Excerpted from THE RESIDENCE by Kate Andersen Brower by arrangement with Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Copyright © Kate Andersen Brower 2015
Living in the White House is like being on the stage, where tragedies and comedies play alternately. And we, the servants of the White House, are the supporting cast. —Lillian Rogers Parks, White House maid and seamstress, 1929–1961, My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House
Preston Bruce was sitting in his Washington, D.C., kitchen with his wife, listening to the radio and having lunch—the one meal they ate together every day—when an announcer interrupted with an urgent message: the president has been shot.
He jumped up from his chair, cracking his knee on the table and sending dishes crashing to the floor. A minute or so later came another announcement, the voice even shriller: The president has been shot. It has been verified that he has been shot. His condition is unknown.
This can’t be happening, thought Bruce. He threw on his coat, forgetting his hat on the brisk November day, and jumped in his car, tearing out of the driveway. His wife, Virginia, was left behind standing in their kitchen, shell-shocked amid the shards of broken dishes lying on the floor.
The normally unflappable Bruce was weaving through downtown traffic at fifty-five miles an hour—“I didn’t realize how fast I was going,” he would say later—when he suddenly heard a police siren blaring behind him. An officer on a motorcycle pulled up alongside him at Sixteenth Street and Columbia Road, jumped off his bike, and walked over to the driver’s door.
“What’s the hurry?” He was in no mood for excuses.
“Officer, I work at the White House,” Bruce said breathlessly. “The president has been shot.”
A stunned pause followed. Not everyone had heard the devastating news. “C’mon,” the startled officer said, jumping back onto his motorcycle. “Follow me!” Bruce got his own police escort to the southwest gate of the White House that day. Most Americans who were alive in 1963 remember exactly where they were when they learned that President Kennedy had been shot. For Bruce, though, the news had a special impact: Kennedy wasn’t only the president, but he was also his boss, and—more important—his friend. Preston Bruce was the doorman at the White House, and a beloved member of the staff. Just the morning before, he had escorted the president, the first lady, and their son, John-John, to the marine helicopter on the South Lawn, which would carry them to Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base. From there the Kennedys would leave for their fateful two-day, five-city campaign tour of Texas. (John-John, who was just four days shy of his third birthday, loved helicopter rides with his parents. He went only as far as Andrews; when he was told he couldn’t accompany his mother and father all the way to Dallas, he sobbed. It was the last time he would ever see his father.)
“I’m leaving you in charge of everything here,” President Kennedy shouted to Bruce, above the whir of the helicopter’s engines on the South Lawn. “You run things to suit yourself.”
A descendant of slaves and the son of a South Carolina sharecropper, Bruce had become an honorary member of the Kennedy family. He watched movies with them in the White House theater and looked on as the president played happily with his children. He winced when Kennedy bumped his head on a table while chasing John-John, a rambunctious toddler, around the Oval Office. (JFK’s desk was one of John-John’s favorite hiding places. Bruce would sometimes have to fish him out from underneath before important meetings.) Tall and thin in his midfifties, with a shock of white hair and a bright white mustache, Bruce wore a black suit and white bow tie to work every day. He was so devoted to his job, which included the delicate assignment of seating nervous guests at state dinners, that he designed a table nicknamed the “Bruce Table,” with a slanted top that made it easier to arrange table place cards. His invention would be used for decades.
On November 22, as he raced toward the White House, Bruce was in disbelief. “To this day I can still feel the shock that ran through my whole body,” he later recalled. After arriving at the executive mansion, he had only one thing on his mind. “I would wait for Mrs. Kennedy.” He huddled around the TV with other workers in the crowded Usher’s Office. The news confirmed fears shared by every White House staffer. “In most of our minds,” he wrote years later, “you’re always aware that it was completely possible that any president that ever left that eighteen acres could come back just like President Kennedy.”
When Jackie Kennedy finally returned to the White House at 4:00 a.m. wearing the iconic bloodstained pink wool suit and clutching the arm of her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy, she was ghostly white and eerily calm. “Bruce, you waited until we came,” she said softly, as though she was trying to comfort him. “Yes, you knew I was going to be here, Mrs. Kennedy,” he replied.
After a short service in the East Room, he led the first lady and the attorney general up to the private residence on the second floor. In that quiet moment in the elevator, standing next to the two people who had been closest to JFK, Bruce finally broke down sobbing. Jackie and Robert joined him, folding their arms around one another, they cried together until they reached the second floor. When Jackie got to her bedroom she told her personal maid and confidante, Providencia Paredes, “I thought they might kill me too.” Then she finally took off the suit caked in her husband’s blood and bathed.
Exhausted, Bruce spent what was left of that night sitting upright in a chair in a tiny bedroom on the third floor. He took off his jacket and bow tie and unbuttoned the collar of his stiff white shirt, but he wouldn’t let himself give into exhaustion. “I didn’t want to lie down, in case Mrs. Kennedy needed me.” His allegiance was reciprocated. Shortly after the funeral, the first lady gave him the tie her husband had worn on the flight to Dallas. “The president would have wanted you to have this,” she told him. (JFK had switched ties just before getting into the motorcade, and had the old one in his jacket pocket when he was shot.) Robert Kennedy pulled off his gloves and handed them to his stricken friend: “Keep these gloves,” he told Bruce, “and remember always that I wore them to my brother’s funeral.”
