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As Long as We Remember...

January 22, 2013

White House Days

Roy Meachum

Behind North Market Street's yellow door, above the stairs to the second floor, hangs a White House Christmas card; mechanically signed by the President and First Lady. Their names are not Barack Hussein and Michelle Obama, but Lyndon Baines and Claudia T. Johnson.


The Inauguration prompted thousands of words; I mean to add several hundreds.


As readers know, coming out of the Army, my first job was carrying the extra Speed Graphic and the equipment for Washington Post chief photographer Arthur Ellis. The occasion was the first Inauguration for Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower. Six months later, Mr. Ellis and Managing Editor Al Friendly became fascinated with the light-by-comparison Leica; they published whole pages of the multi-pictures they snapped. I had seen the camera in Occupied Germany. Had their fascination taken place the year before, I would not have seen the lawns at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue so soon.


When I temporarily left the paper, a job was public relations for the National Symphony Orchestra. Mamie Eisenhower came to an afternoon show at D.A.R. Constitution Hall; that time she was accompanied by the wife of Vice President Richard Nixon, and their very young daughters. She came to several evening concerts with Ike, of course.


When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Vice President Johnson moved into the Oval Office in November. By January, I was a consultant on the performing arts, principally writing notes for their entertainment in the East Room. Because of my peripatetic life through several wives, I lost the photos of several performers with me; the most regretted was the photograph from 1965:


When Hume Cronyn and wife Jessica Tandy were on the night’s program, reading poems that included my favorite, T. S. Eliot’s. They went through a rehearsal while Social Secretary Bess Abell and I watched. In his stentorian tones, Hume proclaimed a title: “Portrait of a Lady,” followed by the prologue:

“Thou hast committed—

 Fornication: but that was in another country

And besides, the wench is dead.”


At the F word, Bess’s hand became a steel jaw on my right leg. The distinguished Canadian actor went on to announce the quote’s source: “The Jew of Malta” by Christopher Marlowe. I signaled her that I would take care of the matter when rehearsal was done.


The distinguished Japanese American photographer Yoichi Okamato was shooting the session. He got Hume and me when we were lighting our pipes and I was asking mildly, “Do you think the Marlowe is necessary for understanding the Eliot?”


At that point English-born Jessica Tandy stood tall behind her lectern and said in a not timid voice: “You see, Hume, I told you that wouldn’t work in the White House!”


The giddiest time came when Bess produced The White House Festival of the Arts; I wrote the scripts for a known-before queen of the American theatre, Helen Hayes and Marion Anderson who thrillingly pronounced my words in her silky singer’s clefts. Of course, the Festival was the event when anti-Vietnam War sentiment surfaced, led by social critic and movie reviewer Dwight McDonald.


Mr. Johnson retired, in the run-up to the 1968 election. On post-Inauguration Day, when Richard M. Nixon was in residence, I drove down Pennsylvania Avenue feeling the White House was an alien fortress.


During Gerald Ford’s tenure, I accepted an invitation from my best friend, Davey Marlon Jones, to escort his wife, Mary, for an evening after a state dinner. Most of the guys, whom I knew from eight years ago, were still around; we had a peculiar reunion. Helping along was a producer I knew from Channel 5; Sheila Weidenfeld worked as the press secretary for Mrs. Ford. We were delighted to see each other.


Christmas cards from the Johnsons arrived before four holidays, one I clung onto; the duplicate sits in son Thomas Meachum’s Howard County house.


But I never stood on the Capitol’s east plaza to witness any president’s swearing in, and I never regretted. Washington can be bitter cold, blustery and rainy every January, especially in Inaugural Years. This time it was warm and dry. Go figure.



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