Faux Pas

The White House Crisis that Left the President and First Lady Black and Blue

“Come up here right away!”

The White House staff is accustomed to responding immediately to any request from the First Lady. This command caused more than the usual flurry of activity, however. For Mamie Eisenhower to be on the phone at 7:00 a.m., something big must be happening.

Chief Usher J.B. West rushed from his office to the second-floor bedroom of President and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The President had just left the room for the Oval Office. When West entered the bedroom, he saw a sight so unusual that he had to rub his eyes.

Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower, First Lady of the United States from 1953 to 1961.

Mrs. Eisenhower was in bed. That was not particularly noteworthy. She frequently remained in bed until late in the day. Dressed in her sleepwear and propped up against the pillows, her husband said that she commanded the White House staff “like a two-star general.”

What was unusual was her temperament. Instead of the self-confident woman West was accustomed to, he saw someone who was very distraught. This was so out of character for Mamie Eisenhower, that it took West a moment to realize he was seeing something else that was far from ordinary: spots.

Even after rubbing his eyes, the chief usher saw spots everywhere. They were on the bedcovers, sheets, headboard, and pink dust-ruffle. Even worse, the First Lady was covered with them, as well. West described the phenomenon as “dabs and blotches and swipes of indigo.”

The First Lady prided herself on keeping a beautiful home. Her affection for the White House led her to invest countless hours in decorating and beautifying the historic mansion. Her attention to detail was so great that she had housekeeping staff continually brushing the carpets so that not even a footprint would detract from the majesty of the surroundings.

One can only imagine her horror to be surrounded by the multiplying spots that threatened to take over her bedroom and furnishings.

“What on earth can we do?” cried Mrs. Eisenhower.

J.B. West called for the housekeepers to strip the coverings off the bed. They rushed the items to the laundry room to soak. He sent a maid on an urgent mission to find some spot-remover for the remaining blotches.

Only when the staff left, and it was just the First Lady and the chief usher remaining, did Mrs. Eisenhower shed some light on the early-morning crisis. Apologetically, she explained, “My nose was all stopped up, and I had a jar of Vicks on my bedside table. So during the night when I woke up, I reached over to put some in my nostrils. Well, it seemed to just get drier, instead of moister, so I kept applying more and more. I didn’t want to wake up Ike, so I didn’t turn on the light. Then this morning, I discovered that I was using ink to cure my cold.”

West assured the First Lady, “I don’t think anything is permanently damaged. I’m sure it will all come out in the wash.”

With the immediate crisis being dealt with, Mrs. Eisenhower regained her composure and her characteristic sense of humor. Her mood lightened, and he smiled. “But you should have seen me,” she said. “Black and blue all over — and the President, too.”

The Eisenhowers were not the only presidential couple to feel as if they had been left black and blue during their stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Thankfully, all it took to remove the evidence of their crisis was some soap and elbow grease.

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