BRIAN LAMB: William Seale, you’ve written 1,415 pages of material on the White House. What was the hardest part of doing that?
WILLIAM SEALE, HISTORIAN: Well, I guess the research was the hardest part, and also compressing it for that many pages, compressing this huge story. There were many things that couldn’t be used or had to be dealt with in the in the sentence, a short paragraph that I would love to have gone on and on about. But I couldn’t, and it’s the process of actually throwing things out, even with 1,400 pages.
LAMB: Well, I’ve got this here, two-volume set. When did you first write this?
SEALE: It was first published in 1986, the first part of it, up to President Truman’s renovations of the White House 1952. This takes the story to the end of the first Bush Administration, George H. W. Bush, which is where the papers, available papers stopped at the time I wrote this.
LAMB: How did you approach this story?
LAMB: The whole story. I mean the who were you writing it for?
SEALE: The central characters of the House and the various people who go there, and the House holds it together, and the various people and their reactions to living there, sometimes manifest in what they do to the House, often manifest in what they don’t do to the House and that’s the story of the Presidents, the family, the staff that served the presidents, the development of an institution, which President Obama will enter a very well organized institution to serve his work and you have to look at it that way at the White House; it’s work.
LAMB: If you had to pick a presidency and this is not a political question, more of an interesting or a fun or whatever which president and his family would you have liked to live with in the history?
SEALE: That’s very hard. Probably Monroe. It was a very interesting time in American History, the period of Monroe and the end of the War of 1812, when the United States felt at last they had really defeated Britain and were going into a boom situation. I think the years from 1816 to 1819 would have been very exciting at the White House.
LAMB: What would it have been like in the White House? What was James Monroe like? What was his wife like?
SEALE: Well, James Monroe was looked a little bit like George Washington, and he was considered the like a younger son to the founding fathers. He was extremely popular. He was his second election, one person voted against him so they wouldn’t be unanimous and take the thunder away from George Washington. So he lived there. He did the White House up because he thought political parties were dead, that the nation was won having finally defeated England and the bizonic (ph) zone, it was going to turn inward, which, in fact, it certainly did in its development for the whole century. And he did the White House up very grandly with old Napoleonic castoffs they bought in France, gold furniture still in the Blue Room today and the dishes still used in the White House today that he bought that say, ”President’s House: Always lovingly cared for.”
And he made his grand progresses through the country and seeing the various areas, visiting people, and no TV then so they could see him, and interestingly enough, it’s always as grand as the White House may get, there’s always a little down to earth. Monroe, of course, didn’t have enough money to do these tours. They’re very expensive. So he had some French furniture he and his wife had bought in France when he was an American minister to France in the late 1790s, so he would sell that to the government and take the money and take his tours, and then when his salary of 25,000 a year, which was huge then, would come in, he’d pay it back. This pattern was repeated a number of times and never known until the next administration caught onto it, and it became a scandal.
But his period was very vibrant, and of course he soon learned with the panic of 1819 that there were political parties and there was financial disaster, and so on and so forth. But it was it was a brilliant eight years.
LAMB: For a lot of people at the end of this hour we will run our 90-minute no, it’s actually longer than that. It’s almost a two-hour documentary that Mark Farkas has worked with you on and has produced over the last two years, roughly. I’m going to avoid asking the obvious questions that people can see in the documentary about the presidents that everybody talks about: FDR, TR, Lincoln, others many others, and I’m going to as I read your book, I saw some great stories about some lesser-known presidents. I’m just going to pick one out. Van Buren, Martin Van Buren. I’m going to quote from your book: ”Van Buren actively spent less than half as much as Andrew Johnson”
Jackson, I’m sorry. ”Approximately the same amount as the second Adams, John Quincy Adams, and not half as much as the first Adams, John Adams. History, nevertheless, would call him a spendster.” It just brought up the whole issue of who spent the most money on the White House?
SEALE: All image. Van Buren lived in a much more elegant manner, and it was showy, and had he was from New York, self-made Manhattan man, and he came down and put on a show in the White House, the dances, the he was a bachelor, and he had bachelor sons, one of them married there, and it was a show, and expense was just associated with it because he didn’t the most important thing he did to the White House was put in central heating, which was, of course, not in many rooms, but some of the rooms. You know for the first time, you could be warm on both sides, and he did that, but otherwise, Van Buren spent very little compared to Jackson, who really did a lot. The grounds Jackson was the father, you might say, of the grounds and of the finished the East Room and brought lots of furniture and things like that.
LAMB: What did he do for a first lady?
SEALE: His daughter, his daughter-in-law, Angelica Singleton Van Buren. She was married to Abraham, the son, and was from South Carolina, and she was quite a character, big, tall girl, going on the clothes that survived. Many of her costumes survived, and her portrait hangs in the Red Room perpetually.
LAMB: And there’s a lot of different first ladies. How many of them died, actually, in and around the White House years?
SEALE: Well, let’s see, the first lady, I guess, to die in the White House was Mrs. Tyler in the 1840s, and Mrs. Jackson had died just before Jackson went to the Whitehouse, and she rather looms over the story. But Mrs. Tyler, she was ill when she went there, and she died, and then the President rather soon, by most standards, remarried a much younger woman, a friend of his children, and they only had a couple of months there. But that was very lively, in their time.
LAMB: How did John Tyler become President?
