Friday, December 28, 2012

My First Ladies - Nancy Clarke

Kevin is always amazed when I finish a book in less than twenty-four hours, as I did with this one.  Yet, when several of those hours are spent on public transportation trying to make it into a city crowded with post-holiday shoppers and a few more of those hours are spent laying in bed blissfully knowing you have no where to be because you are on Christmas vacation...well, what does he expect?  If my iPod had not died on the train on the way home, I would have finished this fun, light-hearted memoir in less than twelve hours.

My First Ladies made its way onto my iPod at the last minute before we hit the road for the big city with Kevin's family.  I knew I would need something to read en route and when this popped up on our library's digital loan website, I went immediately for the download button.  You may remember from earlier this year that the goings on inside the White House are fascinating to me.  Ever since I did a project on that famous house in elementary school (for the record, the Styrofoam White House my mom I made was way better than the sugar cube White House my classmate made), I have been entranced by its history and the stories of those within its walls.  

Nancy Clarke spent nearly thirty years within those walls and her work in the White House flower shop spanned six administrations.  Twenty-five of those years were spent as the Chief Floral Designer, heading up a full-time team of four, including Clarke, and a part-time and volunteer team of dozens.  Now, you may think this seems a large number simply to manage flowers at the White House.  Clarke, however, more than justifies her extensive staff in her descriptions of the work.  In fact, one could probably argue they are understaffed for the amount of work they do.  Clarke and her team hold the responsibilities for maintaining fresh flowers in rooms all around the White House complex, decor for all White House events, and the oversight of the famous Christmas decorations.  I found her responsibilities to be fascinating - everything from replacing drooping flowers in an arrangement in the Residence to creating sample table settings (china, tablecloths, and centerpieces) for the First Lady to approve.  Clarke's behind the scenes tales gave me an entirely new perspective on decor.  In fact, as Kevin and I were watching television last night, I noticed the flower arrangements in the background of an office scene and immediately wondered about the set designer who put them there.

The subject resonated with me particularly because of our wedding this year.  I spent a good deal of time this spring researching flowers, looking at arrangements, and discussing it all with our florist.  While I adore fresh flowers, I had not spent much time observing different types before the wedding plans.  I loved reading Clarke's memoir and learning more about various flowers and the ways she chose what to put in each room or on each table.  The work behind the Christmas decorations also amazes.  The White House staff begins preparations in February for the upcoming year.  The year Barbara Bush requested a needlepoint theme, work began nearly two years in advance, due to the detail needed in each piece.

In addition to fascinating information regarding flowers and decoration, Clarke regales readers with wonderful stories of each of the first ladies for whom she worked.  After a chapter which briefly summarizes Clarke's life before the White House and  her career path to the White House, Clarke breaks the memoir into sections describing her time with each First Lady from Rosalynn Carter to Michelle Obama.  Clarke is nothing but flattering.  While I have no doubt she conflicted with some of these women at times, she focuses on their positive qualities and speaks highly of each of them.  She does not play favorites or deal in gossip.  Rather, her book speaks professionally and familiarly of some of the most famous women in recent history.  Her anecdotal stories are charming and funny.  While I do not envy her rigorous work schedule, Clarke's opportunity to live so close to so much history in the making does create sparks of the deadly sin in me.  

For anyone who loves flowers and/or White House history, this book should make your reading list.  It is an easy, quick read and extremely enjoyable.  In fact, ducking into this genre of history has once again sparked my interest and inspired me to add a plethora of similar books to my On Reserve list, both about White House life and life with the royals.  

Have you read a behind-the-scenes book?  Did it change your view of the subject?  Do you enjoy knowing what happens behind the scenes or do you prefer to just enjoy the magic?

Pages: 272
Date Completed: December 28, 2012

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