by Spencer Howard
During the Hoover Administration, arguably the most famous pet in Washington belonged not to the Hoovers, but to Secretary of State Henry Stimson, who was the proud owner of a profane parrot named The Old Soak. Tales of The Old Soak include a long-distance relationship, scandalous behavior, and a horrifying disease, all of which kept Stimson and his feathered friend in the news.
Stimson served as President Hoover’s Secretary of State, though he didn’t start the job right away. Under the Coolidge administration, Stimson was Governor-General of the Philippines (then a U.S. overseas territory), and it took him a few weeks to wrap up his affairs in Manilla and make his way to Washington. He assumed his new duties on March 28, 1929.
One loose end left behind was his beloved parrot, but not by Stimson’s choice. His wife, Mabel, insisted that the bird stay in Manilla, which was ironic because she had bought him for her husband in the first place. She had wanted to surprise Mr. Stimson with a gift and spent considerable time searching for a parrot that wouldn’t bite. Finally, a bird was found whose owner solemnly vowed it never chewed ears. He said nothing about furniture. At the time of purchase, unfortunately, the large white parrot was molting and appeared as disheveled as a drunk after a night on the town. Hence the name, The Old Soak.
A few weeks later, the molting finished, The Old Soak was indeed a beautiful bird who would hop on Mr. Stimson’s shoulder and nibble on his coat buttons. Never once did he bite his new master, and Stimson grew fond of his pet. Others were not as charmed. Caretakers of the governor’s residence were scandalized by the bird’s devastation of wicker and bamboo furniture. Every chair and table bore marks of his beak. Capt. Eugene Regnier, aide to the Governor-General, had a room across the hall from The Old Soak’s sleeping place, and he insisted that the screeches sounded like a trolley car going around a curve and could be heard for several city blocks. To top it off, The Old Soak was a quick study of human speech. From the servants at the governor’s residence he learned a smattering of English, Chinese and Spanish, but apparently not of a polite turn of phrase.
So it was no wonder that Mrs. Stimson preferred to leave The Old Soak behind when they left for Washington. Shortly after settling into their new home, Mr. Stimson received a letter from an old friend in the Philippines who informed him that The Old Soak was lonely and pining for his master. Stimson was so touched he immediately sent a telegram ordering the parrot to be sent to Washington. The 12,000 mile journey took more than two months, during which Mr. Stimson sought accommodations for his beloved bird. Mrs. Stimson was not pleased to welcome The Old Soak into their home, so Mrs. Hoover invited the parrot to join the growing menagerie of White House pets. Having lived for years with the many animals her two sons had brought home, including at one point a pair of baby alligators, a noisy parrot didn’t seem to worry her. When The Old Soak arrived in Washington in June 1929, Mrs. Stimson relented and Mr. Stimson was reunited with his bird. The Old Soak didn’t seem to mind declining the White House invitation.
But the story didn’t end there. Early the next year, Mr. Stimson was away from Washington for three months attending the international naval conference in London. During his absence he arranged for The Old Soak to stay at the Pan-American Building, just off the mall near the White House. Stimson’s departure coincided with the brief “parrot fever” panic that gripped the country in early 1930. The pneumonia-like illness was clearly connected to imported birds, and when contracted by humans had an alarming death rate. Worried bird owners were encouraged to euthanize their pets, and there were widespread stories of exotic birds abandoned at zoos or released into the wild. The Old Soak showed no signs of illness and his life was spared, but his behavior at the Pan-American Building resulted in incarceration.
For the first few days in his temporary home, he was allowed to greet visitors on the patio where he would squawk, “Good morning! Good morning!” But over time he began exercising some of the more profane language he had picked up in the Philippines, so he was moved to the basement, away from public hearing, to await in solitary confinement his master’s return. When reporters in London asked Capt. Regnier, who had accompanied Stimson to the naval conference, to comment on The Old Soak’s banishment, the Captain insisted The Old Soak didn’t swear, unless he had been questioned too much by reporters.
The Old Soak was reunited with Stimson later that spring, but apparently he had not learned his lesson. A few months later, after annoying the Stimsons’ neighbors with his raucous vocalizations, he was sent to live at the Washington Zoo. In December 1932, as the Hoover Administration drew to a close, Stimson yet again retrieved his old friend.
It is there that the trail goes cold – out of the public eye, The Old Soak was no longer newsworthy. Perhaps someone knows what became of Stimson’s parrot; if so, we would be delighted to know of any further adventures of The Old Soak.
Postscript: Stimson was not the only parrot enthusiast in Hoover’s Cabinet. William Doak, Hoover’s second Secretary of Labor (December 9, 1930 – March 4, 1933), owned a parrot named Polly Doak. Said Mrs. Doak: “She won her way into Mr. Doak’s heart. He went shopping for canary seed and Polly, loose in the pet shop, settled on his shoulder and said, ‘Pretty boy, I love you so.'”