When the 300-plus-pound President William Howard Taft wallowed his way into the Atlantic Ocean for a swim, crowds of beachgoers gathered in awe, some feeling that it was improper to take a dip in the same ocean as the Chief. One woman, trying to explain why, caught her slip about the obese Taft too late. "The president," said she, "is taking up the ocean and no one else can go in."
Taft was not the first president to relax in the water. Many first families have unwound with dips, crawls, wading, strokes, dives, plunges, races and butterflies. But swimming was not always as routine it is today, particularly since many Americans 200 years ago believed that any kind of regular bathing or swimming was unhealthy. Presidential families' swimming habits parallel the acceptability of swimming as a sport.
Americans began flocking to mineral water spas in large groups by the mid-18th century. One of the most popular was Warm Springs, now Berkeley Springs, in West Virginia. One of its earliest visitors was George Washington, who traveled as a young man from his first home, Ferry Farm, to "take the waters," the expression for sitting in mineral spring holes and allowing the body to absorb the dark-staining minerals.
After marrying, George took Martha with him to the Springs accompanied by Patsy Custis, her daughter by her first marriage. Patsy was an epileptic, and doctors believed "taking the waters" might calm her occasional seizures. They stayed at Warm Springs for more than a month in 1769, and Martha Washington appeared in her blue-and-white-checked linen "bathing suit," which had lead disks wrapped in linen and attached near the hem to keep the light suit from coming up around the modest Martha as she slipped into the waters.
A contemporary description makes it clear that men and women were not allowed to frolic together: "A large hollow scooped in the sand, surrounded by a screen of pine brush, was the only bathing-house; and this was used alternately by ladies and gentlemen. The time set apart for the ladies was announced by a blast on a large tin horn, at which signal all of the opposite sex retired to a prescribed distance . . ."
In later years James and Elizabeth Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison and Letitia Tyler visited Hot Springs, also in West Virginia. Springs quickly developed into fashionable watering holes of high society. After 54-year-old President John Tyler eloped with Julia Gardiner ( 30 years his junior) in June 1844, they honeymooned at the Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., where the new and ravishing Mrs. Tyler spent more time socializing and entertaining guests than she did bathing. The resort's Presidential Cottage also housed the bathing Presidents Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce and his wife Jane.
Bostonian John Adams preferred his New England and took the waters at Stafford Springs, Conn. At the bottom of a large hill, the springs had clear still water, and the sandy rocks were stained brown with its high mineral content. The water was poured upon the ailing out of a wooden trough, while Adams and others drank gallons of the metallic-tasting stuff from mugs. Twice a day Adams paid an eightpence to drink and plunge along with, as he wrote in his diary, "the halt, the lame, the vapory, hypochondriac, scrofulous."
Abigail Adams went one better. She took her first dip into an ocean, from British shores, not American. In 1787, as the wife of the first United States ambassador to Great Britain, Mrs. Adams visited Southampton, one of many popular seaside resorts in England, and cautiously participated in what she called the "experiment." Emerging from one of the beach-front dressing rooms in oilcloth cap, flannel gown and socks, Abigail delighted so much in the ocean wading that she thought America should establish bathing beaches in Boston, Weymouth and Braintree, Mass.
But her attitude soured on swimming as she continued visiting other beaches. This "rage" was becoming too much of "a national evil as it promotes and encourages dissipation, mixes all characters promiscuously," and was "the resort of the most unprincipaled sic female characters."
Regardless of what his mother Abigail thought, President John Quincy Adams was a fish in water. For more than 30 years before, during and after his presidency in 1825, Adams had risen before sunrise on warm days from October to April and traveled several miles in pea jacket and pantaloons, with towel in hand, to Tiber Creek, which fed into the Potomac. At the same spot each morning, he stripped naked and put his clothes on a familiar rock. Then, dressed only in a black cap and green goggles, President Adams dived headfirst into the creek, swam several yards and turned the backstroke.
Word got out that the swimming president performed this ritual in the buff and an enterprising reporter of unique interviewing techniques, Miss Anne Royall, took advantage of it. One morning Miss Royall introduced herself to the shocked president in the water, sat on his clothes and, in her thick Alabama accent, graciously demanded an interview. She got it, and noted his "vigorous constitution."
Adams' wife, the English-born Louisa Catherine, also loved bathing, but quite apart from her husband. On a separate vacation, the first lady fished, drank from and bathed in the waters of Bordentown, N.J. She particularly relished the loose muslin bathing outfit that allowed her body to breathe free from her usual and often painfully dangerous whalebone stays and suffocating corsets. She took to the waters of a local spa with childlike glee, and it provided more a mental, than physical, cure to her constant repression as a mid-19th-century lady.
