By Thomas F. Schwartz, Director
A genre of writing concerns the memoirs of domestic White House staff. Personal secretaries, head butlers, maids, and secret service who live round the clock with the President, First Lady, and First Family see and hear things that are typically not reported at the time but become known through “tell all” memoirs. Many of these memoirs are often flawed with editors at publishing house exaggerating incidents to make the book more saleable. But many of the individuals who served in the White House never seek financial rewards from the history they witnessed first-hand. From 1969 through the early 1970s, a series of interviews largely conducted by former news reporter Raymond Henle, created an oral history record on Herbert Hoover. Still in its infancy, the interviews that Henle captured do not reflect the professional standards observed by oral historians of today. Henle often interjects himself, offering his own views and judgements rather than simply letting his subjects speak. Once transcripts were made of the taped interviews, the cassette tapes were destroyed so future researchers could not check the accuracy of the transcript and hear the voices of the individuals being interviewed. Regardless, the transcriptions, especially of White House staff, provide valuable information, especially about First Lady Lou Henry Hoover.
Alonzo Fields, who served as a butler for the Hoovers, recalled “You never had to go to Mrs. Hoover or the President and say, ‘Fields is sick, and his wife is in poor condition, and they’re in need.’ Somehow or another, they always seemed to know it. And you would receive benefits without anyone pleading to them.” Fields acknowledged that other First Ladies would provide assistance if they were asked for help. “But not with the Hoovers,” because Lou, as Fields claimed, “seemed to know it beforehand.” He offered the specific example of a young man who worked at the White House named Wilkinson. “He had ulcers,” according to Fields, “and in those days I think the early thought was to treat them with cream and milk, and things like that. He was a houseman, and I bet a dime on it that he only got about $43 every two weeks, about eighty some odd dollars a month. And he had five in the family. This going on a cream diet for him was completely out. One morning the milkman made a delivery at his door, and he said that he didn’t order cream. The milkman said ‘Well, I’m sorry, cream has been ordered for this residence. The name is Wilkinson?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, this has been taken care of. I know the order has been placed here for your benefit.’ Mrs. Hoover had ordered that cream delivered to his house every day.”
Phillips Brooks was a pantry man and then butler in the White House. When he developed tuberculosis and had to take an extended leave of absence, Lou hired his wife Katurah to serve as her personal maid to provide the Brooks family with an uninterrupted income. Lou encouraged Katurah to visit her husband at the tuberculosis sanitarium in Glendale, Maryland. On one visit, Katurah noticed the bottom of her husband’s bed was covered in snow. Hospital staff had left the screened window at the foot of his bed open during a snow fall. Lou sensed Katurah was upset and inquired “’Katurah, you look all down in the dumps.’ I said, ‘Well, I am. I went out to see Phil this afternoon and when I got to where he was, the bottom of his bed was full of snow.’ She jumped up and she went to the telephone and called this hospital and said she wanted him to have special service and to be put in a place where there would be no draft or anything, because she wanted him to get thoroughly well, and if they couldn’t do that she would see that someone was placed at the head of the hospital who would. I never will forget that. She was so interested in his welfare.”
Lou could understand Katurah’s plight as their oldest son, Herbert Jr., was also recovering from tuberculosis in Asheville, North Carolina. As dutiful grandparents, Lou and President Hoover watched over their grandchildren, Peggy Ann, “Pete” and baby Joan while their son recuperated. Just as the Hoovers loved their own family, White House staff were treated as family members.