I ask you to consider the effect of saying good night to a boy at the door of the White House in a blaze of floodlights with a Secret Service man in attendance. There is not much you can do except shake hands, and that’s no way to get engaged.
When twelve-year-old Chelsea Clinton moved into the White House in 1993, Steve Ford sent her a letter. His advice: make friends with the Secret Service, as they might become your only link to the outside world. He says that he had it relatively easy, with so many siblings to share the experience. For Chelsea, an only child, living in the White House would be harder. And of course that ended up being the case when she had to endure the embarrassment of her father’s very public indiscretions without any siblings to help shoulder the burden. “I thought she always had a much, much tougher situation than the other families that usually had two or three siblings.” Looking back on Chelsea’s time in the White House, though, Ford says now, “I just thought she handled it wonderfully.”
When children move into the White House, the residence staff wants to protect them. They have seen what it’s like for other children growing up in the residence and they want to help them live their childhoods as normally as possible. Along with the extra responsibility of looking after children, though, the staff often relishes having a rambunctious toddler or a fun-loving high schooler around. Presidential children can bring a degree of warmth and innocence to a household, lightening the often-stressful atmosphere of the executive mansion.
Storeroom Manager Bill Hamilton watched generations of presidential offspring learn to live in the bubble of the White House. The younger the children were, he says, the easier it was for them to adjust to their claustrophobic new lives. Caroline and John-John Kennedy found it relatively easy to be themselves within the mansion’s walls; they were so young when they came to the White House that they didn’t really know anything different. For Chelsea Clinton, and for Sasha and Malia Obama, being a teenager in the White House means coping with adolescent angst while living in the spotlight. And older children, like the Fords, Luci and Lynda Johnson, and Barbara and Jenna Bush, may have had it hardest of all, in Hamilton’s view, when they realized they would have to give up a level of freedom they were used to, and would not have it back again until their fathers left office.
“Once you’re up in that college age where you’ve been out there drinking beer, running with guys, going to parties and all that, it makes a big difference,” he said.
George W. Bush’s daughters—affectionately described as “wild little girls” by their grandmother, Barbara Bush, when they were younger—were already familiar with the residence by the time their father was elected; they had played hide-and-seek when their grandparents lived there, and spent time in the Flower Shop making arrangements. During their father’s presidency, they confided in Usher Nancy Mitchell about their boyfriend problems. (Jenna would later admit to a “little hanky-panky” on the White House roof.) Staffers say the girls acted like typical nineteen-year-olds, and Jenna grew so attached to the residence staff that she asked Head Florist Nancy Clarke to do the flowers for her Texas wedding.
Still there will always be certain constraints that come with life in that particular bubble. “It’s a miserable life for a teenager,” said Usher Nelson Pierce. “It was very difficult to be confined, knowing that you couldn’t do anything without [the Secret Service] right on your tail.”
NOT SINCE THE Kennedys’ departure have such young children lived in the White House. When the Obamas moved in, Malia was ten years old and Sasha was only seven. Now sixteen and thirteen, the girls have spent six years growing up with a slew of maids, butlers, and chefs, in a house with its own private movie theater, tennis and basketball court, and swimming pool. And that’s just their day-to-day life: that does not include the elegant dinners and catered parties they sometimes get to attend, or the private Jonas Brothers concert on the night of their father’s first inauguration.
Barbara and Jenna Bush, who graduated from high school the year their father was elected, gave Malia and Sasha a full tour before they left, including stops in the movie theater and the bowling alley and even a few secret hallways. Clearly enjoying the idea of another younger pair of sisters taking their place, they told them to slide down the banisters every once in a while, advice that Sasha Obama, the more bubbly of the sisters, no doubt enjoyed.
Like the Kennedys, the Obamas are committed to having their children lead normal lives. Florist Bob Scanlan, who retired in 2010, describes seeing a scene that plays out in so many American households on Sunday mornings: air mattresses splayed out on the floor of the Solarium from a sleepover the night before.
The girls get dessert only on weekends, but when their grandmother, Marian, is in charge, they splurge, eating ice cream and popcorn. She “really gives the family their privacy. She lives on the third floor for the most part, [and] in the time that I was there took her meals separately. The girls eat with their mother and father in their own space on the second floor and Mrs. Robinson eats on the third floor,” Scanlan said. “I’m going home,” Marian would say before dinner as she walked upstairs to her private suite, giving her daughter time alone with her husband and children.
