Our 36th President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, had a bunch of nicknames. Most were not flattering; some aren’t repeatable. Right from the jump, he stormed around the White House shutting off unnecessary lights and quickly earned the moniker “Light Bulb Lyndon.” What can I say? He was frugal. And he was serious. One night, one of his aids left the press office to pick up a sandwich. When he returned, a Secret Service agent advised, “Hey don’t go in there. LBJ is sitting at your desk waiting to find out who left the light on.” The aide made a quick “about face” and took a cab home.
The larger-than-life Lyndon was “a tornado in pants”. He got what he wanted–not just in the Oval Office, but in the White House kitchen, too. During the Kennedy Administration, the late French Chef Rene Verdon single-handedly elevated the cuisine to Camelot status. As proof, for the Executive Chef’s state-luncheon debut, he served the British Prime Minister and guests trout cooked in Chablis, a roast fillet of beef au jus, artichoke bottoms, and désir d’avril (April Desire), a raspberry and chocolate-filled meringue shell.
Well, when LBJ inherited the Presidency, he also inherited Verdon. Since the new commander in chief was a chicken-fried-steak-canned-peas-and-tapioca-pudding-type-of-guy, the two were a culinary clash from the start. The chef despised the Texas-inspired menus the Johnsons preferred, and LBJ was fed up with “fussy French food.” Plus, there was the matter of thrift. Early in his presidency, LBJ even hired a “food coordinator” to crunch the grocery budget. When the coordinator suggested swapping out fresh vegetables for frozen, the chef nearly boiled over.
The final standoff came two years later when the Chef Vernon served a cold garbanzo bean puree. He was out. Zephyr Wright, the Johnson’s family cook of 21 years, was in. And barbecue was now on the White House menu.
Now I’m sure LBJ’s rages about electricity and entrees had a lot to do with letting people know who was in charge. To him, the days of Camelot were over. He wanted his administration to reflect his ideals, values and vision for America. But he really was frugal to the bone. Ladybird had a $2.50 engagement ring from Sears, Roebuck to prove it.
For over 100 years, the Falmouth Historical Society’s leaders have also been famously frugal. This administration has been no exception. While we always try to be proactive and progressive, we also put the emphasis on practical and pragmatic. And as we begin to emerge from a very bleak time in the Museums’ history, American history, global history, we’ve certainly benefitted from this practice…and, of course, your ongoing support.
I’m happy to say we will finally open our doors again with a “soft launch” on Saturdays in May. “The First Thanksgiving-1621” is the inaugural exhibit in the new Dr. Francis Wicks Gallery, and Falmouth Artist and friend Karen Rinaldo will give a weekly presentation about her painting.
LBJ had some notable contributions to his 1964 presidential campaign. One was from a nine-year-old supporter who wrote:
“Dear Mr. President. A few weeks ago, my cousin and I had a puppet show. We charged two cents for admission. Lots of people came. We earned sixty-two cents. Here it is for your campaign.”
LBJ not only wrote back. He also turned the contribution over to the Democratic National Committee to handle like any other donation.
Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) was the first president to have electricity in the White House. He was so scared of being electrocuted that he refused to touch the light switches and was known to go to bed with all the lights on! If LBJ had been around, Ben would surely be sitting in the dark.
Also, to reconnect with the community, we will host an Open House on May 17 as part of the Cape Cod Museum Trail’s new “Museum Mondays” initiative. We hope to open the campus fully and regularly in July.
I can’t wait to see you in person again. I hope to see you often. We’ll share some more good times and good ‘ol store bought cookies. And, remember, if you’re the last one to leave, don’t leave the lights on.
Hooray Vesta Stout
Originally Published February 4, 2021
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