Tales about wagging White House tails
Claire McLean sat pondering the gem of her collection — a portrait of Ronald Reagan's dog Lucky made from Lucky's actual hair — and finally acknowledged a painful reality: The world is just not that into the Presidential Pet Museum.
After more than 15 up-and-down years and iffy stints in three locations, the former White House dog groomer is giving up on the ultimate of pet projects. Up for sale goes the 83-year-old's unparalleled collection of Oval Office Animalia, along with a website, PresidentialPetMuseum.com, that details every companion-in-chief going back to George Washington's hound Sweet Lips.
You can bid on it all on the auction website Flippa.com: the Taft-era bell worn by the last cow to graze on the South Lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the bronzed Barney (Scottish terrier, G.W. Bush administration); the hair-isimilitude paintings of Lucky, Barney and Miss Beazley (also Bush) featuring certified clippings from their respective coats.
But you have to buy it all together. She and her partner hope to get $30,000. They'll take less. A lot less.
"I just can't break it up. That would be like breaking up the Beatles," said McLean with a laugh, sitting amid her late-life's work in a cluttered assisted-living apartment in Northwest Washington. She wields a cane after recent back surgery, but she speaks fast and loud, laughs a lot and smiles more.
With a tentative knock, two more visitors came through the open door, squeezing past the prez-pet themed paintings leaning against the furniture. In one, the Obama children play with an imagined White House bestiary in the East Wing.
Most of the collection was already packed away in her Dodge Caravan, ready to roll to its next home. But for one last day, she had pulled out a few treasures and opened her room as pop-up pet museum for her fellow residents at the Knollwood Military Retirement Residence.
"Hello boy," said Paul Darnauer, leaning over to pat the head of life-size, 82-pound cast Barney while his own tiny lapdog sniffed the stolid bronze ball. People in Knollwood love dogs.
None more than McLean, the widow of Air Force officer who once ran a kennel and bred hundreds of Bouvier des Flandres for sale and show. (A crystal dog show trophy on her dresser reads "Open Bitch, April 20, 2001.") In the mid-1980s, she got a call from White House horticulturalist Dale Haney, a keeper of presidential pets since the days of Gerald Ford's golden retriever, Liberty. The Reagans needed a trim for their Bouvier, Lucky, and McLean was the expert.
She first cut the dog's hair at her home in Lothian, Md. A few months later, she trimmed him again in a White House garden shed. For eight glorious months, she was the bespoke dog groomer to the first family.
"I was on top of the world until they sent Lucky back to the ranch in California," McLean said.
But she was left with a bag full of First Fur. Her mother painted a portrait of the dog, pasting Lucky's own locks all over it. Entranced, McLean, then in her 60s, began scouring antique stores for presidential pet stuff, mainly photographs and portraits: of FDR's long-serving Scottie Fala, of Caroline Kennedy's pony Macaroni, of the mini-zoo that was Teddy Roosevelt's White House (Rollo the Saint Bernard, Emily Spinach the garter snake, Eli Yale the hyacinth macaw along with assorted flying squirrels, kangaroo rats and a Badger named Josiah).
Mostly, she collected what she still loves best about presidential pets: the stories. At her sister's suggestion, she laid out her collection in a barn at her home, where she would regale a trickle of roadside curiosity fans with White House tales of White House tails. A pet museum was born, and she found a new career as a, ahem, cur-ator.
"They just loved to hear about Lyndon Johnson holding his beagle by the ears and how much hot water he got into for that," said McLean, who once wrote the introduction for a book published by the Associated Press called "First Pets."
"I'd tell them who rode the polo pony and who had the greyhound that was hit by a train. That was . ..." Her voiced trailed with a frustrated look. "I'm getting too old to remember everything, and I don't like to make things up."
McLean made a modest go of it for years. She started the website in 1999. She moved the museum to a plum spot on Annapolis's antiques row and had hundreds of visitors a week. In 2008, she relocated to Presidents Park near Williamsburg, Va., a collection of colossal Easter Island-style busts of 42 presidents.
She got plenty of attention, from newspapers, morning shows, Animal Planet and any reporter or researcher looking for an authority on Millard Fillmore's ponies Mason and Dixon.
"We had a lot of fun, but we never made enough money," McLean laments, laughing. "I have no business running a business."
After Presidents Park went under, McLean found interested suitors in some obvious places, the Humane Society of the United States and the American Kennel Club and a national pet supply retailer among them. But all of them wanted the collection to come with its own funding for upkeep, she said. When a deal fell through to move it to a pet resort in Glen Allen, Va., McLean packed it up.
She sold the website to David Baker, a New York-based editor who updated the technology and added new content.
"I would take over the whole thing, but my wife would kill me," Baker said. But he's gotten deep in the archives, recently unearthing stories of James Garfield's Veto, the Newfoundland that once barked the alarm in a barn fire.
Soon after McLean's February move Knollwood, the pair decided it was a good time to put both website and collection up for sale together. Presidential election years have always boosted interest and traffic, and this election is nuttier than most.
"I think Hillary still has three labs up in Chappaqua," McLean said. "I have to research Trump. Does he even have a dog?" (He does: a yellow Labrador retriever named Spinee.)
By now a small crowd had filled her apartment. McLean pointed here and there with her cane, digging for fading facts about Lincoln's goats, Grant's parrot, Cleveland's Shawineck game chickens.
They listened with interest, and McLean beamed. For now, the pet museum lived.
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