Stories and artifacts of the White House companions
By Konnie LeMay
Embattled President Harry Truman once wryly said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
Perhaps that is why so many presidential entourages at the White House have included four-legged or two-winged companions. From parrots to ponies, gators to goats, the White House has hosted a zoo’s worth of critters.
Stories and storage
No one knows that better than octogenarian Claire McLean, who over the course of a couple decades has pulled together a quirky collection of artifacts, pictures and tales into the Presidential Pet Museum.
And why wouldn’t she? “You can find mushroom museums—violets, orchids, chickens—and none for the pets of presidents of the United States. So I started it.”
For 15 years and in three different locations in Maryland and Virginia, she operated the museum, sometimes receiving hundreds of visitors a week, but never really financially enough to sustain the operation and pay the rent.
For the last five years, the main artifacts have been in storage, and the Presidential Pet Museum and its corresponding website (www.presidentialpetmuseum.com) were on the auction block earlier this year, but without an adequate minimum bid. The package is on the block again, and Claire and her partner, Dave Baker, who owns and operates the website, have high hopes to keep the collection intact.
But before we come to what may well be a new beginning for the country’s only Presidential Pet Museum, it’s worth revisiting its origins.
McLean’s interest in all things pet presidential blossomed from her own White House encounters during the Reagan years.
She owned a kennel in Maryland raising and showing Bouvier des Flandres. She’d even written a book on the breed, so it was probably no surprise that she would be the nearby expert tapped to groom Lucky, the Reagans’ boisterous Bouvier.
For about nine months, McLean handled Lucky’s grooming needs until the rapidly growing, rambunctious young dog put the slender Mrs. Reagan at risk. Lucky was sent to the ranch in California, and McLean retired her presidential grooming career. She did, however, still have a bag of Lucky trimmings, which she meticulously had swept up and carried off after each session.
She auctioned off some of the fur at a Bouvier rescue fundraiser, netting up to $45 for a Lucky lock on a mahogany plaque. “I sold off a couple hundred dollars, and I still had a bunch.”
McLean’s mother came up with an idea. She painted a portrait of Lucky and embellished it with the dog’s own fur. “It’s really quite stunning,” McLean said.
Filling the collection
Her experiences at the White House germinated in McLean an interest in presidents and their animal companions. “I went through the whole list of presidents and found out that a lot of them had all kinds of pets.”
That tradition follows from George Washington’s stallion, Nelson, used in the American Revolution, to the last 50 years of presidencies, all featuring at least one dog in the White House.
During this contentious recent election race, the real question for true dog lovers might have been will there continue to be a dog in the White House, although Donald Trump has none, according to the New York Times.
Over the years, McLean kept collecting. “I’d go into antique shops and flea markets. I started picking up anything like Socks the Cat bric-a-brac.”
She acquired a bronze statue of Barney, George W. Bush’s Scottish Terrier, and an oil painting that copies an original portrait of Franklin Roosevelt and his own Scottie, Fala. Often, though, her collecting was thwarted by the presidents’ own post-office libraries.
Still, it is the stories that most fascinate McLean. She created the website and later sold it to Baker, who operates Super Copy Editors in New York.
“I think people are fascinated by the Presidential Pet Museum because it shows that our leaders who are in power are human, too,” Baker said. “In a way, they are just like us. They enjoy pets and all they have to offer.
In the absence of the physical museum, the website remains a wealth of information. It includes a comprehensive listing of each president, a short biography and their animal connections—including the Coolidge menagerie of 13 dogs, a raccoon, a bobcat, six birds, two cats and a donkey.
“The Coolidges, they were hardcore,” observed Baker. “I really have loved working on these stories.”
Website visitors will also find Herbert Hoover with his Belgian Malinois, King Tut; John Tyler and his Italian Greyhound, Le Beau; and Richard Nixon’s Cocker Spaniel, Checkers, and the famed speech named for him.
Future of the history
Now 85 and in ill health, though with a snappy memory, McLean still hosts a few of the museum artifacts to show other residents or visitors. “I’ve made my condo here into a mini Presidential Pet Museum.”
Baker felt this presidential election year might be just the time for auctioning off both the website and the collection. The first attempt earlier this year did not meet the minimum bid—they’d like $20,000 but may accept less to keep the collection intact. He’s negotiating with a dog rescue operation in the Washington, D.C., area, among others. “We are weighing our options.”
Like McLean, Baker feels strongly that the collection of about 100 or so knick-knacks, paintings and sculptures should remain together.
He, of course, has his own personal favorites.
“My second favorite would be the cow bell said to be worn by Pauline, the last cow to graze the White House lawn. I just love that it shows how much it has changed; just the idea of cows sitting out in the White House lawn.”
And Baker’s top pick? The painting that started it all.
“My favorite piece in my collection is the original piece—the portrait of Ronald Reagan’s dog, Lucky, incorporating the dog’s own hair.”
That choice is only natural, museum founder McLean would agree.
“With Lucky, I got hair of the dog.”
Duluthian Konnie LeMay, editor of Lake Superior Magazine, is mom to a high-energy rescued German Shepherd mix, “Turbo” Rachel, who didn’t even know she needed rescuing.
Litters and Veto and Bears, oh my!
President John F. Kennedy had tense relations with the Soviet Union, but his family’s Welsh Terrier, Charlie, felt comfortable cozying up to Pushinka, the white female Terrier gifted to JFK from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Charlie and Pushinka had a litter, dubbed “pupniks” by President Kennedy. Butterfly, White Tips, Blackie and Streaker were named by young Caroline and John Jr. and adopted out, two to Kennedy family friends and two to children chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy from 5,000 requests.
President James Garfield’s Newfoundland, Veto, is among the favorite stories that Dave Baker uncovered. Veto reportedly held the reins of a rampaging horse until could help arrive, keeping it from hurting anyone. On another occasion, Veto sounded the alarm when a barn started on fire.
Gifts of pets could be worrisome. Two grizzly cubs gifted to President Thomas Jefferson were donated to a friend of Jefferson, Charles Peale, who had a natural history museum in Philadelphia. Despite intentions to see the cubs grow to full size, one eventually escaped its cage in the museum and was shot in the kitchen. Both bears were mounted for display.