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