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11 Interesting Facts About Being on the Service Staff at the White House

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The Residence, by Kate Anderson Brower, is an extraordinary portrait of the butlers, maids, plumbers, and chefs who run the “home” half of the White House. The book is crafted from over 100 interviews, and takes readers to the tragic day Jackie Kennedy returned home in a blood-soaked dress, what Richard Nixon did after resigning, and what it’s like to walk in on naked presidents. The result is a mesmerizing history of America from the service staff’s heretofore untold point of view. A comprehensive list of the fascinating details revealed by Brower would require reprinting the book in its entirety; here's a tiny sampling of things we learned from The Residence.

1. It takes a large staff to care for the White House.

The White House is bigger than you think. Within the building, according to Brower, “132 rooms, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators are spread across the 6 floors—plus two hidden mezzanine levels—all tucked within what appears to be a three-story building.” Ninety-six people work full-time in the residence, and there are another 250 part-time employees. Among the jobs they do: butler, maid, chef, plumber, doorman, and florist. The second and third floors of the White House make up the residence.

2. “Devotion” is the service staff’s watchword.

Members of the service staff pride themselves on being able to melt into the walls, remaining simultaneously attentive and unobtrusive. Things like bed turndown, vacuumed carpet, and painted walls happen as if by magic, carefully choreographed around the first family’s schedule. World-class parties can be thrown with a moment’s notice. A shirt removed when the president steps into the shower has vanished for laundering by the time he gets out. 

The job is in many ways a calling, and devotion is required to be a successful member of the service staff. World events drive the daily schedule, and one supervisor reported working 1000 hours of overtime a year. According to a former White House executive chef, “You work for the same people every day, you don’t have any personal life, family, social life, you work what we used to call ‘White House flex time’—that is, you choose any eighty-five hours you want to work each week.”

3. Intimate conditions sometimes lead to embarrassing moments.

Members of the service staff guard fiercely the privacy of the first family. Without the family’s trust, it would be impossible for members of the service staff to do their jobs effectively. Working in such intimate conditions sometimes leads to embarrassing moments. One usher once had to interrupt President Reagan’s shower to deliver an urgent message. “All he had on was a skim of water!” he said. Later that evening, the same usher had to deliver another message to the president. He knocked on the bedroom door and announced that he had a package for the president. Nancy Reagan told him to come in. He entered the bedroom just as the president, wearing nothing but underwear, was walking out of the dressing room. “Oh Ronnie,” said the first lady, “you could at least put on a robe.” Responded the president: “Don’t worry about it. He’s already seen me naked once today. We’re old friends.”

4. Open positions are not advertised.

Don’t bother checking the classified ads for job openings. Available positions on the White House residential staff are filled by word of mouth, with employees bringing in, and vouching for, new hires. Multiple generations of families sometimes work in “the house,” as they call it, and employees generally stay on for decades.

5. The White House chefs are the best in the world.

White House chefs are world-class, and working for the White House means turning down competing job offers worth several hundred thousand dollars more. It’s worth it, said one chef: “The White House is the top of the top. If it’s not the top at the White House, when is it going to be the top?” Chefs prepare meals befitting the office, and also to suit its occupant. “If the president wanted a peanut butter and honey sandwich then by god we made the best peanut butter and honey sandwich we could.”

Great pride is taken not only in the food, but in its presentation. Lyndon Johnson worked erratic hours, which meant the White House chef also had to work erratic hours. Lady Bird Johnson requested that the chef start going home at a reasonable hour, and simply leave a prepared meal in the kitchen. She would reheat the meal for the president, she said, or if she were asleep, the president could heat it when he was ready for dinner. The Maître d’ was indignant at such a suggestion: “The president of the United States having to serve himself dinner? Never!”

6. They refill drinks, fix the plumbing, and find terrorists.

The Secret Service isn’t the only group handling security. The White House maid staff is trained to be alert for signs of unusual activity that might endanger the first family. In 2011, a maid discovered a broken window and piece of broken concrete on the Truman Balcony. An FBI investigation stemmed from the discovery. What the Secret Service had previously dismissed as a gang shooting unrelated to presidential security turned out to be seven shots fired directly at the White House.

