Every detail of the recent state dinner for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was carefully orchestrated and touched with the kind of sophistication one would expect from the White House — from the table arrangements with cherry blossoms and orchids to the perfectly chilled sake guests sipped during the opening toast.
But just before the dessert course, waiters executed an extraordinary maneuver: They deftly removed all the vermeil eagle place-card holders from the tables so that guests would not be tempted to swipe them on the way out.
Such is the reality of entertaining in the White House: Despite the elegant setting, or maybe because of it, there’s always a risk items might disappear into visitors’ pockets, purses and other hiding places. After all, how often does one get invited to a state dinner, an awards luncheon or a medal ceremony at the White House, and who does not want a souvenir, a memento from their brush with power? The result is that White House events sometimes produce small outbreaks of petty thievery.
Most of the pilfering is minor: plush towels embossed with the presidential seal from the washroom, or cheap spoons the White House rents from a caterer for large parties. But other items are pricier, including the place-card holders, small silver spoons and cut-glass pieces dangling from sconces in the women’s washroom.
On Air Force One, everything from tumbler glasses to pillowcases have been taken by some of the reporters, staff and lawmakers who have traveled aboard the presidential aircraft.
The “stealing” is not new and, in maybe perverse ways, is reflective of the enduring high regard in which people hold the presidency and the power it represents.
“This has been an issue since the White House opened and John Adams began entertaining people,” said William Bushong, chief historian of the White House Historical Association. “The main temptation is the fact that you want to have something that is a memento, that gives you a connection to that experience you had in the house. The temptation is just irresistible.”
In some ways, visitors to
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue used to be even more brazen. Tourists plucked hairs from the tail of Old Whitey, President Zachary Taylor’s mount from the Mexican War, until it was bare. During Abraham Lincoln’s time, they snipped fabric from the draperies and furniture. “Souvenir hunters,” wrote Rutherford B. Hayes’s son Birch, “were the bane of our lives.”
And Eleanor Roosevelt’s tendency to host teas for hundreds of people at a time made it easy for some of them to walk off with household items. Henrietta Nesbitt, who served as a housekeeper there from 1933 to 1945, complained in her 1948 book “White House Diary” that the hand-sewn presidential and U.S. shield held tremendous allure.
“The monogram cost as much as a napkin. I hate to think what linen replacement cost, making up for the napkins some White House guests took with them when they departed, because of the monograms,” she wrote. “They took the guest towels for the same reason, so when I replaced those, I purposely got the cheapest and left off the monograms. How did they have the nerve!”
At times, White House aides themselves fueled the market for presidential memorabilia. The aptly named William H. Crook, who arrived as Lincoln’s bodyguard and continued to work there for more than four decades, converted floorboards from the old Lincoln office during a 1902 renovation into roughly a dozen canes for sale. Crook was “inundated with requests” for more, Bushong said, but couldn’t produce any.
Raleigh DeGeer Amyx, a presidential collector and appraiser, said in an interview that Crook “liked porcelain,” and the dispersing clerk reportedly used his insider knowledge to his advantage when the White House auctioned off items after Theodore Roosevelt’s renovation. “He had things crated up, and he knew what was in the crate,” Amyx said.
White House china still commands a high price on the open market, with used items fetching more than unused ones. A survey of current eBay listings from Nate Sanders Fine Autographs and Memorabilia, which buys its presidential items from Amyx, includes an asking bid of $3,750 for a used cup and saucer for Bill Clinton’s china and one for $19,999.95 to obtain a porcelain egg cup dating back to Lincoln’s first term.
Supplies of presidential china are scarce and unpredictable, Amyx said, adding that it took him 20 years to be offered a piece of the Reagan china — from a professional golfer who had received it as a gift.
Although the chief usher’s office monitors exactly what goes out with each place setting when the first family entertains, there is no formal accounting of how much taxpayers must pay each year to replace items that are gone by the end of the night. Michelle Obama’s office declined to comment for this article.
In an effort to curb the exodus of White House odds and ends, the residence staff has adopted coping techniques over the years. During the renovation under Theodore Roosevelt, passersby picked through the construction site, nabbing nails and pieces of gilt from the building’s decorative elements. Nearly half a century later, during another major overhaul, the Truman administration sold official souvenir kits to head off a similar looting spree. Although the kits had different levels — it cost 25 cents for a hand-split piece of yellow pine lath from inside a plaster wall but $100 for a chunk of brick or stone — they all imposed the same requirement: The buyer had to promise to keep it or give it away for free.
And after pieces of flatware engraved with the words “The President’s House” kept vanishing after then-first lady Laura Bush hosted an event, she wrote in her memoir, “we used it only in the private dining room upstairs.”
No item is too minor to be stolen: During the 2006 Easter Egg Roll, East Wing aides discovered a ring of volunteers had been secreting away wooden commemorative eggs and coloring books beneath the porta-potties. (They promptly reassigned the volunteers to serve egg salad at the food tent, to avoid making a scene.)
“There were times when the social secretary’s staff joked that we should have guests walk through the magnetometers on the way in, and again on the way out,” Bush wrote in “Spoken from the Heart.”
Lea Berman, who served as White House social secretary under George W. Bush, said one woman so brazenly shoved presidential paper towels in her pants and shirtsleeves, “she was walking like the Michelin Man” when she exited.
“We went into the washroom, and it was cleaned out,” Berman said. “There’s a fine line between petty theft and vandalism.”
One-percenters are not above taking a few White House knickknacks. Television personality Barbara Walters became so notorious for swiping washroom towels that in 2012 the first family sent her a basket of tchotchkes from the residence, including a spoon.
“It’s always just a tremendous joy to have her here, as she tries to steal various items from the White House,” Michelle Obama told “Entertainment Tonight” several months later. “Barbara, you can take what you want, whenever you want.”
Oscar-winner Meryl Streep is also a repeat offender. Streep first ’fessed up to pocketing hand towels when she visited the White House as a Kennedy Center honoree in 2011. Three years later she was back again in the ladies’ washroom — this time as a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner — when another guest started eyeing the towels stamped with a presidential seal.
“Go ahead, take one, I already put one in my purse,” Streep told the woman, in a conversation confirmed by the actress through a spokeswoman.
But the chronic taking of the silver-gilt, custom-made place-card holders, which sell commercially for upward of $100, poses a serious problem for both the current first family and its predecessor.
Georgetown antiques dealer Frank Milwee designed an early version of the holder in the fall of 2003 for a private dinner commemorating the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist strikes. A few years later, aides to then-Vice President Cheney and President Bush ordered different versions of the holders independently of each other: the vice president’s residence has a silver eagle while the East Wing boasts Federal-style gilded eagles.
Milwee, who donates much of the cost of making the holders by providing them at a steep discount, does not engrave the ones he sells to the public with “The White House” mark at the bottom.
That prompted East Wing staffers to tell him when they asked to have a second batch made, “Maybe we would have fewer losses if you wouldn’t mark these with ‘The White House.’ ”
Milwee complied, and at this point he has produced a total of 800 holders for the past two administrations. Of the engraving change, he said, “I don’t know if that has done a damn thing” to discourage their theft.
Still, he takes comfort in the fact that unlike presidential china, they are not prone to breakage.
“Five hundred years from now, these little place-card holders will probably still be there,” he said, pausing for a moment. “If they’re not all stolen.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.