I’m a life-long devotee of snub-nosed dogs. A flat, furry face and I’m a goner. Particularly Pekingese. And the smaller the better. They are believed to have come to England via Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, the last great empress of China, at the time of the British sacking of the Old Summer Palace (Queen Victoria had the first, which she rather unsubtly named Looty). Unlike the empress, however, I don’t carry them around in my trailing sleeves. Yet, there is a proviso. Remembering decorator David Hicks’s sage remark that “yellow and red dogs are common”, they have to be black. Or at a pinch, white, although, however cute, they are a bit Paris Hilton-y. Or perhaps Hilton Paris-y.
The great thing about Pekes, provided their diet is ordinary tinned dog food and not some fancy, hand-administered, chicken concoction, is that they are anything but one-man dogs. They will leave the room with anyone who is nice to them. Which makes the dog-sitting life less fraught; my current pair are on a year-long holiday in Canada because some children I know there adore them, and have the run of a remote lakeside “cottage”. Whenever I visit Zephyr and Zsa-Zsa (they have to be Zs), the dogs (not the kids) are immediately all over me, prancing like showgirls, and deliciously snuffling in my ear. Nothing is more boring than those dopey Labradors; while adorable as puppies, they get fat after about 10 minutes, bark at people they know perfectly well, and knock the Meissen off the table with their uncontrollable tail-wagging when not making the sofa into a muddy smelly nest until “master” throws a stick. I must admit, though, that I know a sleek, slimline beauty called Ruby who lives a life of sybaritic bliss between Grasse and Klosters, with no hint of “get DOWN!” or other discipline issues.
Pekingese are also incredibly brave. During the years I had a ranch in Arizona, my first ones – shaved, on account of the heat – would run with the cowboys’ cattle dogs, inspect close-up any coiled rattlesnake, and stare angrily at a cougar camouflaged by cactus undergrowth, while most gun dogs back off at the first hint of danger. And however charmingly slobbery, gun dogs don’t make one laugh, an essential ingredient to any animal at close quarters.
All the pleasures of Pekes were brought to mind by last week’s reports concerning the emergence of love letters between Warren Harding, who would go on to become the 29th (and “obscure”, as some writers gently put it) US president, and his mistress Carrie Phillips. One photograph shows Harding with his wife, a stern December dolled-up as May (in the words of songbird Deanna Durbin), wearing birds-of-paradise feathers and what appears to be a white shagpile rug. Beside this, was a photo of Phillips. While no laughing-matter herself in her cloche hat and sheared fur, she is holding up a couple of nearly newborn Pekes, the size of white – or rather black – mice, and looking, as do all puppies of that breed, like tiny hippos. Well, one can see immediately why obscure Harding wrote her the most deeply passionate love letters.
As for presidential pets, Reagan’s were called Lucky and Fuzzy. Sounds about right, especially to bone-china Nancy. Roosevelt named his terrier Fala … Hail Fala, well met. Eisenhowers’s Weimaraner was named Heidi. Hidey-ho? Naturally Bill Clinton’s was Buddy, George HW Bush had Ranger for those wide-open places, Obama has Bo, as in peep, and Sunny, as in make hay. And if Hillary Clinton runs for the White House and gets in, as she should with all that hard-earned cash behind her – let’s hope she won’t let slip the dogs of war – she could take a leaf from Queen Vic’s book and call her First Woman Presidential asset, Looty. But I doubt it will be a tiny black snuffly Pekingese.
Nicky Haslam is an interior designer and writer. nh-design.co.uk
David Tang is on leave