Palling around with our presidents
NEW YORK -- Barry H. Landau, presidential collector and connoisseur, remembers the time he was dancing with Betty Ford at the White House and Fred Astaire cut in.
“I recall I was doing a ‘Lindy’ with Mrs. Ford and remember ‘spinning her out’ when I suddenly received a tap on my shoulder, turning around to be face to face with Hollywood icon Fred Astaire,” he explains. “It’s customary for the couple to then switch partners -- only to realize that Mr. Astaire was dancing with Queen Elizabeth. This didn’t faze me, as I had met the queen 10 years earlier at a royal command performance in England.”
The first lady wore green, the queen yellow.
“I could only think that here I am, the grandson of immigrants, dancing at the White House with the queen of England,” Landau says.
Landau’s the kind of guy you may not notice in the pictures with celebrities. He is 59 and has been in the company of presidents for nearly 50 years. He is tall and bearded, with a home full of history and a head crammed with names, like boxes in an overstuffed closet ready to tumble out.
He is at work on a trilogy of books about political pomp and protocol. The first, just released, is “The President’s Table,” a 200-plus-year sampling of White House cuisine, to be followed by a history of inaugurations, then a volume on presidential style.
“We couldn’t get it all into one book,” Landau says with a laugh.
Enter his Midtown Manhattan high-rise and you might think the Smithsonian Institution had opened a new wing. The walls are covered with vintage black-and-white etchings of 19th century inaugurations. A cabinet holds presidential mugs, plates, goblets and a skeleton key that fits the front door of the White House -- or at least it did during the administration of John Adams.
Few have succeeded so well in mingling with the famous without also becoming famous. Like a true insider, his office has a wall of inscribed photographs of presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, of Herbert Hoover and J. Edgar Hoover, of an inaugural ball in which Landau stands on a stage along with Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra, among others.
Born in Manhattan and raised in the borough of Queens, Landau did not grow up in a political family. His father was a theater-ticket broker, his mother worked in real estate and other fields and was a photographer for columnist Walter Winchell, a source of endless show-business anecdotes.
Landau remembers always being very curious, not to mention “creative, impulsive and determined to do as many interesting things in life as I could.”
He was an intern during the Johnson administration and became friendly with a former neighbor of his mother’s, Richard M. Nixon. He was soon indispensable around Washington and beyond, both for whom he knew and what he knew. He helped plan the state dinner for President Ford (the occasion where Landau danced with both the first lady and the queen). He helped coordinate the participation of Elizabeth Taylor and other celebrities at President Reagan’s second inauguration.
In 1993, Landau produced and organized for the incoming Bill Clinton administration a re-enactment of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural train ride from New York to Washington. Two years later, he planned an event marking the 50th anniversary of the swearing-in of Harry S. Truman.
For “The President’s Table,” Landau relies upon scholarship and souvenirs. The book, which features blurbs from Henry Kissinger, CBS newsman Mike Wallace and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (given shortly before the historian’s death last winter), is a coffee-table work summarizing each administration, what it served and what it ate.
The illustrations include a dinner invitation from George Washington, a menu insert signed by Mark Twain at the request of President Benjamin Harrison, and an invitation and reply card for Greta Garbo to a luncheon honoring FDR.