Tommy Tucker is spending eternity in a pink satin dress and pearls. For a squirrel who’s been dead for 63 years, he looks pretty good.
Tommy is the cross-dressing rodent I wrote about this month. Adopted as a baby by Zaidee Bullis of 16th Street NW, Tommy toured the country in the 1940s, wearing tiny women’s clothes, entertaining children and supporting the war effort by selling war bonds.
When Tommy died in 1949 his owners sent him off to be stuffed, promising that he would go to a museum, where future generations could learn about his exploits. That never happened. Tommy’s mounted remains eventually ended up with a Maryland woman named Elaine Le Martine. When Elaine passed away in 2005, her will stipulated: “I give and bequeath The Famous Tommy Tucker and all his belongings to the Smithsonian [Institution].”
Of course, the Smithsonian gets offered a lot of things. In the years after Elaine’s death, it didn’t express much interest in Tommy, the executor of Elaine’s estate told me.
After my column was published, I heard from readers who remembered Tommy. They included Elaine’s second husband — a one-time miniature golf course operator named Jim Wood — and a former Prince George’s County register of wills, who keeps an autographed photo of Tommy on her desk.
This week, I found myself in a lawyer’s office in Prince George’s, about to meet the world-renowned squirrel, or at least his mortal remains. I reached into a large cardboard box and pulled out a Plexiglas vitrine. Inside the plastic cube was Tommy, standing tall and dressed to the nines.
“I wish you could convince the Smithsonian to take it,” said Elaine’s executor and heir. The gentleman asked that I not publish his name because after Elaine’s death there was some family unpleasantness he’d prefer not to revisit.
“Their curator was going to get back to me about three years ago, and I haven’t heard anything from them,” he said.
Jim Wood remembers Tommy. He was married to Elaine in the 1980s and helped run a mini-golf course and driving range that her family owned in Temple Hills. They lived in a house abutting the golf course and Tommy sat atop a china cabinet. Jim said it was his idea to construct a protective plastic case for Tommy, since moths were taking their toll on his taxidermied form.
Elaine’s grandmother used to tell Jim stories about Zaidee Bullis, Tommy’s “mother.” The families were related, though no one is sure exactly how. (Zaidee was apparently Elaine’s great-aunt.) Zaidee’s husband, Mark Bullis, was a wealthy dentist, and when the couple took Tommy on tour, they drove in a Packard Touring Car, accompanied by a bulldog that had gold teeth and wore a fez.
“He may very well have gotten the dog stuffed, too,” Jim said. If so, its whereabouts are unknown.
The Tommy Tucker collection includes plenty besides Tommy. There is a small steamer trunk containing some of his tiny dresses. There are dozens and dozens of souvenir photographs, each stamped with the logo of the Famous Tommy Tucker. There are handwritten letters from schoolchildren. (“Dear Tommy Tucker, I loved all of your dresses and I liked the wedding dress best of all,” wrote a girl named Phyllis Benjamin.)
There is a letter from the commander of the Lucky Penny, a B-17 bomber for whom Tommy was the mascot. (“Dear Tommy,” wrote Jimmy Evans, “it sure was good hearing from you again & to learn you have a job, that of sponsoring the next War Bond Drive. . . . Yep Tommy, you sure are tops with us.”)
“It would seem that this has more historic significance to it than Bruce Willis’s dirty T-shirt,” the executor said as I eased Tommy’s plastic sarcophagus back into the cardboard box. He was referring to the blood-stained “Die Hard” undergarment the National Museum of American History added to its collection in 2007.
I’ve put the two parties back in touch, and a curator from American History should be checking Tommy out soon.
I certainly hope the Smithsonian has room for Tommy and his effects. The collection tells the story of a nation at war, of the heights of celebrity and also of the peculiar mania that affects some Americans, whether they be P.T. Barnum or Zaidee Bullis.
To see a gallery of Tommy Tucker photographs and to read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.