.
"Wombats and Such"
Calvin and Grace Coolidge and Their Pets

by
David Pietrusza
Calvin and Grace Coolidge certainly lived up to those words—and
more. Before, during, and after their White House years, the
Coolidges kept a dizzying array of pets. From cats and dogs, canaries
and mockingbirds, to wombats and raccoons, the Coolidges
surrounded themselves with four-footed or feathered
creatures.                                                          

We know that Calvin Coolidge's involvement with animals began
early, right here as a matter of fact, at Plymouth Notch—a place
where there was little human company—and where shy young Calvin
had trouble interacting with even the few souls that happened to be
nearby. "Like many shy people," historian Hendrik Booraem wrote in
his study of Coolidge's early years
The Provincial: Calvin Coolidge
and His World, 1885-1895
, "he found comfort in animals, with whom
it was possible to have a relationship without the strain of verbal
communications. There were numerous cats around the Notch, as in
most dairy farming areas, to keep down the mice in the barns. Many
farm children, and farm families for that matter, were fond of them;
many a farmhouse in Vermont had a 'cat door' in its kitchen. To Calvin
they were real friends. His letters home from college in later years
contained comments or questions about the family cats almost as often
as any references to humans at the Notch. One of the stories of his
childhood involves his going to some trouble to save a litter of kitchens
from being drowned. He liked teasing cats, not like other boys, for the
amusement of his comrades, but for his own and, one could say, for
that of the cats. His attitude toward horses was quite similar. His
grandfather Coolidge, who died when he was six, had been a
horseman and stockbreeder, and had taught him to ride. He rode
horseback by himself a lot, because, as he put it 'a horse is good
company.'"

Now, as one might expect, Calvin often kept his emotions about such
"good company" to himself, often disguising his feelings with the most
mordant of comments—even in later life. Once Grace Coolidge
received a Maltese Angora cat from a friend. He persisted in calling
the creature"Mud,"—for, as he noted, "anyone can see that his name is
mud."  And although Grace would write "Mr. Coolidge and I are
particularly found of cats,"  her husband would take fiendish glee in
stashing an early family cat, "Bounder," in various unlikely places—
including the hall clock and the porch roof. "Sometimes," Grace once
recalled, "I would hear [Bounder's]  "Meow" in a tone that, being
interpreted, meant "Help," and I knew that his master had hidden him
in some outlandish place and I was expected to rescue him."

Yet it should not be construed that no emotional bonds developed
between the taciturn Mr. Coolidge and the family's felines—in fact,
author Ishbel Ross claimed he liked cats far more than did Mrs.
Coolidge. Miss Ross may have indeed been right. When Calvin took
office in the state legislature in 1907, the reigning household tabby,
Climber, missed his master so much "he pined away and died."

In the White House, the Coolidges again had cats, this time two kittens
named Tiger (or Tige) and Blacky. The President enjoyed walking
around the White House with Tige draped round his neck. On one
occasion, Tige provided the President with an opportunity to put an
oppressive guest in her place. Journalist John Lambert described the
occasion:

"A feminine guest at a White House luncheon had obviously sought this
opportunity to belabor her pet enemy. This enemy happened to be an
American ambassador who was understood by the Administration to
have performed meritorious service. But, according to the lady's
estimate, he was rough, uncouth, uncultured, and lacking in respect for
the customs, traditions, and ceremonials of the ancient court to which
he had been assigned.

"Tige, the old black cat that is almost a White House tradition, had
sauntered into the room and was lazily rubbing itself against the table
leg. The President turned to the person upon his right and said in a
voice that was quite audible to the shrewish woman upon his left,"That
is the third time that cat has stopped at this table."

The Coolidges had a green collar made for Tiger—a red one for
Blacky. On both collars were affixed engraved name plates reading
"The White House." Eventually, Tiger disappeared, and Mrs. Coolidge
theorized "perhaps, instead of safeguarding him with the collar, we had
made him a too attractive and tempting souvenir." Blacky, however,
remained at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, usually preferring to take his
chances in the kitchen rather than commune with the First Couple
upstairs.

There may been a reason beyond a sniffing around for snacks that
caused Blacky to avoid the President's quarters. Colonel Edmund
Starling, chief of the President's Secret Service detail, related that just
before Coolidge's inauguration in March 1925 he found Coolidge "in
the basement putting a black cat in a crate with a rooster, just to see
what would happen."

