She lives in a little house in Northwest with a garden out back and doilies on the furniture. She is 81 years old but she still paints her nails (strawberry today) and puts on pearls and earrings for company. Sitting here on her divan, back propped with a yellow pillow, veined hands folded in her tiny lap, Lillian Rogers Parks could be almost anybody's sweet old granny.
"I've had this dress on twice since '61," she says, protesting a compliment. "And please don't call me Mrs. Parks. My name is Lillian. Even the youngsters around here call me Lillian. I never grow old."
Lillian Parks used to be a maid in the White House. For 30 years, while she went about cleaning bathtubs and mending curtains and making beds, there was little but air between her and history. She has talked to Churchill and handed Khrushchev his hat and been close enough to see Bess Truman's palms sweat at state dinners. She has also pretended she was vitally interested in David Eisenhower's baseball cards.
She knows a lot more than this, but she isn't telling -- like some have. Not the real gossipy stuff, anyway. Not for a million bucks.
"I've said it before. You write out the check and hand it to me. And see what happens. I won't budge." A small, steely smile. She isn't kidding.
She thinks she knows what's happening these days, why recent books like Shelia Weidenfeld's get out. "They're not hiring the right people over there. Now when Mrs. Roosevelt was in the White House, she knew. You have to hire people of class. This is the first house of the land. There are certain things you don't do."
She looks over, quizzically: "The Fords weren't in there but two years, were they? Now why would this woman want to go tell all these little incidents about the children?"
Lillian Parks, 4'10" tall and crippled nearly all her life with polio, went to work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in the fall of 1929. Her job title was seamstress, but she filled in wherever she could. The Hoovers occupied the White House then. It was a bad time for everybody. Still, Mrs. Hoover was a lovely lady and tried to give the house lots of dignity. Mr. Hoover, though, "he never talked to anyone." This is nearly whispered -- as if in confidence.
Parks' mother, Maggie Rogers, who had come up from Virginia and eventually became no. 1 White House Maid, was there before her daughter, beginning as far back as the Tafts. When Parks was a little girl, she would tag along to work with her mama -- there was no money for a sitter. "I'd have a pink bow in my hair and a clean dress on. Usually, I wanted to stay home." Once, President Taft found her playing in his tub. When she was older, Parks began taking in Hwite House sewing jobs. Together she and her mothe saw eight First Families come and go. They were the constants.
When Parks retired, near the end of the Eisenhower years she set to work full-time on a memoir called "My 30 Years Backstairs at the White House." She had begun writing the book while still and employe, pecking out memories on an old typewriter in her back yard afte work. The book became a best seller. No one was more surprised than Parks.
Tonight, in the way of big-bucks docu-drama television, NBC begins a nine-hour film on a life spent in the anterooms of history; Bantam and Prentice-Hall have had the novelization out for a month. Parks displays it on her coffee table. No, it doesn't bother her that they've taken her life and turned it into factoids.
If she were a lesser lady, one might guess Lillian Parks would feel some residual bitterness. After all, she only got near the musk of power all those years, never wore it. Here was to stand and wait. Then, too, there is her 75-year struggle with polio, a disease she contracted at 6 in what was then a mosquito-ridden Foggy Bottom. ("It used to be awful down there at the beginning of the century.") To this day, Parks get around -- amazingly well -- on a tiny pair of crutches; her left leg is withered to the size of a forearm.
Parks isn't bitter about anything. Her time in the White House she views as an incredible stroke of fortune. She is grateful for the memories. Which are everywhere about her -- on the walls, end tables, atop the gleaming Radiola. Lillian Parks' home is a gallery of First Family photos. They warm her daily. She has a detailed story about each of them. But she fears if she talks about them too much in interviews, somebody might try to get in and steal them.
"Over there," she says, waving with one hand at a spotlessly dusted portrait, in gold double frame, of Ike and Mamie; her other hand is holding her throat. "That's one of my favorite pictures. Mamie has on her First Inaugural gown. It's pink. Mrs. Eisenhower, she used to tell people, 'I remember Lillian buttoning my gloves for me.'" The inscription under the picture reads, "For Lillian Parks with my sincere best wishes. Mamie Doud Eisenhower." To a visitor anyway, the messae seems cold and formal.
A while ago, Parks ran into Margaret Truman Daniel, a favorite of all the presidential children she's known. "Margaret said, 'I wish I had you with me now, Lillian.' And I said, 'Oh, I don't sew no more, Miss Truman,' and she said, 'Why fine, Lillian, you just keep on writing.'"
She never misses sending Bess Truman a birthday and Christmas card. She always responds Parks says. Bess used to write the notes herself, but now they just come signed with a wriggly "Mrs. T." Once, on her way back from a trip out West to see her brother, Parks stopped over in Independence. It's a grand house those Trumans have, she says; not as grand as the White House.
She liked Captain Harry just fine, though he did take some getting used to. His sense of humor was different, for one thing.
"He was very friendly with the house men. And he was always sneaking up on you. After Mr. Roosevelt, it was hard getting used to a president who could get around on his own. Mr. Truman would come lightly down the stairs from the second floor and step right into the ushers' office. He'd say to the house men, 'Watch this.'"
Parks also got on just fine with the reputedly crotchety Mrs. Wallace, the president's mother-in-law. She would sit with her when Vietta and Bluette, the regular maids, were off at lunch. "We'd talk about Episcopalians."
Parks' memoir, co-written with longtime Washington writer Frances Spatz Leighton, is filled with such innocent reminiscence. There is an occasional snipe (the Eisenhowers had to be nagged into supplying thread to repair the curtains in the Rose Room, and Mrs. Wilson, when the war started, "finally got interested in some activity other than being a companion to her husband"), but mostly the book is warm and kind.
Ironic, then, that this was the book, allegedly, that inspired a fretful Jackie Kennedy to make her White House help sign a pledge they wouldn't write books. Parks still doesn't understand this. "Mrs. Truman knew I was writing my book. She didn't care. She came in for a fitting one day and we talked all about it. And Mamie, she knew. She gave me this real nice leather book jacket and I said, 'Okay, Miss Eisenhower, I'm going to write a book to put in it.'"
Mamie's handsome book jacket covers Parks' personal copy of "My 30 Years Backstairs at the White House." She keeps the book under the coffee table, beside copies of "The Love Machine" and the "Valley of the Dolls." On top of the table is a clip from a recent Playboy, plugging tonight's television show. "I made Playboy, how do you like it? Not the centerfold, though. Ha."
Though she is written up in Playboy; though there was a luncheon in her honor a couple of weeks ago at the Mayflower; though the L.A. Times and People and the Philadelphia Inquirer and a radio man from New Orleans have all been on the phone for interviews, Lillian Rogers Parks seems marvelously unmoved. Her minute in the sun will come and go; she's lived long enough to know that.
For all her granny sweetness, there is something peppery, too, about her. She could give you the devil if you earned it. She doesn't shrink from speaking her mind about the presence of blue jeans in the White House. She thinks it's awful. The Carter crowd may be nice folks (she wouldn't know, she's never met them), but someone outht to get them straight on that, she says.
She is asked if she would work there today. "Maybe not. The world has changed on me a lot, hasn't it?" She looks sad.
Though that brings a thought. "People are still people down deep. Presidents aren't really that different from other folks. You just get used to them being people. That's the only way to handle them."
A grin cracks the fine, old, wrinkled face: "I guess I handled a few."