One maître d’duty is to plan White House dinners—usually, as this photo with Rosalynn Carter shows, with the First Lady. The President most interested in menus in Ficklin’s time was Dwight Eisenhower, who cooked, chiefly soups, and grilled on the roof. According to Ficklin, he even suggested dinner wines.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the White House’s daunting formality, its transitory occupants form intimate bonds with the staff. Here Gerald Ford takes a moment with Ficklin under a portrait of Harry Truman, himself remembered as the most down-to-earth of the Presidents Ficklin worked for. When Ficklin’s brother Charles—his predecessor as maître d’—fell ill with pneumonia, Truman came alone to visit him in his hospital room.
The well-to-do President John F. Kennedy was used to domestic help but made little attempt to learn the service staff’s names, until Dwight Eisenhower came for a post-election lunch and addressed them by their first names. The Kennedy/Ficklin friendship grew in the First Family’s short tenure, enough that after JFK’s assassination, Jackie asked Ficklin to be an usher at the funeral, along with her stepfather and stepbrother, Hugh Auchincloss and Hugh Auchincloss Jr.
State dinners were highlights of the White House year, especially those not held at the mansion. One of the most memorable was a dinner the Kennedys hosted for Pakistani president Ayub Khan at Mount Vernon. The food was transported in field-kitchen vehicles as guests were ferried by boat down the Potomac River.
Ficklin, seated, with his staff. Eugene Allen, the inspiration for the recent movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler, is second from right.
Ficklin oversaw three White House weddings—Tricia Nixon’s to Edward Cox, Luci Baines Johnson’s to Patrick Nugent, and Lynda Bird Johnson’s to Charles Robb. President Lyndon Johnson butted into the cutting of the cake at Luci’s reception, Ficklin recalled, and tried slicing a cardboard piece propping up the multilayered concoction.
“Rosalynn and I want you and your fine staff to know we appreciate all your efforts. . . . Everything was perfect and we are grateful.” —President Jimmy Carter to John Ficklin