Being a first lady of the United States might seem like a pretty cushy job at first. After all, Melania Trump got to live in the big fancy White House and wear expensive clothes all day. Anybody could do that, right? Except… well, it’s not quite that simple. As you might expect, if you’re married to the president, there are a lot of rules you have to abide by. And some of them are downright bizarre…
40. No driving
First ladies aren’t allowed to drive. It’s just too dangerous! So the Secret Service takes them where they want to go. The White House wives don’t always like this much, however. In 2014 Hillary Clinton told the National Automobile Dealers Association, “One of the regrets I have about my public life is that I can’t drive anymore.”
Michelle Obama feels the same way. Even after her husband left office, she wasn’t allowed to drive a car. In 2018 she told People, “No driving for me. We still live in a bubble. If we had a farm somewhere, maybe I could drive around it. As we’ve seen, the risks are still there.”
39. Don’t open windows
Most people take for granted that they’re able to open up a window whenever they like. Not so for the first lady and her family. The bulletproof windows in the White House must remain shut at all times, as must the windows in any car the first family drives around in. The risk of having a window open is simply too high for White House security to accept.
Michelle Obama knows full well the agony of missing out on fresh air. In September 2015 she told Stephen Colbert on his Late Show, “I really can’t open a window. If I press it in the car, everybody’s like, ‘Oh my god! What was that?’ One day, as a treat, my lead agent let me have the window open on the way to Camp David, for like five minutes.”
38. Be responsible for the Christmas trees
Christmas is a big deal at the White House, and it’s the first lady’s job to make sure that it all goes smoothly. For pretty much the whole of December, then, the president’s wife will devote herself to all things Christmas. Even for hardcore Christmas fanatics, that’s probably a bit much… Yet the first lady must also pick a theme for the decorations.
In 2012 Michelle Obama promoted “Joy to All” and had a life-size replica of the family’s dog made out of pompoms for a centerpiece. And in 2019 Melania Trump went with a “Spirit of America” theme in honor of those who have shaped the country over the years. All celebrated out? Nope! The White House marks the holidays of Hanukkah and Ramadan, too, and the first lady ought to be there for those.
37. Always dress appropriately
There’s a lot of unwritten rules about how a first lady should dress. One thing’s for sure, though: if you get it wrong, you’ll hear about it. You should wear culturally appropriate clothes when traveling, and it’s also not a good idea to dress too extravagantly. After all, you’re not on the red carpet.
Michelle Obama knows all about the annoying intricacies of first lady fashion. When she donned some shorts during a visit to the Grand Canyon back in 2009, the media went absolutely wild. Obama herself also confessed that she considers it her biggest fashion mistake. Still, first ladies have been criticized for immodesty all the way back to the 19th-century days of Dolley Madison – who was considered to show too much cleavage.
36. Don’t accept (most) gifts
First ladies must receive lots of presents from the people they meet, right? Absolutely. But they’re not allowed to keep many of them anyway. That’s because gifts from foreign governments are actually given to the U.S. as a country, not to the first family. So if the first lady really wants whatever the present from overseas is, she apparently has to buy it.
However, the first lady is allowed to keep “domestic gifts” – so long as they pass security evaluations. Imagine having all your birthday presents put through a scanner first! And then there’s the issue of pets given as gifts. Like when the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev sent President Kennedy a puppy in 1961 – the poor pooch needed its own passport.
35. Meals must be paid for
The first family aren’t getting all that fancy food for free. If the first lady wants to eat at the White House or Camp David, she’s paying for it herself. In Laura Bush’s 2010 autobiography Spoken from the Heart, she wrote that the White House food expenses were just like “every American household.”
And when Michelle Obama went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2018, the host asked her about that interesting financial tidbit. Obama confirmed that yes, she paid for her White House food – and it wasn’t always cheap, either. She remarked, “You get the bill for a peach, and you’re like, ‘That was a $500 peach!’”
34. Move into the White House at an assigned time
Moving into the White House isn’t a simple procedure – even if you’re the new first lady. First of all, you can’t set up shop in your new home until noon on January 20. That’s to allow the outgoing first family time to leave. You absolutely must not enter until the previous lot have vacated, and after that you have just 12 hours to move your stuff in.
Yep, the first family are themselves tasked with bringing their personal items into the White House. They even have to pay for the movers themselves, just like a regular American would. However, once all the boxes and furniture actually arrive there, White House staff quickly work to put it in place. It wouldn’t look good to have the contents of a house strewn all other that famous lawn.
33. Hire an interior designer
It’s a longstanding tradition that the First Lady chooses an interior designer to revamp the White House according to the first family’s tastes. The chosen designers can expect a sudden rush of interest in their work, too. So who’s behind the most recent White House refurbs? Hilary Clinton chose Kaki Hockersmith, Laura Bush opted for Kenneth Blasingame, and Michelle Obama decided on Michael S. Smith.