After the President's death, Grace had at least one more cat. We
know this because of a photo that remains of her bestowing awards to
a group of Eagle Scouts at her Northampton home. Her cat, a huge
white creature has draped itself on the shoulders of one scout"or
perhaps was placed there by the mischievous former First Lady.

"A Dog Is No Joke"

During Coolidge's 1920 vice-presidential campaign, his family
received a Belgian police dog, Judy the First. Initially the two Coolidge
boys—John and Calvin—attempted to send the dog to their paternal
grandfather up in Vermont, but Colonel Coolidge refused the honor—
which seemed to be just as well since the Coolidges were just as
pleased to have Judy the First remain with them. Just before the
election Calvin reported on the pooch to his father:

"Your dog is growing well. She has bitten the ice man, the milkman,
and the grocerman. It is good to have some way to get even with them
for the high prices they charge for everything."

A week and a half later, Calvin updated his father on events:

"I had a picture sent to you of your dog taken with Grace. You will
see she is a good dog. She has not bitten anyone lately so the trades
people still come to the house."

Judy the First, however, did not have staying power. A "nervous
disorder" laid her low, and the veterinarian had to put her away. "We
all felt very badly," wrote the new Vice-President.

A Bird in the Hand

When the Coolidges moved to Washington in the spring of 1921, they
resided not in a private residence but rather in the Willard Hotel at
1401 Pennsylvania Ave. Thus they had no room for such relatively
large pets as cats or dogs. So Grace resorted to whatever critters
came her way. "The members of Washington society were not the only
ones who partook of vice presidential hospitality," she once wrote:

"We were also at home to a family of mice, who had a private
entrance behind a large davenport placed across one corner of the
dining room, which served as a sitting room for we had our meals
downstairs in the main dining room. Seated at my desk one evening I
was suddenly aware that I had a visitor, who had arrived unannounced
and was sitting up looking me over as critically as any other guest who
had favored me with a call. Finding me amiable, he got down and
began an inspection of the place. I made no protest, sitting quite still
and allowing him to go about at his will. Having completed his tour of
investigation, he disappeared beneath the davenport, presumably to
report on his findings to his family, and I arose to do a little
investigating of my own, discovering that he had made his exit by way
of a small semicircular hole in the baseboard just above the concrete
flooring. On several succeeding evenings we were dining out, but on
the next evening which we spent at home my little visitor in gray was
back again and brought one of the children. In accordance with the
rules of hospitality I served tea. The larder afforded only pieces of dry
cracker, but these seemed to meet with approval and were quickly
nibbled away. From then on, Father Gray looked to me for daily food
for his family, consisting of himself and his wife and several children.
Mother Gray was a rather portly lady, and when she paid me a visit
she found the doorway a bit low and narrow, but she was resourceful
as well as plump, and she managed to enter by turning over on her
back, placing her feet against the baseboard and pushing herself
through. I brought all sorts of delicacies from the hotel table for the
delectation of these visitors of mine, and I firmly believe that I thus
acquired some friends in Washington who would have pronounced me
the perfect hostess. Their favorite form of amusement was to scramble
up the outside corners of the metal scrap basket and from the edge
jump into the wastepaper in the bottom, as I have seen boys climb to
the beams of a hayloft and jump into the hay. When all were buried in
the bottom I would tip over the container, and after they had run out,
set it up again, and they would repeat the performance. I think they
missed me when I had gone, and I often wonder how they fared.

"I saw them last in the spring of 1923. The short session of Congress
adjourned on the fourth of March and we went home. When we
returned unexpectedly in August, all was changed, and there was so
much hustle and bustle, so much moving about of busy feet, that the
shy little creatures dared not venture forth, even if they were there."

While the Coolidges resided at the Willard, a friend suggested to
Grace that she get a canary. Before that happened, however, Grace
and Cal moved into a semi-private house. The friend inquired as to
whether she still wanted a bird. "Yes," she replied, "two."  And so the
Coolidges became owners of their first two birds, Nip and Tuck, two
olive green canaries. Eventually they were followed by a white canary
(Snowflake), another canary (Peter Piper), a "yellow bird" (Goldy),
and a trush (Old Bill). When the Coolidges spent the summer in the
Adirondacks in 1926 four birds went along.

