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Backstairs Gossip and Mischief

I’m loyal to doing my job for the family, but I’m going to go back and say, “Do you know what they did today? I can’t believe they said that!”


The staff is discreet, but they’re also human. They naturally swap stories over lunch, not only sharing important information but also bonding over the incredible events they witness and, sometimes, the inherently funny situations they get into.

One of Social Secretary Bess Abell’s favorite stories involved the White House china. In 1966, the Johnsons decided to order a new china service. Lady Bird worked closely with designers from Tiffany & Company and the manufacturers Castleton China to create designs that reflected her commitment to the beautification of America’s roadways and parklands. The dinner plates feature an eagle, and the borders of each plate were decorated with different American wildflowers. The dessert plates showcased the state flower of each of the fifty states.

When the china finally arrived it was breathtaking, Abell recalled—except for the dessert plates. The state flowers were ugly and unformed. “They looked like puppies had squatted in them.” She laughed, as though she’d seen them just yesterday. At the time, though, it was not so funny. She was horrified. Abell ran to show them to J. B. West. (West was a favorite of both Abell and Jacqueline Kennedy. “He was divine,” Abell recalls. “He made the best frozen daiquiris—one of the reasons he and Mrs. Kennedy got along so well!”)

West’s daiquiris, she said, “fueled one of the great little extravaganzas” at the White House. Because standards required that anything that was not perfect would have to be destroyed, a set of replacements were ordered—and then the staff found a clever way to destroy the faulty plates. Instead of throwing them in the Potomac River (a longtime graveyard for broken White House china), they decided to have some fun. Abell, West, and a few others went down to the bomb shelter with the plates—and a pitcher of daiquiris. They hung bull’s-eyes on the wall with the names—and in some cases caricatures—of their least favorite West Wing staffers and threw the plates at them.

“It was better than a Greek wedding.”


IN 1975, FORMER residence worker Traphes Bryant became one of the first insiders to expose Kennedy’s now-famous philandering in a book. Most of the workers had known about it at the time, but they had resolved to keep the secret to protect the institution of the American presidency. According to the Kennedys’ press secretary, Pierre Salinger, the workers were explicitly asked “not to engage in publicity which might adversely reflect on the White House as a national monument.” And, though he said he never signed a nondisclosure agreement, Carpenter Milton Frame remembered: “We were told not to talk to the press or the news media when I was hired.” Another staffer was asked to sign a piece of paper the day he retired that said he wouldn’t write a memoir until a grace period had passed—the White House suggested a whopping twenty years.

As Bryant’s book revealed, President Kennedy took advantage of his wife’s long absences. She spent as much time away from the confines of the White House as possible, preferring to retreat to Glen Ora, a four-hundred-acre farm they leased in Virginia’s horse country. (They later built a house nearby that she named Wexford after the county in Ireland where the president’s ancestors came from.)

When she was away, the president liked swimming nude in the heated indoor White House pool, built in 1933 as part of President Roosevelt’s therapy regimen to treat his polio. Kennedy often rendezvoused there with his female paramours, some of whom worked as secretaries in the White House. When he noticed male residence workers peering in at the pool through the glass door, he demanded that the door be frosted. (The president would ask the cooks to prepare some food and drinks—small sausages with bacon and daiquiris—and then dismiss them for the rest of the day. The sausages were kept in a portable warmer and the daiquiri pitcher was chilled in the refrigerator so guests could help themselves. “I can take care of it,” he’d tell the kitchen staff.)

Once, a staffer was asked by an usher to fix a problem with the pool. Since that kind of work was usually saved for times when the first family wasn’t around, the residence worker assumed that no one would be there. When he opened the pool door, he was shocked to see Kennedy adviser and close friend Dave Powers sitting by the pool—naked—with two of Kennedy’s secretaries. The mortified staffer ran out and immediately assumed he would be fired. Nothing was ever said about the incident, however, and the story would remain a family secret for years.

The residence workers knew that when Jackie Kennedy was away the second floor was off limits. One night, though, it slipped Bryant’s mind when he took the elevator to the third floor to check on an appliance. The elevator stopped at the second floor accidentally. “I could hear lovey-dovey talk,” he said. Another colleague saw a naked woman walking out of the kitchen when he went upstairs to see if the gas was turned off. “When Jackie was away, riding the elevator was hazardous duty,” Bryant recalled.