Obama sang the praises of Smith in the foreword to the 2020 book Designing History: The Extraordinary Art & Style of the Obama White House. She had wanted a house suitable for her kids, she said, and Smith gave her that. “Our daughters had rooms to call their own, where they could swap out a great work of art for a poster or a photo of their friends,” she wrote.
32. Host state dinners
Whenever another world leader visits the White House, a special state dinner is held. And for obvious reasons everything’s gotta go smoothly on the night. Invitations must be made, flowers arranged, seating arrangements considered and menus drawn up. This heavy responsibility falls on the first lady.
Of course, the first lady has a load of White House staff working under her, but it’s a tricky job nonetheless. And Michelle Obama decided to take on even more work when she started a kids’ state dinner in 2012 to encourage children to eat healthily. At least there was slightly less chance of a diplomatic incident springing from there.
31. Pay for designer clothes
The first lady should ideally be a fashion icon – but that doesn’t come cheap. And you’re not going to get the taxpayer to pony up for your wardrobe. Laura Bush wrote in her 2010 memoir, “I was amazed by the sheer number of designer clothes that I was expected to buy, like the women before me, to meet the fashion expectations for a first lady.”
The former first lady went on, “After our first year in the White House, our accountant said to George [W. Bush], ‘It costs a lot to be president,’ and he was referring mainly to my clothes.” Ouch. Mind you, Nancy Reagan allegedly got round all this by “borrowing” expensive outfits and then never returning them.
30. Stay in Blair House before the inauguration
Everything leading up to Inauguration Day is pretty crazy for the incoming president’s family – although perhaps that goes without saying. Before the official handover ceremonies take place, the first lady and her family are meant to stay at Blair House. The residence has been owned by the American federal government ever since 1942.
Staying at Blair House is like being on holiday, though. It’s a pretty luxurious place, to say the least. The Pennsylvania Avenue building contains more than 100 rooms, including three dining rooms and two conference rooms. Guests can also enjoy a gym and a beauty salon, plus their own bathrooms. Wow!
29. Absolutely no getting in a convertible
Everyone can probably guess the reason why presidents and first ladies aren’t allowed to ride in convertibles. Back in 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while traveling in one. His wife, Jackie Kennedy, witnessed the whole thing from the seat next to him. The car was open-roofed – an easy target for a shooter.
The car had been designed for aesthetics, not protection. Kennedy wanted the crowds to be able to see him as he went by. There was a roof that could have gone on the car – but it wasn’t actually bulletproof. So, after that terrible incident, the Secret Service got to work ensuring that no presidential car would be so vulnerable again.
28. Some rooms in the White House are off limits
The White House may be a home for the first family, but it’s also basically a piece of living American history. So some rooms can’t be decorated by the first lady’s designer. These include the Lincoln Room – which Abraham Lincoln used as his office – and the Yellow Room, where John Adams hosted the inaugural presidential reception.
But perhaps not many first ladies would brave a long stay in the Lincoln Room anyway. Rumor has it that it’s haunted. Grace Coolidge, the spouse of President Calvin Coolidge, reportedly claimed that she once saw none other than Abraham Lincoln himself staring out of a window in the Oval Office.
27. New first ladies must meet her predecessor
After the new president is elected, but before the inauguration takes place, the old first lady and the new one have to meet. What happens is the outgoing woman takes her replacement for a tour of the White House – the home that she’ll soon be leaving. It’s easy to imagine that this is incredibly awkward at times!
Like, Mamie Eisenhower reportedly disliked her successor, Jackie Kennedy, and referred to her derisively as “the college girl.” So while they maintained their smiles for the cameras, there was frost underneath. But some first ladies and ex-first ladies do become friends. Hillary Clinton maintained a good relationship with Barbara Bush and even attended her funeral.
26. Preserve the White House’s history
The White House is also a museum, in a sense, and America has Jackie Kennedy to thank for that. During her time as the first lady, Kennedy set about restoring rooms that were falling into disrepair, collecting artworks to preserve, and generally putting a lot of time into making sure future generations would respect the building.
Before that, though, it was Bess Truman who made sure that the White House remained standing in the first place. Back in 1948, the building was actually in danger of collapse – and some suggested it should be torn down. But Truman insisted that the place be preserved and restored instead.
25. Make sure to do the Easter Egg Roll
There’s a fun side to being the first lady, at least. Ever since Easter 1878, the White House has hosted an annual Easter Egg Roll. This is where children show up to roll easter eggs and have a bit of a laugh. It’s supposed to be the first lady who plans out the occasion and maybe introduces other activities into the day.
