On Friday, October 17, 1924, President Coolidge had a White House breakfast with a group of people that included Edward L. Bernays. Bernays, a “double nephew” of Sigmund Freud, has been widely hailed (sometimes vilified) as the father of modern public relations and was at one point named one of the 20th century’s 100 most influential Americans by LIFE magazine. Bernays recorded the events leading up to that breakfast meeting, and his impressions of it, in 1962, when he was 71. Amazingly, he lived a further more than 30 years, passing away in 1995 at the age of 103.
As Bernays recalls, the objective was to counteract the perception of Coolidge as “cold and taciturn”. I’ll let Bernays take it from here:
“How could Coolidge’s warmth and human sympathy be emphasized? (…) A (…) striking idea occurred to me. That is, that we would take a group of well-known actors and actresses to the White House for breakfast. In 1924, this was a startling idea, for actors and actresses were still tainted with a 17th century reputation, but there was no disputing that they also carried a strong connotation of humanness, warmth, extroversion and camaraderie.”
“I wasn’t surprised when C. Bascom Slemp, the knowledgeable secretary of the President, set up a breakfast date for us at the White House. The President, politically keenly aware, as he had shown at the time of the Boston police strike when he was Governor, recognized the implications of this venture into imagemaking.”
Bernays put together an impressive “non-partisan” list of big stars of the day, a few of whom still are recognizable to us today. Al Jolson “rounded up” John Drew, Raymond Hitchcock, Charlotte Greenwood, Ed Wynn, Francine and Stella Larrimore, Justine Johnstone, The Dolly Sisters, Brennan and Rogers, songwriter Buddy deSylva, and numerous others. When the party arrived by train in Washington, D.C., the two Dolly Sisters were missing:
“I rushed around to find them and finally saw those two glamorous Ziegfeld Follies performers sitting on stools at the Savarin Breakfast Bar eating a hearty breakfast. I expostulated with them, expressing shock and suprise. “Look,” I said, “you can’t keep the President of the United States waiting for you.” They looked at me astonished, “Oh go on, who’s he?” they asked. “We don’t start on nothin’ until we have our coffee.”
This contretemps over, the party arrived in their Cadillac motorcade at the White House, where they were met by the President and First Lady.
“I have met you all across the footlights,” Mrs. Coolidge said, “but it’s not the same as greeting you here.” President Coolidge led the procession, escorting Charlotte Greenwood, a lanky comedienne, into the State Dining Room, while Mrs. Coolidge took the arm of Colonel [Rhinelander] Waldo [note: Waldo was the initiator of the project and had recruited Bernays as publicist] and then saw Al Jolson. “Let me take your arm, too, I want two partners.”
Bernays got a taste of the President’s ways when, at the end of an introduction and hand shaking ceremony, Coolidge turned to him and said,
“Your name, please.” I said, “Oh, Mr. President, that’s not important. I’m only the publicity man for the party.” The President said deadpan, “Not unimportant either, the publicity man — your name?” I felt that the President’s reputation for laconic wisdom was well deserved.
Of the more than hour-long breakfast, Bernays remembers a funny anecdote. Coolidge’s military attaché, Major Solbert, spent the better part of the breakfast trying out his French on a young lady on his right, whom he apparently took to be a famous French actress, but who answered his entreaties only in monosyllables. Bernays couldn’t place her:
“On our return trip to New York, I saw her again in the parlor car, manicuring the nails of one of the Dolly Sisters: she was their maid! I pointed out to them that invitations to the White House breakfast had been issued only to actors and actresses. Rosika Dolly said, “Ain’t she as good as that New England farmer?”
Unaware of this (though I suspect he would have been amused), the President had enjoyed the breakfast tremendously. After the breakfast, the group adjourned to the White House lawn, where Al Jolson sang the campaign song, with Mrs. Coolidge and all guests joining in:
The race is now begun, and Coolidge is the one,
the one to fill the Presidential chair.
Without a lot of fuss, he did a lot for us,
So let’s reciprocate and keep him there!
Keep Coolidge! Keep Coolidge!
And have no fears for four more years!
Keep Coolidge! Keep Coolidge!
For he will right our wrongs.
He’s never asleep, still water runs deep.
So keep Coolidge! Keep Coolidge!
He’s right where he belongs!
As Bernay recalls, Coolidge then was a little disappointed to be reminded by Slemp of an imminent Cabinet meeting, which meant the breakfast was over. No disappointment, however, was the press reaction to the event – Bernays proudly relates that it was front page news throughout the country. Modestly, he does not imply cause and effect in terms of Coolidge’s subsequent re-election; merely that
“I was applying an old press agent technique of adding newsworthy names to the austere person of the President of the United States in an event that jutted out of the routine of circumstance and made news.”