SEALE: By the death of William Henry Harrison, who was President only 30 days. He was the great hero of the old Northwest, and he was swept into office. Actually, his election was far more of a people’s common man election than Andrew Jackson’s, and the Tippecanoe was Harrison and Tyler to the song we all grew up with, and the Log Cabin Campaign, the public swarms around this man and brought him to Washington, and he lived for 30 days, and then died. His wife never even made it over the mountains to live at the White House. So Tyler took over, and he proved much more of a project to deal with with the politicians. The politicians surrounding him thought they would, as they had with Jackson, they expected to with Jackson. They thought they were going to tell him what to do, and Tyler didn’t agree to any of that. And so there was a split, and Tyler actually changed (INAUDIBLE).
LAMB: What did his first wife die of?
SEALE: I suppose it was consumption. I don’t know. She was very ill for a very long time, and just sank and sank. I don’t really know.
LAMB: And he was president for how long?
SEALE: Tyler was president for oh, well, almost four years, just 30 days under four years.
LAMB: So he goes into the White House. His wife dies within how within about two years, and he remarries while he’s in the White House?
SEALE: Well, they married in New York, but he married while he was President.
LAMB: And do I remember she was 24 years old?
SEALE: Yes, she was she was young.
LAMB: And how many children did he have up till that point, with his first wife?
SEALE: He had six, as I recall, and then he had about eight with her, and they were still having children by the time of the Civil War. He was had quite a family. In fact, his grandson was the his son, I’m sorry, was the librarian at the College of William & Mary until mid-20th Century.
LAMB: Well, I know when we did our series back in ’99 on the Presidency, we interviewed, I think, the last surviving son grandson. Maybe the grandson. But it was like, because of all these children
SEALE: Yes, he had lots of children, and he figured in the Civil War period, he had quite a distinguished career (INAUDIBLE).
LAMB: Millard Fillmore. I read in your book about the story about what happened after he left the White House and moved into the Willard. Why would you leave the White House and move to the Willard Hotel?
SEALE: Well, just to make way for the President, exactly, inauguration, and then, of course, Mrs. Fillmore died there at the Willard that night, that first night they were gone. He was simply making way for Pierce coming in. Fillmore is one of the most misunderstood of all of the Presidents. He was a self-made man, as so many of them were, meaning he probably came from a stable family, let’s say, but he had nothing financially to help him along, family-wise or other. He was a surveyor, as many Presidents had been, and he rose as a lawyer and politician, and he and his wife, Abigail, were a very sophisticated couple. There are various things they did. One, they built the first White House library, which is relatively minor.
But if you read the titles of those books, as one scholar is doing today to analyze these things, they were very sophisticated. They had all the latest books on landscape and poetry and all of these things were in there, and history, and so forth. But affecting us even more is the Capitol, enlargement of the Capitol. God knows what would have happened to that building, if it hadn’t been for Fillmore. But he had served there, and he loved it, and they were going to expand it, and he decreed that in no way could the same way Truman later did with the White House, and in no way could the Oval walls be violated. So they were adding out to the side to the Capitol, and the original dome came to looking like a half an orange sitting up there. It was ridiculous.
They needed a vertical piece for the Capitol to offset that long horizontal of the new wings, and of course this led to the decision. You couldn’t put a masonry dome on there. It was going to be a dome if you didn’t have because the state capitols have them, but you couldn’t put a heavy masonry dome on those old brick walls, and that’s when they went to iron plates copied from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in Russia, and it was light enough to ride those old walls, and that’s really why we have the dome. It was Fillmore’s idea. Fillmore brought Andrew Jackson Downing, the great landscape architect, still great in America’s annals of landscape to Washington to improve things, to improve the model. He changed the original plan a lot.
But it was the that was the avant-garde thing to do with in that day, and Fillmore is remembered mostly because of a Menken (ph) article about the bathtub and who put the first bathtub in the White House, and Fillmore’s always been the butt of jokes, but he was a most interesting character and a sophisticated person.
LAMB: New Yorker.
LAMB: And he got the job how? He didn’t get elected
SEALE: It’s the death of Zachary Taylor, President Taylor. He, President Taylor, went to a Fourth of July oration, where George Washington (INAUDIBLE), who built himself as the Child of Mount Vernon. He was Ms. Washington’s grandson and really trafficked on the fact that he was connected to that always. He built Arlington House that we know today, Arlington. He delivered these orations, and this particular one was four hours long, and the sun was hot, and the President was old, and he went back to the White House famished and ate iced cherries, and they led to something, and he developed pneumonia and died very quickly.
LAMB: What did they do in the White House after he I mean that’s one of the things, one of the sub-themes in your book is how much death has happened in the White House and what they do with it.
SEALE: Oh, yes. Well, of course, in the 19th Century you know death was very frequent with many a family. It happened all the time. Illness you know you could go out and get your feet wet I guess that’s why they didn’t bathe so much get your feet wet and have pneumonia and die in two days or a day. It happened all the time. And people were very careful about that. But Harrison being the first, Zachary Taylor was the second to die in office, and he was laid in state there and put in a receiving vault and later buried in Louisville, Kentucky.
LAMB: What kind of precedent was set, and what other kind of things that almost always happen around death in the White House?
SEALE: You mean what the response of
LAMB: I mean I noticed a lot of people have been embalmed in the White House.
SEALE: Well, they all are. I mean, well, no, they’re not all. I mean in those in the old days they always were, just like people were embalmed at home, and President Harrison, who died in the White House, was the first, and the official surrounding him went to Darius Kolagit (ph), an owner of a large store in town and just said do it. And there had been state funerals at the Capitol, so Darius (ph) just went in, and he draped the White House, everything. All the mirrors were covered in black crepe. The chandeliers, the all the things like that, and the President was dressed in his uniform, and actually, he was in a winding sheet, and put in the East Room, and with his dress sword from the Mexican War on top of the coffin, and the funeral fell (ph).