World Wars I and II put an end to Easter Egg Rolls for many years. Luckily, though, the tradition returned in 1953. Since then, a few new things have been added by various first ladies. For instance, everyone now gets a wooden egg keepsake at the end. Oh, and a White House staff member has to dress as the Easter Bunny. We bet they fight over who gets to do that job…
24. Try not to overstep
The role of a first lady is a complicated one. They take up humanitarian causes, host events and generally perform the ceremonial side of things at the White House. So they’re not traditionally supposed to have too much of a say in the actual politics – but this inevitably happens anyway. And some people are quite disapproving.
Hillary Clinton was considered to have overreached when she was the first lady back in the ’90s. “Hillary Clinton wasn’t interested in baking cookies, she really wanted to be a co-president,” American historian Christopher Andersen told newspaper The Guardian in 2017. “This got her in trouble, so she had to step down a bit.”
23. Choose a cause to support
For a long time, first ladies have been championing good causes. Back in the 19th century, for example, Dolley Madison devoted money and energy to helping orphaned children. Mary Todd Lincoln attempted to assist freed slaves. And Helen Taft assisted in getting important health and safety laws through government. So while political issues have changed, the need for charitable campaigns has not.
It was Eleanor Roosevelt who really established the first lady position as a philanthropic role, and others followed in her footsteps. Betty Ford campaigned to raise awareness of breast cancer and also established the rehab centers that bear her name. Michelle Obama fought for all girls to get an education, too. Meanwhile, Melania Trump, focused her charitable endeavors on children as well.
22. Declining protection is allowed
The president and vice president have to have Secret Service protection at all times. Yet the first lady and her adult children can actually turn it down if they want. No first ladies have, so far, but one child has: Ronald Reagan’s son Ron. Richard Nixon and his wife also turned down their lifetime protection in 1985 – but he wasn’t president then.
To be fair, it must be awkward having secret agents follow wherever you go. Jackie Kennedy reportedly told hers to treat the children as if they were just normal kids – and not even to pick them up if they fall down. First ladies can’t even go on vacation alone – but sometimes that may be for the best.
21. Don’t ditch the title
It took a long time for the title “First Lady” to really catch on with Americans. It’s thought that President Zachary Taylor first used the phrase when he called Dolley Madison “our first lady for a half century” in an 1849 eulogy for her. Gradually newspapers began using it, and by the second half of the 20th century it was the official name for a president’s wife.
But not every first lady liked being called that. Jackie Kennedy was reportedly one of them, and Eleanor Roosevelt another. The latter got people to call her “Mrs. Roosevelt” instead. The question will probably come up again when a woman or a gay man is elected president. In these cases, will their partners get the title of “first gentleman”?
20. Only wear designer clothes once
Obviously every designer wants to dress the first lady. Whatever the wife of the president is seen in, it’s almost guaranteed to be popular and thus gain your brand extra cash and associated glamor. For example Michelle Obama’s gold Narciso Rodriguez dress she wore when her husband gave his last address to Congress rapidly flew off the shelves and was soon out of stock.
So naturally it would be a thrill for any designer to give an outfit to the first lady. But alas, should they do this, the woman in question only gets to wear it once. After that, it has to be donated. Michelle Obama’s and Melania Trump’s inauguration dresses are both in the Smithsonian Institution, and handing gowns over to it is a tradition going back to 1912 and first lady Helen Taft.
19. Send children to private school
Almost always, the president’s children will be sent to a private school. And lots of them have been to the same private school at that. The Obama daughters, the Nixon children, Chelsea Clinton and others all attended Sidwell Friends, an institution which will set parents back a cool $40,000 per year in tuition fees. The only exception to this rule in over a century has been the Carter family.
Amy Carter, the youngest daughter of Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn, was sent to public school by her parents. But she’s been the only one since 1906. Sidwell Friends school appears very popular – even when Michelle Obama was no longer first lady, she and her family remained in Washington so Sasha Obama could finish her studies there.
18. It helps to have an established job
Once upon a time first ladies were expected to be the wife of the president and well, not much else. Obviously times have changed. These days it’s pretty much expected that the FLOTUS will have at least some accomplishments in her chosen field. For example, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama were both lawyers before their husbands were elected.
And some have taken their work into the White House with them. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a part-time newspaper column while she was first lady. But Dr. Jill Biden, wife of President Biden, made waves when she announced she would remain a full-time professor after her husband won the election. Is that taking things too far? We’ll find out.
17. No casual shopping trips
Lots of people love shopping, but if you’re a first lady you have to put your love of retail therapy aside. Yes, even though you have the money. Security arrangements make it impossible to just casually drop into a store. Michelle Obama explained as much in 2016 while at the United State of Women Summit with Oprah.
Obama told the audience, “I want to go to Target again! I’ve heard so many things have changed in Target. I tell my friends they’re going to have to give me a re-entry training for like, okay, what do you do at CVS now? How do you check out? It’s like I’ve been living in a cave.” So there you have it.