7. Presidential transitions are their Super Bowl.

When a new president is elected, he or she takes ownership of the White House at 12:00 on Inauguration Day. Until the stroke of noon, however, the residential staff gives the outgoing president the same level of service as any other day. While everyone is at the Inauguration, the service staff has six hours to transform the White House for its new occupants. It is a massive endeavor requiring the presence of every member of the staff. All of the outgoing family’s belongings are packed and all of the incoming family’s belongings unpacked. When the new president arrives at his or her new home, the mansion is redecorated; rugs, headboards, and mattresses changed; new flowers arranged; paintings replaced; clothes hung; and toothbrush set out. When the outgoing president departed his or her family photographs are hanging on the wall. When the new president arrives, his or her family photos are there.

8. They don’t come cheap, and the president has to pay for it all.

The president is on the hook for his or her personal expenses, and for those of his or her guests. Food, drink, dry cleaning, mints on pillows, and wine add up, and quickly. When parties are thrown in the evenings, in addition to paying the way for hundreds of people, the president has to pay time-and-a-half to the White House staff. It is a shocking and dismaying discovery for every incoming family. Writes Brower, “Even Jackie Kennedy instructed the chief usher to ‘run this place just like you’d run it for the chinchiest president who ever got elected!’ She dropped her voice comically, adding, ‘We don’t have nearly as much money as you read in the papers!’”

9. The president’s food is serious business.

The president’s supply lines of food are prescreened by both the FBI and Secret Service. If the president discovers something he or she likes while traveling, that food is shipped to the home of someone on the residential staff so that nobody knows it’s going to the president. (Likewise, the president’s room service goes to a member of the staff traveling with him or her.) Residence workers also buy the president’s groceries. According to one member of the service staff, “there is no one more important to the physical safety of the president than the pastry chef and the chef.”

10. They work in a museum.

White House curators keep track of “every candlestick and side table.” Furniture and artwork are irreplaceable, which sometimes complicates living arrangements and public events. “You’re working in a museum,” said one member of the service staff. Moving things around for television cameras isn’t as easy as one might think. “It’s not just two chairs for an interview,” but “two chairs in the Blue Room that are older than you are—by centuries—that need to be moved out of the way.” Accordingly, specific members of the staff handle such changes. What is not on display at the White House is stored at a warehouse in Riverdale, Md.

11. With every new family, they must relearn their jobs.

Presidents come and go, but the service staff remains the same. After four or eight years, staff grow close to the first family, and tears are invariably shed when there’s a change in administration. When a new family comes in, a new vibe comes with them. Chefs must learn new palates, florists learn new tastes, and there’s a long stretch during which the incoming family must learn to adapt to a suddenly robust staff eager to attend to their every need. One White House usher in The Residence admitted that some first families are a pleasure to serve, and that with some they have to pretend. “But we pretend very well,” he said.

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George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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25 Things You Probably Didn't Know About George Washington
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You know that George Washington was the first President of the United States. Is that where your knowledge of this fascinating guy's life and history ends? Here are 25 things you might not have known about POTUS #1.

1. HE DIDN'T HAVE A MIDDLE NAME.

With a name like George Washington, you don't really need one.

2. HE WAS NOT BORN ON FEBRUARY 22, 1732.

Washington was actually born on February 11, 1731, but when the colonies switched to the Gregorian calendar from the Julian calendar, his birthday was moved 11 days. Since his birthday fell before the old date for New Year’s Day, but after the new date for New Year’s Day, his birth year was changed to 1732.

3. HIS HAIR WAS ALL REAL.


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It looks white because he powdered it.

4. HE WAS MADE AN HONORARY CITIZEN OF FRANCE.

The quintessential American received this honor in 1792.

5. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A NON-PRESIDENT COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF (BUT HE DIDN'T DO MUCH).

In 1798, when fears were growing of a French invasion, Washington was named (by John Adams) Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military, even though he wasn’t president anymore. Apparently, this was a strategy to help recruiting, as Washington’s name was very well-known. He only served in an advisory capacity, since he was already pretty old by that point. That being said, he felt he should have been a bit more involved. According to this letter, he was frustrated that even though he was the Commander-in-Chief, nobody really told him much about what was going on with the military.