LAMB: Let’s go back to this book. Who commissioned you to write the book in the first place?
SEALE: White House Historical Association.
LAMB: Can you can you remember how that started? I mean who came to you and under what circumstances?
SEALE: Well, I was interested in doing the book. I was interested in buildings and American houses. I had written about state capitols and things like that. So I got interested in the White House because it’s so beautifully documented, and I was doing some work for the association connected with the film, and I proposed this, and the various officials there liked the idea and that there was not a history of the White House, a scholarly history, and so that’s how it started. It started that way, and it was a commissioned work by then, and I had absolute utter freedom. Not one word has been dictated to me by the association at all.
LAMB: Now, if you published this first in 1988, when did you start work on it?
SEALE: Eighty-six. Ten years before then, ’76, yes. I started in the late ’70s and
LAMB: So it was published in ’86, and you started 10 years earlier.
LAMB: Well, how did you go about your research?
SEALE: Well, it hadn’t been done before. There had been histories of the White House. The most important one had been published in 1909, two volumes that mostly came from official reports. Fortunately, the records of the White House, for the most part, have been maintained very carefully because an administration keeps those records because they might be criticized by the next administration for something, some little something like Monroe. And so the national archives has all of that, or as much as exists, and since they are buying spots, but not much. And so I had that, and the idea was to do originally a small architectural history of the White House, which I later did after that book. But the it just the association being the historical nonprofit organization, its sole purpose is to interpret the White House to the American people.
Well, they and I felt there was more to do than that, and so the book just went into documents, documents, documents and to create this, and of course, if I had been going out to write a something that would sell like hotcakes or a sensational book, I would have produced a book rather than a history, like this. It would have been 400 pages or something like that. But to really tell the story, you have to tell the story. And that’s why I’m not apologizing, but that’s why it’s 1,400 pages long is it goes into all of that about the White House on varying levels of interest. But it’s centered, again, in the building.
LAMB: Well, one of the things that I mean, as you know it’s a narrative. It’s not like it’s a dry history of I mean who do you think about sitting down and reading all of this?
SEALE: You know that’s strange that you ask. History buffs, I guess, because I’ve always been one. Though I’m a historian, I’ve always been a history buff, and I’d like to think that when my time is up, if these books will exist, and there’ll be 10,000 term papers in them for kids in school. So I tried to write it with that in mind, as well, that they could take, say, President Piece’s term and read that part of and get a picture of life in the White House. Most biographies of Presidents not even very long ago really never had anything about the White House. It was very rare. It was about the presidency, but not about life in the House. So that is one of the personal motivations is that young people can get these stories I hate to say it, but that’s what they are out of the past, the biographing, the reaction to living that very strange situation that nobody can ever understand before they go there.
LAMB: You were born in Beaumont, Texas?
LAMB: What’s the kind of the short history of Bill Seale from Beaumont Texas to Alexandria, Virginia?
SEALE: Well, Beaumont, Texas was a curious place to become historical, but it’s strange how much thinking back on it I got of a historical character, and my interest really started there. I was next to Louisiana, where I had friends who lived on a plantation in St. Francisville. I had relatives who lived in near Taos, New Mexico, just a (INAUDIBLE), and then Beaumont, of course, is the home of Spindletop, the Spindletop oil boom, and there were people still people who remembered it that I knew, and all of that kind of goes together in an interesting history, and my father was interested in history, as well. And
LAMB: What did he do?
SEALE: He was an independent oil operator, and he that’s a Texas term. I mean he accumulated leases in the drilling.
LAMB: And your mother?
SEALE: My mother was a housewife who didn’t read things I would read. But anyway, she did you know she’d read those romantic novels. But anyhow, it just seemed it was what I was interested in.
LAMB: When did you leave there?
SEALE: Well, I married I went away to school, and then I married in ’66, and we lived there for two years and then moved began going east briefly in South Carolina, Columbia to restore some houses because I am very interested in that too, historic preservation. And then we moved here in ’71 to Alexandria, Virginia in ’71, and now we live between East Texas in the country and Washington.
LAMB: The school you went to to college?
SEALE: Southwestern University in Georgetown Texas, just North of Austin.
LAMB: Studied what?
SEALE: History. And then to Duke University.
LAMB: Before we come back to this, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. Our seminar audience are going to go where did that come from, and Ten Chimneys and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
SEALE: Well, I do restoration work. I’m consulting on restoration state capitals, primarily, but also some historic house museums. I’ve got dear friends from all over the country of buildings I’ve worked on like that, and one of the most excited was recently, it was it was a three-year project, was outside of Milwaukee, 30 miles away. It was a very interesting house, which was occupied by the Broadway stars, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and they had no children, and they left the house exactly as it was. She was in her late 90s when she died. Her false eyelashes were still on her dressing table. It’s the most incredible thing, the clothes in the closets, everything just as it had been, the letters in the drawers of the desks and a very interesting, creative man named Joseph Garten (ph), a business man from Madison, just went and bought it. He was interested in theatre history. He had a doctorate in theatre history, though he was a businessman, and he and his wife bought it and just said and they thought about it for about a year, and they asked me to come in and think about it, and it was tough. The currents were rotten, there were cobwebs everywhere, like Ms. Havershams (ph) house or something.
