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State Dinner at the White House, March 9, 1871. The shorter man in the lower left foreground, facing right, is believed to be Valentino Melah. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper April 1, 1871; hand-colored 1960s

White House Historical Association

The frigate United States left Port Mahone, Minorca, arriving in New York City on December 25, 1834. On board was an orphan boy about seven years of age, Valentino Melah, a native of Messina, Sicily. His fortunes would lead him into the hotel business in Manhattan (the Astor House), New Orleans (the St. Charles), Long Branch, New Jersey (the Stetson), and his own establishment in Yonkers, New York.

It was from the Stetson in Long Branch, where President Ulysses S. Grant had a resort home, that Melah came to Washington to be the White House steward.

Newspaperwoman Mary Clemmer Ames observed in 1871 that Melah was known around Washington as the “Silver Voiced Italian.” Ames credited him with the signature White House recipe for a smooth and “aristocratic” stew that lent untold elegance to the 29-course state dinners for which he was renowned.

But President Grant was a man of simple tastes and careful economy. By 1871 he had begun to ease Melah out. Valentino Melah left Washington for Yonkers and New York City, then Chicago, where he died in 1872.

Footnotes & Resources

Read more: Mary Clemmer [Ames], Ten Years in Washington (Hartford: Worthington, 1874), 171–172. Also see Emily Edson Briggs, The Olivia Letters, Being Some History Of Washington City For Forty Years As Told By The Letters Of A Newspaper Correspondent (New York and Washington: Neale): 204–205.

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