An earlier version of this story misspelled Peter George Heermann Neal's name. The story has been updated.
“It’s the most famous house in the country,” says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, author and presidential family historian. “Look at the proportions of those rooms and the high ceilings, whether you choose to get married in the Blue, Green or Red rooms. Or if you marry out on the lawn, it’s those columns and the magnificent view of the nation’s capital.”
Lynda Robb, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, says there was no question of where she would marry Marine Capt. Chuck Robb on Dec. 9, 1967: the White House, of course. “It’s where I was living. It’s a beautiful setting. It was an easy decision,” she says.
The White House hosts hundreds of events every year, but none are as personal and romantic as a wedding. The combination of history, grandeur and celebrity makes it a rare and unforgettable experience. But having a personal event in a public space also comes at a price. Patti Davis, daughter of President Ronald Reagan, and Julie Nixon, who married President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandson after her father was elected but before he took office, opted out of a White House wedding, citing privacy concerns. Others embraced the idea, conjuring all the magic they could out of the storybook setting and the devoted teams of chefs, florists, calligraphers and butlers that come with it.
What makes a White House wedding so special? “Exclusivity,” says Gary Walters, who served as the White House chief usher from 1986 to 2007. “It doesn’t happen that often.”
There have been only 18 documented weddings and four receptions (with vows held elsewhere) celebrated here, according to the White House Historical Association. These brides are part of a bipartisan sorority: Tricia Nixon Cox invited former White House brides Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Johnson sisters Luci and Lynda to her own nuptials.
Many wedding guests have never been to the White House. “There is nothing like the feeling of coming inside those doors,” says Ann Stock, White House social secretary during the Clinton years. “Every president lived there except George Washington,” she says. “Some people get tears in their eyes when they walk in.”
The home’s iconic rooms also provide plenty of photo ops. Luci Baines Johnson married Pat Nugent at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1966 and their reception was held at the White House. She and her 10 bridesmaids had the run of the private quarters while they had their hair done. Her wedding veil was splayed carefully across the famous Lincoln bed for safekeeping during the preparations.
“A White House wedding takes precedence over everything,” says Bill Yosses, the White House pastry chef from 2007 to 2014, who made a four-tier wedding cake slathered with whipped cream for the 2008 Washington celebration of Jenna Bush Hager’s marriage (the actual wedding was held in Crawford, Tex.). It was an adaptation of a tres leches cake, as requested by Hager. “A state dinner is important, but a wedding is private, and the first family has a personal emotional investment in that moment,” he says. “We all want to give them the best happy and pleasant moment they deserve.”
Yosses remembers wheeling the massive cake into the Blue Room with current White House pastry chef Susan Morrison. “It was a pretty dramatic cake,” he says. “The ushers kept asking us to move the cake to improve traffic, and we were worried about it falling over.” Chief White House flower designer Nancy Clarke decorated the base of the cake with blue hydrangeas and white roses. Yosses says Hager came over to thank him for the cake just before the party started. “The Bushes were always very good about that,” he says.
Gabriella Rello Duffy, editorial director of Brides, says the nation will be “obsessed” with every detail of Naomi Biden’s affair. “It’s the American version of a royal wedding,” Duffy says. “We have not seen a major presidential wedding since Tricia Nixon’s in 1971.”
Biden, 28, is the first presidential granddaughter to hold both her ceremony and reception at the White House. She is the first grandchild of Joe and Jill Biden (and the oldest daughter of Hunter Biden and his first wife, Kathleen Buhle). She works as a lawyer in Washington. Neal, 25, from Jackson Hole, Wyo., recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He works at Georgetown Law.
Politico reported that Bryan Rafanelli of Rafanelli Events, the celebrity planner who masterminded Chelsea Clinton’s posh 2010 wedding in Rhinebeck, N.Y., will also orchestrate this one. Rafanelli is well versed in White House protocol, having helped stage state dinners and holiday decorations in the Obama years. (Neither the White House nor Rafanelli returned emails for comment.)