Also at home in the White House was an unnamed mockingbird. This
last bird caused a bit of problem for the First Lady, for she found out
that keeping mockingbirds in confinement in the District of Columbia
was punishable by a $5 fine and a month in jail. "I was reluctant to part
with my chorister," Grace revealed, "but I was even more averse to
embarrassing my country by the imprisonment of its First Lady."

"But the bird with character," wrote Ishbel Ross, "was Do-Funny, a
trained troupial from South America who sometimes lit on the
President's shoulder and tweaked his ear, or jabbered madly at Mrs.
Coolidge. He belonged to the oriole family and was about the size of a
crow, with vivid flashes of yellow and blue in his shiny dark plumes.
He was loud and raucous when annoyed, but . . . had a flutelike
whistle for Mrs. Coolidge. When let out of his cage he would eat from
her mouth and whistle. He liked to catch food or little wads of paper in
his bill. When she whistled to him from another room he delighted her
by answering."

Cal's Best Friends

The Coolidge White House also witnessed a virtual parade of canine
houseguests. First to arrive was Peter Pan, a wire-haired fox terrier.
Peter Pan, however, was too nervous to adjust to the hustle and bustle
of White House life and was soon departed for quieter quarters.

Before Peter Pan left, however, Paul Pry (the half-brother of Warren
Harding's famous airedale Laddy Boy) arrived. Paul Pry was yet
another problem for the First Couple. "He," Grace wrote to friends,"is
like some people, always keeping you guessing and always being
funny. True to his breeding he assumed charge over one individual,
that one in his case being me and he will not let my maid come into my
room to pick up my things if I am not there."  Before long he too
departed the scene.

Still more dogs came—and went. There was Tiny Tim, a red chow-
chow puppy who arrived in celebration of a presidential birthday. Tiny
Tim, never did warm in the slightest to the President—or vice versa—
and soon became known as Terrible Tim. Diana of Wildwood, a white
collie puppy first traveled to the White House via airplane and arrived
covered in a coat of dark black grease. She later became known as
Calamity Jane, a nickname that Mrs. Coolidge commented "seemed to
fit her well."

Grace and son John smuggled Blackberry, a black chow, along on the
summer 1927 presidential trip to the Black Hills. Blackberry eventually
became the property of John's "Certain Young Lady" (as Grace
termed his future bride).

Ruby Ruff, a brown and white collie, was literally left at the White
House door. King Cole, a black Belgian Gruenendahl, eventually was
farmed out to a schoolteacher. Beauty, yet another white collie, served
as the President's companion in retirement back in Northampton.

Palo, a black and white English Setter, was a bird dog. Coolidge gave
him to Colonel Starling, who in turn sent Palo to his Kentucky farm to
complete his training in birding.

The most famous of White House dogs, however, were the collies
Rob Roy and Prudence Prim.

They were a striking pair, made all the more noticeable by the baths of
blueing they underwent to provide an even greater gleam to their white
coats.

Prudence Prim took a particular shine to Mrs. Coolidge—and vice
versa. "I loved her well," said the First Lady. The two were
inseparable. Once Grace constructed a straw bonnet festooned with
ferns and green ribbons for the dog, who wore it quite proudly to a
White House garden party. Grace also had calling cards made up for
Prudence Prim and would leave them behind with her own when she
went a calling. When the dog died during the First Family's trip to the
Black Hills, Grace was grief-stricken. "Rob [Roy] and I shared a
common sorrow," she would write.

Rob Roy, the President's favorite, was a sheep-herding dog from
Wisconsin, and the transition to urban life in the District of Columbia
was quite a shock to his system. "I think he had never been in a house
very much . . . .," noted Mrs. Coolidge, "when I first took him into the
[White House] for the first time, he crouched in fear. The elevator he
regarded as an infernal contraption and lay on the floor of it with all
four legs spread out in an attempt to hang on."

Not helping Rob Roy was the presence of a rival in the household—a
Boston bulldog named Beans, who had determined that he was master
of the premises. When Rob Roy would attempt to exit the elevator on
the second floor, Beans would cow him back onto the "infernal
contraption." Grace eventually resolved the conflict by packing Beans
off to Northampton to reside with her mother and the Coolidge family
housekeeper.

Rob Roy eventually got the hang of elevators and the great indoors,
but like all dogs he preferred the pleasures of a walk on the boulevard.
Grace would perform the honors herself. It was not an easy task, as
Rob Roy would soon go into high gear, taking the First Lady along
with him.