16. Have personal stylists on hand
First lady fashion is so important that really, most people wouldn’t be able to handle it on their own. That’s why generally it’s a good idea to hire a stylist. Laura Bush, for example, had designer Michael Faircloth in her corner, and he ended up working with her for over 20 years. Her red inauguration dress was one of his.
And Michelle Obama had a stylist named Meredith Koop, with whom she formed a strong relationship. In 2018 she told The New York Times newspaper, “I met Meredith when she was a young sales associate about a decade ago, and ever since, I’ve been blessed to have her by my side. She’s ridden with us through eight hectic years. She’s been a friend and mentor to our daughters.”
15. Always entertain the spouses of world leaders
The wives of world leaders occupy a strange place in the world – they have power and influence, but not too much. Obviously, it makes sense for all these women to form a community of their own. Thus, whenever a male president, monarch etc. visits America, it’s the first lady’s job to accompany and amuse his wife.
This does actually extend beyond just trips, though. Reportedly at the height of lockdown in April 2020 Melania Trump kept busy by phoning up some of the most famous foreign first ladies. These included Sophie Trudeau, Akie Abe of Japan, and Brigitte Macron of France. The first lady’s chief of staff Stephanie Grisham told CNN at the time, “The first lady is keeping in touch with several leader spouses at a time when communication is essential.”
14. Plan for your husband’s death
This is, of course, extremely morbid. But being president obviously involves a certain level of personal risk and that has to be taken into account. In fact, every president is supposed to start planning their own funeral not long after they take office. If you’re the first lady, knowing that’s going on must be a heavy burden to bear.
And of course in worst-case scenarios those hypothetical funeral arrangements become a reality for the first lady, and she has to make a lot of decisions. This is what faced Jackie Kennedy after her husband was shot and killed. She ended up modeling JFK’s public funeral after that of Abraham Lincoln, but for herself and her family she arranged for the two children she and her husband had lost to be buried alongside him at Arlington.
13. Be willing to have no privacy
You don’t get to have much of a private life if you’re the president’s wife – even your mail is looked at. It’s all for security reasons of course, but it can’t be easy. In 2016 former Secret Service agent Jonathan Wackrow, who had served multiple presidents, told the NBC News website what first families could expect in the White House.
Wackrow said, “Just think about you at your home tonight and four strangers just show up and they’re standing in your kitchen. Secret Service protection is the most intrusive thing that anyone could ever experience. We experience parts of your life, but we’re also there in those private times when things aren’t good – family arguments, family loss.” That’s definitely a downside.
12. Wear a veil to meet the Pope
Meeting the Pope is the sort of thing a first lady is expected to do, but there are rules about how to approach him. The Henry Ford tradition used to apply: both men and women could wear any color they liked, as long it was black. Admittedly, though, that rule has been relaxed in more recent years. Still, if you’re a woman setting foot inside the Vatican, you’re definitely still meant to wear a veil.
In 2017 when Melania Trump visited the Vatican, Graham told CNN, “Per Vatican protocol, women who have an audience with the Pope are required to wear long sleeves, formal black clothing, and a veil to cover the head.” That’s what Trump did, and Michelle Obama did the same during her stint as first lady too.
11. Select a special china pattern
Obviously this isn’t the most important duty of a first lady, but it’s a tradition all the same – the president’s wife is expected to pick out a pattern for the White House china. This has been the case ever since the administration of James Monroe back in 1814, and the White House holds some pretty impressive pieces.
There’s so much of the china that it has its own display area in the White House, the China Room on the ground floor. And there’s even a law, passed in the 20th century, that all White House china must be either kept or destroyed, never given away. Maybe it is quite an important first lady duty after all.
10. Get an official portrait done
Back in the earliest days of the White House, photography hadn’t been invented yet. So the only way for future generations to know what a president looked like was, well, to have a portrait painted. Eventually this extended to first ladies too, and even once photography was the norm, getting a painting done was still tradition.
People have admired the official first lady portraits for a long time, not to mention analyzed what they’re saying about the subject. The choice of artist is important too – Michelle Obama picked African-American artist Amy Sherald to paint her portrait, for example. The exception to this tradition appears to be Melania Trump, who only had a photograph.
9. Always attend other first ladies’ funerals
Yep, quite a bit of life in the public eye seems to involve planning for deaths. There’s protocol and tradition to be followed whenever a former first lady passes away. And ever since the ’60s, one of these traditions has been for other first ladies, be they past or present, to attend the funeral.
Commentators have noticed that first ladies tend to attend the funerals of their counterparts even if they didn’t know the woman in question all that well. For example, in 1979 Rosalynn Carter went to the memorial service of Mamie Eisenhower despite only having met her once. And four surviving first ladies were present at Barbara Bush’s funeral.
