Presidential Valets

My favorite story about presidential valets (grammar note before you get your blood pressure up, “presidential” is only capitalized when it is part of a formal title, like the name of an event, like Presidential Inauguration – it is not a proper noun unto itself so in this usage, small p – which reminds me, gotta take out the new dog – be right back).

Let us start again.  My favorite story about presidential valets comes from Laura Bush’s book.  She says that her husband President George W. Bush met his two, yes two valets, he went to his father, President George H. W. Bush, and said, “I don’t think I need a valet.  Sr. answered, “Don’t worry, you get used to it.”

President Eisenhower and his valet Sargeant John Moaney, both self-proclaimed “grill masters”

George Washington’s valet, William Lee, was the only slave freed in Washington’s will.  Actually, the first three President’s valets were slaves, including James Madison.  Paul Jennings was his valet, and wrote a book afterwards, titled:  A Colored Man’s Reminiscence of James Madison.

When the British burned the Capitol during the war of 1812, Dolly Madison got the credit for saving the Washington portrait. Mr. Jennings tells another story: that the servant’s were mostly responsible for saving the treasures that did get saved.

President Lincoln’s valet, William Johnson died in January 1864.  Upon his death, Lincoln  arranged for a burial at Arlington National Cemetery and paid for the headstone.  Since then, the duties of a presidential valet…  I am trying to think of a polite way to say it … how about, “range in scope”?     Colonel Arthur Brooks had a serious grip on the job, serving Presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding and Coolidge.

This is George E. Thomas, valet to President Kennedy.

George E. Thomas, who may hold the record for most wardrobe changes in a single day, and President Kennedy is known to have changed clothes four times a day.

He dressed President Kennedy for many occasions, including his funeral.  Thomas came from Berryville, Va. (pop. 1,645 in 1960).  As he stepped out of the plane in Dallas, President Kennedy joked to Thomas, “You know George,  I think this is a bigger town than you come from.”  Thomas and “John F” (as Thomas referred to the President as) began their relationship in 1947, and it lasted 16 years until JFk’s death.  Thomas was a character who loved books every bit as much as John F, who played in Friday night poker games that were famed for their high energy. and who handed out $5 bills to the children in Berryville.  Thomas was I-V-Y, he never wrote the book about his employer’s indiscretions that would have made him relative gazillions.

 

Ricardo Sanvictore is pictured in 1993 with four of the seven presidents whom he served. From left: President Jimmy Carter, President George H.W. Bush, President Bill Clinton and President Gerald Ford. (Photo courtesy of Ricardo Sanvictores)

 

FDR’s valet, Irvin Henry McDuffie, or “Mac” – was superstitious.   In Miami in 1933 an assassination attempt was made on the then President-elect Roosevelt, after which Mac took off Roosevelt’s tie and said, “No sir, Mr. Roosevelt, this is one tie I won’t let you wear again. ”  Mac, who did everything for Roosevelt EXCEPT pick out his clothes, had juice.  He was wrongly detained by Brazilian police in 1936, missed boarding the USS Indianapolis (the presidential ship) so the navy’s USS Chester was sent back to get him.

Mac with a tie bar

 

Of all, though, I think my favorite valet was the aforementioned Sargeant Moaney.  In John Eisenhower’s emails, he quotes Moaney (who stayed with the family after Eisnehower’s death) as telling Mrs. Eisenhower, “I ain’t workin for you; I’s takin care of you for the gennul.”

JB

 

 

 

 

7 Comments on "Presidential Valets"

  1. Both John F. and George E., the blue and the gray, button two buttons on their suit coats. I wonder whether George E. adopted or suggested this practice. George E.’s suit has noticeably high J. Press shoulders.

  2. John Adams was the second US president. I don’t know if had a valet, but I thought he never had any slaves.

    You are right, I mean that the first three valets were slaves. – JB

  3. George E. May have buttoned both buttons of his jacket because JFK often did the same: The President wore a brace for his back and buttoned both buttons of his jackets to conceal it. Perhaps George E. followed in solidarity, but I am only making a guess here.

  4. Yeah, I think it was meant that the first three valets of presidents were slaves, rather than the first three presidents’ valets. Madison was the fourth president, after all, and Adams definitely did not have any slaves.

    Terrific article, by the way. I spend a lot of my reading time with former presidents, but rarely do their books ever mention their valets. Learned some new things here!

    Hi – yes, the first three valets were slaves. You are totally correct about Adams. What amazed me most is the scope of duties that valets have. There is literally no job description other than Do Whatever. And thank you so much for the kind note! – JB

  5. Thanx, NV. I was not aware of the back brace situation.

  6. Very enjoyable. David McCullough writes that Adams had no slaves as a matter of principle, which is even more noticeable in that at one time all 13 colonies had slaves, so his northern state was not immune. He can get lost among the Virginia Dynasty of Washington to Monroe, so just a slip of the pen to write that the first three presidents had slaves as valets. And his son was a lion of emancipation of course.

    While not directly on the subject of valets, two really good books about life in the White House are “The Residence,” written a few years ago by Kate Browder, and, much older, “Upstairs at the White House,” by long-time butler J. .B. West.

    Good morning and YES, the first three valets were slaves. Thank you! – JB

  7. Henry Contestwinner | March 1, 2022 at 6:01 pm | Reply

    Washington manumitted (i.e., freed) all of his slaves upon his death. He was unable to do anything about the Custis slaves that Martha brought with her when they married, because they were not part of his estate. See this for details.

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