Lawrence J. (Larry) Arata, 72, the first resident White House upholsterer and the creater of President John F. Kennedy's famous rocking chair, died of pneumonia Wednesday at Arlington Hospital. He had a liver ailment.
Over the years, while he continued to do work for the White House, Mr. Arata also built up a profitable business reproducing the "Kennedy rocker" for both the famous and the not-so-famous.
The latest famous recipient will be Pope John Paul II when he visits Washington next month. The rocker will be a gift from Mr. Arata and his wife, Norma, and from St. Ann's Church in Washington, where parishioners made needlepoint upholstery for it.
Mr. Arata, who was a Catholic, considered the chair for the pope one of his greatest accomplishments. "It is the ultimate of all orders. Now I've reached the top," he said.
In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who had decided shortly after her husband took office to redecorate and restore the White House, brought Mr. Arata to Washington from Hyannis on Cape Cod, where he had a small upholstery business.
He had established a reputation among the wealthy on the Cape as a highly-skilled artisan who did upholstery in the correct old-fashioned way.
At the White House, he was given living quarters on the third floor. He also took his meals in the Executive Mansion. He continued to live there for two years.
In the meantime, he met Norma Zandrino, a White House secretary, and their story-book romance led to marriage in February 1963. They moved into a home of their own in Falls Church, which they decorated themselves and described as a dream house. Both continued to work at the White House.
In 1961, Dr. Janet Travell, President Kennedy's physician, decided the President, who had a well-publicized back problem, needed a better rocking chair.
"Dr. Travell's a great specialist . . . and she knew that he [the president] had had a rocker in his Senate office and she wanted it firmed up because she said rocking was good for his back," Mr. Arata once explained in telling how they got their heads together.
"The rocker didn't fit Kennedy; the armrests were too low; so I cut out another piece of wood and added two inches of firm rubber to the armrests and two inches to the seat and one inch to the back and that became the famous Kennedy rocker," he added.
The upholstery was done in naugahyde. One chair fit all sizes. Mr. Arata made at least a dozen of them for President Kennedy. He later made two for President Johnson.
"But I changed the design a bit so that people wouldn't think Mr. Johnson was copying Mr. Kennedy," he once said. "I put a headrest on Mr. Johnson's chair. He never used it though. But I put it there to make it a little bit different. "
Mr. Arata had remained as the White House upholsterer through the Johnson administration. After the Nixons took over, he moved his operation to his home, where he had set up a shop, but continued to receive truckloads of White House furniture to work on until about two years ago.
Mr. Arata was born in Boston, Mass. He dropped out of school to become an apprentice upholsterer at the age of 16. He worked for several furniture companies in the Boston Area and in 1937 moved to Hyannis to set up his own business.
During World War II, he served with the U.S. Army and saw duty in England, France and Germany.
In 1968, Mr. Arata and his wife, who became his chief assistant, moved from their Falls Church home to McLean, where they continued to produce rocking chairs.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sisters, Celeste Manfredi and Barbara Ciambelli, both of Naples, Fla., and a brother, Louis, of Cape Cod.
The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., for education to the priesthood.