“She had fresh flowers put in her living room and her bedroom. She was always very kind, very gracious, very appreciative of everything that she got.” When Scanlan came in to replace a floral arrangement, she would often tell him not to bother. “That’s fine, but the other flowers still look good to me,” she’d say.
Michelle asked the florists to label all the flowers in the arrangements in their living quarters so that she and her daughters could learn the different names. The first lady also asked beloved longtime butler Smile “Smiley” Saint-Aubin, who was from Haiti and spoke beautiful French, to speak in his native language when serving her daughters so that they could start learning the language. (He passed away in 2009.)
Scanlan wanted the Obamas to have a special first Christmas season at the White House (they spend the holiday itself in Hawaii), so he made boxwood Christmas trees and put one on Malia’s dresser and one on Sasha’s mantel.
Malia especially liked hers. When Scanlan went into her room to check on the tree he found a sticky note waiting for him: “Florist: I really like my tree. If it’s not too much to ask could I please have lights on it? If not, I understand.” Her sign-off was a heart. Scanlan took the note off the dresser and brought it down to the Flower Shop. “Now you tell me, how could I not put lights on that tree?” He laughed.
Staffers provide extra nurturing because they know what scrutiny these children face. In 2014, Sasha and Malia came under attack from a Republican House staffer during the annual White House turkey pardon ceremony. “Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar,” wrote Elizabeth Lauten in a Facebook post. Lauten, who was communications director for Republican representative Stephen Fincher at the time, was referring to the girls’ short skirts. Her disparaging comments came under criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike who mostly agree that the children of sitting presidents should be off-limits. Lauten resigned because of the media firestorm; the episode reinforces the incredible strain of growing up in the White House under constant surveillance. The glare of the spotlight has only intensified with an endless news cycle and the rise of social media.
CAROLINE AND JOHN-JOHN Kennedy, in turn, were the youngest children to live in the White House since Theodore Roosevelt’s brood famously wreaked havoc there at the turn of the twentieth century. Caroline was three years old, and her brother just two months old, when their parents moved into the residence. Jackie Kennedy desperately wanted to raise unspoiled children; she made them sign thank-you notes when they were invited to other children’s parties (young John-John merely scribbled) and always brought them down to the kitchen after their birthday parties to thank the staff. Caroline and John-John learned the meaning of “no” at just two years old, said Letitia Baldrige; when introduced to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s wife, they looked her straight in the eye and said, “How do you do, Mrs. McNamara?” (Though in John-John’s case it may have been more like “Mrs. Nama.”)
“It was ‘How do you do’ day and night, not only to Mommy and Daddy’s friends but also to the ushers, butlers, maids, policemen, Secret Service, and gardeners, and the people in the kitchen and in the butler’s pantry—whomever they happened to pass,” said Baldrige.
Unlike first ladies before her, Jackie Kennedy didn’t allow her children to address the butlers by their last names only; she considered that rude, especially since they were speaking to older, dignified gentlemen, most of whom had been working in the mansion for decades. “It was, ‘Mr. Allen,’” said Curator Jim Ketchum, referring to Eugene Allen. “They called Preston Bruce ‘Mr. Bruce.’ She was not about to have them say ‘Bruce’ or ‘Allen.’”
Sometimes, though, when Jackie wasn’t around, Caroline and John-John treated the staff with a familiarity that their mother might not have approved of. Usher Nelson Pierce’s favorite memory in all of his twenty-six years working at the White House involved simply reading a story to John-John. “Mrs. Kennedy’s stereo wasn’t working right, and I had to escort one of the Signal Corps men upstairs to work on it,” he recalled. “John-John picked up a book and brought it over to me and told me he wanted me to read it.”
Pierce did as he was told and sat on the edge of the sofa. He thought there was no way such an active little boy would sit still long enough to actually make it through the book. “I thought he’d stand beside me while I read the book, but no. He got up and then got down and pushed me in the chest and said, ‘Sit back, sit back!’ So I put my arm around him and we read the book. As soon as I read the story he jumped down, took the book, and put it back where it was.” For Nelson, spending time with the Kennedy children was a welcome break and a reminder of his four children at home.
