A Colorful History of Cats in the White House – Smithsonian MagazinePets
History of Now
Willow Biden isn’t the first feline to grace the presidential residence’s halls
In Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno”—literature’s most famous paean to a cat written by a man confined in an asylum with said cat—the poet wrote of his feline friend that “every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.” (Cats are boon companions in periods of extended isolation, as nearly 32 million households across the United States discovered in the pandemic era.) When Jill Biden told a reporter in September 2020 that she’d “love to get a cat” if her husband won the presidential election, Americans related; the soon-to-be first lady consigned Biden spokespeople to more than a year of cat enthusiasts’ laser-pointer focus.
The evening before the 2020 election, at a campaign rally on Rick Telesz’s Pennsylvania farm, a grey and white short-haired tabby leapt onto the stage and “pranced in front of [Biden],” Telesz told the Erie News-Times. “[Biden] was speaking and she stopped [and] acknowledged the cat, but the cat continued to walk down and jumped and sat on a chair in the front row, right in front of her,” Telesz said. Willow Biden (née Telesz) moved into the White House last week, and Joe Biden became the 11th president to share 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with a cat. (Willow left the Telesz farm in February of 2021, but as Jill told the New York Times, she lived with a foster family while the Bidens tackled Major the German Shepherd’s biting issues.)
Though Abraham Lincoln was the first president to keep cats as pets—Secretary of State William Seward gifted him two kittens he named Tabby and Dixie—Andrew Hager, historian-in-residence at the Presidential Pet Museum, believes that the first cats to pad through the White House were likely nameless. “There were probably cats on the grounds beforehand because that’s how people took care of rodent problems in food storage areas in the mid-19th century,” says Hager, who also authored All-American Dogs, a history of White House canines.
Lincoln’s love of felines, however, was legendary. Literally. Hager’s favorite potentially apocryphal tale of those days: “Supposedly he was feeding a cat from a plate and Mary Lincoln said, ‘You know, that’s not really respectful, this is a very proper house and seat of government and you shouldn’t feed the cats from the dishes.’ [In response,] Lincoln said, ‘Well if it was good enough for James Buchanan it’s good enough for this cat,’ which I think is a sick burn.’” In anecdotes more firmly in the historical record, when asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary simply responded “cats.” “I have seen him fondle one for an hour,” wrote Maunsell B. Field, assistant secretary of the treasury.
In 1878, after reading that Rutherford B. Hayes’ wife, Lucy, was fond of cats, David B. Sickels of the U.S. consulate in Bangkok sent the first lady what he believed to be the first Siamese to reach America. The “mahogany-colored” Siam arrived in 1879 and was a favorite pet for the better part of a year, but as L.A. Vocelle recounts in Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat, a sudden and mysterious illness felled Siam that September. Hayes’ personal physician treated her with fish, chicken, duck, cream, oysters, or alternating servings of beef tea and milk every three hours but failed to nurse the cat back to health.
After Siam died, the president’s assistant forwarded her remains to the Department of Agriculture to be preserved for posterity. Tragedy struck again when Siam’s corpse was misplaced, and despite searches of both the Department of Agriculture’s and the Smithsonian Institution’s collections, it was never found. Today, the Hayes presidential library sells (plush) stuffed cats.
In the generations to follow, multiple presidents enjoyed feline companionship, including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy. But the next cat who became a true sensation was nearly a century after Hayes when Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, moved to the White House with Shan, a miniature seal point Siamese who was known to be fond of hiding under furniture in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Shan was supposed to appear in First Lady Betty Ford’s official portrait by John Ulbricht in 1974, “but the cat was nervous that day and not in a mood to be handled, having bitten [Mrs. Ford’s secretary] Nancy Howe’s finger so deeply she had to have it operated on,” according to the Washington Star-News. Shan, in turn, suffered for that bite in the Star-News’ coverage: “Anyhow, says David Scott of the National Gallery of Art, the artist may have ruled out the cat for an official portrait because cats suggest domesticity. Dogs, on the other hand, have always been used to suggest aristocracy. The dog in Mrs. [Grace] Coolidge’s official portrait adds a certain éclat.” (Per First Daughter Margaret Truman’s dishy volume of White House history, Grace, wife of Calvin Coolidge, fed her dog candy to inspire its adoring gaze in their portrait sessions.)
Shan ceded the presidential residence to Amy Carter’s Misty Malarky Ying Yang, a devoted male Siamese who later lent his name to a 1977 disco-adjacent jazz composition by Hungarian guitarist Gábor Szabó. Misty was the last White House cat until Socks joined the Clintons; she was, however, the first White House cat to be printed on leotards for an interpretive dance and recitation of President Carter’s “Malaise Speech” performed on New York City’s High Line in 2014.
Socks Clinton, an affable former stray with tuxedo coloring who “chose” his family by leaping into Chelsea Clinton’s arms as a kitten, might be Willow Biden’s spiritual predecessor. Press photographers baited him with catnip and held him aloft (which earned them a swift rebuke from the Clintons’ staff: “Special note to all press from the highest authority: don’t touch the cat again.”). He made himself at home on Bill Clinton’s shoulder, behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, and atop the podium in the White House briefing room. He was also helpful as an apt ambassador to young Americans. As First Lady Hillary Clinton wrote in the foreword to Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets, “Establishing a connection with the First Pets is often a child’s earliest encounter with the White House, the office of the President, or even the workings of the government.”
Hager thinks along the same lines: “I was 9 years old when [Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush] came out, and it was my introduction to thinking about the president as more than just a symbol like the Statue of Liberty or the Capitol Dome. It made the president more of an actual tangible human being for me. And I think that that’s probably one of the key reasons why presidential pets are important.”
When Socks left the White House in 2001, India, a black cat owned by the Bush family, moved in. Though she lived in the residence for all but the last few weeks of the Bush presidency, dying in January 2009, India kept a lower profile, leaving the limelight for the better-known Scottish terriers Barney and Miss Beazly.
As the latest presidential cat, Willow Biden can be a standard-bearer for her own species. In the mind of veterinary behaviorist Wailani Sung, director of behavior and welfare programs at the San Francisco SPCA, “[Having a pet cat in the White House] elevates the status of cats in the public’s eye. Cats in U.S. shelters are 2 [to] 3 times more likely to be euthanized compared to dogs.”
How does one acclimate a former barn cat to the ultimate panopticon? Happily, predicts Sung. “The following few weeks will include slow introductions to Commander, her new canine housemate, and allowing her to explore whichever parts of the White House she is allowed,” Sung says. “It is also important at this time to establish a routine for Willow and to clearly designate some rooms and spaces she can call her own. It is especially important to provide her different places where her litter boxes can be placed. In a house [that] big, she will need multiple litter boxes strategically placed so that she can use them whenever the urge strikes her.”
That said, one mustn’t neglect social media’s care and feeding. “My hope is that [members of the public] follow Willow’s adventures, fall in love with her, then go out and adopt one or two cats of their own and start their own love story,” says Sung. “I cannot imagine my own life without a cat in it.”
Lauren Oster is a writer in New York City.