Although he partook of the proverbial old swimming hole as a youth, Abraham Lincoln as president had no time to swim or bathe. His nervous first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, however, escaped to Long Branch, N.J., in the summer of 1861, supposedly to wade in the ocean. But when she arrived Mrs. Lincoln discovered that music recitals, balls, shopping sprees and inspection of a newfangled lifesaving station for drifting swimmers were already planned for her by the city fathers. Later, during her long and painful widowhood, she had a chance to take to the waters. She spent several years traveling throughout Europe and later Pennsylvania, from one mineral spa to another, searching for relief from advancing arthritis and increased mental unrest.
Long Branch became the official summer White House for President Ulysses S. Grant and his family in the 1870s. There, the Grants enjoyed living in a large gingerbread-trimmed home with a private beach. Ulysses and Julia Grant, their sons and family friends dipped daily, not for therapy, but for recreation.
Chester Alan Arthur summered at Newport during the Gilded Age of the 19th century, taking only a rarely try in chilly Narragansett Bay. It was not until the Theodore Roosevelt family came to the White House in 1901 that swimming became a presidential pastime, and by this time, a rage with all Americans -- women included. Roosevelt, a strict believer in vigorous exercise, swam nearly every day while at his Oyster Bay, Long Island, home. TR believed the best way to teach his children and niece Eleanor to swim was plunging them into the water, urging his eldest, "Dive, Alice! Dive!" Alice recalled that her father did not allow his bad eyesight to get in the way of his swimming, and compared him to a frightening sea monster as he skimmed the surface in his pince-nez glasses and wet moustache.
Cousin Eleanor Roosevelt always said the best swimmer was Alice, who relished seeing Eleanor filled with terror as she bobbed underwater. Although both women became very good swimmers, Alice perhaps indulged in her dad's daring nature. On a government excursion to the Orient, "Princess Alice" made headlines as she jumped fully clothed into the ship's canvas swimming pool during the Pacific crossing. In Hawaii, she dived off dangerously high ledges into the shallow water below, maddeningly close to the sharp reefs. Later, as Mrs. Nicholas Longworth, she was often spotted at the public pools in Washington.
One of the most publicized events of the Roaring Twenties occurred in 1925 when Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel -- the first woman to do so -- and broke the record. Ederle stories abounded, and she was the celebrity of the day. That summer Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace set up temporary living arrangements and headquarters at Swampscott, Mass. "Silent Cal" was a nonswimmer and made it clear he did not enjoy Swampscott, but Grace Coolidge, who had planned the summer respite, loved swimming and was caught up in the Ederle rage. Grace garbed herself in long black stockings, a long black bathing suit and a tight cap for her daily swims in one of the small cement pools. She hired swimming expert Mary Hernan to teach her the Australian crawl, then the chicest stroke. Mrs. Coolidge was so enamored with the idea of women getting into the swim that she invited an unusual assortment of female bathing beauties to the White House, who looked more like experts at posing than at swimming.
Franklin D. Roosevelt did as much for swimming as he did for the Scottish terrier and cigarette holders. It was during his summer swimming in the chilly waters of Campobello, Canada, in 1921 that he is believed to have contracted polio, shivering in his wet bathing suit after stomping out a small forest fire. Although he was crippled for life, swimming ironically remained his only form of free movement. In 1926, against the initial wishes of his wife, Roosevelt purchased the Warm Springs, Ga., resort where "a miracle of warm water" gushed from a mammoth rock. FDR reported that he could "walk around in four-foot-deep water without a brace or crutches almost as well as if I had nothing to do with my legs." Roosevelt turned Warm Springs into a therapeutic center for paralysis patients, and it was approved by the American Orthopedic Association.
During FDR's presidency, when thousands of schoolchildren sent in their pennies for the building of his West Wing's swimming pool. It became one of the most popular spots for the Roosevelts, where he could relax despite a depressed nation and a frenzied world at war.
While FDR was able to enjoy the freedom from immobility there, Eleanor used the pool more frequently, often at odd times of the day. One morning, Howell Crim, the White House chief usher, was left speechless when he saw the first lady, in close-fitting bathing cap and bright yellow rubber bathing suit, traipsing through the State Floor on her way to the pool. "Would you mind mailing these?" she nonchalantly asked Crim, handing him four letters before heading for her swim.
Bess Truman liked the pool, but evidently not as much as her predecessor. As a young girl, Mrs. Truman had been an expert swimmer, but as first lady she was circumspect about letting anyone see her in the water. One summer afternoon at the pool at Shangri-La (Camp David's original name) she planned to entertain her Independence, Mo., Tuesday Bridge Club, a group of stolid but folksy Midwestern matrons. The first lady gave strict orders that under no circumstances could she and the ladies be interrupted while at the pool. But an urgent message from the White House was received and a very nervous military aide, Cmdr. William Rigdon, had to break Bess' rule, fearing he would be upon a pool party of scantily dressed women playing bridge. Making loud noises to warn them, he arrived unexpectedly upon the scene of "eight mature ladies sitting in a line on the pool's edge, fully clothed except for shoes and stockings, dangling their feet in the water and apparently having a grand time."