And but you got to thinking about it: sure, it ought to be left exactly like this, but then it would please a few curators, but no one else would understand it. The Lunts were very specific about what life was like. They spent every summer there and went back to New York for the season, or London. So I recommended that it be brought back as it had been so everything was conserved. Only rotten fabrics were replaced. Thank God they didn’t have very elaborate ones. But it’s brought back, and it shines like it did in their day. We Andrew Benkoski (ph) took layers of cigarette stain of the murals and health (ph) smoke, of course, and it’s the scene where Noel Coward spent a month every summer and Vivian Lee (ph) and Laurence Olivier secretly met there during the filming of Gone With the Wind. They were going together, but he was still married, and there are all of these intricacies of family and people going to their latest protιgι with Montgomery Clift. So he was there all the time. So these people loved Ten Chimneys. It is exactly as they knew it, and the tour they’ve done is fascinating. It’s an institution now.
LAMB: I noticed on the Web site that Lynn Redgrave is going to teach next August to the I think there are 11 fellows that are coming in Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. Are you going to go out there and participate?
SEALE: I don’t know. I haven’t been invited, but they have across the hill on the it’s a farm, near a little town of Genesee Depot, where nobody would ever tell visiting people where the Lunts lived. Well, I don’t know, maybe about 50 miles from here, because they loved them. But over this hill, they built a big center for this sort of thing, for reading, acting, studying acting. It was always Joe Always (ph) who died, unfortunately, a few weeks after it opened. But he always wanted it to be an ongoing educational center as well as the house, and the house is kept a historical thing, and it’s very unmuseumish (ph).
LAMB: Well, let’s go back to the White House. By the way, do you have an idea since 1986 how many of your books have sold to the White House Historical Association?
SEALE: Of the two volumes?
SEALE: Around 100,000.
LAMB: And there’s a brand new one out, 2008.
SEALE: The one you have.
LAMB: Yes, and that sells for how much?
SEALE: Fifty-eight, $59. Fifty-nine ninety-five, of course. That’s right, and it has it takes 400 extra pages, additionally, and then I’ve revised a whole lot in the earlier part that just has been a continuing life you know researching this stuff. I love it, and so I’ve been able to change a number of things in the early parts of the book.
LAMB: What’s the difference between what the White House Historical Association sells and Johns Hopkins?
SEALE: There’s no difference in the content at all.
LAMB: And why is there two different two different publishers of the book?
SEALE: Two different publishers, but the association wanted to do a specially designed edition that Hopkins was not interested in. Theirs is like a is a more scholarly presented edition, and this one is more elaborate, more jazzed up.
LAMB: How do you buy this book? Are they in stores?
SEALE: It’s the Web no, it’s on the Web. That’s the way to get it: whitehousehistory.org is the it’ll have the whole thing on it.
LAMB: I’m going to come back to some of the writing later. We asked the Zogre Poland (ph) group during the campaign, in the middle of all the polling, to tack on four or five questions about the White House, and here are the results, and we asked several questions: how old were you when you the first time you visited Washington D.C., and we found out that 41% had n ever visited, but 59% had. Twenty-eight% visited when they were younger than 17, 18% visited 18 to 29 years old, and 10% visited when they were 30 to 49 years old, and then 65 and older (INAUDIBLE)%. What does that say to you when 28% were younger than 17 years old?
SEALE: Well, that their parents went to see the national capitol, yes, the national city.
LAMB: Is that well, let me go to the second question, because it would they’re well, anyway, I’ll read it. When you think of Washington D.C., which building first comes to mind as representing America, and this is not on the I guess it is. It’s 50% is the White House, 21% is the Capitol, 14% Lincoln Memorial, and then it slides down to 16% the Washington Monument, Pentagon 1% and on. Are you surprised the White House is 50%?
SEALE: Yes, because I would have thought the Capitol because of the dome, which was such a monumental symbol before it was even finished during the Civil War, and I would have thought the U.S. Capitol would’ve immediately said America. But television has intervened since the ’50s and beginning in the ’50s, and the White House is an icon to the Presidency, and the President is the closest spot of human contact we have with our system, and I suppose that accounts for that. It’s where the President lives. There are no beds in the Capitol that we know of, and some the man sleeps in the White House. That’s his home, and I think there’s that point of identity, and parenthetically, I don’t think the White House would exist if Lincoln hadn’t lived there because I think the whole nation shared, North and South, the melodrama of his family life as his family fell apart, just like other families in the nation fell apart, and people had that in their mind’s eye. That’s the stage set for all of that, and it always Congress never would touch that house.
LAMB: The question we really wanted answered was have you ever taken a tour of the White House, and it turns out that 19% of the Americans have toured the White House, 80% say no, which means, depending on you know what age group and all that, there’s between 50 and 60 million people in this country have toured the White House. Your reaction to that figure. Does that make sense to you?
SEALE: Yes. It used to be for years and years it was a million, million-and-a-half a year that went through the House. It’s more restricted now. You have to go by reservation through a congressman by a member of Congress. But it was open. You could stand in line and go through. I’ve done it myself many times with friends, and it isn’t anymore. But there were that many people. They clocked how many people went through, and it was that doesn’t really surprise me.
LAMB: The last thing was: if you’re offered a tour of the White House, which of the following rooms would you be most interested in seeing? Oval Office was 53%, and the next in the line was the private residence of the President. We’re going to see that in the documentary later, and the Oval Office. Of course, the Lincoln bed was 15%, State Dining Room 3, East Room 1%.
SEALE: One percent for the East Room?
SEALE: That surprises me. TV. I would say TV for most of those because the Oval Office has assumed a presence now that it didn’t have, and the curiosity of that, the private quarters, you immediately say, boy, I’d like to see where the President lives, and the only thing that surprises me is the East Room because it’s seen so many times, particularly since President Johnson, who began to use it a lot for press conferences and things.
