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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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Barack Obama Taps Kehinde Wiley to Paint His Official Presidential Portrait
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Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist known for his grand portraits of African-American subjects, has painted Michael Jackson, Ice-T, and The Notorious B.I.G. in his work. Now the artist will have the honor of adding Barack Obama to that list. According to the Smithsonian, the former president has selected Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s portraits typically depict black people in powerful poses. Sometimes he models his work after classic paintings, as was the case with "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” The subjects are often dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and placed against decorative backdrops.

Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
"Le Roi a la Chasse"
Kehinde Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Smithsonian also announced that Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald has been chosen by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her portrait for the gallery. Like Wiley, Sherald uses her work to challenge stereotypes of African-Americans in art.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The tradition of the president and first lady posing for portraits for the National Portrait Gallery dates back to George H.W. Bush. Both Wiley’s and Sherald’s pieces will be revealed in early 2018 as permanent additions to the gallery in Washington, D.C.

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The Time Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in the Chest, Then Gave a Speech Anyway
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On October 14, 1912—105 years ago today—Theodore Roosevelt was on the campaign trail in Milwaukee, running for another term. It was a tough race: Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson proved to be a formidable opponent, and William Howard Taft, while unpopular, was the Republican incumbent. Roosevelt was running as a third-party Progressive, and in order to keep pace with his big-ticket rivals he had to work hard. By this point in the election season, he was giving 15 to 20 speeches per day, most of which stretched on for an hour or sometimes more. But this day, TR didn't feel too well. His throat was scratchy, he was tired, and so he planned a relatively quick stop.

What Roosevelt and his security team didn't know was that a man with a .38 caliber revolver had been trailing the campaign since they departed New Orleans. For a thousand miles, he rode quietly, just waiting to get his shot at the Colonel.

John Schrank was a Bavarian-born saloon-keeper from New York. He'd had some strange and troubling dreams in recent months, mostly about President McKinley, whose assassination resulted in Roosevelt's first term. In his dreams, Schrank said that President McKinley asked him to avenge his death and protect democracy from a three-term president. All Schrank had to do was kill Roosevelt before he could be reelected.

"BUT FORTUNATELY I HAD MY MANUSCRIPT"

Roosevelt stood in the seat of his automobile to wave at the crowds and Schrank, who was standing in the front row of the crowd, had his shot. He took aim: point-blank, right at Roosevelt’s head. Then three things happened at the same time. A bystander hit Schrank’s arm; Roosevelt’s security detail spotted the gun and leapt from the car; Schrank pulled the trigger. The shot landed squarely in Roosevelt’s chest just as Schrank was tackled and put in a headlock by the bodyguard. Roosevelt is said not to have noticed he was hit until he reached into his overcoat and felt the blood on his fingers.

But it turns out that Teddy’s long-winded speeches saved his life that day: The bullet traveled through a 50-page copy of his prepared speech and the steel eyeglasses case he carried in the same pocket. The bullet was slowed enough not to reach his lung or heart, which Teddy deduced from the absence of blood when he spoke or coughed. He refused to go to a hospital and insisted on giving his speech.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” he began. He spoke for at least 55 more minutes (though some estimates say 90), still wearing his blood-soaked shirt. (You can read a stenographer’s report of his speech here.)

The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book.
The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book, which—along with the eyeglasses case and the shirt TR was wearing—can be seen at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City.
Erin McCarthy

Roosevelt would spend the next eight days in the hospital. The bullet had lodged in his chest wall and removing it was deemed too unsafe. The wound healed and he never reported trouble from the injury again. Despite having lived through his assassination attempt, the presidency would not be Teddy’s again: Woodrow Wilson’s 41 percent of the vote meant the office would be his, though Roosevelt did beat out incumbent Taft, marking the only time a sitting president has come in third place in a reelection bid.

Schrank, in the meantime, was apprehended immediately. He lived the rest of his life in an insane asylum, and died of pneumonia in 1943.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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