Although Nancy Reagan was known for her glittery James Galanos gowns and fancy Hollywood friends, she also did everything she could to make the private quarters of the White House a real California-casual haven for Ronald Reagan.
The former first lady, who died Sunday at age 94, kept the president’s candy jars stocked with jelly beans and had the staff prepare their dinner on TV trays in their red carpeted upstairs study. She brought in 20th-century overstuffed sofas.
With her decorator, Ted Graber of Beverly Hills, Nancy Reagan supervised the remodeling and redecoration of several dozen rooms in the family quarters. The rooms were filled with bouquets of fresh flowers and dozens of silver framed photos of friends and family.
Reagan knew that making the White House your own was much more than just regilding 19th-century chairs. So after the 2008 election, she offered through a friend to speak to president-elect Barack Obama’s interior designer Michael S. Smith.
“Nancy Reagan discreetly offered to talk to me about her experience, and I was thrilled because I would not have access to those rooms until Inauguration Day,” Smith says. “She was extraordinarily helpful and told me how she had brought all their things from California to put up there to make the house incredibly cozy. She said you had to bring your own personal things and gave me her perspective on how to make the White House a home.”
Reagan had a reputation of being formidable, and she had no problem quickly establishing and defining her style. Former head usher Gary Walters, who worked at the White House for 37 years, said in 2009 that Reagan and her decorator Graber made their move-in day the most organized of any he’d seen. “Some thought she was a hard person to work with, but that was not the case. She always knew what she wanted.”
That included $210,000 worth of red and white Lenox china. The 4,370 piece porcelain service eventually became a symbol of the era’s excess. A controversy arose even though no public funds were used to pay for the china. It was paid for with private funds.
Reagan and Graber quickly got to work and spent nine months on the restoration of the private quarters, using around $800,000 in donated funds. New bathrooms were installed and antiques were dug out of White House storage and refurbished. The photos of the chintz-filled private quarters were featured in a lavish 18-page spread in Architectural Digest in December 1981. It provided a rare glimpse of the private life of a president.
“It was an intimate look at the White House that humanized the Reagans at the time,” says Margaret Russell, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest. “Nancy Reagan certainly brought back the sense of glamour and authority and style to the White House.”
Of course, not everyone was enamored with Reagan and Graber’s West Coast taste. Longtime White House Curator Clement Conger once told The Washington Post that the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor used to be “an extremely beautiful room,” decorated by Jacqueline Kennedy with fine French antiques, which the Nixons augmented with “even finer furnishings” appropriate to the Federal era.
“Mrs. Reagan and her decorator, Ted Graber, who knew nothing about American period houses, turned the Yellow Room and most of the second floor into ‘California rooms,’ ” Conger said. “They replaced many antiques with 20th-century overstuffed sofas, which are not correct for the room, and, as everybody knows, are too low and hard to get out of.”
When presidents leave office, what they leave behind is not always beloved by the new residents. Clinton designer Kaki Hockersmith of Little Rock found a few Reagan-era Graber era touches in the private quarters that she dumped. She told me in 2001 that the Clintons had never liked the 18th-century-style hand painted Chinese bird wallpaper, that had been installed by Graber in the master bedroom.
“It had lots of all kinds of birds flying and sweeping around,” Hockersmith says. “It was not a calming atmosphere.”
The wallpaper was removed from the presidential bedroom and replaced.