LAMB: Here’s a picture of New Hampshire’s own Franklin Pierce.
SEALE: Oh, yes.
LAMB: And I want to get back to some of the stories you have in the book. The story of Benjamin, Benny Pierce, and Jane Pierce and what her years in the White House were like and what years do you remember what years he was the President?
SEALE: Fifty-three to 57, 1800. So it was before the Civil War.
LAMB: What’s the Vinny (ph) story, the young child?
SEALE: Well, they had two children. Jane Pierce, Appleton Pierce was a very quiet, intellectual woman, very smart, probably a good advisor to him, as most first ladies all first ladies have been, and she lost a son at about 10, and it broke her heart, of course. Then they had this little boy that she Vinny (ph), who was about 12, as I remember, and he was idolized, of course, by her. There’s a very poignant gregarious-type image of the two of them together, and on the train, a train trip after Pierce’s election, there was a train wreck, and the little and the boy was thrown from the train and rolled down the hill in the snow, and President Pierce jumped out of the train and ran down to him, and when he picked him up, his cap fell and his head had been crushed, and he died. And Mrs. Pierce took the unfortunate course of saying that it was God’s punishment of her and her husband for ambition for wanting to be President, and she was a recluse. She would write letters to the boy all the years of the White House, and she just seemed doomed to problems.
They were very close to Jefferson Davis and his very vivacious life. The Davis’ had a little boy, and Mrs. Davis, being very pushy and very bright, took it upon herself to bring Jane Pierce out, and so she did it through the little boy, and Jane Pierce did become interested and went places and did things, and then the little boy died, and she went right back into where she was, from which she never recovered.
LAMB: What impact did that have on his Presidency?
SEALE: I except for a rather unhappy home life, I doubt very much. He was in a very tumultuous time. He took the state’s right side in the terrible Kansas battles and was a representative of the old Democratic Party. But he coped with it and her along. She became extremely dependent and the rest of until she died, she was.
LAMB: Here’s a quote from your book, spoken by a woman named Agnes Meyer. Who was she?
SEALE: Well, you mean not our Agnes Meyer from Washington Post? This is earlier.
LAMB: Well, this is the Warren Harding Agnes Meyer.
SEALE: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Who said, ”Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks she is making a fool of herself by such incessant chatter,” talking about Mrs. Harding.
SEALE: Oh, Mrs. Harding. Oh, yes. Well, that was pretty much an opinion in Washington, yes, that Mrs. Harding was sort of his cultured Pearl, and a lot of people made jokes about her. She was rather pushy and noisy.
LAMB: He also died in the White House
SEALE: If I counted right, (INAUDIBLE) die in the White House. I mean Hotel in San Francisco. I mean he died when he was President, and there’s lots of mysteries surrounding it, of course, as there is with every President’s death.
LAMB: And what did they do about his funeral?
SEALE: It was the traditional White House funeral with a little less drapery. She did not want all the mourning drapery. So there was a little bit of it in the East Room, but not a lot, and everybody was taken to the Capitol, and then it was returned to Ohio.
LAMB: You talk about the Oval Room on the second floor and that it was wholly illegal what Warren Harding did on the second floor.
SEALE: Oh, yes.
LAMB: Poker, makeshift bar, several Poker parties a week, smoked pipes, cigarettes, cigars.
SEALE: Yes. Risky player. Whisky. He his explanation to friends was this is my private area. I can do what I want to. I won’t do that in the state parts of the house. He is the only President who did that. I mean Coolidge and Hoover were very particular in observing prohibition, but Harding didn’t think much of it.
LAMB: You write about somebody named Jeff Smith in the Harding Administration and Charles Kramer, and you say that Jeff Smith was ordered back to Ohio and shot himself and that Charles Kramer resigned from the Veterans Bureau and committed suicide. What was that all about?
SEALE: They were the very first that were accused of corruption and graft in their federal positions, and most of the Harding scandals unfolded after his death, but he knew about them, and these were close, close friends, and they were devastated and went home and were very depressed. But you know Harding said that someone asked him something once about his friends, and he said his enemies one time, and he said, ”It ain’t my enemies that keeps me up nights; it’s my friends.”
LAMB: He says I actually wrote that quote down: ”I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies all right, but my damn friends. My God,” I guess he said TD (ph) friends, ”keep me up nights.”
SEALE: Keep him up nights.
LAMB: But talk about some of the customs. When you start reading your book, it is very formal. You talk about George Washington wouldn’t shake hands with people, and when did that why was that, and when did the shake when did they begin to shake hands with their constituents?
SEALE: One of the big problems challenges with the Presidency is how to act, frankly. Which fork do you use, I guess you’d say on simpler terms. With Washington, of course, there had never been any heads of state before McCain, and so what they did, they patterned on what George the Third did, whereas John Adams had experienced it, and Washington, of course, being President, was both Prime Minister and Head of State. So he the President unites those two jobs. But it became honed down. It got to be almost corny with the ceremony with the men standing in the Oval and all that. And when Jefferson came in Adams followed in some of that, and when Jefferson came in, the third President, he abolished all of it. Only one ceremony did he have, and that was when he stood in the center of the Blue Room and received the credential of ambassadors, which was carried on all through time until recently, and now it’s in the Oval Office. But the whole issue of how a President should act and present himself to the public, the people would know when they come there how to do how to do right and not do things that are embarrassing to the Presidency goes on through. But it became very Jefferson shook hands. He began that. And you go into Monroe, it becomes a little more distant, and sometimes all through history it’s a little more stringent. The presentation of the President, a little more distant between people who come, or it’ll the whole thing will change and drove a very great friendliness. But the dinner table is the basic unit of entertaining at the White House. It always has been.