"Why," noted one onlooker, "you almost expected her to break into a
race with the collie."

When the Coolidges took the collies to White Pine Camp in the
Adirondacks in 1926, the dogs loved their newfound freedom. But
they were no more well-behaved than at home. The camp's caretaker
had to fix up a wire fence to protect the garbage cans from the visiting
canines.
Observed one member of the Coolidge domestic staff: "Dogs love
garbage cans it seems regardless of their rank."

"Rob Roy was a wild one," noted White House kennel master Harry
Waters, "He would dig into me, but she [Grace] had no fear of him.
Sightseers were sometimes more interested in the dogs than they were
in the White House." Rob Roy was particularly attracted to pursuing
the squirrels on the White House grounds, only desisting after a "sharp
reprimand" from his Master.

Rob Roy made other White House personnel besides Harry Waters
nervous. One wintry day, some men were shoveling the snow from the
White House walks. Colonel Starling, told the story:

"He [Coolidge] saw Rob Roy . . . being friendly with an old negro
who was shovelling one of the paths. The negro was afraid of the dogs.

"'Will he bite?' he asked the President as we came by.

"'Oh, yes," [Coolidge] said. 'He's a very vicious dog. But he's a
peculiar biter. He only bites lazy men. As long as you keep working he
won't bother you.'

"When we got to the house, he stood inside the door and gleefully
spied on the negro, who shovelled furiously, while Rob Roy, who was
interested in the procedure, sat on his haunches and watched."

As was often the case, Silent Cal chose to hide his true feelings about
Rob Roy and Prudence Prim. To Harry Waters he would snap, "You
can lose them one of these days if you want to."  Waters was never
sure if he was kidding or not.

He was. The President was actually quite taken by them and was
particularly fond of Rob Roy (referred to in Coolidge's
Autobiography as "my companion."), who he would take to his office
each afternoon and to his weekly press conferences each Friday.
Grace Coolidge recorded that Rob Roy took a "vocal" part in those
proceedings.

When Rob Roy developed a stomach ailment in September 1928, the
Coolidges had him sent to Walter Reade Army hospital for treatment.
"The doctor thought he would come through OK," wrote Grace to a
friend, but the operation was not a success. "My poor doggie died this
morning before I reached home," the President wrote, "He was still at
Walter Reade."

Calvin even wrote of Rob Roy in his
Autobiography: "He was a
stately companion of great courage and fidelity. He loved to bark from
the second-story windows and around the South Grounds. Nights he
remained in my room and afternoons went with me to the office. His
especial delight was to ride with me in the boats when I went fishing.
So although I know he would bark for joy as the grim boatman ferried
him across the dark waters of the Styx, yet his going left me lonely on
the hither shore."

The President also saw to it that his canine friends received their fair
share of the federal larder—perhaps more than their fair share. "Well,
they was feeding the dogs so much," White House guest Will Rogers
once observed, "that at one time it looked to me like the dogs was
getting more than I was. I come pretty near getting down on my all
fours and barking to see if business wouldn't pick up with me."

According to White House usher Ike Hoover, Grace Coolidge could
whistle quite well, although Calvin could not. To summon the family
canines the President would use a tin whistle, but one evening he had
neglected to bring it with him and was having trouble trying to whistle
on his own. "What's the matter, poppa;" Grace asked slyly, "don't
your teeth fit tonight?"

The most famous portrait of Grace Coolidge is that painted by
Howard Chandler Christy and featuring not just the First Lady but also
Rob Roy. When Mrs. Coolidge donned a red dress so she might
contrast with the pure white Rob Roy, the President impishly
suggested that she wear a white dress and dye the dog red.

Despite the fact that the dog was not dyed crimson, Coolidge enjoyed
the portrait so much that he had a photograph made of it and had
copies sent to his friends—including a copy to the man who had given
him the animal. The man wired back: "Fine picture of dog. Send more
photographs."

The Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo

And then there were the exotic animals. To an old Northampton
friend, Alfred Pearce Dennis, Coolidge once wrote: "I'd like to have
your two boys come to the White House to see the animals. We've
got a bunch of young rabbits that might interest them. Kind people
send us animals, puppies, kittens, queer animals sometimes—wombats
and such."

