President Biden and first lady Jill Biden have added a rare first feline named Willow to their White House family, which already included a puppy, Commander.
Presidential pet history is too imprecise for an exact kitty count, but it appears that only about a dozen have padded through the White House, compared with more than 100 dogs. First dogs, in fact, date to George Washington’s presidency, but cats may not have appeared until Abraham Lincoln’s, and their lives have been far more mysterious.
[The Bidens finally have a cat. World, meet Willow.]
Where did they go all day? Did they pounce on any mice, dogs or humans? Did any escape? And who dished out the tuna and treats?
Here’s a peek at the day-to-day lives of some previous White House cats.
[‘Who pours the kibble?’ And other answers about the lives of White House dogs.]
Where did the cats hang out?
Theodore Roosevelt’s six-toed cat, Slippers, could often be found in the kitchen. Herbert Hoover’s Persian, Kitty, roamed the corridors. But many cats stayed mostly in the family’s residence on the second and third floors.
That meant White House residence staff encountered the cats far more often than people who worked in more bustling areas of the building.
Amy Carter’s Siamese, Misty Malarky Ying Yang, tended to hide under skirted furniture, especially at night, said longtime chief usher Gary J. Walters in an email. “When we would go to turn out the lights on the second floor, the cat would shoot out from underneath the chairs or sofas and scare us.”
But cats often had the run of the White House if they wanted, including the most famous presidential feline of all time, Socks, Chelsea Clinton’s ultra-sociable black-and-white shorthair.
[Alexandra Petri: Here are top cats under consideration for the role of White House pet]
“Socks was something of a celebrity for cat lovers around the world,” said Jennifer Pickens, author of several inside-the-White House books including “Pets at the White House.” He was an Internet star long before Grumpy Cat, and he became the subject of books, an animated White House tour and even a series of postage stamps issued by the Central African Republic.
Socks spent his first days in the White House mostly in the usher’s office, lounging on a window heater next to the desk, Walters said, and every morning Bill Clinton stopped in to see him on his way to the Oval Office. Eventually Socks found toasty perches around the house, including near the basement furnace in winter.
But his primary daytime roost was just outside the Oval Office, where he had access to a dish of butterscotch candy and at least one human willing to cuddle, Betty Currie, Clinton’s personal secretary.
Another first cat who had the run of the house was Siam, the unimaginatively named Siamese who was given to Rutherford B. Hayes’s wife, Lucy, by a Bangkok diplomat in 1878. Siam was the first of his breed ever in the United States, and he “enjoyed making grand entrances whenever the First Lady entertained guests,” according to the Hayes presidential center.
But for entrances, it would be hard to beat the Carter cat, Misty Malarky.
Three weeks into Jimmy Carter’s presidency, he and first lady Rosalynn hosted a state dinner for Mexican President José López Portillo, and Washington insiders were eager to see how the Carters’ no-frills vibe would mesh with the traditionally ultra-formal occasion.
As the two presidents appeared at the top of the Grand Staircase, ready to descend toward the black-tie event in the East Room, the Marine Band began to play, the press waited expectantly — and down the stairs padded Misty Malarky “in the spotlight the whole way,” recounted first lady Rosalynn Carter in her autobiography. “I don’t know who was more surprised — the guests, the press, me, or Misty.”
When the cat encountered the laughing gaggle of press and guests at the bottom of the stairs, she turned around and skittered back up, again stealing the show from the presidents, who at that point were on their way down.
[From Laddie Boy to Major and Champ, White House dogs have comforted anxious Americans]
Who slung the tuna and cleaned the cat box?
Susan Ford, for one.
Gerald Ford’s teenage daughter had a miniature Siamese seal point named Shan, and thanks to a handy set of Ford Library documents, we know a few of the details of Shan’s White House life. The litter box was kept in Susan’s room, and Susan mostly took care of Shan until she left for college. Shan liked to hide under the bed in the Lincoln Bedroom, sunbathe in the Solarium, sleep on a heating pad and grab an afternoon nap with first lady Betty Ford.
First families can be as involved or uninvolved with daily pet logistics as they’d like, because the residence staff is always there to help. Walters said that in his experience with the Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush cats, staff members usually emptied the cat boxes, but “everyone available” got roped into feeding duty at one time or another.
Vets sometimes made house calls, or staff members would handle office visits. When Siam, the Hayes’ cat, became ill while the family was away, staffers insisted that the president’s personal physician come over to treat her. (She died anyway.)
Walters said that “for the most part,” cats did little damage — no major shredding or scratching that he knew of — but he vividly recalled one incident involving claws.
He first encountered Misty Malarky on Inauguration Day in 1977, when, as an assistant usher, he was tasked with transporting the Carters’ belongings from Blair House, where they’d stayed the night before, to the White House.
“When I walked into Blair House, the manager said, ‘Great, now that cat is your problem,’ ” Walters said. As he carried Misty outside, the cat was startled by the crowds that filled the street and “attached himself to me with his claws.” He walked across the street to the White House with Misty plastered to the front of his overcoat.
Did they prowl the grounds outside?
Some no, some very much yes.
Among Calvin Coolidge’s large menagerie were two mischievous cats, Blacky and Tiger.
Tiger was the president’s favorite; Coolidge sometimes would walk the halls with the cat draped around his neck. But Tiger developed an insatiable wanderlust.
In 1924, he went missing during a March snowstorm. After the police and White House couldn’t find him, the president dispatched a Secret Service agent to broadcast a radio message asking the public for help. Half a mile away at the Navy Building, guard Benjamin Fink heard the plea and recognized the striped cat that the building’s staff had been feeding for the past few days, according to a Library of Congress blog post. Fink immediately returned Tiger to the White House.