LAMB: Who entertained the most?
SEALE: Oh, my goodness, your greatest numbers would be Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. But way in the past, the entertaining, well, it varied. Van Buren Tower in that period was a lot of entertaining. With Lincoln, it was arduous. He didn’t enjoy it much, and he had to do it. He was busy. They have the state dinners. And the season in Washington, which ran from December to spring, where everything was sort of centered around the White House, parties were held. There were receptions. There was a Fourth of July reception, there was the New Years Day reception, and then until the 1850s, there was the 8th of January, Andrew Jackson’s Victory of New Orleans. And those were public receptions open to the public, and the public came. And by the 1850s, 6,000 was typical attendance. The President’s hands would be bruised. The First Lady usually retreated behind the table or held a big bouquet to avoid it. But this was stopped in the late ’20s. It just it got totally out of hand, and most people many people who came couldn’t even get in because the doors would be closed at a certain time, and there’d be a line way out on Pennsylvania Avenue. So those receptions, the last was New Years. Fourth of July was too hot in Washington, and people began going to the shore in the 1870s, and then the last one, New Years, lasted until 1929, and then it was held once more in ’32, and then no more.
LAMB: You mentioned hot summers. Who was the first President to have air conditioning, and when did it become a central air White House?
SEALE: Well, to begin with, air condition was discovered, if you’d say, at the White House. They were trying to cool the house with Garfield when he was dying. So the principle was discovered there. The first air conditioned White House was 1909. President Taft in the West Wing with blocks of ice in the attic, never worked, leaked. So they gave it up. President Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had asthma problems, as did many of those who moved into the house of his staff because he had his staff close at hand, many of them, and a carrier company went in and put air conditioners on the chimneys with the compressors on the roof, and blew the air through grills into certain these people’s bedrooms so they could sleep at night in the heat because there was no leaving in the summer anymore.
LAMB: Who was the first President to have a working telephone?
SEALE: President Hayes, Rutherford B. Hayes, 1879
LAMB: And call anybody? Were there very many people in the country that had
SEALE: He could call the Secretary of the Treasury, and both of them could call Alexander Graham Bell. That’s all they could call, but they liked it.
LAMB: When did they have a wider system, where it was
SEALE: Oh, it began to grow from there. It grew and grew. Telegraph didn’t even come into the White House until after Lincoln, 1966. He’d always been in another building, and he went to it and used it. It’s a special thing like people used to do, fax machines you know. Go down the hall, everybody uses the same one. It was the way the telegraph was.
LAMB: I read in your book that Calvin Coolidge lived at 15 Dupont Circle for six months outside the White House while he was President, and how many times I know in the documentary that you are very active in our documentary that’s going to be seen later, you talk a lot about Harry Truman and moving out and all that. But how many other Presidents had to move out of the White House besides and why did Calvin Coolidge move out?
SEALE: He moved out because of they needed more space, and you have the second-floor family quarters. That was all that was there, even though the officers had been moved out already because they were until 1902. So they decided to tear the roof off and shape it in such a way that they could accommodate a third floor without your seeing it from the street, and that’s what happened in 1925, and the Coolidges moved to Dupont Circle to the Patterson House, which still stands there, and there they received Limburg (ph) and all of that, and then finally moved back into the House. That third floor was pretty bad for the house. It was done in steel and concrete, and they just mashed down they didn’t use Fillmore’s rule about the dome, the iron dome, they didn’t do an iron third floor. They did masonry. It just squashed down on the White House, which was one of the reasons the house had to be reconstructed in 1950 ’48 to ’52.
So they left, and then, of course, Truman moved out for most of his administration. He lived in Blair House across the street while the house was being renovated. Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 and his 90-day wonder on the White House did move out, finally. He said, oh, no, I can stay here. It’ll be just great, and then plaster dust got him, and after a month, he moved across the street to a row house on Mafiatt (ph) Square. So well, of course, you’ve got the Coolidges I mean the Clevelands. They weren’t told to leave. They just left. President Cleveland married his ward, a young woman in 21. He was 47, and he wanted her to have a normal family life. He made that very clear. He hated the press. Anything that of course, the press was wild about her. She was called Frankie Cleveland, and he tried to hide her from all that. So he built a house out by the present Washington Cathedral called Red Top the reporters called it Red Top, and they lived there just like a family, and she had some 30 animal pets there, and that’s where they lived. They went to the White House for entertainment, and they did the same thing when you know he was out of term, and then he went back, was reelected in ’93, and he went back, and they had another house in Washington. They didn’t stay there quite as much. By then they had children, and then another child was born in the White House, and so the Clevelands definitely lived between these other houses and the White House, but the White House was still their official residence, which is not with Truman, who couldn’t live in the house.
LAMB: Got a photo from your book. And by the way, do you happen to know how many photos you’ve got in this book?
SEALE: A hundred and twenty, I believe.
