books? At the time of publication, one finds these White House staff memoirs often dismissed as gossip – especially by those loyal to particular Presidents and First Ladies who object to anything whatsoever unflattering about them being made public. As the decades pass, however, such works have proven to have incalculable value as background or to verify other accounts and dates.
In fact, there is great historical value to such books if only for the fact that such works reveal and force us to never forget what our leaders truly are, first and foremost.