Her Tales of White House Life Head for Tv, but Lillian Parks Knows How to Keep a Secret
When her mother, Maggie Rogers, took a job as a White House maid in 1909, little Lillian came along. One of her earliest memories is of being given a bit of caramel-coated ice cream that President William Howard Taft had returned to the kitchen. "Poor Mrs. Taft," Lillian recalls. "She was always trying to keep his weight down. A special bathtub had to be installed in the White House because the President would get stuck in a normal tub and it would take two men to pull him out."
Lillian's mother toiled on at the White House through five administrations and took sewing home to her daughter, plus gentle observations about all the first families. Though Coolidge was known as a pinchpenny, Lillian was told, he was Diamond Cal when it came to clothing his wife. "If the President saw his wife in a dress for the second time," she says, "he would say, 'Mother, haven't I seen that dress before?' So Mrs. Coolidge would wear it one time and give it to my mother." Mrs. Parks (married in 1935; divorced without children 10 years later) wore one such castoff for years before turning it over to the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1929 Mrs. Herbert Hoover ("He never spoke to the staff") brought Lillian back to the White House for $48 a month. Lillian tactfully refuses to name her favorite President, though she admits she felt a "special kinship" with FDR. Like Roosevelt, the 4'10" Mrs. Parks was partially crippled by polio. "He always called me 'Little Girl,' " she says, "and he made me use the presidential elevator between floors." In those days, Winston Churchill was a frequent White House visitor. "He would parade down the hall to see the President wearing a towel," says Mrs. Parks. "I always thought he had a face like a baby. He would wheel the President all around, and they would argue and argue."
Mrs. Parks retired in early 1960, and her memoir was published the following year. Appalled by the implied threat to her own privacy, Jacqueline Kennedy made her entire staff swear never to write about life in the White House. Not everyone, Jackie must have realized, would be as discreet as Lillian. "I never revealed any bad things," Mrs. Parks points out. "My mother always told me to be a lady."