Feline residents of The White House
Up to the time of writing, at least ten of America’s forty-four Presidents are known to have kept cats during their period in office. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President, in office from 1861-1865, kept a cat who was rather unimaginatively christened Tabby. Like the majority of cats which have been resident at the White House however, Tabby was an ordinary cat, without any obvious pure-bred past.
Ranking amongst the most devoted presidential cat-owners was Calvin Coolidge, who had four cats during his period at this prestigious address on Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1920s. Their names were again essentially influenced by their appearance, in the cases of Smokey, Blackie and Tiger, who was a particular favourite. Tiger was a tabby cat who allowed himself to be carried around, draped around the President’s shoulders.
On one occasion when Tiger strayed off and disappeared, President Coolidge broadcast on the then relatively new medium of the radio, appealing for the return of his beloved pet. Tiger turned up, about a mile (1.6km) away, after which the President then fitted both his pets with collars. These incorporated an engraved plate, showing their home address as the White House. Sadly, this did not help Tiger however, because he soon strayed off and was never seen again.
Other feline residents included Bounder and Climber, whom Coolidge affectionately referred to as Mud. He was actually a Turkish Angora cat (see left
), and the last feline resident to join President Coolidge in the White House. It was said that he died of a broken heart when the President retired to Massachusetts, leaving him behind. Coolidge himself was said not to be impressed by Climber’s illustrious pure-bred origins, preferring ordinary felines.
Cats have become increasingly popular as companions amongst those living in the White House over recent years. From Gerald Ford who became President in 1974 up to George W. Bush who left office in 2008, five of the six Presidents during this period, (with the sole exception of George Bush’s father), have shared their lives with cats.
Ronald Reagan had two tortoiseshell strays, called Cleo and Sara, while Bill Clinton’s black and white family cat was given the less conventional name of Socks. This was on account of the white areas on the feet.
Socks became embroiled in a long-standing feud which captured the attention of the nation, when the Clintons acquired a Labrador retriever called Buddy. Things were so bad that when Bill Clinton left office in 2001, Socks was passed into the care of his secretary Betty Currie, rather than continuing to live alongside Buddy, whose life was then subsequently cut tragically short as the result of being hit by a car.
During his time with the Clintons however, Socks had the distinction of appearing with President Clinton on a set of stamps issued by the Central African Republic, and his cartoon image was used in the White House itself to mark the route for schoolchildren visiting the building.
Subsequently, a black cat called known as India ‘Willie’ Bush took up residence in the White House. She was owned by the Bush family for over a decade, and her unusual name derived from the nickname of Ruben Sierra, a famous baseball player from the their home state of Texas, who was popularly known as “El Indio”. Between 1989 and 1994, before becoming President, George W. Bush was a managing general manager of the Texas Rangers club for whom Sierra played. The family also kept another cat with a similar name called called Ernie ‘Willie’ Bush.
Aside from Coolidge’s Climber, the only pure-bred cats to have lived at the White House have all been Siamese. During the 1970s, Susan, the daughter of President Gerald Ford, had a Siamese cat called Shan Shein. Then Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy kept another Siamese, rejoicing under the name of Misty Marlarky Ying Yang, at the White House.
It had been back in 1878 that the then President, Rutherford Hayes had received the first Siamese ever to be seen in the United States. This cat was a gift from the American Consul in Bangkok, and was called Siam, reflecting the country of her birth which is now better-known as Thailand.
Her journey to the White House took two months, with the cat finally being delivered to her destination in a Wells Fargo crate. Her stay here was literally short-lived however, as with many of the first cats brought to the West from the Orient during this period. They seemed to be very susceptible to respiratory infections, perhaps linked in part to the climatic change, and the lack of protective inoculations during that period in history.
In spite of the very best efforts of the President’s own physician, Siam passed away in October 1879. It is just possible that Siam may still be somewhere in a government building. Instructions were given on her demise that she should be preserved, but it is unclear as to whether this instruction was ever carried out.
Fur or feathers?
Just as in life as in politics, not everything is always what it seems. There were many visitors to the White House who thought that Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third man to hold the office of US President, had a cat. Instead, he actually had a mockingbird, which mimicked the calls of a cat in a very convincing manner!