8. Have good security on your phone
It’s generally accepted that the first lady will know much of what goes on in the White House, including matters of national security. So it’s all the more vital that she, and the other members of her family, have absolutely the highest level of phone security to stop anyone hacking into their messages.
So phones need considerably more than just password protection: they need actual security experts coming in and taking a look at them all whenever needed. Not only that, but the devices need to be regularly replaced by new handsets as well. So make sure you don’t get too attached to those selfies – or at least, save them in the cloud. And a top-security part of the cloud at that.
7. Always be friends with the VP’s wife
The wife of the vice president is called the second lady, and it helps things along considerably if the first and second ladies get along. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden were and still are good friends, with Obama writing on her Instagram in 2019, “Through our work together to honor and support military families, I saw what an inspiration Jill Biden is to those around her.”
Melania Trump and Karen Pence were reportedly not so close. Journalists who worked among them noted that Trump didn’t appear to invite Pence to sit with her, and tended to wear heels that made her tower above the second lady. Still, they appeared friendly enough whenever the cameras were on them.
6. Leave the White House if the president dies
This rule seems pretty harsh, but it’s true. After John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Jackie and her children had to leave the White House and go elsewhere. Luckily, there was some compassion and leeway involved. President Lyndon Johnson, JFK’s successor, let the family stay for a bit.
Kennedy actually wrote Johnson a letter thanking him for this. The day after the funeral she told him, “It mustn’t be very much help to you [on] your first day in office – to hear children on the lawn at recess. It is just one more example of your kindness that you let them stay… Thank you Mr. President.”
5. Follow protocol when meeting the Queen
If you’re a first lady who gets something wrong upon meeting the Queen, you’ll never hear the end of it. In 2009 Michelle Obama – gasp – hugged the Queen upon meeting her, and the media was absolutely aghast. Even though the Queen herself didn’t seem to mind and actually hugged back.
Melania Trump had a similar thing happen. When she visited the Queen in 2019 both she and her husband shook hands with the royal family instead of bowing or curtsying, which is what you’re supposed to do. If that wasn’t enough, the papers pointed out her outfit clashed with that of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
4. Always be a good hostess
Don’t fancy like entertaining a bunch of strangers at your house? Well if you’re the first lady, that’s tough luck: you don’t have any choice. Throughout history, if you were a good host it meant you were also a good diplomat. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery’s 2021 exhibition Every Eye Is Upon Me: First Ladies of the United States goes into this.
Chief curator Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw told Town and Country magazine, “Hostessing was really important. We’ve been focusing on how we consider the roles of women in the 19th century that have been marginalized and the kind of soft power that these women exerted in hostessing.” That power exists to this day.
3. Understand social media
For most of the history of America, social media wasn’t a thing. And then suddenly it was. It can get confusing, though, because of protocol about what is and isn’t appropriate to tweet. By 2013 Michelle Obama had two Twitter accounts – the one called @MichelleObama was considered to be messages from her, while @FLOTUS displayed missives from her in her official ceremonial capacity as first lady.
Following that? Well, as social media evolves it will probably get even more difficult. For a start, in 2020 Twitter announced that all White House accounts would lose their followers once a new administration took over, and the incoming president, first lady etc. would have to gain new ones. It’s all uncharted waters.
2. You can’t always go outside alone
Michelle Obama revealed something interesting at the 2016 United State of Women Summit. She told the audience, “I want to open my front door without discussing it with anyone – and I want to walk out that door and just walk. Just want to walk by myself, or with a semblance of feeling like I’m by myself.”
Clearly, security arrangements for the first lady are incredibly intense. In 2018 French first lady Brigitte Macron told newspaper Le Monde that Melania Trump “…can’t even open a window at the White House. She can’t go outside. She’s much more constrained than I am. I go out every day in Paris.” Maybe she was exaggerating, but maybe not.
1. If you want a divorce, it’ll be hard
What exactly happens if a first lady wants to divorce a sitting president? No-one actually knows for sure because it hasn’t happened yet. Historically, there’s been a lot of adultery in the White House – Lyndon Johnson had a mistress for 30 years, JFK’s playboy attitude was legendary – but no actual divorces.
One thing’s for sure, it would be a very complicated issue. Some couples have prenuptial agreements and obviously large sums of money are involved when it comes to the presidency. Any children under the age of 18 would have to be taken care of while also being protected from the media’s glare. And of course, the divorce would make headline news not just in America but across the entire world. It’s no wonder no-one’s done it yet.
There are plenty of bizarre stories and rules surrounding the actual White House as well. The historic residence has not only seen dozens of presidents come and go, but it has also been expanded multiple times – and even partially burned down at one point. And over the decades, America’s most famous mansion has apparently been the setting for multitudes of fascinating and shocking stories – tales involving everything from ghostly apparitions to some decidedly brazen presidential nudity.
