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Chief Usher J.B. West in the White House Ushers’ Office

Chief Usher J.B. West in the White House Ushers’ Office. John F. Kennedy Library

The White House Usher on the Role of Television

"Largely through television," notes historian William Seale, the White House "is the best known house in the world, the instantly familiar symbol of the Presidency, flashed daily on millions and millions of TV screens everywhere."1

J. B. West was Assistant Chief Usher at the White House from 1941 to 1957, and Chief Usher from 1957 to 1969. During the Eisenhower administration, West had an inside view of television's role as both a communication tool for the President and a form of entertainment and relaxation for the First Family.

West refers to television as "the electronic novelty." The White House had two TV sets, and West recalls that the Eisenhowers embraced TV wholeheartedly. In 1953, the White House press secretary announced that the President had decided to admit television and radio into his press conferences.2

West comments that President Eisenhower's "wide smile, his proud, erect posture, his direct manner were magically carried to homes around the country by the TV cameras."3

According to West, Ike and Mamie Eisenhower regularly watched the evening news while having their meals on tray-tables. He notes that Mrs. Eisenhower's enjoyment of As the World Turns "initiated the Television Era in the White House."4

1 William Seale, The President's House (Washington, D.C., White House Historical Association, 1986), 1052–1053.

2 "Press Talk TV Explained," New York Times, Jan. 26, 1953: 11.

3 J. B. West, Upstairs at the White House (New York: Coward-McCann, 1973), 159.

4 Ibid.

Preston Bruce developed a close relationship with the Kennedy family

Preston Bruce developed a close relationship with the Kennedy family. Smithsonian Institution

A White House Worker Remembers November 25, 1963

President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy had developed a bond with White House doorman Preston Bruce. The slain President's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, invited Bruce to walk with members of the Kennedy family to JFK's memorial service at St. Matthew's Cathedral. Here are some of Bruce's recollections:

"My heart ached to see Mrs. Kennedy march up the avenue, straight-backed, holding her children by the hand. . . .

"[After the service], I stood at the bottom of the steps near Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline, and John-John as the pallbearers carried down the casket. As it passed by, John- John raised his small hand and gave a crisp salute. It was his third birthday and his mother had arranged ice cream, cake, and candles to go with his supper that evening.

"[At Arlington Cemetery], I struggled to keep my composure. I could see the head of . . . General Charles de Gaulle of France, . . . and I could have . . .touched Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. Mrs. Kennedy had done me a great honor to include me in this company.

"At last the bugle sounded taps for John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a brave young man I'd learned to love."

—Preston Bruce, From the Door of the White House. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1984, 104–105.

Henry Haller and Maurice Bonté with the Nixon-Cox wedding cake, June 12, 1971

Henry Haller and Maurice Bonté with the Nixon-Cox wedding cake, June 12, 1971. Library of Congress

The White House Chefs and the Nixon-Cox Wedding Cake

In March 1971, President Richard M. Nixon announced the engagement of his daughter Patricia to Edward Cox. The details of the wedding preparations soon appeared in newspapers. As the June date drew closer, media attention began to focus on the wedding cake.

White House Chef Henry Haller and his colleagues, White House Pastry Chef Heinz Bender and New York pastry specialist Maurice Bonté, were now in the spotlight. The cake was to be a marvel of engineering and enchantment. Its base layer would be at table height, and feature the intertwined first initials of the couple. The confection was to soar to a height of close to seven feet.

Henry Haller served as spokesman for the White House kitchen as the cake became an ever more prominent news feature. At the beginning of June, the White House released a recipe for a scaled-down version of the cake. Food writers for major U.S. newspapers tried the recipe, and announced that the batter overflowed the pan.1 Haller stayed up late testing and retesting the cake formula, and declared the recipe to be accurate.2

Haller, Bender, and Bonte had reason to celebrate on June 12, 1971. The Nixon-Cox wedding cake was picture-perfect.3

1 Sarah Booth Conroy, "Cake Mess?" Washington Post, June 3, 1971: B1; Raymond A. Sokolov, "Warning! It May Not Work," New York Times, June 2, 1971: 36.

2 Raymond Sokolov, "The Great Cake Controversy, Continued: The Making (and Then Remaking) of a Recipe, Step by Step." New York Times, June 4, 1971: 17.

3 James M. Naughton, "The President and the Cake Pass Tests," New York Times, June 13, 1971: 76.

Former White House workers reminisce while looking through a photo album at the 1983 staff reunion picnic

Former White House workers reminisce while looking through a photo album at the 1983 staff reunion picnic. George Tames/The New York Times/Redux

A "Family" Reunion

A reunion picnic on June 24, 1983, was the scene of hugging, kissing, and backslapping, as former White House domestic staff greeted one another with laughter, emotion, and plenty of memories.1

The 1980s began a series of reunions of former White House workers. Retired chief usher J. B. West was the organizer of the 1983 event. Lillian Rogers Parks, a former maid and seamstress, shared stories with the widow of Arthur Prettyman, valet to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Heinz and Shirley Bender recalled their White House romance, which bloomed when he was the pastry chef and she was a housekeeper. "After he made Tricia Nixon's wedding cake, we got married and had no cake, but I forgave him," Shirley Bender told a reporter.2

Hoping to see "a lot of old friends," Luci Johnson Nugent, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, arrived with her daughter.3 Howard Arrington recounted his favorite story about the shower jets that President Johnson had ordered him to install: "He wanted [them] to hit all parts of his body with the same force. . . . Rex Scouten in the usher's office got in the shower to test it out, and it pinned Rex right to the wall."4

1 Barbara Gamarekian, "Reunion Echoes Bygone Years at White House," The New York Times, June 25, 1983: 5.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

Former White House workers gather on stage at the 1992 Folklife Festival

Former White House workers gather on stage at the 1992 Folklife Festival. Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution

Workers at the White House

Coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the White House, the Festival of American Folklife featured a program entitled "Workers at the White House" on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Between June 25 and July 5, 1992, more than thirty former White House employees participated in small panel discussions, and took questions from delighted audiences of Festival visitors.

The group's chain of living memory extended as far back as 1909. Contributing stories about their White House experiences were plumbers, maids, chefs, butlers, ushers, and doormen, as well as calligraphers, stonecarvers, and police officers on the White House beat. Panelists recounted amusing anecdotes about the presidential families, and about world leaders such as Winston Churchill; and they recalled serious matters such as racial discrimination in the White House, and the making of blackout curtains during World War II.

"Workers at the White House" grew into a traveling exhibition, circulated by the Smithsonian Institution during 1993. It also resulted in a video, and an illustrated booklet. Marjorie A. Hunt, who coordinated these efforts, summarized their theme as an examination of "the relationship between occupational culture and place, [and] the distinctive ways in which the White House, as a unique occupational setting, shapes work experience."1

1 Marjorie A. Hunt, "Making the White House Work," in Workers at the White House (Washington, D.C.: Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies, Smithsonian Institution, 1993), 6.

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