It was summer, 1967. I was eighteen years old and about to begin my freshman year at Smith College. I lived in Rockville Centre, a suburb of New York City, with my solidly Democratic parents and two younger sisters. Richard Nixon lived not far away, on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, with his wife, Pat, and daughters, Julie and Tricia. He practiced law at his firm, Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie & Alexander, and he bided his time. He intended to run again for President of the United States.
Though I lived geographically close to the Nixons, we were worlds apart. Nixon had served as Vice President for two terms under Eisenhower and his daughters had grown up virtually in the shadow of the White House. My father was a German refugee and my mother the daughter of poor Russian immigrants. I was about to become the first in the family to attend college, a Seven Sisters school, no less. I'd navigated high school well, but I had no idea how I'd fare among the daughters of the elite. Then a letter arrived. It was from Julie Nixon.
Julie wrote that she would be my "big sister" at Smith. She was entering her sophomore year and lived in the dorm to which I'd been assigned, Baldwin House. I later learned that big sisters were chosen according to geographic proximity, in the hope that incoming students would have a chance to meet their new mentors before school began. Her job, Julie said, was to help ease my transition to college life.
Her letter brimmed with advice--about New England weather, appropriate attire (she favored skirts)--and she encouraged me to ask her any and all questions I might have. The letter ended with an invitation to join her for dinner at her family's New York apartment.
Talk about an offer I couldn't refuse. Here was a chance to get an inside glimpse of the life of someone powerful and famous. Nixon wasn't a man I admired, far from it, but even then famosity had its hold on me and I was excited by the prospect of seeing how he and his family lived. At the same time, I was terrified. I wondered what to wear, how to behave, what to say. I imagined myself committing some dreadful faux pas that would haunt me forever after. But not for a minute did I consider turning down the invitation.
Both my mother and I considered a new outfit de rigeur for the upcoming occasion. But what should it be? After much shopping, we settled on a wool suit from B. Altman, with a short jacket and A-line skirt in a rust, gold, and black plaid pattern. We completed the ensemble with a black long-sleeved Danskin top.
On the appointed day in early September, I made the thirty-five minute trip from Rockville Centre to Penn Station on the Long Island Railroad. From there, I took a taxi to the Nixons' apartment at 810 Fifth Avenue. Just taking a cab by myself was a new and heady experience. I'd been tutored by my dad on how to tip. I felt very grown-up and incredibly young at the same time.
The doorman directed me to the elevator. I'd been in a doorman apartment before, when I'd visited my cousin on the Upper East Side. But I'd never had an elevator experience like the one that awaited me. When the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor, they opened directly into the Nixon's apartment. It seemed the height of luxury.
When I stepped out of the elevator, Julie, her sister, Tricia, and their mother were waiting to greet me. They ushered me into a darkly-furnished foyer and were very gracious in making me feel welcome. Mrs. Nixon wanted to know if I'd had any trouble finding the place and Julie told me how glad she was to meet me. Mrs. Nixon said she wished her husband could join us for dinner, but he had to give a speech at the Harvard Club that evening. Just then, the Vice President himself strode into the foyer.
With an enthusiasm I would come to know and appreciate, Julie introduced me to her father.
"Daddy, I'd like you to meet Barbara. She'll be a freshman this year at Smith and she'll be living in Baldwin House. She's my little sister!"
Nixon shook my hand. "Has Julie warned you about the plumbing in Baldwin House?" he asked. "They've had a lot of problems with leaks in the bathrooms there."
I kid you not. These are the words with which Dick Nixon greeted a shy and impressionable eighteen-year-old. Not "Smith is a wonderful school. You must be looking forward to studying there," or "Julie's had a great experience at Smith so far. I hope you will, too." No. Richard Nixon focused on the plumbing.
At the time, I thought it a very odd comment and decided it must be indicative of Nixon's world view. He was, I concluded, a man mostly concerned with form and not substance, with the mechanics of things rather than their meaning. In light of subsequent events, his casual remark took on a far more ominous quality and seemed frighteningly predictive of Nixon's paranoia about leaks during his Presidency.
As many will recall, the Plumbers was a White House Special Investigations Unit established in July, 1971, whose mandate was to stop leaks of confidential information to the media. The Plumbers was formed in response to the leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg. Its members went on to commit many clandestine and illegal acts, including the Watergate break-in.
Back in September, 1967, Richard Nixon's presidential aspirations were barely a blip on the public radar. But even though I felt awed at the time to meet such a famous personage, I was struck by the weirdness of the man. History has confirmed my reaction, and then some.
Next installment: Dinner Chez Nixon
Let It Go
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