6. NO ONE WILL EVER RANK HIGHER THAN HIM IN THE U.S. MILITARY.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1976 Washington was posthumously awarded the highest rank in the U.S. military—ever.

According to Air Force Magazine:

When Washington died, he was a lieutenant general. But as the centuries passed, this three-star rank did not seem commensurate with what he had accomplished. After all, Washington did more than defeat the British in battle. Along the way he established the framework for how American soldiers should organize themselves, how they should behave, and how they should relate to civilian leaders. Almost every big decision he made set a precedent. He was the father of the US military as well as the US itself.

So, a law was passed to make Washington the highest ranking U.S. officer of all time: General of the Armies of the United States. Nobody will ever outrank him.

7. HE MADE A PRETTY HEFTY SALARY.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, in 1789, Washington's presidential salary was 2 percent of the total U.S. budget.

8. EVEN SO, HE HAD SOME CASH FLOW PROBLEMS.

Washington actually had to borrow money to attend his own first inauguration.

9. HE WAS ONE OF THE SICKLIEST PRESIDENTS IN U.S. HISTORY.

Throughout his life, Washington suffered from a laundry list of ailments: diphtheria, tuberculosis, smallpox, dysentery, malaria, quinsy (tonsillitis), carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis—to name a few.

10. HE MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE DIED AS A RESULT OF MEDICAL MALPRACTICE.

On the day he died, Washington was treated with four rounds of bloodletting, which removed 5 pints of blood from his body. It seems that it proved to be too much. From the New York Times:

On Washington's fateful day, Albin Rawlins, one of his overseers and a bloodletter, was summoned. Washington bared his arm. The overseer had brought his lancet and made an incision. Washington said, ''Don't be afraid.'' That day, Rawlins drew 12 ounces of blood, then 18 ounces, another 18 ounces and a final 32 ounces into a porcelain bleeding bowl.

After the fourth bloodletting, the patient improved slightly and was able to swallow. By about 10 p.m., his condition deteriorated, but he was still rational enough to whisper burial instructions to Col. Tobias Lear, his secretary.

At 10:20 p.m., Dr. James Craik, 69, an Edinburgh-trained physician who had served with Washington in the French and Indian Wars, closed Washington's eyes. Another Edinburgh-trained physician, Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown, 52, was also present. The third physician, Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, 37, who had been appointed coroner the previous year, stopped the clock in Washington's bedroom at that moment.

11. HE MIGHT HAVE BEEN INFERTILE.

It is well-known that Washington had no children of his own. In 2007, John K. Amory of the University of Washington School of Medicine proposed that Washington was infertile. Armory goes through a number of possible reasons for Washington’s infertility, including an infection caused by his tuberculosis. “Classic studies of soldiers with tuberculous pleurisy during World War II demonstrated that two thirds developed chronic organ tuberculosis within 5 years of their initial infection. Infection of the epididymis or testes is seen in 20% of these individuals and frequently results in infertility.”

12. WASHINGTON'S BODY WAS ALMOST BURIED IN THE CAPITOL.

Don Francisco, a reenactor who works at Mount Vernon, places a wreath at George Washington's tomb at Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, February 17, 2014 in Mount Vernon, Virginia
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Washington requested that he be buried at Mount Vernon, and his family upheld his request, despite repeated pleas by Congress. They wanted to put his body underneath a marble statue in the Capitol.

13. HE WAS NOT VERY RELIGIOUS.

According to Washington biographer Edward Lengel, "He was a very moral man. He was a very virtuous man, and he watched carefully everything he did. But he certainly doesn't fit into our conception of a Christian evangelical or somebody who read his Bible every day and lived by a particular Christian theology. We can say he was not an atheist on the one hand, but on the other hand, he was not a devout Christian."

But what about he story of him kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge to pray? According to Lengel, "That's a story that was made up by [early Washington biographer] Parson Weems."

While he would attend church, Washington wouldn't take communion. According to biographer Barry Schwartz, Washington's "practice of Christianity was limited and superficial, because he was not himself a Christian. In the enlightened tradition of his day, he was a devout Deist--just as many of the clergymen who knew him suspected."