One evening, the Kennedys’ nanny, Maud Shaw, called down to Pierce for help. She was in the Family Dining Room on the second floor and John-John hadn’t quite finished dinner. Meanwhile Caroline, who was already done eating, was down on the floor trying to do a somersault—to no avail. She looked up at Pierce when he walked in.
“Mr. Pierce, I have a terrible time. My legs either go to the right or they go to the left.”
“Caroline, think very hard about making your feet go straight over your head,” he told her.
Her next attempts were much improved.
“Mr. Pierce, do somersaults with me!” she begged.
Pierce laughed at the memory, “Fortunately, Maud Shaw came to my rescue so I didn’t have to do somersaults with Caroline on the dining room floor!”
Decades later, Chef Walter Scheib explained how the staff viewed the first family. “While a state dinner is the most high-profile thing you do, at the same time, the day of the state dinner, you might get a phone call from the residence saying Chelsea or one of the Bush twins wants a bowl of oatmeal or blueberries or something, and suddenly that becomes your priority. It isn’t about cuisine, it’s about offering first families a little island of normal in a very, very crazy world.”
Sometimes, what the first family wants is mundane and frustrating for the skilled chefs, especially when there are kids living in the residence. John Moeller remembers one morning when he and a newly hired chef were making pancakes for Chelsea Clinton. The new hire spotted real maple syrup in the refrigerator but Moeller told him that Chelsea prefers the imitation maple syrup that most kids eat. The new chef fought him, insisting that the real thing is always better. Eventually, Moeller relented and sent the butlers up with the high-end syrup. Two minutes later it came back with a request from the first daughter for the fake stuff. The first family’s preferences override everything else.
Residence staff must provide a safe place for the president’s children to be themselves. Johnson’s eldest daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, remembered finding solace in the residence staff at a time when outsiders could never be fully trusted. “The people who worked there, they were just wonderful. I’m sure everybody who’s lived there has appreciated them and thought how lucky we are to be surrounded by people who want to help us and who are not trying to get anything from us. They were not going to go sell us out.”
Lynda met her husband, Charles “Chuck” Robb, when he was a military social aide at the White House. His job was to make sure the president’s guests were comfortable at receptions and dinners, chatting with partygoers who were nervous to meet the president and first lady, and directing them to their seats. No one outside the staff knew that Lynda and Robb were dating. After he was done working, Robb would rush up to the Solarium to play bridge with Lynda. The butlers saw them, of course, but they guarded her privacy absolutely.
Robb was first in his Marine Corps officers Basic School at Quantico, Virginia; he earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam, and later went on to become governor of Virginia and serve two terms in the Senate. When Robb was deployed, Lynda was pregnant with their first daughter, Lucinda. While she was lying awake at night, sick with worry about her husband, she could hear the shouts of Vietnam War protestors outside her bedroom window.
Lynda had Caroline Kennedy’s former room, facing Pennsylvania Avenue; there was nowhere to hide. Her younger sister, Luci, lived in what was once John-John’s bedroom. Between them was the small room that had belonged to Maud Shaw, which they converted into a walk-in closet for their out-of-season wardrobes.
President and Mrs. Johnson’s room overlooked the South Lawn, so they didn’t hear the shouting quite as clearly, but Lynda and her sister shuddered at the angry protests. “It was distressing to Luci and to me when you could hear the people yelling from across the street all day and night about the war, particularly since both of our husbands were over there. They were sacrificing, and I was pregnant, and they would say things that were very hurtful about my father. I knew how much he wanted to end the war.”
Curator Betty Monkman remembers gathering in the Usher’s Office and looking out at the protestors. She’d turn to her older colleagues and say, “Those could be your children standing in the park.”
“You can’t escape what’s happening around you there,” she said. “It feels like you’re in a little cocoon, but you’re very aware of everything that’s happening outside.” On a bitterly cold day, President Johnson—desperate to quell the protestors’ rage—even asked the butlers to bring them all hot coffee.
“I was quite young then, in my late twenties,” Monkman recalls, “and I would go to parties and I would not tell people where I worked, because if I did the reaction to me would be so negative. So I would say, ‘I work for the Park Service,’ because they’d want to vent to me about their politics. Maybe I felt the same way, but I didn’t want to hear it!”
