Many of the men and women who have worked in the White House residence — serving presidents and their families in their private quarters — are breaking with a long-held tradition of silence: They are dishing about life behind the scenes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For her forthcoming book, “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House,” Kate Andersen Brower managed to elicit stories from domestic staff who witnessed up close the loneliness of President Nixon as he faced impeachment, the weariness of Hillary Clinton as her husband’s sex scandal exploded and other surprisingly intimate moments involving the first families.
Most of these stories — from Nancy Reagan’s tirade over three broken tchotchkes to the tearful hug Jackie and Bobby Kennedy shared with a favorite doorman in an elevator — are attributed to staffers by name, not wrapped in the cloud of anonymous sourcing that usually cloaks reporting about the inner workings of the White House.
These kinds of stories have rarely been told. But it seems there was never a formal policy demanding secrecy from residence staffers, just a long-standing culture of discretion. That, plus the fact that few people ever bothered to ask them about their time at the White House before.
James Jeffries — a butler who still works part-time at the White House — said he was glad to cooperate with Brower after he heard other friends had talked to her. “I’d been planning to do my own book,” said Jeffries, who has served 11 presidents and has nine relatives who have worked there. “But when she called, I figured it’s just as easy to go ahead and talk to her, and she could print what she wanted to print.”
Brower’s book is both an homage to the souls who feed, care for and clean up behind the leader of the free world and a dishy collection of tidbits about presidential obsessions, quirky habits and intimate moments.
The former Bloomberg News reporter got the idea for the book two years ago when she and other White House correspondents were invited to a lunch by Michelle Obama in the Old Family Dining room. The familiar banter between the first lady and the butler who served the meal caught her attention. After binge-watching PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” Brower became convinced there was a story to tell in the lives and experiences of the staff members who serve in the executive mansion.
She spoke to retired ushers, chefs, florists, maids, butlers, doormen, painters and many other former staff members. Many are elderly; six of Brower’s interview subjects have passed away in the past year and a half.
“There’s an unwritten rule that they stay in the background,” Brower said. “Unlike a lot of people in Washington, they don’t talk about their jobs.”
Jeffries was the only current White House residence staffer — there are 96 full-time and 250 part-time — who agreed to sit for an interview with Brower. There’s a general understanding among staffers that a lack of discretion could get them fired, though Brower said that no one indicated they had signed any non-disclosure agreement.
Former staffers were initially reticent to discuss their experiences but, after some coaxing, they spilled them. This new candor comes on the heels of “The Butler,” the hit movie inspired by the life of long-serving White House residence staffer Eugene Allen, who first told his story of working for eight presidents to former Washington Post writer Wil Haygood.
Christine Limerick, a retired executive housekeeper, said she participated in the book because she wanted to give people a glimpse behind the scenes.
“I thought it was a good opportunity, not to kiss-and-tell, but to get some stories and information out there that were a little bit personal,” Limerick said. “People don’t really step back and comprehend that [first families] go through the same thing that everybody else does.”
Brower’s book reveals which families were popular with staff members. George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush were liked the best. She often visited the floral shop to chat up the team. He played horseshoes with the staff.
“The Bushes were used to having help, and they knew how to deal with it. The Clintons and Obamas came from a middle-class background” and were more standoffish, Brower said.
But the largely African American butler staff felt an “unspoken understanding and respect” for the Obamas because they shared the realities of being black in America, she writes. Brower cites the experience of usher Worthington White, who ran into the Obamas in the second-floor residence as they were settling in for their first night at the White House. It was late, after the inaugural balls.
“All of a sudden I heard President Obama say, ‘I got this, I got this. I got the inside on this now,’ and suddenly the music picked up and it was Mary J. Blige,” White recalled, according to the book. As the R&B hit “Real Love played, the president said to him, “I bet you haven’t seen anything like this in this house, have you?”
On the other hand, staffers found President Lyndon B. Johnson difficult. Brower reported a previously-told tale of Johnson’s obsession with having an intricate shower installed in the White House that met his detailed specifications. It required “water charging out of multiple nozzles in every direction with needlelike intensity and a hugely powerful force,” Brower writes.
The staff was able to rearrange the shower to accommodate the request, but not before plumbing foreman Reds Arrington was hospitalized for several days because of a nervous breakdown, wrote Brower, who spoke to Arrington’s widow, Margaret.
The residence staff also had a hard time adjusting to life with the Clintons, said Brower, because of their deep concern over privacy. The Clintons rewired the phone system with interior circuitry so they wouldn’t have to call each other through a switchboard. Their concerns heightened at the peak of the sex scandal that embroiled part of Clinton’s presidency.
Florist Ronn Payne told Brower that while replacing arrangements in the private second-floor living quarters, he heard the Clintons fighting and a heavy object being thrown across the West Sitting Hall. “You heard so much foul language. . . . When you’re somebody’s domestic, you know what’s going on,” Payne said, according to the book.
Brower also reported that Executive Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier said he would get calls from Hillary Clinton asking for her favorite mocha cake on particularly chaotic days.
“In a small, unassuming voice — a far cry from her usual strong, self-confident tone — she’d ask, ‘Roland, can I have a mocha cake tonight?’ ” Brower writes.
All this dishing, of course, suggests the Clintons’ wariness was arguably not completely unreasonable.