‘My First Ladies’: a White House Retrospective With a Twist

October 4, 2012

Every First Lady leaves her mark on the pop culture pantheon. Jackie Kennedy was famous for her smart suits and pillbox hats; Nancy Reagan made red her signature color; Barbara Bush never seemed to go anywhere without three strands of pearls at her neck; Hillary Clinton was known to prefer masculine cuts in her suiting offset by bright, bold colors; and Michelle Obama, considered one of the most stylish First Ladies in decades, has modeled a parade of classic, tailored, feminine skirts and dresses in the course of her duties. By the same token, every First Lady must instill her sense of style in the White House and the surrounding environs. You might not think much about what goes into being a First Lady, beyond championing charitable causes and standing by the President’s side, but a lot goes on behind the scenes that the average person never sees. Nancy Clarke, on the other hand, survived six administrations in the White House as the Chief Floral Designer. She saw First Ladies come and go, and helped each to create her own signature style through flowers.

Clarke covers her tenure in the White House in the audio book ‘My First Ladies: Twenty-Five Years as the White House Chief Floral Designer’ with humor and grace. Those seeking a tawdry tell-all should hold out for Monica Lewinsky’s rumored release because they won’t find anything so shocking or gauche in Clarke’s recounting. But if you happen to be looking for an insider’s account of some of the unseen inner workings of the White House, from a totally female perspective, then this is the audio book you’ve been waiting for. From Rosalyn Carter through to Michelle Obama, Clarke worked hand-in-hand with our nation’s First Ladies to plan events. And while putting together a unified décor for state dinners might not sound terribly riveting, what is interesting is the ways in which these influential women saw to the details of such events and how their personalities shone through in the floral arrangements they chose to feature.

Of course, Clarke does touch on some of the scandals and major happenings in the White House during her time there. She notes, for example, that Hillary performed bravely in the face of her husband’s adultery scandal. And she talks about what it was like to be present in the White House following the 9/11 attacks. But where the story gets interesting is when she starts discussing the personal relationships she formed with the First Ladies and how she helped each of them to develop their decorative style through the floral arrangements they chose for everything from dinners in the White House for foreign diplomats, to family weddings, to holiday events at Camp David.

Clarke is of the rare breed of insider that doesn’t seem to be looking to trade on gossip in order to make a quick buck. She simply wants to share her experiences with listeners as a way to enrich the public portrait that these select women created during their time in the White House. While decorating enthusiasts will find a lot to love in her detailed accounts of floral arrangements, this is not a “how to” for those that would like to copycat (anyone seeking advice on table settings and water features should look elsewhere). But for those that want to peek behind the curtain and see what a few famous and influential women were up to while their husbands sat in the oval office, this audio book is fun and often touching look at the private lives of First Ladies.

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