What, Lillain Rogers Parks wonders, ever happened to standards?
During the last decade at the White House, Richard Nixon trotted out guards wearing silly comic opera hats . Jimmy Carter was photographed wearing jeans in the executive mansion . At dinners where guests once wore white tie and tails, men have sported mere tuxedos . And gone are the genteel picnics on the White House grounds, replaced by casual barbeques with entertainment by country and western singers .
All of which is understandably heresy to the 81-year-old Parks. Her mother began working at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 1909 as a maid when William Howard Taft lived there. Parks eventually joined her mother and spent 30 years serving the great and near-great until she retired shortly before Dwight Eisenhower did in 1959.
"You don't come in contact with people for 50 years and not know some of their personal, private lives," says Parks, who along with Frances Spatz Leighton wrote a best-selling book in 1961 called My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House . Unlike some inside-story books that appeared later, Parks' effort earned more applause than enemies, perhaps because she didn't tell all her secrets: "The people who know the same things have passed away. I wouldn't tell some things for a million dollards."
Today the feisty divorcee with an impressive memory for dates and anectotes lives in Takoma Park, D.C., in a neat-as-a-pin house, its walls decorated with mementos from past presidents. Late next month the nation will know even more about Parks' working years when NBC-TV presents a nine-hour dramatization on four consecutive nights of the life she and her mother led.
Leslie Uggams portrays Parks, who showed the actress how to use crutches; Parks had polio as a girl. Olivia Cole plays Parks' mother, Maggie Rogers, in the $5.5 million production. Eight presidential families will be seen through the eyes of servants, ranging from the affable Tafts (the president once found 12-year-old Parks playing in his oversized bathtub) to the rigid Eisenhowers (Mamie once told the help that in advanced age a lady should sleep until noon, though domestic help was apparently exempt from that dictum).
Parks says she isn't awed by the national attention that awaits her with the airing of the mini-series and the publication of a book based loosely on the 1961 best seller. She has, after all, witnessed all manner of hoopla before.
But she was impressed when she visted the Hollywood set in which part of the White House was recreated. For a moment she felt like she was back at work.
"Except," says Parks, "I didn't hear the footsteps and the doors closing at the White House. I didn't hear the ghosts."