20. Andrew Jackson hosted a wild inauguration party
Numerous commentators have made comparisons between the seventh and 45th presidents of the United States. In fact, in a speech made shortly after he had won the 2016 election, even Donald Trump himself called back to Andrew Jackson’s eight-year tenure in the White House. At that time, reports emerged that the president-elect was intending to base his inaugural reception on that of Jackson’s. Yet, in the end, Trump’s soiree wasn’t quite as much of a complete debacle as his predecessor’s.
On the night of Jackson’s first inauguration in March 1829, the president hosted an open reception at the White House. However, thousands of people ultimately turned up – including some frontiersmen – and mayhem is said to have subsequently ensued. The hordes were reported to have shattered the punch bowl, threw liquor buckets everywhere and treated the furniture with sheer disdain. And before long, the drunken mob forced the president to flee from the scene.
19. A resentful army private landed a helicopter on the lawn – twice
While the White House isn’t completely immune to security breaches, the events of February 17, 1974, definitely stand out. On that day, you see, 20-year-old disaffected army private Robert Preston hijacked a military helicopter from Maryland and flew it to Washington, D.C. And while Preston had flunked helicopter school, he nevertheless used his private pilot’s license to take the chopper to the presidential residency.
Then, while at the White House, Preston lowered the aircraft down to the lawn before a pair of Maryland State police copters chased him away. After having lost one of his pursuers with his unpredictable maneuvers, however, the pilot subsequently returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and attempted to land again. This time around, the Secret Service opened fire, wounding Preston. The private was ultimately arrested and then handed a 12-month prison term.
18. Mary Todd Lincoln held séances in the White House
In the mid-19th century, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln tragically lost their 11-year-old son to what’s thought to have been typhus. At around the same time, though, spiritualism was taking hold in the U.S., leading Mary to turn to mediums in her grief. And the distraught mother apparently found what she was looking for, according to her husband’s biographer Carl Sandburg.
Indeed, Sandburg wrote that Mary believed her dearly departed son appeared to her every night, standing in her bedroom with “the same sweet, adorable smile he always had.” And the First Lady’s obsession with spiritualism even reportedly led to the Lincolns hosting seance in the White House in April 1863 – an event that a journalist claimed to have witnessed.
17. Willie Nelson smoked marijuana on the roof
For years, Willie Nelson was somehow simultaneously forthcoming and cautious about his fabled trip to Washington, D.C. Simply put, though, it appears that the country music superstar really did smoke marijuana on top of the White House. Nelson wrote in his 1988 autobiography, for example, that on one occasion he had been on the roof of the mansion “with a beer in one hand and a fat Austin Torpedo in the other.” Yet the precise circumstances of the story remained a mystery for decades.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2015 that Nelson revealed how he had really found himself in that outrageous situation. In an interview with GQ magazine’s Chris Heath, the legendary musician recounted how a friend – a “White House insider” – had offered a private tour that had culminated on the building’s roof. And according to Heath, the buddy in question had been president Jimmy Carter’s son James Earl “Chip” Carter III.
16. Lincoln’s ghost is thought to haunt the White House
Abraham Lincoln isn’t the only former American president whose ghost has allegedly been sighted in the White House, although he apparently makes the most frequent appearances. And the legend arguably began with a photograph that was taken in the 1870s of Mary Todd Lincoln – a snap that appeared to show her deceased husband’s apparition standing behind her. But although that ghoulish image was ultimately explained to have emerged as the result of an inadvertent double exposure, stories of the former president’s ghost have nevertheless persisted.
For instance, Mary Eben – who was once secretary to Eleanor Roosevelt – allegedly saw the ghost of Lincoln putting his boots on in what is now the Lincoln Bedroom. Many White House occupants have also claimed to have felt that Lincoln was there, even if they didn’t actually witness any apparitions. Among that crowd are Eleanor Roosevelt herself as well as press secretaries Liz Carpenter and James Hegarty.
15. The tallest president met the shortest general
Charles Stratton – better known by his stage name General Tom Thumb – found fame touring with circus master P.T. Barnum from childhood. And the diminutive chap – who stood at just 2’11” tall – had countless fans, with Queen Victoria among them. Then, when Barnum hired equally small woman Lavinia Warren to join his troupe, Stratton fell in love.
Given Stratton’s popularity, though, it’s perhaps no wonder that his wedding captured global attention. And during the 36-month “honeymoon tour” that followed, he and Warren stopped off at the White House for a reception. There, the newlyweds met with Lincoln, who is said to have treated the entire affair with decorum. The president’s son Robert, by contrast, boycotted the event, as he reportedly found it trivial.
