News & Politics

On an Official Visit to DC, Margaret Thatcher Sought a Hairdresser and New Towels

Former White House social secretary Gahl Burt recalls the adventures.

Photograph of Thatcher and Reagan via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s no doubt that Washington is experiencing a rush of sentimentality as the news
spreads of the death of former British prime minister
Margaret Thatcher. At times in the 1980s it seemed she was as much a part of this side of the pond
as the other, since she visited so often and intersected with so many Washingtonians.
One of them was
Gahl Burt, who met her first when she was deputy chief of protocol and then again as White
House social secretary for
President and Mrs. Reagan, a period of time that spanned most of the ’80s. Burt’s memories are interesting
and often amusing, and while they largely have to do with important matters of state
they also include hairdressers, towels, and whiskey.

On Monday, when news broke that Thatcher had died in London at the age of 87, we reached
out to Burt, who was on a trip to New York and called us back between appointments.
“What I remember best about her,” Burt says of Thatcher, “was she was incredibly tough
but at the same time incredibly feminine.” She was the first head of state to pay
an official visit to Reagan, making the trip soon after his inauguration. “One of
the first things she asked for was a hairdresser.” Burt can’t remember the hairdresser’s
name at this point, because he’s long gone, but whoever it was had a salon near the
Madison Hotel.

During the visit, as on other visits, Thatcher resided at Blair House with her husband
and daughter. “She was very concerned about her husband, making sure
Dennis had a good time. He was a groundbreaker in that he was the spouse and a man. We organized
golf for him.”

On the other hand, Thatcher had a project for her daughter,
Carol. “She instructed her to go out and buy towels for number 10 [Downing Street]. She
thought the quality of the towels at number 10 were not very good.” So off Burt went
with Carol Thatcher to buy towels for the British prime minister’s official residence.

Burt says the Reagans and the Thatchers were good friends as a foursome, but the President
and the Prime Minister had a particular affection for each other. “It was a very warm,
almost jokingly friendly, kind of relationship. They connected through limericks.
Ronald Reagan was very well read, and because he was Irish he had all these great
limericks he would throw out. She howled with laughter. They became ‘Ronnie’ and ‘Maggie’
very quickly.”

Later, after both Reagan and Thatcher had left their jobs as head of state, Burt would
see Thatcher at the Palm Springs home of
Walter Annenberg, a close friend of Reagan’s. “She loved her whiskey neat, and she could stay up until
2 or 3 in the morning talking about the global economy, talking about Europe.”

While Burt considers the biographical movie
The Iron Lady “unfortunate” because she felt it focused “too much on her dementia rather than her
life,” she did have praise for Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher. “Streep knew
Thatcher had gotten elocution lessons so she could finish an entire thought in one
breath” so the men could not jump in and interrupt her in political debate. “She captured
her tone of voice. She even captured her cadence.”

Later Monday, Nancy Reagan issued a statement from her office: “It is well known that
my husband and Lady Thatcher enjoyed a very special relationship as leaders of their
respective countries during one of the most difficult and pivotal periods in modern
history. Ronnie and Margaret were political soul mates, committed to freedom and resolved
to end Communism. Ronnie and I knew her as a dear and trusted friend, and I will miss
her. The United States knew Margaret as a spirited and courageous ally, and the world
owes her a debt of gratitude.”