By Thomas F. Schwartz
One of the great Hanna-Barbera cartoons was Wally Gator that ran from 1962 through 1963. The vocal talents of Daws Butler, best known as the voice of Yogi Bear, made Wally Gator the alligator counterpart of that wily rabbit Bugs Bunny. As everyone knows, alligators are found in the United States and China, while crocodiles, a close relation, are found in the wider regions of Africa, Asia, Central/South America, and Australia. Fictional film character Crocodile Dundee [actor Paul Hogan], and real-life crocodile hunter the late Steve Irwin popularized the crocodile leaving alligators as the poor step-cousin. Several websites claim that Herbert Hoover’s youngest son Allan had alligators in the White House making them the most noteworthy. But Allan never had them at the White House although he did raise two baby alligators and spent great efforts to be a good owner.
Allan Hoover outside the family’s home in Washington, DC, ca. 1918.
Herbert Hoover makes reference to the alligators in the second volume of his memoirs: “Allan was still in the stage of adventure where all sorts of animals must be accumulated. By providing food and water for birds, he induced scores of them to daily visit us. He also provided them quarters by hanging gourds in trees. Two dogs and two cats were necessary, and among the transitory possessions were two ducks which he trained to sit on the front porch to the infinite entertainment of passers-by. A selection of land turtles gathered from the woods was all right; but two small alligators, presented to him by Clarence Woolley, were somewhat of a trial, for Allan believed they must be bedded at night in the bathtubs.” At this time Hoover was living at 2300 S Street in Washington, DC and Allan was roughly fourteen years old. Family issues and involvement with the Girl Scouts kept Lou Henry Hoover away from the S Street house for weeks at a time. In the interim, Lou received regular progress reports from Philippi Harding and Dare Stark, two of her trusted assistants, on Allan’s activities.
On May 19, 1921, Philippi described to Lou a recent luncheon for Allan’s friends: “Alligator Allan (a title for which I must acknowledge Dare the inventor) seemed to enjoy ‘em, (his guests, I mean), and they all discussed with great authority the life histories of turtles, alligators, crocodiles and their various relations.” On May 31, Philippi reported that she and Allan went to a shop claiming to have “a water lily for the alligator pond. But Smitz had not produced their promised one, and so were told in high disdain they need not bother at all. Someday a trip is to be made to a ‘water lily Farm.’ Personally, I have never heard of such but don’t pretend to compete in alligator & kindred subject with Professor Allan.” When asked to go to a horse show with neighbors, Allan declined, “since horses did not seem to have the same fascination as Alligators….” And just as quickly as his interest in alligators began in May, it seems to have peaked by September 12 when Philippi reported to Lou: “Allan has donated his Alligators to the Zoo for safe winter-keeping. The turtles are inhabiting the fishpond—together with eight gold fish supplied by the Bureau of Fisheries. And Allan is already planning how the lawn can be flooded for skating this winter, and studying the engineering possibilities of a sled-incline down the banks.” By the end of September, Lou learned that “stamps have been the ruling passion of [Allan’s] life for three weeks now.
Allan Hoover began his undergraduate studies at Stanford the fall of 1925 so claims that he had the alligators at the White House don’t fit the facts. Moreover, in a very moving and characteristically Lou Hoover letter, the whole episode of Allan and alligators is presented as only a loving mother could frame the topic. The following letter is undated but likely written around 1926 to her son at Stanford:
2300 S Street
It is amazing how many different ways there are of receiving some kind of consolation, in larger or smaller quantities!
It is about “3 o’clock in the morning.” I got awake and was wandering about my room, and took to feeling terribly bad because I had not had a scratch of a line from you since I came away. I was really quite tragic about it.
After a little while I said to myself that I just had to forget it and must distract my mind with something. A nice, new book addressed to Daddy, was on my table so I tore off the wrappers, and proceeded to try to forget my troubles. It was a big volume, 554 pages, and I wondered what in the world they published it for. For it was the report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year ending June 1922! It was introduced by a letter from the secretary submitting it to Congress, dated July 15, 1923. And it was delivered on our doorstep apparently in December, 1924!
“Now,” I said, “why does anyone want to see 554 pages about the Smithsonian two and a half years after the date? Why,” I added,” does anyone want to see 554 pages about the Smithsonian at all?” Such, apparently, is the way of Government!
I turned the pages and distracted myself reading the titles of learned papers on Aeronautical Research, the Architecture of the Atom, Solar Energy, the Structure of Matter, and such like. I turned the pages to the report of the Museum, and was surprised to stumble over the Zoo. Here was a report on the baby hippopotamus and the baby tigers; of 1922. And a list of all the animal deaths for that year—and their causes—long scientific names like gastroenteritis, and parasitic peritonitis, along with much pneumonia and anemia. (Very natural, the latter seemed to me, for animals in the Zoo, if you know what it is, just a lack of red blood corpuscles).
Then I turned automatically to the list of “68 individual donors,”—it said so, I did not count them. It began with Mrs. Benjamin Abbott and a Virginia opossum, and ended with Mr. J.T. Zlinden and a yellow headed parrot.
And there, staring at me from the middle of the list, magnetically, for I had had no intention of reading the list, was
Mr. Allan Hoover, Washington, D.C. Two alligators.
My, how that brought you back to me! A really little boy, leaving alligators swimming around in my bath-tub, while he built a pool of cement, and put stones all around the edge. And plants in the middle! And a wire barricade around.
I feel much cheered up.
I think I will read that interest item once or twice more, and then go back to bed.
Good night, sweet dreams. (This is an essay. But true).
The letter reveals all the common strategies of guilt mothers use to prompt children to write, especially sons and daughters at college. But it also reveals Lou’s sense of wit and a shared loving memory of something that was very important at one time: Alligator Allan’s alligators now safely housed at the National Zoo.