14. Elvis tried to score a narc badge from Richard Nixon
Even in 2015, the historic photograph of Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon at the White House in 1970 was the U.S. National Archives’ most-requested image. But the tale behind how the meeting came to be makes the photo itself even more interesting. You see, the story goes that Presley was after a real Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge.
And while Presley collected police insignias, there was apparently another reason why he wanted the prize from Nixon. “The narc badge represented some kind of ultimate power to him,” his then-wife Priscilla Presley later wrote in her autobiography Elvis and Me. “With the federal narcotics badge, he [believed he] could legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished.” Unbeknown to Elvis, though, the badge that he received was entirely honorary.
13. Nancy Reagan sat on Mr. T’s lap
A year into Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, the First Lady invited Mr. T to the White House. Famously during the ’80s, the television star appeared in public service announcements warning kids to stay away from drugs, meaning the unlikely duo had a shared crusade. And as it happens, the photo from the resulting visit would certainly draw attention.
For one, Mr. T dropped into the presidential residence on December 12, 1983, in full Santa Claus garb. And while attending reporters declined to sit on his lap, Reagan stepped forward – perhaps in an effort to abandon the uptight reputation that had plagued her for years. In 2018 The Washington Post described the resultant snap as “perhaps the most wild First Lady photo ever taken.”
12. British troops set the White House on fire
The War of 1812 saw many casualties – including the White House itself. Two years into the conflict, British troops stormed into Washington, D.C. seeking revenge for a U.S. offensive on Ontario, Canada. When the men reached what at the time was called the Presidential Mansion, however, they found that then-President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, were nowhere to be seen.
The president had departed two days earlier for the battlefield, leaving the First Lady behind. Then, when Dolley spotted the advancing army, she, too, abandoned the mansion. Soon after, the British reached the White House, invaded the scullery and consumed leftover food before setting the place alight. A full reconstruction of the mansion wouldn’t be finished until 1817 – by which time James Monroe had been elected.
11. A maid walked in on Ronald Reagan naked
Ivaniz Silva worked as a maid at the White House for 23 years, and apparently her tenure mostly passed as expected. But she has at least one outrageous story to tell. You see, on one occasion, Silva was attending to president Ronald Reagan’s bedroom. Then, when the housekeeper crossed to the adjoining sitting room, she found the commander-in-chief completely nude and surrounded by papers. Naturally, Silva then made a hasty exit. And this wasn’t the only time that Reagan was caught without clothing by an employee.
Yes, it seems that the 40th president of the United States wasn’t ashamed of being in the buff around staff. In 2015 White House usher Skip Allen recounted to ABC News how he’d once had to deliver a confidential document to Reagan in his private residence. And upon his arrival, he found an unfazed president stepping out of the shower while completely nude.
10. A pot washer bowled into the night with Richard Nixon
Most of the White House staff apparently found the Nixon family a little more formal than they had been used to. However, pre-Watergate, their relationship with the 37th president was nevertheless said to be amicable. And occasionally Nixon did let his guard down. There was the night when the leader went bowling with a pot washer, for example.
It’s no secret that Nixon was a fan of bowling; he even had a lane set up in the White House. And on one evening following dinner, the president visited the kitchen and struck up conversation with pot washer Frankie Blair. Then, after chat turned to bowling, the pair ended up playing together until 2:00 a.m.
9. Andrew Jackson had an enormous block of cheese
President Barack Obama’s White House hosted the “Big Block of Cheese Day” – in which citizens could ask politicians questions on social media – three years in a row. The event was inspired by Andrew Jackson, who according to an episode of The West Wing had once held an open reception for the public. And the seventh president had apparently tempted folks in with an enormous wheel of the good stuff.
Yes, Jackson really did have a 1,400-pound wheel of cheese that had been gifted to him by a dairy farmer in 1835. But as it turns out, the open forum wasn’t really held to court public opinion; instead, the desperate president simply wanted to get rid of his huge gift. You see, the edible present – which came in at two feet thick and four feet wide – had lingered in the White House for two years, after which time the smell was apparently unbearable. Fortunately, though, the public made light work of the cheese.
8. Barack Obama held a “beer summit”
Alcohol flowing at the White House is hardly anything new. However, using booze to reach a diplomatic resolution may well have been a first for the presidential residence. And that’s exactly what Barack Obama did shortly into his first term after the wrongful arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. outside his home.
When Gates returned to his Massachusetts home on one day in July 2009, he had found the door jammed shut. As he had attempted to prize it open, however, police officer James Crowley arrived on the scene and promptly apprehended the academic. And the incident subsequently gained international attention, with critics claiming that Crowley was guilty of racial profiling. Eventually, though, Obama invited both men to the White House to talk it out in what became known as the “beer summit.”