Elizabeth Alexander, Jill Biden’s communications director, declined to share any of the closely guarded details about plans for the ceremony and reception. What we do know is this: The Biden/Neal wedding planners must grapple with the traditional issues of security, logistics and media access — as well as the more modern challenges of cellphone cameras and social media postings that could undermine the privacy of the first family and their guests. The public wants the scoop on the dress, the bridesmaids and the bouquets, and also demands to know who will pay for the celebration, to make sure taxpayers aren’t footing any of the bills.
So who is paying for all this?
Alexander said in a statement: “Consistent with other private events hosted by the first family and following the traditions of previous White House wedding festivities in prior administrations, the Biden family will be paying for the wedding activities that occur at the White House.”
Billing for private expenses is part of the daily routine at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “Absolutely every expense is kept track of and the first family is always sent a bill for flowers, food, help, et cetera,” says Amy Zantzinger, special assistant to the president and White House social secretary during the George W. Bush administration. “The usher’s office keeps track of all that. Every time there is a private event in the residence or they have friends over for dinner, they are billed for all those expenses.” For example, Laura Dowling, chief flower designer at the White House from 2009 to 2015, says that any blooms she arranged for the Obamas’ private dinners were counted, recorded and charged to the president. For Hager’s cake, Yosses says he wrote down the ingredients and submitted the list for payment.
The person who keeps track of these transactions is the White House chief usher, who functions as a sort of general manager and has a long list of duties. Those include preparing budgets for the executive mansion and organizing daily activities and major events such as state dinners and receptions. The chief usher also oversees the residence staff, usually around 90 to 100 people, including chefs, housekeepers, maids, doormen, plumbers and others.
“It’s the behind-the-scenes folks that make everything happen,” Walters says. “And they want to make the best possible day for the president and first lady and their guests.”
The first family “has all the resources at their disposal” for private events, Walters says. This can include setting the tables with one of the official White House china services, asking the calligraphy staff to prepare the invitations, using the ballroom chairs, or having the Marine Band perform. Strict 24/7 security is already in place. But if a White House staff member (such as a florist, butler or chef) has to work overtime for a private event, the first family pays for that, according to Walters.
Presidents are always invoiced for personal expenses, he says. “Monthly, they get a bill from the chief usher for their private meals and those of their guests,” based on information collected from the residence staff, Walters says. “We have records of incoming food and how it is used. If we get a crate of 144 eggs, the staff has to write down which eggs went to the family and which went to a soufflé served at an official presidential function. Each one of those eggs is accounted for. If one is cracked and not used — that is marked as spoilage.”
White House social secretaries frequently take on the role of wedding planners. When Lynda Johnson Robb got married, the executive mansion was decked with fresh evergreens, twinkling lights and other winter-themed decorations. Social secretary Bess Abell suggested a red and white color scheme to match the crimson poinsettias already on-site. The bride agreed, choosing red bridesmaids’ dresses. The frugal Lady Bird Johnson was all in on the color choice: “My mother was always interested in saving money,” Robb says. They decided on an afternoon ceremony in the East Room and a receiving line in the Blue Room, then migrated back to the East Room for cake and dancing with 500 guests. To this day, Robb has no idea what the wedding cost her parents. Anyway, she says, “they wouldn’t have told me.”
Her “very sentimental” father was mostly concerned about becoming an empty nester. The rehearsal dinner had been full of emotional speeches (“We were all practically sobbing,” she says), and the first lady spent most of the following day consoling the president. “It’s going to be okay,” Lady Bird told Lyndon, “she’s not going far.” The day passed in a blur. Robb says she wishes there had been a way to spend more time with guests, but she knew she couldn’t linger. “In those days, no one could leave until the bride and groom left.”
Until the wedding of Nellie Grant in 1874, executive mansion weddings were small, private affairs that merited only a passing mention in the newspapers, says Matt Costello, a senior historian at the White House Historical Association. With the rise of photography, though, the public saw more of them and got more curious about the first families’ private lives.
