First ladies of decor

On January 20 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States. Following his narrow election victory over Richard Nixon on November 8 1960, Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, had begun to look at the White House, her new home, and she was frankly unimpressed with what she found. It seemed natural to her to turn to Sister Parish for help with the restoration and redecoration of the most iconic building in America. Others, however, were somewhat puzzled. The New York Times ran a headline proclaiming “Kennedys select nun to decorate White House”. Soon, though, Sister’s work on the White House had made her a household name across the United States.

Sister, her nickname, had met Jackie Kennedy in the early spring of 1960, when Jackie sought advice on decorating a cottage on the Kennedy estate. Sister filled the Kennedy sitting room with “flower chintz, straw rugs, a hooked rug, new Staffordshire lamps, lots of different patterned pillows. With the flowers and the earthenware pots and the woven baskets, a knitted wool blanket to tuck under her chin, and a fire burning, Jackie now had a room that could be cheerful and cosy on those foggy Hyannis nights.”

Pleased with her room, Jackie then asked Sister to look at her Washington house at 3307 N Street in Georgetown. Jackie had originally wanted Stéphane Boudin of the Parisian firm of Jansen to decorate the Georgetown house, but he was beyond even her budget, so she employed her sister, Lee Radziwill, to do the work. Dissatisfied with the result, she had asked the New York decorator Elisabeth Draper for advice before turning to Sister.

Soon after Kennedy’s election victory, Jackie telephoned Mamie Eisenhower to arrange to be shown around the White House. At first Jackie hatched the harebrained idea that Sister could tag along as her “secretary”, but Sister pointed out that this would be inappropriate and potentially deeply embarrassing. So Jackie went alone, at noon on December 9, arriving in her dark blue station wagon driven by a secret service agent. James West, the chief usher, recalled that “dressed in a dark blue coat, wearing hat and gloves, she could have been a young Congressman’s wife paying an obligatory call.” James West introduced himself and escorted her to the diplomatic reception room on the ground floor before they took the elevator up to the second floor where Mrs Eisenhower stood ready to greet her. Mr West withdrew.

At exactly 1.30pm, “two buzzers rang, indicating First Lady descending, and I dashed to the elevator.” They all walked out of the south entrance, said goodbye and “Mrs Eisenhower stepped regally into the back seat of her Chrysler limousine and disappeared, off to her card game.”

Jackie was dismayed by what she found that December afternoon. The White House at that time was in a rather sorry state. When President Truman succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945, the building was found to be structurally unsafe, many of the roof timbers having rotted. The whole house was gutted, with only the outer walls remaining. The rooms were reassembled and redecorated, but not with any particular flair or conviction, nor much historical understanding. Over its history the interior of the house had been altered and reconfigured, the most extensive remodelling being carried out in 1902 by the New York architects McKim, Mead and White, who adopted the beaux arts style.

Jackie was not alone in wanting to bring some order and style to the White House. Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge, who held office from 1923 to 1929, had made a valiant attempt, but her efforts were hampered by controversies over whether the building should be restored to its original state or later developments, particularly the beaux arts work, should be retained.

Astonishingly, the White House was not a protected building, but was subject to the whims of succeeding presidents and first ladies. Presidents could also remove items from the house upon leaving office. When President Truman left, he took two chimneypieces with him from the East Room. The Kennedy administration were surprised to discover that no one legally “owned” the White House. Proposals were drafted by the deputy attorney-general that resulted in the White House being declared, by a 1961 Act of Congress, a museum and a part of the National Parks Service. This protected not only the fabric of the building, but also its contents.

From the day of her first visit, the restoration of the White House was Jackie’s major project. Soon after she became First Lady she convened a committee for the restoration, to be known as the Fine Arts Committee or, as she nicknamed it, “my Politburo”.

Following the passage of the White House Act, the Fine Arts Committee was able to solicit gifts and donations, assuring the donors that their gifts were inalienable. It was decided that lists should be drawn up of items required for various rooms. The procedure to be followed when a gift was offered was described as follows: “A picture should be taken of the article and sent, together with at least one recognised expert’s opinion of its authenticity, to Mrs Parish at the New York office, 22 East 69th Street. If a gift is not acceptable, Mr Finley, of the Fine Arts Commission, will refuse it in the name of our Committee, so as not to offend any friends.” It is interesting that at this stage it was Sister Parish who was put in charge of the selection of suitable objects.

However, Jackie almost immediately involved in the redecoration not only Sister but also Stéphane Boudin, though White House officials went to some pains to conceal the extent of Boudin’s involvement. It must certainly have appeared politically ill advised, to have a French designer in charge of the decoration of the White House.

But on January 21 1961, the day after President Kennedy’s inauguration and the Kennedys’ first full day in the White House, it was just Jackie and Sister. The priority was to sort out the private rooms, a suite of seven on the second floor where the family was going to live. On her first visit Jackie had discovered these were “neglected and lacklustre, furnished with department-store furniture and cheap hotel-style objects”. Worse, there was no kitchen or dining room. Something had to be done, and quickly.

‘Sister Parish: American Style’, by Martin Wood, is published by Frances Lincoln Ltd in November priced at £35/$60. UK:; US: Publishers Group West,

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