Everyone backstairs raised an eyebrow when they heard one female political staffer giving her family a tour of the second floor. When she got to the president’s bedroom, she “pretended she didn’t know where it was and had never seen it before.” In fact, she’d been there many times.

Bryant never told anyone outside of the White House—not even his wife—about Kennedy’s affairs while the president was still in office. But downstairs they couldn’t help but gossip. They needed to know how to conduct themselves, and sharing stories helped them figure out which hallways to avoid.

Johnson too generated gossip among the staff. He liked to corner the prettiest girl in the room at a party and try to kiss her on the cheek. By the end of the night he’d often have lipstick marks on his face. An embarrassed Lady Bird, who was sometimes in the same room, would plead with her husband, “You’re wanted over there, Lyndon. You’re neglecting some of your friends.”

Rumor had it that Johnson even “inherited” two female reporters from Kennedy. “He would mention one or the other to me as ‘all woman’ or ‘a lot of woman’ and even accord them the ultimate compliment he ordinarily reserved for his favorite dog, Yuki, telling me they were ‘pretty as a polecat,’” Bryant wrote. In a sign of the times, Lady Bird stoically stood by as her husband flagrantly humiliated her in public.

Ironically, Johnson was a possessive husband. One day Bryant, who was originally hired as an electrician, was told to go to Lady Bird’s room and install an extension cord for her manicure table. The outlet was behind a dresser where the first lady happened to be sitting. Bryant had to lie on the floor almost underneath her to plug in the cord.

Johnson walked in just as he was getting up off the floor. The president’s mouth was “wide open” and he had the expression of “a jealous husband.” Bryant stammered: “Mr. President, I was just putting in an extension cord for Mrs. Johnson’s manicure table.”

Lady Bird seemed to enjoy turning the tables for once.


SOMETIMES WHITE HOUSE guests want to bring a piece of history home with them.

Usher Skip Allen worked during state dinners, monitoring the south end of the State Dining Room to make sure no one’s wineglass was empty. He always had a service of silverware and extra napkins at the ready, so that if someone dropped a fork he could appear almost instantly with a new one. And every now and then he noticed a guest surreptitiously slipping something into a handbag.

The help never asks someone directly whether they have taken a piece of china or silverware. They usually shame them into handing it over by playing dumb and asking politely. “When you pick up the plate, you ask for the knife and the fork, and if it’s not there I say, ‘Oh, maybe you dropped it.’ We look around on the floor and they usually say, ‘Well, here it is!’”

As Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe assistant, Anne Lincoln helped schedule hair appointments and buy clothes before she was promoted to head housekeeper and assigned to the impossible job of keeping food costs down. During the Kennedy administration, she says, stealing a piece of Camelot was common. By the end of one luncheon, she recalls, they were missing fifteen silver teaspoons, two silver knife dishes, and four silver ashtrays. “People come here with the idea that this is their property, so they just help themselves.” She remembers one occasion when the soft-spoken first lady got aggressive. “One night she saw one of the guests slip a vermeil knife into his pocket,” she said. After dinner, but before the guests had left, she asked Maître d’ Charles Ficklin to count the vermeil silver services. When Charles reported that a knife was indeed missing, Mrs. Kennedy went right up to the stunned guest and asked for the knife back. He handed it to her without hesitation.

Jackie knew how a dinner table should be set and how a gourmet meal should taste, but she had no idea how to cook herself; Lincoln never saw her go into the kitchen to fix dinner or a late snack. President Kennedy was also hopeless in the kitchen. “The president loved soup before he went to bed and we have a can opener up there on the second floor—and I think it took him about eight months to learn how to use it,” Lincoln said. “I don’t think [the first lady] knew how to use it either.” The butlers would laugh about it with Lincoln the next morning: “Oh, the poor president had trouble with the can opener again last night.”

In mid-October 1963, a few weeks before her husband’s assassination and shortly after the loss of a son named Patrick who was born prematurely that summer, Jackie called the chief usher into her bedroom. “Oh, Mr. West,” she whispered in her childlike voice. “I’ve gotten myself into something. Can you help me get out of it?” She had invited a princess to stay overnight on the second floor, but she and the president decided they wanted some time alone instead. The devastating loss of their son had brought them closer together than ever. “Could you help us cook up something so we can get out of having her as a house guest?” she begged.