LAMB: Here’s a photograph of Frances Olson Cleveland. You say she was 21 years old when they married. What kind of I want to say sensation was that in the country when
SEALE: Oh, heavens, Frankie Cleveland? There were Frankie Cleveland fan clubs all over the country, and she went to Europe with her mother before the wedding, and when she came back, she had to be secreted through New York and hotels and things. I mean the streets were mobbed to see Frankie Cleveland. She was just so popular, and she was a very nice and interesting young woman. When Princess Ula Lee (ph), the Enfant of Spain, came to visit in ’93, she wore the famous Spanish jewels, which were pearls the size of eggs that went from her neck to the floor, diamonds and all of this, and Mrs. Cleveland wore a white dress with one chameleon pinned on the front of it, no jewelry at all. And one today. She had a she had a certain likableness about her, and it was very popular, which was nice for him because he didn’t. He was not much of a public figure. He’d take on after you if he got mad about something. Here’s that photographic of Ida McKinley, and the reason I show this is because he also died in the White House I mean not physically in the White House, but he was assassinated there.
LAMB: What impact did that have I mean what was their relationship? What impact did that have on the country when he was assassinated?
SEALE: Their relationship was not totally unlike that of Pierce and Mrs. Pierce. They had lost two children, two little girls, and long before the White House, and Ida McKinley was a subject to depression. She also had epilepsy, developed epilepsy, and she was a very smart, bright woman. She was the first First Lady who ever worked on a salaried job, and she long before they went to the White House, and McKinley brought the country into the international world with the Spanish War, and then was killed at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and Theodore Roosevelt, the Vice President, became President of the United States. So McKinley created Roosevelt dramatized with a new presidency, and Mrs. McKinley lived a few years after McKinley, but not long. She was a very strong individual, but an invalid, basically.
LAMB: This is a little bit out of context, but from what I read, the chapter on Andrew Johnson, and I came across the line, 10 of his family moved onto the second floor where they (INAUDIBLE) in after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. We don’t hear much about Andrew Johnson. What was that family like, and why did he move 10 people to the second floor?
SEALE: Well, they were the most unpretentious people on earth, Andrew Johnson. His daughter, Mrs. Patterson, Martha Patterson ran things. Mrs. they were unionists in the Civil War, and they lived in Eastern Tennessee, and Mrs. Johnson wrecked her health taking food to the union people in the mountains, and she was a very sickly woman, and so the daughter took over management of the house, and they moved the whole family in. Johnson had to wait 30, 35 days before Mrs. Lincoln would leave, and he had his office over in the Treasury Building, which was, by the way, the windows were draped with the flag that had been at Ford’s Theatre, with a gash in it from Booth’s (ph) spur. I’ve always thought it was sort of odd. When Mrs. Lincoln left, the house was just thrown to pieces. The public had gone through and whacked pieces of curtains and taken silver and everything else out of it, and they renovated it. But the family lived there, and they were the plainest people. They never had any pretenses at all about anything grand, though Mrs. Patterson had been educated in Washington and she had known ever since the days of the Polks she had known the White House. But they all lived there, the whole the whole bunch lived on the second floor all during the impeachment and the President’s Office at one end, the family at the other.
LAMB: Which President moved the most people into the White House? I know we you know Doris Kernsier (ph), the book on ordinary the ordinary time about the Roosevelts having all those people on the second floor, but who else filled up the White House?
SEALE: Besides Franklin Roosevelt, well, now you’ve got me on that one. I don’t know.
LAMB: Have you I mean were there any of them that, more than others, have had
SEALE: I tend I tend to think of people like the Reagans who never did have many people there, very seldom had anyone there. The Carters had a crowd, a family there, in and out, living mostly on the third floor, and they enjoyed it, and they sunbathed on the flat area on the roof and had a good time. And the Theodore Roosevelts had many guests, but it was mostly family that was there, and I really can’t the Roosevelts, the Franklin Roosevelts filled the house up because he liked to have staff close at hand, and then another layer was Mrs. Roosevelt’s guests, writers, people like that who came in.
LAMB: This picture is from the Woodrow Wilson era, Dr. Grayson (ph), Kerry Grayson (ph). It’s out in front of the old Executive Office Building.
LAMB: Now, he had he made a difference and made an impact. What was it?
SEALE: Oh, yes. Kerry Grayson (ph) was a doctor, and he was also one of the great horsemen of Virginia of anywhere. He was an incredible rider, a small man, and he would when Woodrow Wilson’s after the inauguration, there was a dinner, a luncheon at the White House, and one of the relatives, a woman, an older woman, fell, and Dr. Grayson (ph) was one of the attached to the White House as an assistant to Dr. Rixy (ph), who was the White House doctor. There’s always a doctor assigned to the White House since the late 19th Century, and so he was so gentle with her and nice with her because she was in a fairly hysterical state, that he was detailed to the family, more or less, and he became intimate to the family and became the White House doctor. He was raised to the rank of admiral, and he stayed there all during the Wilson administration, was intimate to the family, and no one ever knew the Wilsons any better than Kerry Grayson (ph). He was there when Mrs. Wilson died in the White House in 1914. He was one of the ones who introduced the new wife, Edith, to President Wilson. He was an old and dear friend of Edith’s, and they (INAUDIBLE), and he just kind of knew more than anything. Then he married, as well, about the time Wilson married, and they had Altruid (ph) was his wife, and they had children, little boys, and one of in Woodrow Wilson’s time, when he had the stroke, one of the children was so close to him that Gordon (ph), who lived until recently, was very close to him. Wilson would look forward to visits from him in his sickness, and he kept him up, and he had cookies all over himself when he was so sick and began to recover. And the little boy, who was attributed by the family and the doctor, was being a great help.
LAMB: In your research you just mentioned that somebody had died recently. How often were you able to talk to a member of the family?
SEALE: Now and then I have to be perfectly honest in not having much use for White House memoirs because it is the major part of almost anyone’s life, I would say anyone’s life that lived there, and they so often do not jive with the facts at all about the White House and life in the White House.