14. HE NEVER CHOPPED DOWN THAT CHERRY TREE.

 A cherry tree is in full bloom in front of the U.S. Capitol on March 19, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Parson Weems, who wrote a myth-filled biography of Washington shortly after he died, made up the cherry tree story. The Mount Vernon Digital Encyclopedia identifies that book, The Life of Washington, as " the point of origin for many long-held myths about Washington."

15. HE WAS AN INVETERATE LETTER-WRITER.

We don’t have an exact number, but the best estimates seem to put the number of letters he penned somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000. If you wrote one letter a day, it would take you between 50 and 55 years to write that many.

16. BEFORE BECOMING THE FATHER OF THE NATION, HE WAS A MASTER SURVEYOR.

Washington spent the early part of his career as a professional surveyor. One of the earliest maps he created was of his half-brother Lawrence Washington’s turnip garden. Over the course of his life, Washington created some 199 land surveys. Washington took this skill with him into his role as a military leader.

17. BEFORE FIGHTING THE BRITISH, HE FOUGHT FOR THE BRITISH.

At the age of 21, Washington was sent to lead a British colonial force against the French in Ohio. He lost, and this helped spark the Seven Years War in North America.

18. HE WAS A DOG LOVER.


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Washington kept and bred many hunting hounds. He is known as the "Father of the American Foxhound," and kept more than 30 of the dogs. According to his journals, three of the hounds' names were Drunkard, Tipler, and Tipsy.

19. HE LOST MORE BATTLES THAN HE WON.

According to Joseph J. Ellis's His Excellency: George Washington, our first president "lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history.”

20. HE WAS LUCKY, BUT HIS COAT WASN'T.

In the Braddock disaster of 1755, Washington’s troops were caught in the crossfire between British and Native American soldiers. Two horses were shot from under Washington, and his coat was pierced by four musket balls, none of which hit his actual body.

21. HE DIDN'T HAVE WOODEN TEETH.

He did, however, have teeth problems. When he attended his first inauguration, he only had one tooth left in his head.

22. HE IS THE ONLY PRESIDENT TO ACTUALLY GO INTO BATTLE WHILE SERVING AS PRESIDENT.

General George Washington (1732 - 1799) stands in the prow of a rowing boat crossing the Delaware to seek safety in Pennysylvania after defeat by the British
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But only if you don't count Bill Pullman in Independence Day. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, “On September 19, 1794, George Washington became the only sitting U.S. President to personally lead troops in the field when he led the militia on a nearly month-long march west over the Allegheny Mountains to the town of Bedford.”

23. HE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS BEST FRIEND'S WIFE.

According to Joseph Ellis's His Excellency, several letters show that before he married Martha, Washington was in love with Sally Fairfax, who was the wife of George William Fairfax.

In 1758, Washington wrote to Sally his famous “Votary to Love” letter:

Tis true I profess myself a votary to Love. I acknowledge that a Lady is in the case; and, further, I confess that this lady is known to you. Yes, Madam, as well as she is to one who is too sensible of her Charms to deny the Power whose influence he feels and must ever submit to....You have drawn me, my dear Madam, or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a Simple Fact. Misconstrue not my meaning, 'tis obvious; doubt it not or expose it. The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to - you, when I want to conceal it. One thing above all things, in this World I wish to know, and only one person of your acquaintance can solve me that or guess my meaning - but adieu to this till happier times, if ever I shall see them.

24. HE WAS WIDELY CRITICIZED IN THE PRESS IN THE LATER YEARS OF HIS PRESIDENCY.

He was accused of having an overly monarchical style and was criticized for his declaration of neutrality in overseas conflicts. Thomas Jefferson was among the most critical of Washington in the press, and John Adams recalled that after the Jay Treaty, the presidential mansion “was surrounded by innumerable multitudes, from day to day buzzing, demanding war against England, cursing Washington.”

25. HE OWNED A WHISKEY DISTILLERY.

He installed it at Mount Vernon in 1798 and it was profitable. According to Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish visitor to the estate, it distilled 12,000 gallons a year. In 1799, Washington wrote to his nephew: “Two hundred gallons of Whiskey will be ready this day for your call, and the sooner it is taken the better, as the demand for this article (in these parts) is brisk.”

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