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Inaugural Treasure Hunter

New York Man Has Collection That Rivals Smithsonian's

By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page B01

Barry Landau has made it his life's work to keep up with people, Hollywood types ranging from Frank Sinatra to Brian Dennehy and anyone connected with the White House, from former first ladies and presidents to the people who make the carpets and curtains.

Over the years, he has built a network of the powerful and famous, creating a niche as a liaison between the world of politics and entertainment. Along the way, he became a self-educated White House historian and collector of things presidential, with a particular interest in inauguration memorabilia.

Barry Landau in his Manhattan apartment with some of his collection of inauguration memorabilia. (Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)

"He is a very curious kind of guy," said Larry Bird, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. "He sort of lives the life that he collects or aspires to collect, that sort of axis that spins between Washington, New York and Hollywood."

Bird said Landau has the most extensive collection of inaugural memorabilia outside the Smithsonian, the National Archives or the presidential libraries. "The currency for him is his social connections," Bird said, "and his collection is gathered using this social currency, his contacts and connections that bridge this world of politics and entertainment and theater."

When Landau heard what Bird had said about him, he took exception to just one point, that the Smithsonian's inaugural collection outshines his. "Mine is much better," he said, laughing. "Wait until I talk to Larry."

Four years ago, when the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies needed plates for the inaugural luncheon, it turned to Landau, who had a collection of china used at Thomas Jefferson's inauguration in 1801. Presidents come and go, but traditions remain, and Landau is the keeper of traditions, the go-to guy.

"I have a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy," Landau said, "and she wrote: 'They should make you the Minister of Inaugurations.' "

Landau, 56, who owns a media business, spends much of his time on the phone, talking, keeping in touch -- he just spoke to Lady Bird Johnson the other day -- and, these days, taking phone calls from Bush people with inauguration-related questions. Which Bush people he talks to he will not say, because being indiscreet could risk not being consulted.

The inaugural calls began in June, he said, when Bush people and Kerry people called to begin exploring themes and history. Those early calls were all hush-hush, super top-secret, because neither campaign wanted to look as if it was being cocky or counting the votes before they were cast.

"This is the 100th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt's inauguration, and that appealed tremendously to the current White House, because it is the image that [President Bush] wanted," Landau said. "Roosevelt was a second-term Republican -- he became president three months into [William] McKinley's term when he died -- and he was rough and ready and he had all the right appeal to them. And that is the sub-theme to the inaugural."

Landau said he gave Bush a menu from a train trip that Roosevelt took across Texas in April 1905 after his March inauguration. He said Bush inaugural planners are re-creating some dishes from the Roosevelt menu and serving them at lunches and dinners next week.

During the Republican National Convention in New York in August, Landau said, Laura Bush consulted him about possible themes for the inauguration, emphasizing that the country might still be at war. He said he provided her with information about Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in 1917 and Franklin D. Roosevelt's in 1945.

Landau's fascination with the presidency began when he was 10 and his mother took him from their home on Long Island to Manhattan to see President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he said. He recalls getting close enough to speak to the president and to tell Mamie Eisenhower how beautiful she was. He said that the first lady invited him to the White House and that he went with his mother, sharpening pencils in the Oval Office while waiting for the president to make his entrance.

In his collection is an original key to the White House that was squirreled away by a locksmith for years and ended up at a flea market on Long Island, where Landau scooped it up and then had it authenticated. "I own the original key to the White House!" he gushed, slipping in an off-color adjective.

He was talking on the phone from his midtown Manhattan apartment, described by friends as luxurious and filled with White House memorabilia. "I'm so excited," Landau said. "I'm getting a piece of carpet from the Oval Office delivered tomorrow."

In the 1970s and '80s, he was a press agent, hanging out at nightclubs and discos, including Studio 54. A night of partying with Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, landed him before a grand jury, where he testified that he heard Jordan ask where he could get cocaine. No charges were ever brought.

He is devoted to both Republicans and Democrats, he says. What juices him is the history and his relationship with people. Names drop out of his mouth like raindrops from a cloud.

Actor William Baldwin, a Democrat, said: "He is one small part James Bond, one small part Hollywood mover and shaker with a sprinkle of passion for the American political process. When it comes to American presidential history, he is a bit of a diva."

Actress and heiress Dina Merrill, a longtime Republican activist, said she has known Landau for 20 years. "He is a fellow with a lot of access to people that maybe you want to get to know," she said from her home in Florida. "He knows a lot of people and he is very connected with the political world as well as the acting profession and show biz."

Landau said he recently acquired remnants of the silk used to make curtains for the current White House. He is having the remnants, which he bought from a fabric company that was going out of business in New York, made into vests to wear to inaugural events.

Actor Brian Dennehy said, "With Barry, there is this communication going on, and he has these connections he uses to move things right along."

Dennehy was on the phone from Los Angeles after working until 3 a.m. on an episode of "The West Wing."

"Barry is always good about providing liaison with the White House," he said. "This is a very difficult time for artists such as myself who don't have the conventional Hollywood reaction to the war and the president. I want to be in touch with the kids, those who are at Walter Reed, and their families and also with the White House."

He said Landau helps make that possible. "He is a very loyal and patriotic American," Dennehy said, "and a lot of people don't like to be described that way these days, which is a mystery to me. But he does, and he is."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company