Alice Roosevelt’s 1906 affair for more than 1,000 guests was perhaps the country’s first celebrity wedding. Alice, eldest child of President Theodore Roosevelt, married Rep. Nicholas Longworth (R-Ohio). News reports at the time described scenes of private messengers and wagons pulling up to the front door delivering lavish gifts, including jewels and furs from foreign dignitaries, as well as giant turnips from everyday Americans. It was a “national event,” Costello says.
Interestingly, the public ate up every juicy tidbit but didn’t complain about costs. “Family was off limits,” says Costello. “You didn’t go after a president for his daughter getting married. That’s a much more recent development — who pays for what.”
The media’s role also has changed. Nixon Presidential Library documents include press releases that detailed Tricia’s menu, china and wedding cake recipe. (The guest list included J. Edgar Hoover and the Rev. Billy Graham.) Veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas organized a shower for Tricia, attended by female journalists. (The first and possibly last such event.) Judy Agnew, wife of the vice president, hosted a kitchenware shower with Cabinet spouses and their daughters; gifts included an orange juice squeezer and a plastic pail with soaps, detergents and cleansers. A Nixon Foundation video about the wedding says 500 journalists were credentialed to cover it; that evening, 110 million people — more than half the population of the United States — watched the TV coverage.
In the 51 years since Tricia Nixon Cox’s party, there has been little wedding action in the executive mansion. Anthony Rodham (Hillary Clinton’s brother) married Nicole Boxer in the Rose Garden in 1994; in 2013, Pete Souza, chief official White House photographer, married Patti Lease in front of 35 guests.
In June 1992, Dorothy (Doro) Bush LeBlond (daughter of George H.W. and Barbara Bush) married Bobby Koch — her second wedding — at Camp David, the secluded Maryland presidential retreat. Clarke drove there in a van filled with blush peony and peach gerbera centerpieces and flowers for the Camp David chapel. When the groom knelt, everyone could see that someone had put “Bush/Quayle stickers on the soles of his shoes,” Clarke wrote in her memoir “My First Ladies.”
Doro’s niece Jenna Bush and fiance Henry Hager also decided a formal White House wedding was not for them. The couple instead exchanged vows outdoors with 200 guests at the Bush family ranch in Crawford, Tex., on May 10, 2008. Clarke flew to Texas on Air Force One with buckets of hydrangeas and white roses, she writes in her memoir. “It felt like we had done a White House wedding, but on the back of a truck.” Yosses didn’t make the Crawford cake, but he sent cookies for the bride to snack on during the flight.
“I did live in Washington, but I never lived in the White House,” Jenna Bush told Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today” show in April 2008. “I guess it maybe says we’re crazy,” she said with a laugh. “I wanted to be at home, and I wanted it to feel natural and I wanted it to be a private thing. It’s the one day of my life — it happens once — that I want to have a private time with Henry and my family. Plus, I’m not that glamorous. I’m more an outdoor type.”
A month after the Texas nuptials, George and Laura Bush celebrated the marriage with a White House party for about 600 guests. Zantzinger says this second event allowed them to host more members of their extended family and a wider circle of friends. “But it was not a re-creation of the wedding,” she says. The Marine Band played and the president danced with his daughter, who wore a cocktail dress, not her wedding gown.
The couples who choose White House weddings might not love seeing details of their big day splashed all over the news, but the public nature of the event can pay off later, because all of the details have been carefully preserved.
For Lynda and Chuck Robb, this proved to be an unexpected blessing. The couple celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2017 and, two years later, the WHHA’s White House History Quarterly published an extensive piece about their wedding and life together. Last year, the Robbs were badly injured in a fire that gutted their McLean home and destroyed virtually all of their personal memorabilia. Fortunately, thanks to that interview, the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum and the WHHA, Robb was able to reconstruct one of the most important days of her life.
Another plus for a White House bride: Her wedding gown might end up in a museum. Robb’s Geoffrey Beene dress and 15-foot veil weren’t lost in the house fire because they’re safely stored at the presidential library in Austin, a beautiful reminder, she says, of a “wonderful day.”