On Tuesday through Saturday, parts of the Ground Floor and the State Floor of the White House were open to the public, and during those years of constant public protests, the lack of privacy grew unbearable for Lynda. “Even after the assassination we didn’t have the kind of security [we should have had], and so the tourists would be there right under our window early,” she said. “They would be right under my window and they would be saying, ‘Stand over here, Myrtle,’ and I would be trying to sleep!”
Texas first lady Nellie Connally once told Lynda that she’d often thought about dropping a water balloon on tourists from the window of the governor’s mansion.
“I laughingly said I wanted to do the same,” Lynda says. “I never did.”
It wasn’t the affable tourists who were the real problem, however; it was the protestors outraged by the continuation of the war who made life in the White House so difficult. Usher Nelson Pierce remembered once when “kids” on a public tour dumped vials of their own blood in the State Dining Room of the residence workers’ beloved house. “We had to dry-clean the drapes.” Sometimes visitors even unleashed cockroaches inside the White House. “We had to train the housekeeping staff on what to do if some of these situations occurred,” Monkman said.
A pivotal moment for LBJ came when Lynda went to him in the middle of the night, in tears after seeing her husband off to Vietnam, and asked why Robb had to go to war. The president faltered, realizing that he had no answer. It wasn’t long afterward that Johnson announced he would not be seeking reelection.
STEVE FORD WAS just a couple weeks away from starting his freshman year at Duke University in August 1974 when his father was suddenly thrust into the presidency.
“All of a sudden we all got ten Secret Service agents, and life changed. Trust me, at eighteen years old, that’s not really the group you’re hoping to hang out with.”
Ford decided to forgo college and moved to Montana to work on a ranch and avoid the spotlight. Still, he spent two months at a time staying with his parents in a room on the third floor, where his three siblings also had rooms.
“The White House really belonged to the staff, because they were the ones who were there for four, five, six different administrations,” he said. “The lease on the house was very temporary. For some of us shorter than others!” (Ford’s father spent fewer than three years in the White House, leaving in 1977.) But Ford remembers those years vividly. “It was truly like living in a museum,” he says. “Everything dates back to Lincoln or Jefferson. I can remember moving in there—at home usually I put my feet up on the table where we lived in Alexandria, but Mom goes, ‘Don’t put your feet up there! That’s Jefferson’s table.’”
For the Ford family, moving into the White House was an earth-shattering change. For almost twenty years, while Gerald Ford was in Congress and even while he was vice president, they had lived in a four-bedroom, two-bathroom redbrick Colonial on a quarter-acre lot on Crown View Drive in Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac from the White House.
When Ford became vice president in December 1973, after Spiro Agnew’s resignation, their two-car garage became home to his Secret Service detail, and bulletproof glass was installed in their master bedroom. (It wasn’t until 1977 that the U.S. Naval Observatory became the vice president’s official residence.)
Chief Usher Gary Walters later recalled how approachable the Fords were. Once he got a phone call from President Ford asking him to send someone to look at the shower in his bathroom in the White House because there was no hot water. It had been like that for a couple of days and he was just using the shower in his wife’s bathroom. But no rush, Ford told him.
The Fords had to wait to move into the White House for seven days after their father became president because the Nixons needed time to move their things out. When they finally moved in, the president and first lady brought their favorite chairs from home—his was a comfortable leather chair—for the private sitting room off their bedroom.
Susan Ford, the youngest of President Ford’s four children, remembers begging her parents to let her redecorate her room and switch out the blue shag carpet. They wouldn’t let her because the cost would come out of their own pockets. “My father didn’t believe in mortgages; he was truly a Depression baby,” she told me.
Like most normal kids, the four Ford children, all in their teens or early twenties, could not wait to cause trouble. On the day they moved into the White House, Steve Ford called his best friend, Kevin Kennedy, who lived around the corner from him in Alexandria. “Kevin, we finally moved in. You gotta come over—you gotta see this place.”
He cleared his friend through security and gave him a tour, showing him his room on the third floor and taking him to the Solarium, with its rooftop access. They took out a stereo and blasted Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on a turntable on the roof of the White House. “That was my first night in the White House,” Ford said. “Eugene, the butler, knew what we did, and I was so thankful that he never ratted me out to my parents. The staff knows everything you do.”
