When I set out to host a party with the theme "the First Ladies' Favorite Drinks," I never guessed that there was so little useful information about these most important of American women. You can read about every dirty little deed that Presidents Kennedy, Jefferson, and Eisenhower committed (however fantastic), but it seems that nary a word is written about the First Ladies' slightest improprieties.
And, like powerful men, powerful women struggle, too. We DO know that Betty Ford fought addiction -- but Betty, herself, made this information known through her own public admissions. Nancy Reagan is notorious for making many of her decisions (and those of the President) with the assistance of psychics and astrologers. And, enough has been written about Mary Todd Lincoln to be quite sure that she endured the demons of depression. But, what of Dolley Madison, Eliza Johnson, Lou Hoover, Caroline Harrison and the rest of the ladies who stood by their husbands through what I can only imagine was one of the most challenging times of their lives? Were these partners strong and powerful, or did they suffer from loneliness, revel in their independence, support their husbands' platforms, or think their husbands revolting idiots compelling them to imbibe a bit more than was First Lady-like?
I didn't set out to get "dirt" on these women -- I simply don't think drinking a cocktail is dirty. I did want to find out who these women really were, why they were the wives of presidents, and what their actual lives -- not the lives portrayed in the history books -- consisted of. I wasn't terribly successful. I did manage to find a very useful book, however, which in polite terms described the lives of the second Roosevelts, the Trumans, Eisenhowers, Kennedys, Johnsons, and the first few weeks of the Nixon administration. The story was told through the eyes of J. B. West in the book Upstairs at the White House: My Life With the First Ladies. West was retired from his position as Chief Usher of the White House when he wrote this book with Mary Lynn Kotz in 1973. And, while the real personalities of the First Ladies have most likely been softened by his politic telling, West gives us some insights into who these women were.
West describes Eleanor as a woman whose hands were never still; if she wasn't writing essays and letters, inevitably, she was knitting. "She must have scribbled a million notes during her years in the White House -- notes which had all the legibility of a doctor's prescription." (West 27) She never ate alone and would often cook scrambled eggs at the luncheon table as her invited guests looked on. Eleanor believed in exercise, and would encourage her staff to walk, square dance, or do calisthenics; the First Lady chose horseback riding. West describes her with awe in the final days of the Roosevelt administration:
"formal and distant with her staff, [she was] kind and warm to people everywhere. And she accomplished so much. None of us had the tenth of her energy." (West 48)
Does she drink? I don't know. None of the books listed at the end of this essay tell us. Does it matter? Maybe not, but at a time when drinking and smoking were not perceived as dangerous and addictive as today, why didn't this information make its way onto the pages of a book that describes the First Lady walking around the White House in her yellow bathing suit and barefoot, looking for some staff member to post her mail?
Harry and Bess Truman, according to West, were quiet, modest people who "looked pitifully lost" in the White House. (West 57) He later describes Bess in much more attractive light -
"easy to work for…there'd be no problem getting along with this very down-to-earth, personable lady. She was correct but not formal, hesitant but not indecisive… [and a] keenly intelligent, well-educated, politically experienced person." (West 58, 77)
West seems impressed by her midwestern nature -- she was natural, not impressed by cosmetics or clothing -- and hers was the closest family that West worked for in the nearly 30 years in which he headed up the White House staff.
Because Bess suffered from high blood pressure, their diets were rather Spartan; her condition required a no-sodium diet high in protein and low in calories. The Trumans "shunned rich sauces and desserts." (West 73) At the end of the workday, however, the Trumans always enjoyed a single drink before dinner.
West tells a story about how the White House staff learned the tastes of the Trumans. Shortly after they had moved in, the Trumans asked the butler to serve them two old-fashioned cocktails. The drinks were served with fruit garnishes and a dash of bitters. No comment was made that night, but the following evening when ordering their old-fashioneds, Mrs. Truman asked that cocktails be made drier. "We don't like them so sweet."
Cocktails made from a new recipe were concocted, but again Bess said nothing. The next morning, however, she confided in West, "They make the worst old-fashioneds here I've ever tasted! They're like fruit punch!" That evening, the butler -- whose pride was hurt after hearing this news -- "dumped two big splashes" of bourbon over ice for the Trumans. This time, Mrs. Truman "beamed. 'Now that's the way we like our old-fashioneds!'" (West 75)
While he doesn't go so far as to say it, all I can think about Mamie Eisenhower is that she must have been -- gosh, how do I say this -- CHALLENGING (to say the very, very least). Now, not having known her personally, I can't swear by this assessment. Nor have I ever been a great judge of character. But, it is all I can do to wonder how the General stayed married to Mamie. (There are some pretty well-accepted rumors that he didn't stay as faithful to her as she might have liked, actually.)
Where do I get off writing this way about a First Lady? Well, from Mr. West's book, of course. Here are a few little tidbits that lead me to believe that Mamie wasn't the most kind and generous of the First Ladies.
