Bowling With Richard
Before Watergate, President Nixon was well liked among the staff, although most of them agree that he and his family were much more formal and stiff than their predecessors. Chef Frank Ruta tells a story about the congenial pot washer Frankie Blair, who was a fixture in the kitchen. One night, Blair was cleaning up after the first family had finished dinner. Nixon wandered into the kitchen, and somehow they started talking about bowling—Nixon was such an avid bowler that he had a single-lane bowling alley installed in the basement under the North Portico. Nixon asked Blair if he would play with him, and the two of them bowled until two in the morning. “There may have been a bottle of Scotch involved as well,” Ruta adds.
After they wrapped up, Blair turned to the president and said, “There is no way my wife is going to believe I was out this late bowling with you.”
“Come with me,” Nixon told him.
The two walked to the Oval Office, where the president wrote a note apologizing to Blair’s wife for keeping him out so late.
Flying with the Nixons
Former usher Nelson Pierce also remembers happy times with the Nixons before Watergate. When Pierce found out that the president and his wife were traveling to the Seattle area, where he’d been born, he told the first lady how much he missed the snowcapped mountains of the Northwest. Not long after that, Mrs. Nixon asked him to join them.
“The president’s secretary gave me the flight map,” Pierce recalls, and he studied it carefully, “trying to figure out what I would see, what I would recognize. But the closer we got to Washington, the less I was seeing.” Then, just as Pierce was getting his bearings, “all of a sudden, we made a sharp bank to the right, and of course I saw Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, Mount Baker, and Mount Rainier … I knew that somebody had asked the pilots to go that way so I could see the mountains.”
Every night, President Lyndon Johnson would get a massage in his living quarters. When former usher Nelson Pierce was on night duty, he would wait downstairs until the Navy chief came to tell him the president had gone to bed, at which point he was free to leave. Every once in a while, Pierce recalls, the president would fall asleep on the table, and the chief would have to sit down and wait until Johnson woke up so he could finish the massage.
“It was three, four, sometimes even five in the morning before we’d leave work,” Pierce says, without a hint of resentment in his voice.
John and the Can Opener
John and Jackie Kennedy were hopeless in the kitchen, says Anne Lincoln, the White House housekeeper at the time. “The president loved soup before he went to bed,” she says. “We had a can opener on the second floor, [but] I think it took him about eight months to learn how to use it.”