But they try not to judge, Ford said. In part because they greatly sympathize with all the children who do some growing up in the residence. “There were no moral billy clubs.”
FOR GENERATIONS OF presidential children, living in the White House was both a blessing and a curse. Margaret Truman called the executive residence “the great white jail,” and some other children even took pains to escape.
Susan Ford recalls sneaking out, making her famously softhearted father furious. In a practical joke gone wrong, Ford somehow managed to make a run for her car, which was sitting at the semicircle on the South Lawn (“You always left your keys in the car in case they have to move it,” she said) and drove straight out of the White House gate. The Secret Service agents assigned to her couldn’t shut the gate or chase after her because her mother’s car was driving in at the same time.
Susan picked up a friend and went to a Safeway parking lot, where they shared a six-pack of beer. Eventually she went to a pay phone and told the Secret Service agents she would return to the White House by 7:00 P.M. (She had to come home to pick up Hall & Oates concert tickets.) As soon as she returned, her father wanted to see her.
“The fun is over,” she remembered thinking. “Now reality sets in.”
The president said he was disappointed in her. He must have been furious, knowing that the radical Symbionese Liberation Army (the group that had kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst) had threatened to take her hostage. Susan was the only Ford child to have Secret Service protection before her father became president. What was a lighthearted adventure could have turned into a national crisis if she had been kidnapped. (Susan clearly didn’t mind the Secret Service that much; later she would marry a former member of her father’s protective detail.)
Like his sister, Steve Ford tried to live a normal life. It didn’t always work. “When we moved in, I had a yellow Jeep that I drove,” he said, laughing at his own naïveté. “I used to pull in and I’d park it in front of the diplomatic entrance on the driveway. I’d go upstairs and I’d look out my window and it would be gone.” The staff didn’t think a Jeep was an appropriate car to park in front of the White House. “Every time I’d come home they would move it around back and kind of hide it. I’d get frustrated and I’d go down and move it out front again and they’d move it back.”
AMY CARTER, WHO was nine years old when she moved in, left her mark on the White House—literally. Her name is written in Magic Marker on the wall between the elevator shaft and the second-floor service elevator. “Amy opened the door and stuck her hand between the elevator shaft and wrote her name,” said Operations Supervisor Tony Savoy.
Amy wasn’t content staying upstairs in the residence, Savoy recalled. She wanted to explore. “She was curious. You have this great big house, all these doors, let’s look in ’em.”
The Carters famously sent their daughter to public school in Washington, D.C. It was hard for a girl trailed by Secret Service agents to fit in, especially when her teacher kept her indoors during recess in a misguided effort to protect her. By the time they got to the White House, her mother Rosalynn recalls, Amy—their fourth child and only daughter—was used to being an outsider. “It was what she knew, because she was three when we moved to the governor’s mansion. It was not different for her. Mary came to be with us. It was just her life.”
Nanny Mary Prince helped Amy feel more comfortable with it all, Rosalynn said, but the freckle-faced girl knew that her life was different. Back in the Georgia governor’s mansion, she’d had even less privacy: there, just getting to the kitchen meant braving a wave of tourists. But Amy was a self-possessed child, so much so that she sometimes seemed oblivious to outsiders. “When she was three years old,” her mother says, “everybody made a big fuss over the baby when they saw her and she’d just walk straight through and look straight ahead. I remember when she went to school the first day in Washington everybody was so distressed because Amy looked so lonely. That was just her normal life.”
When they first moved into the White House, Rosalynn says, Amy sometimes went downstairs to the State Floor during the public tours, but “people made such a fuss over her” that she stopped. When the tours were done for the day, she returned—and went roller-skating through the East Room.
Members of the residence staff were fond of the feisty little girl. Mary Prince often called Nelson Pierce at his desk to see when he would come over to the mansion to tune Amy’s violin (“Music and baseball were the things I lived for,” Pierce said.). Butler James Jeffries said Amy would sometimes ask him for help with her homework when he was upstairs in the family kitchen. Life lived in government housing—albeit elegant government housing—was all Amy knew, and the staff were like family to her. One day she went to all the different shops in the residence with her Secret Service agent to ask the staff for money to help sponsor her in a walk, said Curator Betty Monkman. “We were her neighborhood. She was coming to solicit. Then we pledged a certain amount—and then she came back to collect!” said Monkman. “She couldn’t go out in the street and do that.”
