"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
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
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
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
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
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-
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
The lion cubs—by the way—were named Tax Reduction and
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
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
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
observed, "does not
deserve to be in the