INSIDE BLAIR HOUSE tells the story of the people who run the president's guest house and of some of the people who have passed through it. It is largely too the story of Mary Edith Wilroy, its official hostess under several recent administrations. As such her duties ranged from overseeing paper-hangers coping with 18thcentury wall paper to finding a special hair dye for a vain visiting head of state.
In 1942 the American government purchased Blair Huse, located just across the street from the White House, to provide a residence for visiting heads of state and the inevitably large retinue that accompanies such people. The running of the house was given to the Protocol Office of the Department of State. When Mary Edith Wilroy took over as head of Blair House in 1961, Ambassador Angier Biddle Duke fund it in a "sorry state, with floors that needed sanding and varnishing. Some of the curtains were so tattered that they had to come down, and some windows were bare of curtains or drapes altogether. Fixtures were missing or borken in many of the bathrooms, and bedspreads and coanopies on several beds reserved for the crowned and uncrowned heads of state had seen better days."
The wives of each succeeding Chief of Protocol became Wilroy's allies in restoring and improving the house. She loved them all, but her favorite was Ambassador Duke's wife, Robin, who originally organized the Fine Arts Committee for Blair House at Jacqueline Kennedy's request.
Robin Duke immediately pressed the Kennedy cabinet wives into service as donors, fundraisers or design advisors for the renovation project. This became a tradition, followed by succeeding administrations, and greatly contributing to the personal warmth of the house. The list of members of the Fine Arts Committee for Blair House was peppered with great names of Washington and New York society. Some of New York's most prestigious interior disigners swung into action, having been assigned specific areas in which to work. One marvels at th author's diplomacy and tact in being able to cope with several interior disigners at work simultaneously, all requiring the assistance of the staff and each project causing hundreds of packages and crates to arrive in concert.
Some readers may, however, find the text of Inside Blair House "over-decorated." There is more detail furnished about the design thant he average reader cares to know. It is all fascinating to anyone in the design business, but superfluous to a lover of history, who wuld wish for more gossip than room description.
However, the book marches through the series of state visits in chronological order, as though Wilroy and her writer, Lucie Prinz, had taken her diary and gone from page to page, filling in details at random. Here and there we get a glimpse of the cast of characters of the house -like the redoubtable William Dallas, who turned out simple, good food in his kitchen; James McHaney the houseman, who polishes the floors and the brass to mirror-reflection; and Ingrid Carlson, the perfectionist housekeeper, of whom Wilroy writes, "Woe to the chambermaid who got so much as a pilowcase out of place."
Wilroy also had a serious, behind-the-scenes respnsibility. She had to corrdinate all the State Department's planning of the care and feeding of the official visitors; she had to make sure that everyone was comfortable, and that all problems were solved (whether these entailed a missing shirt stud, a bad back, an attack of indigestion, or a case of acute shyness). She writes so as not to offend anyone, and not to get anyone in trouble; she is a woman with "diplomatic smarts." When she writes about the visit of the polo-playing jetsetting Maharaja and Maharani of Jaipur to Blair House as guests of President and Mrs. Kennedy, she is careful to point out:
"They were personal friends of the Kennedys and were staying at the house as their guests, not as official visitors to the country. The cost of this visit was paid by President and Mrs. Kennedy."
White House weddings often spilled over into Blair House. Wilroy and her staff took care of dressing the men in Luci Johnson and Patrick Nugent's wedding party; Colonel and Mrs. Howard Cox hosted the rehearsal dinner at Blair House the night before Patricia Nixon and Edward Cox took their vows; and Lynda and Chuck Robb secretly spent their wedding night in its bridal chamber. Wilroy arranged to have waiting a large platter of sandwiches, cookies, and champagne on ice. The next morning the staff found all of it consumed, plus an empty fried chicken carton. "It was the one and only time that Colonel Sanders has ever prepared a meal for Blair House," she concluded.
The mistress of Blair House has also had her share of diplomatic gaffe-averting, such as the time when Chancellor Adenauer was about to arrive, and she thought the flag sent over by the State Department somehow didn't look quite right. It wasn't. It was the flag of Belgium. She got it changed just in time. She maintained her good humor in times of trial -for 15 years. When a head of state's advance man would say, "This bedroom is too warm," she would open all the windows onto Pennsylvania Avenue. When this was followed by the comment "It's much too noisy," she would move the head of state to a back bedroom where there was no noise. When the next comment from the advance man was, "The bathroom is too cold," she would move in space heaters. Patience personified. When guests behaved in a boorish manner, she gave only a slap on the wrist. When the President of Venezuela arrived and sent her scurringing to buy a large number of shirts in a special size and fabric, she commented, "I can't imagine why he didn't pack any."
But the great scandal of Blair House during all those years was the existence of rats. When the nearby Lafayette renewal project began, generations of rats moved next door into the walls of Wilroy's domain. Even President Truman was visited by a rat when he stayed there for President Kennedy's funeral. Strong poison was put throughout the house which killed the animals, but the rats had chosen the walls for their death scenes, and the odor was unbearable. Here was President Antonio Segni of Italy about to arrive. Wilroy sent forth battalions with deodorant-sprayers and room-fresheners. The rat experts finally found the entry way, plugged it, and Mary Edith Wilroy could rest easily again.
The author lived through bitter moments of history, as well as glamorous ones. She reacted swiftly when someone brought the news that the president had been shot in Dallas. She called to Ingrid, the housekeeper, realizing the house was torn to pieces for a renovation.
"They're going to need this house."
Then she proceeded to galvanize the Government Services Agency into action, asking them for "as many laborers and extra staff as they could spare." The Truman family was to arrive the next day to stay for the funeral.
"I made a list of what was essential for the funeral. I spent hours mobilizing people for the gigantic task we had ahead of us. Everyone I called was pleased to help, and most of them were grateful that they had something to do during this terrible time. By eleventhirty the little army of people we had assembled had managed to get the first floor completely set up. There was a table of refreshments, and parlr maids and butlers in their blcak and white uniforms were on hand to serve. The Nosegay had prepared several especially beautiful flower arrangements. The floors were clean, if not sparkling, and the rugs and furniture were in place."
This is a woman's book, adding a charming dimension to the care and feeding of VIPs. But it also takes its own place in history. Inside Blair House may win no literary prizes, but it tells the story of a woman who did her job exceedingly well..