Nearly five months after former chief florist Laura Dowling left her position amid rumors of style and personality clashes, the White House is still looking for someone to lead its small but busy floral shop. The search, according to sources close to some applicants, is in its middle stages, with potential finalists waiting patiently for a callback.
[Past coverage: The White House head florist is gone and no one knows why]
So far the East Wing hasn’t made any new personnel announcements, but one source said that the pool — “a small beach” — has been winnowed down to 25 semi-finalists, including some repeat applicants who sought the job after long time chief florist Nancy Clarke left six years ago.
“I must say it was probably the most stressful thing I have ever done,” said Deborah Ritner, a floral designer from Seattle who was a finalist in the last florist search six years ago along with Renee Landry of North Carolina and Dowling, who would eventually land the top job.
Ritner, who didn’t know the position even existed before getting a call from the East Wing, had less than a week to prepare her portfolio, resume and letters of recommendation and overnight all that to the White House. After being named a finalist, Ritner flew to 1600 Penn. twice for what she described as a “reality-style flower off,” which included designing three arrangements in four hours for the first lady, chief usher, social secretary and White House photographer.
The job, considered the pinnacle of a floral designer’s career, requires a skilled mix of creativity, adaptability and, most importantly, tough skin, according to former floral shop employees. After all every rose has its thorns (too much?).
“You have to be ready to be hurt,” said one former employee of the White House floral shop. “You get your feelings crushed. It’s happened to all of us. You think you’ve done this fabulous arrangement and someone says, ‘that is just horrible’ and you have to take it gracefully because it’s not about you, it’s about whatever that first lady wants.”
Not that it’s the first lady waltzing through the White House demanding all the roses be painted red. Most floral design decisions are discussed first between the first lady and the social secretary (the newly installed Deesha Dyer) and those are then communicated to the head florist and on down to her full time staff of three or four pros. In the end, though, the final choice between calla lilies and carnations is the first lady’s.