The White House doorman refused to leave his post to return home to his wife until November 26, four days after the assassination. Bruce’s devotion to his job, and to the first family, may seem remarkable, but nothing less is expected from those who work in the residence.
America’s first families are largely unknowable. Their privacy is guarded by West Wing aides and by a team of roughly one hundred people who stay deliberately out of sight: the White House residence staff. These workers spend much of their time on the second and third floors of the fifty-five-thousand-square-foot building. It’s here that the first family can escape the overwhelming pressures of the office, even if just for a couple of precious hours while they eat dinner or watch TV. Upstairs, as tourists shuffle below on the first floor and amateur photographers gather at the perimeter fence with cell phone cameras, they are free to conduct their personal lives in private. Unlike the slew of political aides who have eagerly given interviews and published memoirs after leaving the White House, the maids, butlers, chefs, ushers, engineers, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and florists who run America’s most famous home have largely preferred to remain invisible. One worker told me that his colleagues share a “passion for anonymity.” As a result, the unseen backstairs world of the White House staff has remained rich with intrigue.
I first became aware of that world when, as a member of the White House press corps, I was invited to a luncheon that Michelle Obama held for fewer than a dozen reporters in an intimate dining room on the State Floor of the White House. Dubbed the Old Family Dining Room after Jackie Kennedy created a separate dining room on the second floor that is used more routinely by current first families, the room is tucked away across from the formal State Dining Room, where I had covered dozens of events. I had never seen this private side of the White House; indeed, I didn’t even know the room existed. Access to many areas of the residence is heavily restricted; reporters and photographers covering formal events, such as East Room receptions and state dinners (now often held in an impressive white pavilion on the South Lawn), are kept cordoned off from White House guests. And for these large gatherings, the White House staff is often augmented by the hiring of part-time butlers and waitstaff.
So I was surprised, on the day of the first lady’s luncheon, when a handler ushered us into the relatively small and cozy Old Family Dining Room, and an elegantly dressed gentleman offered us champagne on a gleaming silver tray. The menu included salad with vegetables from the White House garden and fresh pan-roasted rockfish elegantly presented on Truman china. Each course was served by a butler who clearly had a rapport with the first lady. This is all very Downton Abbey, I thought. The experience left me wondering: Just who were these people, so intimate with the world’s most powerful family?
As a White House reporter for Bloomberg News, I worked in one of the many tiny windowless cubbies located below the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. The cramped basement space is a constant whirl of activity as reporters race back and forth covering events, talking to sources, and rushing back to their computers to file stories. During my time covering the White House, I traveled around the world on Air Force One and on Air Force Two (the vice president’s plane)—filing reports from Mongolia, Japan, Poland, France, Portugal, China, and Colombia—but the most fascinating story turned out to be right in front of me every day: the men and women who take care of the first family, who share a fierce loyalty to the institution of the American presidency. Each staffer who has served at the White House has borne witness to history, and each has incredible stories to share.
The White House is the country’s most potent and enduring symbol of the presidency. Its 132 rooms, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators are spread across the 6 floors—plus 2 hidden mezzanine levels—all tucked within what appears to be a three-story building. The house is home to just one famous family at a time, but the members of the building’s supporting cast are its permanent tenants.
The residence workers bring a sense of humanity and Old World values to the world’s most famous eighteen acres. Rising at dawn, they sacrifice their personal lives to serve the first family with quiet, awe-inspiring dignity. For them, working in the White House, regardless of position, is a great honor. Elections may bring new faces, but they stay on from administration to administration and are careful to keep their political beliefs to themselves. They have one job: to make America’s first families comfortable in the country’s most public private home.
In the course of their work, many of these men and women have witnessed presidents and their families during incredibly vulnerable moments, but only a handful of residence workers have published memoirs of their time at the White House. This book marks the first time that so many have shared what it’s like to devote their lives to caring for the first family. Their memories range from small acts of kindness to episodes of anger and private despair, from stories of personal quirks and foibles to moments when their everyday work was transcended by instances of national triumph or tragedy.
From playing with the Kennedy children in the Oval Office to witnessing the first African American president arrive at the White House; from being asked by Nancy Reagan to return each of her twenty-five Limoges boxes to the same exact spot after cleaning, to giving Hillary Clinton a moment of privacy during her husband’s sex scandal and impeachment, the residence staff see sides of the first family no one else ever glimpses.
Though they gave me unprecedented access to their stories, recent and current residence workers follow a long-established code of ethics that values discretion and the protection of the first family’s privacy above all else. Unlike most people in power-obsessed Washington, D.C., who tell each other where they work almost before offering their names, staffers avoid mentioning their extraordinary jobs. They inherited that code of honor from the previous generations who kept FDR’s paralysis private by ushering guests into the room for state dinners only after the president was seated and his wheelchair rolled out of view—and who made sure that stories of JFK’s philandering never left the White House gates.