"Mrs. Eisenhower's personal maid stood beckoning to us from the East Lady's bedroom door. Mr. Crim and I walked into the room and stopped in our tracks, both assuming our deadest deadpans to hide our surprise. For Mrs. Eisenhower was still in bed! …we managed to say 'Good morning,' as Mrs. Eisenhower pushed away her breakfast tray. She was wearing a dainty, pink-ruffled bed-jacket and a pink satin bow in her hair. 'I'd like to make some changes right away,' she said, lighting a cigarette and surveying her new quarters." (West 129-130)
Did Mamie drink? There is no question that she enjoyed a tipple, but it has been rumored that she was a heavy drinker. I don't think so. She, like Bess and Harry, enjoyed bourbon old-fashioneds, but rarely had more than one before she, the President, and her mother enjoyed dinner on TV trays in front of the television in the West Hall.
Much is already known about this favorite of the First Ladies. Classy, beautiful, stoic and strong, with a knowing, intelligent smile, Jackie has found a place in the hearts of women around the world as the veritable Queen of America. Rightly so. Not only did she raise two children who loved her into their troubled adulthoods, through a marriage wrought with infidelity and which ended in tragedy, but she was also the in-law to a family that I can only imagine was imperious and haughty.
Jackie, herself, was bred in wealth to love fine things -- and most had "French" in their description -- French champagne, French clothing, French food, and French antiques. But she did a great deal to make the White House an American museum. And this was her legacy as America's favorite First Lady. She assembled a group of advisors called the Fine Arts Committee with the purpose of locating "authentic furnishings reflecting the history of the Presidency of the United States, furnishings that that were both historically accurate and of museum quality." (West 242) By the time she left the White House in December 1963, Jackie Kennedy had obtained large quantities of historic furniture, antique tapestries, and over 150 celebrated paintings (including five life portraits of early presidents). She also managed to persuade the National Gallery to return two Cezannes that had once belonged to the White House.
Lady Bird Johnson
The most striking comment made about Lady Bird in West's book is a statement she makes herself:
"Anything that's done here, or needs to be done, remember this: my husband comes first, the girls [her daughters] second, and I will be satisfied with what's left." (West 291)
We get a sense from the story West tells that Lyndon was a difficult man to live with --and like him, the Johnson daughters were demanding and expected their requests to be answered. West explains that LBJ was domineering at times, "I felt, almost abusive to her, shouting at his wife as he shouted at everybody else. Mrs. Johnson's daughters also seemed to dominate her, at least in the beginning." (West 295) And when she felt overwhelmed, Lady Bird would simply adjourn to the privacy of her room, or if she couldn't escape physically, as West says, "[s]he'd simply tune it all out." (West 295)
Lady Bird loved bowling. She was always on a diet and occasionally took sunbaths on the White House roof. She kept a tape-recorded diary of her life in the White House (published in 1970 in a book called A White House Diary.) (West 307) She loved Gunsmoke, and became an ambassador to programs of the Presidents "Great Society," visiting Head Start classrooms and job training centers. She initiated a monthly meeting of "Women-Doers," described as "prominent women leaders, professionals, and volunteers." (West 331) By the end of his Presidency, Lady Bird had, according to West, developed self-pride in her accomplishments during his term and had won the respect of her husband.
Much has been written about Pat Nixon, but not in this book. Six weeks into the Nixon presidency, J. B. West retired. We only gather about this First Lady that she was a dieter who preferred a dinner of cottage cheese to any other.
All the Others
And what of the other First Ladies? What is really known about them? There is little that I can share in the way of insight, but for some brief anecdotes.
Favorites of the First Ladies
And so to the cocktails. Only two drinks that I'll be serving refer to specific First Ladies' tastes -- the Bourbon Old-Fashioned (a favorite of Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower) and the Betty Ford (named for obvious reasons, selected for more dubious ones). The third cocktail is really a Jello in today's sense -- called Wine Jelly and made with a pint of Madeira wine (a great favorite of 18th-Century American high society) -- was purportedly a much loved dish on President Jefferson's dinner table. Finally, from the Clintons' term comes the White House Punch, rather light and fruity, it is two parts "cotton candy" and one part Champagne (the cotton candy of alcoholic beverages).
The table will be resplendent with victualine delicacies, most taken from The First Ladies Cook Book: Favorite Recipes of All the Presidents of the United States (well, until 1969 when the book was published, that is). The first Roosevelt's Indian pudding, Hoover's asparagus soufflé (Jackie-O was also partial to asparagus), the Eisenhower's chicken salad, and the Johnson's spinach parmesan. Whether the favorite of Republican or Democrat, Tory or Whig, all these foods will find a place on the LUPEC table.
Finally, no LUPEC meeting is complete without the appropriate strains of music to set the scene. Since, the Johnson's liked Dave Brubeck and Mamie's favorite band was the Three Suns, we'll be listening to both.
Note: All photographs were taken from a fine, upstanding book called American First Ladies, Their Lives and Their Legacy, edited by Lewis L. Gould.
Gould, Louis L., editor. American First Ladies, Their Lives and Their Legacy. 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 2001.
Hay, Peter. All the Presidents' Ladies: Anecdotes of the Women Behind the Men in the White House. New York, Ny.: Viking Press, 1988.
Healy, Diana Dixon. America's First Ladies: Private Lives of the Presidential Wives. New York, Ny.: Antheneum, 1988.
Klapthor, Margaret Brown. The First Ladies Cook Book: Favorite Recipes of All the Presidents of the United States. New York, Ny.: Parents' Magazine Press, 1969.
Schneider, Dorothy and Carl J. First Ladies: A Biographical Dictionary. New York, Ny.: Checkmark Books, 2001.
West, J. B. Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies. New York, Ny.: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1973.