Jimmy Carter called the staff at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue “the glue that holds the house together.” Jackie Kennedy once remarked that a particular chief usher was “the most powerful man in Washington, next to the president.” The impact of the hundreds of men and women who have served as maids, valets, florists, and chefs to first families is legendary—and inestimable.
For the workers, the spotlight isn’t the point. Rising at dawn—and sometimes staying awake until the wee hours to perfect pastries and give massages—the residence staff sacrifice their personal lives to serve. Here, their remembrances from inside the White House describe small acts of kindness and episodes of humor, anger, and despair—and reveal personal quirks and preferences of presidents and their families from the Kennedy administration to the present day.
A Present for Malia
Bob Scanlan, the White House assistant chief florist from 1998 to 2010, wanted the Obamas to have a special first Christmas in the White House. He put boxwood Christmas trees on Malia’s dresser and on Sasha’s mantel. When Scanlan went into Malia’s room to check on the tree, he found a note: “Florist: I really like my tree. If it’s not too much to ask, could I please have lights on it? If not, I understand.” Her sign-off was a heart. “Now, you tell me,” he said to the Flower Shop staff. “How could I not put lights on that tree?”
Pastries for Nancy
An incident with Nancy Reagan still haunts former executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier. Two days before an April 1982 state dinner, Mesnier was previewing desserts with the first lady. Mrs. Reagan rejected three options, and Mesnier returned to the kitchen feeling dejected.
“Then the phone rang, and she asked me to come back upstairs to see her,” says Mesnier.
She told Mesnier that she had decided she wanted elaborate sugar baskets with three sugar tulips in each one. He would have to make 15 baskets for the dinner, each of which would take several hours.
“Mrs. Reagan, this is very nice and very beautiful, but I have only two days left until the dinner,” Mesnier told her.
She smiled and tilted her head to the right: “Roland, you have two days and two nights before the dinner.”
Mesnier dug in and worked day and night. After the state dinner, when he knew the first lady was happy with the result, he drove home elated. He had met the challenge.
Ronnie in the Buff
Ivaniz Silva, a maid from 1985 to 2008, spent most of her time in the family’s inner sanctum on the second and third floors. Usually things ran like clockwork, with the maids keeping track of the whereabouts of the president and the first lady so that the staff could go in and work without disturbing them. But one evening, Silva was in President Reagan’s bedroom after 5:30 p.m., turning down the bed and closing the curtains. When she went into the bedroom’s sitting room, “there he was, naked, with papers all around him!” she says. She rushed out of the room blushing before the president had time to say a word. He must have been as surprised as she was.
Later, she passed him in the hallway. Reagan looked at her with a twinkle. “Hey, who was that guy?” he asked.
Flowers for Jimmy
The first family may live in the White House for free, but they’re billed monthly for other expenses such as food and dry cleaning. Jimmy Carter wanted his flowers on the cheap, even though the first family doesn’t usually pay for flowers, says Ronn Payne, a White House florist from 1973 to 1996. “We had to go out and pick flowers for dinners,” he remembers. Payne and other staffers took field trips to Rock Creek Park to pick daffodils and the National Zoo to collect wildflowers. “Police would stop us. One guy was arrested,” Payne says. The White House intervened to get him released.