Residence workers have such privileged access, in fact, that current White House aides did not want them speaking with me. One former staffer told me in an e-mail, “I think you will find that anyone who is still employed will not want to speak to you because they do not want to lose their job—yes, this is a reality. We were trained to keep what goes on inside the WH, inside the WH.”
But while at first some of them were reluctant to share their experiences working in “the house,” as they call it, all were incredibly gracious. Black and white, men and women, chefs, electricians, and maids, dozens of retired staffers invited me to sit across from them at their kitchen tables or to talk with them on their living room sofas. (I was pregnant with our second child at the time, which prompted lots of kind inquiries into how I was feeling and whether I wanted something to eat.) Before long, they were happily recounting decades of memories working for several presidents and their families. Many seemed oblivious to the fact that they had led remarkable lives with front-row seats to history. Their recollections were not always consistent; where many staffers had fond memories of the families they served, others told less flattering stories. Getting them to talk wasn’t always easy. Some opened up to me only after I mentioned the names of their colleagues whom I’d already interviewed. Others were guarded until we met in person, like Chief Electrician William “Bill” Cliber, who told me fascinating stories about Richard Nixon in his final days in office, and Executive Housekeeper Christine Limerick, who talked about her painful decision to temporarily leave her post because she was sick of taking abuse from a certain first lady.
Some people, like George W. Bush’s favorite butler, James Ramsey, wanted to talk only about their positive experiences. Ramsey even said he was worried that the government would take away the pension he worked his entire life to earn if he shared anything negative (though there is no evidence that that would have happened). He was full of genuine love for the families he served. He passed away in 2014, but I feel fortunate to have gotten to know him and other staffers who died before they could see their stories told.
I’ve talked to people who worked at the White House during the time known as Camelot—including the first residence staffer to be informed of President Kennedy’s assassination—and to butlers, doormen, and florists who served the Obamas. I’ve listened to the sons and daughters of presidents describe what it’s like to grow up in the White House. And I have had candid conversations with former first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, and Laura Bush, as well as many high-level White House aides. Most were genuinely eager to help bring attention to the people who work quietly and diligently behind the scenes. Despite their sacrifice and hard work, the residence staff assiduously avoids the spotlight—and not just in a metaphorical sense. “There’s an unwritten rule that we stayed in the background. If there was a camera we always ducked under it, over it, or around it,” insisted Usher James W. F. “Skip” Allen. Yet the workers I interviewed had a blend of intelligence and character that made me want to learn more about their lives. Many of them also had a wry, even wicked, sense of humor. After our interview, retired butler James Hall made sure to walk me out—very slowly—through the crowded lobby of his retirement home. He wasn’t just being polite, he admitted; he wanted to make sure everyone saw him with a younger woman. “It’s like Peyton Place around here!” he said, laughing. My research took me beyond Washington and its suburbs. Allen had retired to a sprawling six-thousand-square-foot nineteenth-century farmhouse in Bedford, Pennsylvania. We ate chicken salad sandwiches by his pool during a light drizzle as he described the close relationship between the president and the staff (“It would be nothing out of the ordinary for a president to acknowledge somebody’s birthday”) and the weight of the job (“Name a president. Nobody leaves the White House looking younger than they came in”).
While they are overlooked in the pomp and circumstance of presidential events and state visits, White House workers are vital to the public and private lives of the American presidency. “In a way, my family and I always thought of them as cohosts with the president and the first lady,” Tricia Nixon Cox, the older of President Nixon’s two daughters, told me. “They made everything very beautiful and warm.”
Sometimes they even help the world’s most famous couple weather storms and feel normal again—if only for a few hours. At the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, several staffers told me, Hillary Clinton appeared tired and depressed. They said they felt sorry for her, knowing she craved the one thing she couldn’t have: privacy. One staffer, Usher Worthington White, recalled clearing tourists out of the White House and keeping her Secret Service agents at bay so that the first lady could enjoy a few short hours of solitude by the pool. Having the chance to help Mrs. Clinton “meant the world to me,” White said.
Residence workers sometimes get to witness the sheer joy a newly inaugurated president feels upon reaching the highest peak in American politics. In 2009, after the inaugural balls were finally over, the Obamas were settling in for their first night in the White House. But they still weren’t quite ready for bed when White was dropping off some late-night papers. When he got upstairs to the second floor he heard something unusual.
“All of a sudden I heard President Obama say, ‘I got this, I got this. I got the inside on this now,’ and suddenly the music picked up and it was Mary J. Blige.” The new residents had shed their formal wear; the president was in shirtsleeves and the first lady was wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. The president grabbed the first lady, White recalls, and suddenly “they were dancing together” to Blige’s hit “Real Love.” The usher paused a moment as he told the story. “It was the most beautiful, lovely thing you could imagine.”
“I bet you haven’t seen anything like this in this house, have you?” Obama asked as the first couple danced.
“I can honestly say I’ve never heard any Mary J. Blige being played on this floor,” White replied.
He isn’t sure how long the Obamas stayed there dancing, but it was clear that they intended to savor the moment.