The Carters tried to provide some sense of stability and normalcy for Amy. Monkman remembers passing the China Room near the Curator’s Office one day when she saw Amy and her friends carving pumpkins—and “there was President Carter, down on the floor with them.”
Mary Prince insists that Amy was not tainted by her celebrity—contrary to some who said she insulted foreign guests by reading a book during a state dinner. “She was not a spoiled brat. She really never tried to get her way. She was just a young kid having fun.”
Chef Mesnier describes Amy as a whimsical little girl who was not overawed by the majesty of the White House. After school, she sometimes ran down to the kitchen to ask him to send up the ingredients for her favorite sugar cookies, which she liked to make herself in the small kitchen on the second floor and bring to school the next day. Often, though, after putting them in the oven, she would start roller-skating or playing in her treehouse and completely forget about them; when the smell of burned cookies wafted through the hallway, at first a slew of Secret Service agents would run to the Pastry Kitchen thinking that that was the origin of the problem. Mesnier would look at the harried agents and just point upstairs. They would then go racing up to the second floor to open the windows and rescue the ruined cookies. The next morning Amy would usually come to the kitchen and tell the chef that she was supposed to take cookies to school and she didn’t know what to do. When Mesnier asked her what happened to the ingredients he sent her the day before she would reply, blushing, “There was a small accident.” (He got so used to this routine that, when Amy wandered into the kitchen the next morning to ask for some cookies to take to school, he would have a backup batch ready to go.)
The Carter children lived a charmed life even before coming to the White House—their father was a successful farmer who had served two terms as a Georgia state senator and one as Georgia’s governor. Sometimes they seemed totally disconnected from the real world, especially from the people who served them every day.
One butler remembers chatting with one of Carter’s sons, who was in his twenties at the time. He was sitting in the family kitchen reading an article in the newspaper about rising rent prices in Washington. He looked up from the paper at the butler and said: “I’m glad that I’m allowed to stay here in the White House.”
The butler turned to him and said: “Yes. That’s one reason I’m in here, working two jobs because the rent costs so much. I’m struggling.” Carter’s son was shocked. He couldn’t believe this dignified man had to work two jobs just to pay the rent.
“You come outside and live with me and you’ll see,” the butler told him.
THE CLINTONS FIERCELY guarded their daughter Chelsea’s privacy, and asked the media to limit their coverage of her to public events only. For the most part journalists complied. But the media had other ways of plunging her name into the news. In a 1992 “Wayne’s World” skit on Saturday Night Live, Mike Myers, playing the goofy Wayne, jibed that adolescence “has been thus far unkind” to Chelsea, adding “Chelsea Clinton—not a babe.” The skit enraged the Clintons, and the remarks were edited out of rebroadcasts. Meyers even wrote a letter of apology to the Clintons.
Like the Obamas and the Kennedys, the Clintons felt it was important not to let their children become spoiled in the White House. In fact, Chelsea often told the chef not to worry about cooking for her. She’d be making her own dinner: Kraft macaroni and cheese.
By and large, Chelsea was adored by the residence staff. Maid Betty Finney said she was like their own child—they felt protective of her. “Teenagers, you’re thinking rudeness. That was never, ever Chelsea. I had never seen her be rude in the entire stint I had there,” Finney said. “She wrote me a note thanking me for my services. That’s just the way she was.”
Still, Chelsea was a “normal” teenager in some ways. For starters, she hardly ever made her bed. And like all teenagers, she liked hanging out with her friends.
Well before Downton Abbey showed Lady Sybil getting cooking lessons from downstairs cook Mrs. Patmore, Chelsea Clinton and some friends from her posh private school, Sidwell Friends, did a sort of informal internship with the residence staff. (Years before, Jackie had taken five-year-old Caroline to the White House kitchen to bake tiny pink cupcakes from a toy baking set Caroline had gotten for her birthday.) Chelsea and her friends spent part of the day in each department, learning from the best how to cook, clean, and arrange flowers. She proudly showed her parents her flower arrangement—which was displayed in the Red Room—and made them try some of the meals she learned to prepare.
