Little-known fact: the White House is one chilly mansion. Abigail Adams burned cords of wood in numerous fireplaces, to little avail. The Trumans used electric heaters. Said Jackie Kennedy: Surely, the greatest brains of Army engineering can figure out how to have this heated like a normal rattletrap house! No such luck. Second little-known fact: White House dinners seem to bring out the kleptomaniac in guests. In Lincoln's administration, they literally tore up curtains to steal souvenir lace. They were slightly more discreet a century later, but no less felonious. You wouldn't believe how many spoons disappear! said Luci Baines Johnson. The President's House is a public institution, an office building and a museum. But for more than 200 years, it's also been a home for a parade of very different families. In First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives, veteran Time magazine journalist Bonnie Angelo takes us on a relaxed, friendly meander through their experiences, good, bad and wacky. Angelo tackles the huge topic thematically, rather than chronologically, skipping around among the administrations to cover moving-in anxiety, love, interior decorating, grief, servant trouble and much in between. Her anecdotes are innumerable, their entertainment value high.
From FDR's era alone: the White House cooking was horrendous, but no one could convince Eleanor to replace the housekeeper. (Revenge for Franklin's mistresses?) During a wartime visit, Winston Churchill drank Scotch at breakfast, and wandered the halls naked. Stalin's foreign minister, V.M. Molotov, carried a gun in his suitcase. The White House valet panicked when he unpacked it; the Secret Service remained unfazed.
The main pattern that emerges in First Families is that happy families tend to stay happy in the White House, and unhappy ones don't improve. Luckily for the American polity, most of the married couples seem to have loved one another, and the kids had fun, once they got used to being in the public eye. As Luci Johnson put it, You can adjust or you can adjust! Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.