Jackie devised an elaborate ruse to get out of hosting. She told West to make it look as though the Queens’ and Lincoln Bedrooms—the only two fit for royalty—were still being redecorated, so that her guest couldn’t possibly stay at the White House.

“Her eyes twinkled, imagining the elaborate deception,” West wrote.

West called Bonner Arrington, Reds’s brother, who worked in the Carpenter’s Shop, and gave him the game plan:

“Bring drop cloths up to the Queens’ Bedroom and Lincoln Bedroom. Roll up the rugs and cover the draperies and chandeliers, and all the furniture. Oh yes, and bring a stepladder.”

Next he called the painters and asked for six paint buckets for each room, including two (empty) buckets of off-white paint in each room. And he asked for a few dirty paintbrushes. He also brought in ashtrays full of cigarette butts so that it would look like a crew had been hard at work. In a testament to the White House residence staff’s hierarchy and mutual trust, no one involved in the intricate scheme asked questions.

When she arrived, the princess was treated to a tour of the residence by the president. JFK pointed to the paint cans and drop cloths in the Queens’ Bedroom, “This is where you would have spent the night if Jackie hadn’t been redecorating again,” he sighed dramatically.

The next morning the first lady called West, giggling, to thank him. “The president almost broke up when he saw those ashtrays.”


THE ARRINGTONS WERE just shy of their sixtieth wedding anniversary when Reds passed away in 2007. “We had a good life,” his wife, Margaret, says fondly.

The stories he told her span his thirty-three years as a White House plumber working for seven presidents; she clearly loves recounting them, as they help her to keep his memory alive. Some of them involve presidential quirks—such as JFK’s habit of asking Reds to fill his bathtub up with water the night before so that the next morning he could save time by just topping it off with hot water. Or the time when the Kennedys’ nanny, Maud Shaw, called Reds in a panic after accidentally flushing John-John’s diaper down the toilet.

Before his death, Reds did an interview recounting the time when he almost caught the wrath of Lyndon Johnson—and his job was saved only thanks to the intervention of Johnson’s valet. One night Reds was working late on LBJ’s infamous shower pumps, fixing them with pipe dope, a material used to tighten and seal pipes. The next morning he got a call from Johnson’s valet.

“Reds, you and your men better get up there and clean the showerheads out. When the president got out of his shower this morning, he had blue pipe dope all over his back.” He added, “I haven’t said a word to him. I just took a towel and kind of patted him dry.” But the president liked to get a massage every morning, so his valet had to call his masseuse to warn him not to say anything when he saw the president’s blue-stained back. “Don’t ask him, ‘What’s all this stuff’ on his back,” the valet instructed. “Just take something, alcohol or something, and just kind of clean him up. Because if he knows that there’s pipe dope on his back, all the plumbers are going to be fired.” Reds was thankful that Johnson never found out, and he went on to work several more years at his beloved White House.

Reds told his wife that when Queen Elizabeth II came to visit, the plumbers had to build a chair that would fit over the toilet seat for her majesty—almost like a throne. “Reds just said that was really a ‘royal flush!’” She giggled.

When the queen came to visit Washington in 1976 she was already such a frequent guest that most of the residence staff were completely unfazed by her presence. Just before the white tie state dinner, the Fords, following tradition, met the queen and Prince Philip at the entrance to the Diplomatic Reception Room. They escorted the royal couple to the elevator, on their way to spend a few minutes in the residence to chat before dinner.

As they waited for the elevator to take them upstairs, it suddenly opened to reveal the president’s twenty-four-year-old son, Jack Ford, in jeans and a T-shirt—hardly appropriate attire for a royal greeting. Without missing a beat, the queen turned to Betty Ford and said: “Don’t worry, Betty, I have one of those at home too.” She was of course, referring to her son Prince Charles.


ON DECEMBER 21, 1970, in a scene that could never happen in today’s age of heightened security, an unlikely guest stopped by the White House for a surprise visit. That was the day that Elvis Presley asked for an impromptu meeting with President Nixon (he had a bizarre request: he wanted to be sworn in as an undercover Federal agent), and ended up in the middle of a small office party by mistake.

