My Mother’s Strange Rendezvous with Richard Nixon

In November 1968 my parents, sister and I made our annual Thanksgiving trip to Manhattan to visit my senile-but-favorite grandmother, Bobby. She was withering away in a very small-but-immaculate apartment in an elegant building on Park Avenue. It was the kind of building where a man in a fine wool suit could walk his wife’s miniature poodle through the lobby on the way to a pay phone around the corner, so he could place a call to his mistress. And old ladies in fluffy fur coats carried itsy bitsy black purses with enough room for a lipstick, a hankie and a couple of quarters for “The Help.”

It was always an experience to see Grandma Bobby because I never knew what to expect… sometimes she couldn’t remember what city she was in, or what language to speak (and she spoke a lot of them).  Other times, she would open the door, and offer me a “‘Coke-ahh-Cola’ and cottage cheese” – my favorite foods.

Once, when she wasn’t at her best, she let a pair of jewel thieves into her apartment because she thought they were my father and his brother. Then she served them something to eat and drink while the housekeeper was bound and gagged in the bedroom. They only got away with ginger ale and ham sandwiches because she didn’t have any valuables.

We used to get a lot of interesting phone calls from the NYPD back at home in Chicago, but my uncle lived only a half-hour away from Grandma Bobby, so he usually handled things.

Since there wasn’t room for all of us at my grandmother’s, we routinely stayed at a hotel.  This time we found ourselves at the Pierre on the Upper East Side. Coincidentally, the Pierre Hotel also happened to be the transition headquarters for President Elect Richard Nixon.

From the minute the cab deposited us in front of the building, I knew we were in for an adventure. We entered the lobby, passing through a gauntlet of reporters in trench coats, technicians holding microphones on long poles and a small cluster of heavy, black, film cameras perched on tripods. Inside, swarms of men wearing navy blue suits, whispered into walkie-talkies. Some just stood around, trying to look like regular hotel guests.  And while my father checked-in, a fleet of limousines followed by a line of police cars and motorcycles, sirens wailing, pulled into the driveway.

As the bellman rolled the luggage cart through the hallway to our room, I noticed several thick black cables snaking along the baseboards and the ceiling, all of which terminated in the room next to ours.  Even stranger was the sight of the large wooden desk flanked by two law enforcement agents in jackets, ties and shoulder holsters, sitting in straight backed chairs, right outside our door. It turned out we were Henry Kissinger’s neighbors. And they were his 24-hour security detail.

As happy as I was to see my grandmother, the hotel was suddenly where I wanted to be. Every time we came or went, something seemed to happen. Not to mention that fact I was in total awe of Henry Kissinger’s agents. They were at their post when we left in the morning, and when we returned after dinner. They were there while we slept at night. And they were there whenever I felt like opening our door to pester them with questions like: Who was the most famous person you’ve EVER guarded? Did you ever have to shoot anyone? Can you take your gun out of the holster???…..Pleeeeese????  I swear I won’t touch it!

When not in the hallway annoying the agents, I was in the bedroom, holding an inverted glass to the wall trying to amplify the sounds coming from Kissinger’s room, hoping to get wind of some Top Secret Information. Although I never heard anything, I did ride with him in the elevator on one occasion, where he said in a German accent, “I have a son about your age.”

My mother who voted for Nixon, and who yelled nightly at the television set while watching William Buckley and Gore Vidal yell at each other, knew what she wanted. She was determined to meet the President Elect.  And she wanted ME to meet him, too. I wasn’t opposed to her plan, but I was perfectly satisfied talking to the inscrutable members of law enforcement who were sitting right outside our room. And there was a logistical problem. Whenever Nixon’s limousine pulled in front of the hotel, security would clear the lobby by kicking people out of the building, or by sending them upstairs in the elevators (depositing them on random floors).

After several near misses, my mother used her dubious charms on somebody at the concierge desk, and one afternoon, this person called our room and told her to get down to the lobby ASAP because Nixon was about to leave his suite on the 39th  floor.

We reached the lobby just as Nixon, along with a group of blue suited men exited another elevator and headed toward the revolving doors to leave. Who knows which notorious characters from the future administration might have been in that group? Haldeman? Erlichman, Mitchell?

So we got to see the president’s back, which was fine with me, but not mother. Oh, nooooo…she had to say something which caused Nixon to take a sharp 180 degree turn from the rest of the group and head straight for us, his security people chasing after him.  They did not look happy.  After Nixon shook my hand, he said, “Why, young lady, aren’t you in school?” It was an odd remark considering it was Thanksgiving.

Barely four years later, in August of 1972, my mother steered our mud colored Buick Century past the empty storefronts along South Michigan Avenue as we listened to Nixon give his farewell speech over the radio. She was crying so hard, that a squad car pulled her over for erratic driving.

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About jacullman

Excellent parallel parker & recovering optimist.
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