SEALE: Maybe they don’t remember them. Whether you get away and you make it all one panorama and drop out some details, I don’t know, but that’s pretty much the way it is. Very few White House memoirs have been enormously helpful. They’re helpful in little ways. There’s a particularly good particularly good interview with Mrs. Kennedy, which I had never seen at the LBJ Library by the Texas historian, Joe Frantz. Wonderful interview. Jack Valenti did one of the most valuable interviews I found on the Johnson Administration. Wiley Buchanan, a former director chief of protocol, was very good. But a lot of times, it’s just a reiteration or it varies. So I didn’t pursue those much. I talked to Margaret Truman a good deal, and she was interested in history, just like her father, and she wanted to get things right, but she got things wrong, and she admitted it. She says I don’t really remember if this is exactly the way it was. And so I could have made the whole thing memoirs and decided not to.
LAMB: Here’s a picture of Calvin Coolidge and his two sons, the story.
SEALE: The story, of course, is that President Harding died suddenly in California on a tour, speaking tour, and Calvin Coolidge, former governor of Massachusetts, became President of the United States. He was a totally different kind of man. You know Harding was a glamour boy. He was the first President elected by woman because he had an enormous appeal and beautiful voice, if you’ve ever there are recordings of his voice. Coolidge was a very different sort of a man. He was very businesslike, very cryptic, and just as witty as he could be, and those are his two boys
LAMB: Which one’s which? Which one’s John, the right?
SEALE: John is on the right, and
LAMB: Calvin’s on the left.
SEALE: Calvin’s on the left, who died in the White House. He developed a blister on the tennis court and was dead in four days of blood poisoning, and of course, naturally, it was a horrible thing for the family. Mrs. Coolidge, there, is was an extremely popular woman. She was a very pretty woman. Her son, John, said that the it was that picture represented a very quick diet because they took a good number of pounds off of her for the picture, but it became an image classic to the ’20s, that she is the ’20s matron. It is not the picture that pleased the family. They had Howard Chandler Christy, the famous artist, do another picture that looked more motherly. But this one in the crimson dress, in a way, named the age at the White House.
LAMB: Hoover, quote and by the way, as I said earlier, we’ve talked about a lot of the lesser celebrated Presidents on purpose because you spend so much time on our documentary talking about the more recognizable ones, the Lincoln, the FDRs, the TRs and the George Washingtons. Hoover, Herbert Hoover, ”If ever a man became President truly to serve the public, it was Herbert Clark Hoover.” Those are your words. Why? Why is he more interested in serving the public than others?
SEALE: He was a brilliant man married to a brilliant woman, and they made together a fortune at a young age in mining, lived in England, lived very grandly in England, very interesting lives. When he was a great humanitarian. He failed the Belgian people in their horrible time of strife. He’s still a great hero there. He was a man who could almost move mountains, he had such this tremendous ability, but he was a humanitarian at heart. He didn’t need to make money, and at some point in his life, early 20th Century, he quit worrying about it, and he began doing what he wanted to do, and he was Secretary of Commerce and then became President. And it must have been the busiest White House ever seen because the whole second floor was practically turned into a series of offices, and he would be meeting with people in one, and she’d be meeting with people in another, and people who met with them said a five-minute meeting with the Hoovers was a long meeting, and then in the evening, they had the staff all come up and play Bridge and just literally wore people out. They were the most energetic people. They built the first residential retreat in the mountains, in Maryland Mountains. Paid for it themselves, gave it to the government. You couldn’t get in there except by horseback. So it was definitely a retreat.
LAMB: We’re running out of time. This was something that stopped me. You wrote, ”The Hoovers were sensitive in humanitarian matters. They warmly received the wives and daughters of Mormon senators and Congressman who previously had been excluded. Did everybody up till Hoover’s time exclude Mormons?
SEALE: Oh, yes, Washington was very exclusive. Mormons were not accepted socially, and it blacks, people were not. African-Americans, the Hoovers did invite African-Americans to the White House, William Depriest (ph) from Chicago and his wife. Mrs. Hoover had her to a tea first to warm it up, and then they had them to dinners and things.
LAMB: You quoted by the President Hoover as saying, ”Ladies previously tested as to their feelings,” in other words, did they find out whether they would allow themselves to be in the press as (ph) African-Americans?
SEALE: That was the point that was the point with the tea. They did so they could have it, and it could be in as end of record, and then after that no problems. But that’s a it’s hard to imagine, but that’s I mean the White House democracy, but that’s the way it was.
LAMB: What impact do you think, in our last 90 seconds, that the first African-American history as President of the United States will have on the country when they see this happening on January 20?
SEALE: Well, I think it, in a way, proves the American theme of the democracy of people. It we’re not perfect, but we’re as close (ph) than anybody else, and I thinking you’re considering President Obama when he becomes President, you’ve got to remember that just a part of him represents African-American. The rest of him, he’s very typical of Presidents in the 20th Century, a lawyer, self-made from pretty stable backgrounds, self-made and so forth. They’re a couple live in a house they’re restoring in Chicago. All of that’s pretty typical. But the fact of an African-American President, while I don’t think it will make an enormous difference, I think it does, in a way, prove our system, which we need to do from time to time.
LAMB: William Seale wrote this 1,415-page double-volume history of the White House starting in 1986, and then revised it this year, 2008, and this is for sale for roughly $60 through your Web site that we’ll have on the screen, the White House
SEALE: Dot org.
LAMB: And we’ll see a lot of you in the documentary, and we thank you very much for joining us.
SEALE: Thank you, Brian.