Bill Cliber and a group of other staffers were singing “Happy Birthday to You” to one of the curators when he looked up to see Elvis and his bodyguards standing in the doorway of the tiny Ground Floor office.

“I just wanted to say happy birthday!” the country’s most famous entertainer said.

The room went silent, mouths agape.

“Everyone was dumbfounded,” Cliber recalled, still shaking his head in disbelief.

A minute later, a White House police officer tapped Presley on the shoulder and asked if any of his bodyguards was carrying a gun.

“Yeah,” Presley replied.

“Could you leave it with me while you go see the president?”

“Sure,” Presley said casually. “Ralph, give him your gun.” Somehow Presley snuck in a Colt .45 pistol, which he gave the baffled president as a gift.



Maid Ivaniz Silva spent most of her time in the family’s inner sanctum on the second and third floors of the residence. Usually things ran like clockwork, with the maids keeping track of when the president and the first lady were off the second and third floors so that they could go in and work without disturbing them. But one evening things did not go as planned.

Usually the White House assigns around four maids to work in the residence: two in the morning and two in the evening. One day, Silva, now seventy-six, was in President Reagan’s bedroom after 5:30 P.M., turning down the bed and closing the curtains. But when she went into the bedroom’s sitting room, she couldn’t believe what she saw: the president, sitting there reading the newspaper, without a stitch of clothing.

“I walk in the sitting room and there he was, naked, with the papers all around him!” she said. She rushed out of the room blushing before the president had time to say a word. He must have been as surprised as she was.

Later, she passed him in the hallway. Reagan looked at her with a twinkle. “Hey, who was that guy?” he asked.

“I don’t know, sir,” she said, laughing shyly.

Silva is still bemused by the incident. “He knew I saw him naked, so he had to say something.”

Reagan may have been a bit embarrassed, but by most accounts he was fairly comfortable being naked, even when it may have unnerved the staff. About a month after Reagan’s inauguration, Usher Skip Allen had finally completed his training and was cleared to work alone. On one of his first solo shifts he received an eyes-only package that had to be brought up to Reagan immediately for his signature.

Allen went up to the second floor in search of the president. He was nowhere to be found so he tracked down Reagan’s valet to ask where the president was.

“He’s in there,” the valet said, pointing to a closed door. Allen knocked.

“Who is it?” Reagan shouted.

“It’s Skip Allen from the Usher’s Office. I have an eyes-only package for you.”

“Come on in.”

When he opened the door, Allen realized it was the president’s bathroom. Reagan was just coming out of the shower.

“All he had on was a skim of water!” Allen remembers.

“Bring it over here,” Reagan told him. The president signed his name and Allen went back downstairs.

Not long after, at around nine o’clock that same night, another eyes-only package came for the president. Allen was told that the president and first lady usually went to bed at nine o’clock, but he had no choice; he had to interrupt them.

He nervously went upstairs to track down the president again. This time he saw lights on in the Reagans’ bedroom. His hands shaking, he knocked on their door.

“Who is it?” Nancy Reagan asked.

“It’s Skip Allen from the Usher’s Office. I have a package for the president.”

“Come in.”

Just then, the president was coming out of his dressing room wearing only his underwear.

“Oh, Ronnie, you could at least put on a robe,” Nancy scolded him.

The president looked at her. “Oh, Mommy,” he said, using his pet name for her, “don’t worry about it. He’s already seen me naked once today. We’re old friends.” They all burst out laughing.

The Reagans’ son, Ron, said that his parents’ relaxed, unselfconscious nature around the staff probably made working there easier. The Reagans were used to having housekeepers around, and they never worried about what the help thought of them. “It’s hard to be in the position of a butler, or someone like that, if the person who you’re trying to serve is very self-conscious about the fact that you’re there. But my parents were not.”

Ron also acknowledges, however, that his parents’ nonchalance could be interpreted as dehumanizing the staff. “It says they don’t count, because they aren’t worth making someone feel self-conscious.” There does seem to have been a distinction between the Reagans’ cavalier attitude toward the staff and George and Barbara Bush’s equally comfortable but more respectful attitude toward them. When President Reagan stopped and chatted with workers, it was usually to talk about himself or to make a joke. The Bushes would ask workers about their families and express concern about the amount of time they spent with them at home, recognizing that they enjoyed a life beyond the White House gates—a gesture that may not have occurred to the Reagans.

