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Calvin Coolidge Takes on Mrs. Elizabeth Jaffray

White House major domo meets her match

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Mrs. Elizabeth Jaffray had pretty much run the White House the way she saw fit since she began her reign as the building’s major domo in 1909.

Then Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, suddenly moved in during the summer of 1923, after President Warren G. Harding died in office. But Elizabeth Jaffray had no reason to think anything would change.

Elizabeth Jaffray

The Coolidges had never lived large before. They moved from an $8-a-night hotel suite to the White House. Before that, they’d lived in a $36-a-month duplex in Northampton, Mass.

Managing a large staff of servants would prove one of the president’s most vexing responsibilities. At least to some of the servants.

Mrs. Elizabeth Jaffray as the head servant had come to view the presidents who came and went as mere transients. She lived in a permanent suite on the second floor overlooking the North Portico.  Or at least she thought she had a permanent residence. Until Calvin Coolidge came along.

Elizabeth Jaffray

Mrs. Elizabeth Jaffray was used to dealing with the first lady. So it came as quite a shock when the president began showing up in the White House kitchen.

He instructed the servants on how to cut meat, counted the hams and he inspected the ice box. He gave tips on economizing.

Official White House portrait of Calvin Coolidge.

Coolidge was also a fussy eater who complained about the size of the pancakes. He said the cooks didn’t know how to make a custard pie and the corn muffins weren’t up to snuff.

Perhaps worst of all, he made Mrs. Jaffray run the daily menu past him.

White House seamstress Lillian Rogers Page wrote that she “was going out of her mind from the shock of it.”

Mrs. Jaffray couldn’t stand Calvin Coolidge, and after she left she retaliated with a tell-all, Secrets of the White House, published by Cosmopolitan magazine.

She began the chapter on Coolidge with, “He is a light eater.” And then she went on to describe how he rarely talks or smiles. She wrote that he seldom goes to the theater, he never plays games and he has more clothes than any President in the past five administrations has had.

“Never before has a President taken such a keen and active interest in small domestic affairs,” she concluded.

For his part, Calvin Coolidge had no use for Mrs. Elizabeth Jaffray. He called her “Queenie.”

Another Detractor

Head usher Irwin “Ike” Hoover joined Elizabeth Jaffray in running down Coolidge in his own tell all, Forty-two Years in the White House.

Hoover called Coolidge the “least interesting” of the presidents he’d known, and he’d known them from Benjamin Harrison to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Coolidge, he wrote, was fussy, irritable and prone to sudden rages over trifles.

Hoover described how an admirer once sent the president two dozen chickens. Coolidge had them penned in Teddy Roosevelt’s former mint patch. When served at dinner, the chickens had an unusual minty flavor.

“We never knew whether he selected the mint bed on purpose or not,” wrote Hoover. “If he did, it was in keeping with many other odd things the president did.” Among those oddities: He had a pet raccoon named Rebecca that he took on evening walks. He rode a mechanical bull in his bedroom for exercise. On his last day in the White House, he refused to leave until a missing rubber was found.

Hoover also didn’t care for Coolidge’s breakfast meetings. He often held them with members of Congress, but he rarely said anything during the meal. Invited guests often declined, wrote Hoover.

“Those who did come would arrive rubbing their eyes,” he wrote. “It was always embarrassing at the beginning, for everyone looked to the president to start off conversation and he never did. The fruit course would be eaten before a word was said.”

Another Side of Calvin Coolidge

The servants called the president “Smily” because he almost never did. They called First Lady Grace Coolidge “Sunshine” because she brought it into their lives. She often bridged the gap between her socially inept husband and the servants.

grace-coolidge

Grace Coolidge, official White House portrait. Both she and her husband were Salem witch trials descendants.

Together, the Coolidges formed warm (if unequal) friendships with some of the White House servants. On weekends, they’d take dinner cruises on the presidential yacht. They loved the food served by the steward and encouraged him in his restaurant endeavor after they left the White House. He in turn sent Calvin a birthday cake every year.

When the wine steward, Albert Brooks, fell ill, they took him on an Adirondack vacation with them because they thought the mountain air would help his health. It didn’t, and when he died, Coolidge was distressed. He called Brooks “one of the finest men in Washington” and “my cherished friend.”

The steward on the yacht, Lee Ping Quan, was Asian American. Albert Brooks was African American. And Coolidge strongly supported civil rights.

So he had a reason for disliking Mrs. Elizabeth Jaffray.

One of her first acts on arrival back in 1909 was to segregate the servants. Until then, the black and white servants ate together. She ordered the white servants to eat at one table, the black servants at another. When they rebelled, she threatened to fire them all. Frightened of losing their jobs, they acquiesced.

The New York Times reported favorably on her innovation.

Exit, Mrs. Elizabeth Jaffray

How, exactly, the Coolidges engineered the departure of Mrs. Elizabeth Jaffray is probably lost to history. But a record does exist of Grace secretly recruiting Ellen Riley to take over. A Coolidge friend who owned a high-end department store in Boston had recommended her because she managed the store’s cafeteria.

When Mrs. Jaffray left in 1926, Ellen Riley stepped in.

The Coolidges treated her like family. Coolidge liked her so much he gave her a raise and taught her the combination to the vault that held the gold and silver service. They invited Riley to change her clothes after state dinners to attend the musicales that followed. She also joined the Coolidge family watching White House movies.

Riley thought Coolidge was hilarious. She described how wild animals would appear on the screen, and the president would urge his dog, Rob Roy, to “go for them.”

Other servants thought him pretty funny too. His bodyguard, Edward Starling, wrote that he had an insatiable appetite for pranks. He liked to pretend there was a bug in his food. When the butler leaned over to investigate, he’d say to Grace, “I thought butlers weren’t supposed to eavesdrop.”

After he left public life, Coolidge was asked about his greatest disappointment as president. “The White House hams, they would always bring a big one to the table,” he said. “Mrs. Coolidge would always have a slice and I would always have one. The butler would take it away and what happened to it afterward I never could find out.”

No one will probably ever know whether he was joking or not.

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Learn more about Calvin Coolidge’s time in the White House — and about the other five New England presidents. Click here to order your copy. 

 

 

 

 

 

This story was updated in 2024. 

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