As usual, Silent Cal was not overstating the case. All sorts of animals
found their way to the Coolidges during their Washington years. In his
Autobiography Calvin observed:

"A great many presents come to the White House which are all
cherished, not so much for their intrinsic value as because they are
tokens of esteem and affection. Almost everything that can be eaten
comes. We always know what to do with that. But some of the pets
that are offered us are more of a problem. I have a beautiful black-
haired bear that was brought all the way from Mexico in a truck, and a
pair of live lion cubs now grown up, and a small species of
hippopotamus which came from South Africa. These and other
animals and birds have been placed in the zoological quarters in Rock
Creek Park."

The lion cubs—by the way—were named Tax Reduction and Budget
Bureau.

There were others—a wallaby from Australia, a duikir (a small deer)
from Africa, and thirteen Pekin duck hatchlings.

Sometimes critters arrived not as pets, but rather as what the President
had referred to as what "can be eaten."

"One day," Colonel Starling recalled, "a friend sent me two rock bass,
still alive, which he had caught on a fishing trip to Gunston Pass, down
the Potomac. I sent them up to the President, thinking they would stir
his interest. I expected him to send them to the kitchen to have them
served for supper. The next morning he said to me:

"'I put my little fishes in my bathtub and they swam around all night.
One of them hopped out while I was asleep and Mrs. Coolidge had to
come and pick him up in a newspaper and put him back.'

"I was pretty sure that he was not asleep when the fish awakened Mrs.
Coolidge with its flip-flopping. He probably opened the door between
their rooms so she could hear it and then played possum."

And, of course, there was Rebecca the raccoon. Rebecca also arrived
as what "can be eaten." Sent from Peru, Mississippi, she was to have
part of a Thanksgiving White House feast, but the Coolidges found her
to be almost entirely domesticated and rather too pleasant to be
sauteed. "We . . . had a house made for her in one of the large trees,"
wrote Grace, "with a wire fence built around it for protection. We kept
her chained when out of doors, but in the house she had her liberty.
She was a mischievous, inquisitive party and we had to keep watch of
her when she was in the house. She enjoyed nothing better than being
placed in a bathtub with a little water in it and given a cake of soap
with which to play. In this fashion she would amuse herself for an hour
or more."

Rebecca would take her meals on the tiled floor of her mistress'
bathroom. While most Americans of the time were dining on relatively
simple gastronomic fare, Rebecca seemed a veritable gourmet. Her
fare consisted of green shrimp, chicken, persimmon, eggs (a particular
favorite), and cream.

So pleased was the President with Rebecca (though he persisted in
calling her a 'he"), that he announced her arrival to the press in one of
his regular press conferences. A reporter wanted to know if the beast
was edible. "That depends on your taste," Cal replied, "I haven't much
of a taste for raccoon meat. Some people like it very much. But I have
established him here in the south lot in suitable housing and he seems
to be enjoying himself very much. . . . I don't think he is quite grown
yet. He is very playful, very interesting, and seems very well trained
and well behaved." At that point the coon had not yet been named and
Coolidge asked the press to "advertise" for one.

Some reports had the President walking Rebecca around the house on
a leash. Whether that is so or not, it is true that he would often play
with the raccoon after his afternoon paperwork was done—and as in
the case of Tige the cat—walk about with Rebecca draped around his
neck. The majority of the White House staff disliked the raccoon (she
was always tearing clothes and ripping silk stockings). As usual the
President saw a chance for his brand of humor. Once when Rebecca
had scampered up Mrs. Coolidge's social secretary, Mary Randolph,
Calvin teased the nervous Miss Randolph: "I think that little coon could
bite if she had a mind too."

A few times Rebecca escaped from the grounds, but each time was
recaptured. The Coolidges, fearing she would be run over in the street
on one last jaunt, turned her over to the Rock Creek Zoo for her own
safety. Grace and Cal, however, still were concerned regarding her
happiness and prevailed upon zoo officials to secure some
companionship for her. That came in the form of a male raccoon
dubbed Reuben. That matchmaking failed as Reuben eventually
escaped from the zoo, leaving Rebecca to live a solitary life.

As for the Coolidges they considered living without a creature or two
or three tramping or flying about the house, to be an unsatisfactory,
solitary life. "I am unable to understand," Grace Coolidge once wrote,
"how anyone can get along without some sort of pet—a statement I
can only agree with.
"Any man who does not
like dogs and want them
about," Calvin Coolidge
once observed, "does not
deserve to be in the
White House."
Portrait of Grace Coolidge with Rob Roy