Harry S. Truman was a more ardent swimmer than his wife. He regularly swam several afternoon laps in the White House pool, wearing his thick glasses. The Trumans both swam privately on their winter trips to Key West, Fla.
Perhaps the greatest president-first lady swim team was the Kennedys. Both were born on the Eastern seaboard, spending their youths at oceansides: the president Cape Cod and Palm Beach, and his wife at Southampton and Newport. While in boarding school at Choate, John Kennedy was a star of the diving team. During World War II his swimming ability became heroic when the PT-109, which he commanded, was rammed and cut in half by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri in 1943. Kennedy not only directed the rescue mission, saving three men himself, but he swam for hours over several days to get some food and assistance. As president, Kennedy used the pool more than any other chief executive, swimming every afternoon at 1:30 for half an hour. At the end of his work day, Kennedy again stopped by the pool for another half hour of laps.
Jacqueline Kennedy also loved swimming. On her international visits the European paparazzi followed every move when she took daughter Caroline and other young children for a swim in Italy, complimenting her stylish bathing suit and her excellent physical condition. One of Mrs. Kennedy's most publicized water adventures was her waterskiing with astronaut John Glenn at Hyannisport.
Kennedy so loved the White House pool that he often had his children, nieces, nephews and even the White House pet, Charlie the dog, join him for splashing around. The president's father, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, personally commissioned the seascape mural painted on the walls surrounding the pool.
Lady Bird Johnson was a strong advocate of vigorous and varied exercise. Besides sticking to a strict diet and bowling in the Old Executive Office Building, the first lady swam daily. As reported by Chief Usher James Bernard West, Mrs. Johnson swam 40 to 50 sidestroke laps. Although enjoyed by six first families, the White House pool area , where Mrs. Johnson swam, could be damp and musty, and as the White House press corps grew, so too did the need for a larger press room -- and the swimming pool seemed the logical spot. When a reporter asked Herb Klein, press secretary to President Richard Nixon, if the new first family was using the pool much, Klein replied, "No, he's not using it. He tested it and found you can put instant coffee in the pool water and drink it." Although both Richard and Patricia Nixon did swim regularly in the privacy of the beaches at their San Clemente, Calif., and Key Biscayne, Fla., homes, the pool was nevertheless filled in and covered up to make way for the new press room in 1969.
It was during the Ford administration that a new White House pool was built with public donations. This time the pool was put outside on the south lawn, near the tennis courts. Betty Ford and her children occasionally used it, but not nearly as much as the president. Mrs. Ford recalled that "Jerry used the new pool all year round. No matter how late he worked, if he had a chance, he'd take a swim afterward. In the winter, even when there was snow on the ground, he could just roll back two strips of plastic covering and make a kind of racing lane."
Ronald Reagan is the only president who was a professional lifeguard. For $15 a week, young Ronald worked for seven summers at Rock River in Lowell Park, Dixon, Ill. He was also very good at persuading after-dark swimmers out of the water. Legend has it that he told the brazen night swimmers they could stay in "as long as the river rats don't get you." He then skimmed a stone across the water, and the river cleared and "Dutch" could go home. At Eureka College, Reagan became the best swimmer of the men's team.
As southern Californians most of their lives, both President and Mrs. Reagan took advantage of the nearly year-round swimming conditions of the Pacific. In 1982 the Reagans took a three-day break from their official schedule in Jamaica to join their friend of Hollywood days, Claudette Colbert, at her Barbados home for long walks on the beach and frequent forays into the water. Because of security, all other swimmers were prohibited from sharing the beach with the Reagans, and the press took photographs from a distance with telephoto lenses. Although girth has nothing to do with it, when a president takes to the water these days, as in Taft's time, it is strictly his ocean. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 10, Harry Truman chats with an aide after taking a swim in the Caribean; President Reagan dives into the water off Barbados in 1982; Middle, President Kennedy greets California beachgoers in 1982; Jackie Kennedy and John Glenn water-ski in 1982 in Nantucket Sound; Vice President Richard Nixon in 1955; FDR, Missy LeHand and Eleanor Roosevelt at Hyde Park; President Kennedy heading for a swim at a California beach in 1982; Ronald Reagan at a $15-a-week lifeguard at Lowell Park in Dixon, Ill.; Ronald Reagan with daughter Patti in the family pool in California in 1966.