Former first lady Hillary Clinton dashed naked from her White House bathroom to the bedroom. Laura Bush would drive staffers crazy directing where each Christmas ornament should be placed on the presidential tree. Barbara Bush was such a fan of Keds tennis shoes, her husband bought her 20 pairs in different colors and designs. And Nancy Reagan once called, distressed that two roses in a vase in her dressing room had drooped. Former White House chief florist Nancy Clarke has a closet full of such insider tales from her 31 years with six first ladies from Rosalynn Carter (favored barbecue dinners) to Michelle Obama (prefers gala apples over flowers). And now, two years after leaving the White House, she's written a rare behind-the-scenes book, My First Ladies, due out in September.
"I truly believe I had the ultimate job any floral designer could ever dream of," says Clarke. While every first family brings in a chief social secretary to handle East Wing affairs, Clarke was there for six administrations, serving as a de facto deputy social secretary. Hers is the first such look at the quirks and traits of her bosses.
Consider Clinton, described as a mix of dignity and schoolgirl. When the Monica Lewinsky affair broke, Clinton didn't show her feelings to staff and, Clarke says, never engaged in the kinds of fighting with her husband that was described in the media. Once, Clarke took the elevator to the presidential residence and saw Clinton dash naked from her bathroom to the bedroom. "We looked at each other and we both screamed," Clarke writes. Clinton joked about it later. "She said it was like living in her sorority house again."
Reagan, Clarke says, was the most elegant and romantic of the six. Dispelling rumors that the Reagan marriage was an act, the Gipper once spotted mistletoe hanging in a foyer, then pulled his wife over for a big hug and smooch.
Laura Bush, obsessed with Christmas, was also very down to earth, driving her hubby's Ford pickup at their Texas ranch and even climbing into a refrigerated truck to view the flowers to be used at her daughter's wedding.
Mother-in-law Barbara was considerate, so much so that she mistakenly gave Camp David staffers pricey Steiff teddy bears used in Christmas centerpieces that were supposed to be returned to storage.
Having survived six first ladies, Clarke is too diplomatic to pick a favorite. "I loved working for every single one. They were all different. They all had different personalities. And I really did, I loved my job."
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.