Some White House stories take on a different light in retrospect. Toward the end of Reagan’s presidency, one butler recalls, he saw the president unaware of what was happening around him at a crucial time. “The movie star was the president,” he said, “and I was working down in the kitchen. The next thing I know, I looked around and smoke was coming out of the vents.” A butler working on the fireplace had forgotten to open the damper, so smoke was billowing back into the room Reagan was sitting in. “I heard the fire truck and people came rushing in and ran upstairs to the second floor.”

Not long thereafter, one of the firefighters, a woman, came back downstairs, laughing. “What’s so funny?” the butler asked her, surprised that she wasn’t more concerned.

Barely able to answer through her laughter, she told him: “Do you know the president was sitting up there as if nothing was going on? Just watching TV, reading his newspapers.”

“He didn’t even realize,” the butler recalled.

At the time, no one knew that the president may already have been suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. In the moment, it seemed like just another quirk of a president who was rarely flustered in the eyes of the staff.


SOME OF THE most enduring gossip comes from staffers who cannot get along with each other. Working at the White House can sometimes create big egos and foster big personalities. Many of the staffers who get hired, especially as chefs, are highly accomplished professionals who consider themselves the best at what they do. This kind of competitive spirit can lead to professional rivalries—the most glaring recent example being the open feud between Executive Chef Walter Scheib and Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier.

Eleven years of working side by side did nothing to diminish the animosity between the two men, which they feel just as acutely now, a decade after they both left the White House. Mesnier, now seventy years old, was hired by the Carters; Scheib, ten years his junior, was hired by the Clintons. They disliked each other so much that they often refused to discuss the dishes they were preparing. Scheib would simply hand Mesnier the weekly menus so that Mesnier could plan accompanying desserts. Scheib admits that he’s less gregarious than Mesnier and runs his kitchen more like a military commander. (“If I wanted friends,” he says, “I’d go volunteer at a youth group.”) Mesnier, who presents his creations with gusto, is an artistic Frenchman who gave all of his colleagues a cake of their choosing each Christmas, making dozens and dozens of fruit cakes, stollen, and pound cakes each year. (“The staff were not just other workers for me,” he says, “they were my family.”)

Scheib scorns Mesnier for his books and television appearances, which he sees as spotlight-hugging. “He has made himself bigger than the families, and this is unfortunate.” Mesnier claims that the comparatively trim Scheib (who looks more like a business executive than a chef) was hired because he’s attractive and articulate, a good spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s campaign to promote healthy American cuisine. “Walter and I, we did not get along because I knew he couldn’t cook,” he says dismissively.

“The ushers would joke that if Roland and I were spotted having a beer somewhere everyone should fall down on their knees and pray because the apocalypse is clearly upon us,” says Scheib.

Mesnier did show great affection for Scheib’s predecessor, French Chef Pierre Chambrin, but the Clintons fired Chambrin after he refused to exchange his heavy French menu for a healthier one featuring American cuisine. Hillary Clinton wanted to promote healthy American food, especially as she embarked on her effort to revamp health care. But Chambrin said the real reason he was let go was about appearances, not cuisine. “I am French, I am fat, and my English is terrible. I didn’t fit the profile they wanted to show to the American people.”

For the Clintons, Chambrin told me, “food was fuel” and nothing more. “From the beginning, I knew I was doomed with the Clintons. I did what they wanted. I even tried to please them with no butter, no fat, make the menu without French words. But how do you say sauté without using the word sauté, for instance?”

Chambrin hated the Clintons’ casual relationship with food. Unlike the Bushes, the Clintons wanted to eat in the kitchen. “When we changed from the Bushes to the Clintons, we went from the rich to the grits.”

When Scheib was hired as Chambrin’s replacement, the cramped Ground Floor kitchen became an incredibly uncomfortable place to work. Chef John Moeller started working at the White House soon after Mesnier got his own small pastry kitchen and says without a hint of humor, “If he had stayed in that main kitchen and worked with us side by side, there might have been blood.”

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