Naomi Marshall welcomes Pat Nixon and her daughters to Madewood.
Mother should have known it would end badly.
The recent hoopla in Washington makes me long for the simpler days of the 1960s, when conflict was clothed in a degree of gentility we’d hardly recognize.
She was so excited about Pat Nixon and her daughters, Julie and Tricia, visiting Madewood in April of 1966 while the former vice-president courted Louisiana politicians for his future run for the presidency.
Everything was perfect, she thought. The weather. The A-list of attendees at the plantation luncheon. The new wallpaper in the parlor and dining room. The Limoges china she’d bought at auction on a whim.
She attended the dinner honoring the Nixons the night before at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, confident that her dear friend Rosemary and her housekeeper, Beulah, who had rushed up to Madewood that afternoon, would have everything picture perfect when she drove up early the next morning. Wasn’t Rosemary known for her attention to detail, observance of punctilios and exquisite dinner-party table decorations?
She was a little concerned when no one answered the phone at Madewood the next morning. Of course, they were busy . . . probably on the other side of the house when the one phone we had back then rang in the kitchen. Nothing to worry about, particularly on such a beautiful day, after such a perfect evening, with drinks before the formal banquet and a place of honor near the head table.
More upsetting when she arrived at Madewood at the crack of dawn were the locked doors. At the south kitchen. At the north pantry. At the rear of the entrance hall. And finally, at the front door.
They must have worked late, she thought. Let’s check the door from the screened porch into the bedroom.
She knocked repeatedly. Finally, a weary voice from inside moaned, “Help!”
It was Rosemary.
Slowly the door opened, and her friend stared blankly at her.
“What’s the matter?” Mother asked, wrapping her arms around her trembling friend.
“It was a night of terror,” Rosemary cried, her eyes flashing as she led Mother into the south kitchen, where Beulah lay prostrate on the floor, unconscious, with half-burnt tissues surrounding her like a sinister halo in a Mexican altarpiece gone terribly wrong.
It seems that after setting the table — exquisitely, I might add — Beulah had retired to the kitchen, where, according to Rosemary, she began sniffing model-airplane glue from a tube and using tissues lit from burners on the gas stove to ignite freshly-rolled cigarettes.
Rosemary, who was no match for her housekeeper, had locked herself in the bedroom, where she had no access to the outside world.
By the time the busload of political ladies arrived, Mother and the Madewood staff had packed Rosemary and Beulah off to New Orleans, and the luncheon proceeded flawlessly. Until the service of coffee in delicate demi-tasses in the parlor.
Someone bumped Pat Nixon’s arm as she sat next to Mother on the sofa, and coffee spilled down Mother’s dress. Not to worry. It’s just a dress. A dishcloth with a little detergent. Mother could have been in a Tide ad.
She was so happy when Nixon finally became president, and particularly pleased with her invitation to the White House after the inaugural ceremony on the Capitol steps.
It felt good to have Pat come and fuss over her in the Blue Room; and the attention she received from reporters afterward was invigorating.
“You’re a friend of Mrs. Nixon?” one of the press asked.
From my time on staff at The Times-Picayune, I know how desperate journalists can get when a deadline approaches and you’re frantic to elicit an interesting quote that will impress your editor and land your story on page one.
“Oh, yes,” Mother replied. “She’s so gracious, such a lady.”
”But no one’s flawless!” the writer laughed. “Isn’t there anything,” he pressed, “something funny you remember?”
“Well, you know,” Mother confided as she unwittingly approached the slippery slope, “there’s one thing.”
“When Pat visited my plantation house, we were sitting on the sofa; and someone bumped her arm, spilling her cup of our thick black coffee on my white linen dress. She was so upset, so solicitous, just as I expected her to be. But it was cleaned up in a flash, and everything was fine.”
A great day, Mother thought as she ordered up breakfast in her hotel room the next morning. As she sipped her coffee in bed, she opened the newspaper. There, to her horror — just below the fold — was the headline, Chatty White House Visitor Says Pat Not Perfect.
The cup fell from her hand. Another spill. And nothing could wash out this stain on her honor.
It wasn’t as bad as the stain on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, and it certainly didn’t lead to the threat of impeachment that led Nixon to resign.
But it never went away.