“Mrs. Clinton had decided they wanted Chelsea to be a little bit more self-sufficient and didn’t necessarily want her going to the dining hall and out to restaurants each night,” Executive Chef Walter Scheib recalls. “So I got a call from Mrs. Clinton asking if I would teach Chelsea how to cook.” There was another factor at play: Chelsea was a vegetarian, and her mother wanted to make sure she would be able to prepare healthy food for herself when she was in college. The summer of her senior year in high school, before she went off to Stanford University, Chelsea wandered down to the kitchen to learn the beginning and intermediate levels of vegetarian cooking.
“She was an extremely quick study, and as everyone knows now she is very, very bright,” Scheib said. Even at seventeen, Scheib said, she was acutely aware of the staff’s sacrifice. “She’s a very intense person who didn’t take this opportunity lightly. She respected us tremendously in terms of us offering her our time.”
At the end of their lessons, he gave her a chef’s coat inscribed: CHELSEA CLINTON, FIRST DAUGHTER. The White House calligraphers even made her a diploma: “Walter Scheib’s White House Cooking School.” Later, Chelsea sent Scheib a note: “Thank you very much for letting me take your time. I hope I wasn’t too much trouble.”
“I think back to what I would have been like had I been the first son at seventeen,” Scheib says now. “I was a bit of a jerk; she was so modest and understated and so thankful for all of the things we did. I remember Chelsea would call down for breakfast and say, ‘If it’s not too much trouble . . .’ And I would say, ‘Chelsea, it’s not too much trouble. It’s my job.’”
The butlers later told Scheib they’d overheard Chelsea talking with her mother about what she’d learned from him that day in the kitchen. “Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea were very, very close. The first lady would change her schedule if Chelsea was available for a meal.” The residence staff often saw this softer side of Hillary, counter to her hard-charging public persona. “In private she was a doting and caring and truly loving mother. She thought Chelsea was the be-all and end-all.”
For Scheib, it was that kind of access to the first families that made his grueling job special. “This is what working at the White House is. Some will talk about, ‘I made this cake,’ or ‘I made that soup,’ or ‘I arranged these flowers.’ That’s not what the job is. The real beauty of the job is getting to see these relationships. It was never about us. It’s not about the pastry chef, it’s not about the chef, it’s not about the florist, it’s not about the groundskeeper. It’s about families.”
NO MATTER HOW friendly the staff become with the children of the residence, the line between the help and the family was always clear. “For all the fancy titles, we’re domestic staff, we need to remember our place,” said Scheib. During the Bush years, he said, “Our only job was to be sure that Jenna and Barbara had exactly what they wanted for lunch or that the president’s meal coming back from church on Sunday was exactly as he wanted it.”
They always wanted to impress the first family. For Hillary Clinton’s fiftieth birthday, Mesnier created an over-the-top cake made of blown sugar balloons—with a hand-painted reproduction of her best-selling book It Takes a Village.
For Chelsea’s sixteenth birthday, he struggled to think of something that would wow her and her parents. He did not know what to make for her and emphatically refused, in his heavy French accent, to “make a cake with flowers on it for a sixteen-year-old. I want something with meaning!”
Two days before her birthday, Mesnier still hadn’t settled on the right idea for her cake. Then, on his commute to work, he heard on a radio show that Chelsea wanted a car and a driver’s license for her birthday. That settled it. He made a handmade Washington, D.C., driver’s license and a car made out of sugar. But the Clintons were celebrating her birthday at Camp David in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park about sixty miles north of the White House, so the cake had to be sent all the way out there—and Mesnier was so worried about the trip that he loaded the cake into the van himself and gave the driver strict instructions on how to handle it. “If you don’t listen,” he said, “you’re going to have a problem.” Then he made the driver promise to take a photo of the cake once it arrived.
IT MAY BE hard for some presidential children to adjust to life in the White House, but the residence staff is always happy to see them. They bring a levity and joyousness that is otherwise absent in the staid and elegant rooms. The second and third floors are cheerier when kids are running up and down the hallways. “Everybody was old when I got there,” says Bill Hamilton, who started during the Eisenhower administration. When the Kennedy family arrived, however, the difference was like night and day. He remembers seeing Caroline and John-John playing with their menagerie of animals, including a pony named Macaroni that Caroline would ride on the South Lawn. “It was just so nice to see. You didn’t think this would ever happen in the White House.”