Tiger went on the lam other times as well, once showing up at the Lincoln Memorial, according to the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, and the Coolidges got the cat a collar that simply said, “The White House.” One day, however, he disappeared for good.
In more recent years, White House humans have kept a closer eye on the cats. Chief groundskeeper Dale Haney, known for his prowess with first dogs, took care of cats, too, Walters said, and they were allowed outside only in carefully controlled circumstances.
Socks, the Clinton cat, often strolled the grounds with one human or another — including the president — attached to a 30-foot leash. Author Pickens said he even had a favorite tree, a pin oak that was planted by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Once, he reportedly chased a bird up a tree and was nearly strangled by the leash before the Secret Service rescued him.
In addition to prowling the lawn, Socks was so friendly and easygoing that he sometimes accompanied first lady Hillary Clinton to events and occasionally showed up in the White House pressroom.
How were they at catching mice?
Honestly, not great.
The White House has had a not-so-secret rodent problem since at least the 1800s, and if any White House cats have been stellar mousers, the story has been kept under wraps.
Coolidge’s cat, Blacky, was probably among the best, as he was often banished to the guardhouse because the first lady didn’t appreciate finding critter parts lying around.
But the performance of more recent first cats has been disappointing.
During the Ford administration, the National Security Council scurried out of the secure basement Situation Room after a rat sighting. Shan did not assist.
In the summer of 1977, Misty Malarky stood idly by while the General Services Administration launched an all-out assault on mice at the insistence of Jimmy Carter.
In fact, one of the Bush dogs, Millie, may have been the best recent rodent exterminator, although she was of no help when a rat climbed into the White House pool while first lady Barbara Bush was swimming laps. (The president swooped in and drowned it.)
Walters was inclined to give cats a pass on these failures because the recent cats spent so much time in the residence. “There were no critters in the first families’ private quarters,” he said. “We made sure of that.”
Did the cats get along with the dogs?
Some seemed to tolerate their canine housemates, such as India (a.k.a. Willie), who traveled with George W. Bush’s Scottish terriers Barney and Miss Beazley to Camp David and even deigned to pose for photos in holiday attire with them.
Others spectacularly did not.
One of Theodore Roosevelt’s cats, Tom Quartz, named after a Mark Twain character, liked to stalk Jack, a family terrier, and jump onto his back, according to a letter Roosevelt wrote to his son Kermit in 1903. (The same letter describes Tom doing something similar to Joseph Cannon, the speaker of the House.)
The Carters kept Misty Malarky as far as possible from their sons’ animals, especially a parakeet and a dog named J.B., according to the White House Historical Association. Misty also reportedly contributed to shortening the White House tenure of a border collie puppy, Grits, who had been given to Amy by a teacher but was soon returned.
When Bill Clinton introduced Socks to his new chocolate lab puppy, Buddy, on the White House lawn, it was hate at first sight, and relations never improved.
At end of his term, Clinton told CNN, “You know, I did better with the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis, than I’ve done with Socks and Buddy.” Days later, Clinton left office and Socks moved to Maryland with Currie.
Shan, the Ford cat, had a similar reaction to the introduction of golden retriever Liberty, according to a 1974 New York Times story. A professional trainer hired to spend a month getting the new dog acclimated said the two were “at a standoff,” which was probably really unpleasant for Susan Ford, because the story also said both animals slept in her bedroom.
Shan also hated men, except for the president, according to a 1975 wire story quoted in Pickens’s book. “No other male, not even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, has established any more of a détente with Shan than has Liberty,” the story said.
[Dogs are officially back at the White House]
Didn’t somebody have tigers at the White House?
Sigh. Unfortunately, they were horses.
A recurring presidential cat myth is that tiger cubs were sent to Martin Van Buren by the sultan of Oman, and Van Buren kept them on the White House grounds until Congress made him turn them over to a zoo.
In reality, stories about gifts from two different countries were probably conflated and embellished during 180 years of retelling, said historian Matt Costello of the White House Historical Association and Andrew Astley, a spokesman at the Van Buren National Historic Site.
In 1839, a lion and lioness were dropped off at the U.S. Consulate in Morocco despite the consul’s protestations that Van Buren could not accept the gift. The cats wrecked the consul’s office — and made it onto a Smithsonian list of “problematic donations” — but never set paw at the White House.
A few months later, an emissary sent by the sultan of Oman arrived in New York with gifts for Van Buren, including two Arabian horses. The lions and horses were sold at auction; the first U.S. zoo wouldn’t be founded for more than 30 years after Van Buren left office.
President Coolidge, however, did receive a pair of lion cubs from the mayor of Johannesburg in 1926. They went not to the White House but to the National Zoo, which by then was well established.
Why have there been so few first felines?
It’s hard to say, because people choose pets for all kinds of reasons.
A bit of the disparity may be attributable to cat allergies, which are twice as common as dog allergies. Caroline Kennedy’s gray cat, Tom Kitten, was the first of many Kennedy pets to move into the White House, but John F. Kennedy’s allergies soon required that either he or Tom live elsewhere, so the kitty moved in with the family of Jackie Kennedy’s personal secretary, Mary Gallagher, in Alexandria.
It could also have something to do with the personalities of cats, and of presidents.
“It seems to me that dogs would, on average, be better suited than cats to travel, moving from place to place within the White House, and amenable to the constant comings and goings of various people,” said Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas who has studied animal personalities. Dogs, he said, would be “essentially a more flexible and tolerant companion.”
Gosling also delved into human personalities in a 2009 study that looked at traits of self-identified “dog people” or “cat people.” The differences were small but statistically significant.
He found that those who considered themselves “dog people” tended to be more extroverted, dominant, agreeable, and more pragmatic than philosophical — traits also shared by many U.S. presidents.
Originally published Feb. 21, 2020, and updated Jan. 28, 2022.
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