7. Teddy Roosevelt’s children took their pony in an elevator
There have of course been plenty of heartwarming White House pet stories over the decades, but perhaps the most charming involves Teddy Roosevelt’s family. After then-Secretary of the Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock gifted a Shetland pony named Algonquin to the president’s second-youngest child, Archie, horse and boy soon became thick as thieves.
So, when Archie was left bed-bound in 1903 after having contracted measles, he asked his mother if he could visit Algonquin. After First Lady Edith explained that her son wasn’t ready to visit the stables, though, his siblings concocted a plan along with a footman. Together, they walked Algonquin into the White House and brought the pony up to an elated Archie using the elevator.
6. Andrew Johnson cared for the White House’s mice
Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency in 1865 following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. He didn’t share many ideals with his predecessor, however. Putting him out of step with the vast majority of men to occupy the White House, Johnson had no pets, for instance. Well, at least that was the case until he discovered a family of mice living in his bedroom.
Rather than set traps for the animals, Johnson instead decided to take care of them. He left out baskets of grain and flour from his mills, for one, and ultimately gained the mice’s trust and companionship as a result. The rodents may even have offered some solace to the president during his period of impeachment, which began after his clashes with Congress over post-Civil War policy.
5. John Quincy Adams kept an alligator in the East Room bathtub
Ponies and mice probably aren’t the kinds of animals that most people keep at home. However, they still pale in comparison to the oddity of John Quincy Adams’ pet alligator. French military officer Marquis de Lafayette had received the fearsome reptile as a gift during his American tour in the 1820s, and he subsequently decided that it would be a good idea to take the creature along to the White House.
But while it’s impossible to know how Adams reacted to the strange present, he can’t have been that perturbed by it. After all, he allowed the ’gator to live for months in the bathtub of the then-incomplete East Room. On occasion, Adams would even use the animal to scare guests of the White House before it eventually found another home elsewhere.
4. Teddy Roosevelt used judo on the Swiss minister
After having gone through bouts of childhood illness, Teddy Roosevelt placed great importance on his physical health. As a teenager, then, he exercised in a gym that had been built for him by his father. In later life, moreover, Roosevelt was a keen practitioner of judo – even becoming the first ever brown belt in the nation. And that drive to achieve peak physical fitness didn’t wither once he entered the White House.
Yes, Roosevelt frequently tussled in the East Room with Chinese wrestlers and Japanese martial artists. He also placed judo mats in the White House’s basement in order to train with anyone and everyone – including his wife. And once Roosevelt breathed life into a dull lunch by flooring a Swiss minister with a judo move. Fortunately, though, his guests were thrilled.
3. An armed intruder stormed the White House in a karate uniform
Before 1978, you could count the number of White House intruders on one hand – with only one managing to get beyond the grounds. And on October 4 that year, Ohio resident Anthony Henry apparently decided that he’d also give it a go. Dressed in a karate uniform and accordingly barefoot, Henry thus climbed the Pennsylvania Avenue-facing fence.
Henry then hopped down onto the lawn and raced towards the North Portico while threatening police with a knife. For around 15 minutes, he subsequently assumed a variety of karate stances while loudly denouncing the government. And as the cops intercepted and arrested Henry, Jimmy Carter lunched nearby in the residence – blissfully ignorant of the entire situation.
2. Boris Yeltsin’s escape act almost caused an international furor
Not every White House security breach over the decades has involved people getting in, however, as one such incident involved a prominent politician actually slipping out. In 1995 Russian leader Boris Yeltsin almost caused embarrassment on the international stage during a visit to Washington, D.C. According to then-president Bill Clinton, Yeltsin was indulging in a late-night tipple while staying in the residence’s guest quarters.
And, somehow, Yeltsin managed to give the Secret Service the slip completely. Ultimately, agents found the premier standing in just his underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue while attempting to flag down a cab. Through slurred speech, Yeltsin told them that he had simply wanted to get pizza. What’s more, a trip to the basement the following night ended in yet another rescue after a guard mistook the Russian for an inebriated trespasser.
1. Andrew Jackson taught his pet parrot to swear
Several U.S. presidents have kept birds, but only one of these pets is known to have launched into a verbal tirade at its owner’s funeral. Andrew Jackson had purchased an African gray parrot for his wife but had assumed responsibility for the creature after her death. And legend has it that at Jackson’s own funeral, the bird swore so loudly and continuously that it was removed from the building.
According to historian Samuel G. Hiskell, the presiding reverend at Jackson’s funeral remarked that the parrot was “excited by the multitude and… let loose perfect gusts of ‘cuss words.’” The attendees, meanwhile, were “horrified and awed at the bird’s lack of reverence.” Sadly, there’s no account of precisely what the bird said. But given the former president’s formidable life, it’s not hard to imagine the bird having learned a few naughty words.