Ted Graber was still recovering from a quadruple-bypass heart operation when Nancy Reagan called a few days after the presidential election and asked him to take on the assignment of a lifetime: redecorating the First Family’s private quarters on the second and third floors of the White House. “My God, it was a tremendous honor,” the 62-year-old bachelor says, but not a surprising one. Graber has known the Reagans for more than 20 years, and had worked on their home in Pacific Palisades, plus those of such Reagan pals as Walter and Lee Annenberg and Alfred and Betsy Bloomingdale.
During the work inside the Executive Mansion, Graber maintained his customary low profile—this time in the teeth of the storm that blew up when it was announced that the renovation was being paid for by $822,640.91 in tax-deductible contributions. (The Carters had not touched the $50,000 allocation the government grants each incoming First Family to personalize its new quarters.) “I’ve been called Nancy’s confidence man, and in a way that’s right,” admits Graber. “I don’t talk about my clients.”
For the White House job, Graber read every book he could find on the 190-year-old structure. He waived his usual consulting fee, though his firm was paid for its work. After a quick trip East with the First Lady-to-be, he returned to his office in Los Angeles and pored over stacks of photos and floor plans sent by the White House. In a half-dozen sessions Nancy and he settled on the fabrics, furniture arrangements and paint colors. Then, at the stroke of noon on Jan. 20, 1981, as the President was being sworn in, Graber and the White House staff rushed into the second-floor West Sitting Hall. They uncrated furniture from the Reagans’ California home, hung paintings, plumped pillows and put out the President’s jelly beans. All was in order when the Reagans arrived from the reviewing stand five hours later. That night Graber moved into a suite of rooms on the third floor, where he lived for the next nine months. “It was totally absorbing and fun,” he recalls. “We were like kids in a candy store. A couple of times I caught Nancy moving the furniture around late at night.”
As it turned out, Graber spent only $730,000. This included restoring 150 pieces of government-owned furniture, replacing 18 carpets and 72 lamp shades, refinishing the floors in 24 rooms, changing the curtains (Nancy chose taffeta, linen and chintz) in 26 windows, and hanging fresh wallpaper in 10 rooms, seven closets and eight bathrooms. Graber chose an expensive hand-painted wallpaper of Chinese birds for the Reagans’ bedroom, had Nancy’s dressing room painted a salmon color and the President’s study yellow. “All houses need work every 20 years or they’ll fall apart,” Graber notes. “What I did was give the White House a nip and a tuck.”
Ted grew up in Los Angeles, where both his father and grandfather were in the antique business. He honed his craft at L.A.’s Chouinard Art Institute. In 1945 he connected with Hollywood interior designer Billy Haines. Their partnership lasted until Haines’ death in 1973.
Over the years Graber has done houses for Joan Crawford, Jack Benny and Jack Warner. But his biggest project before 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was Sunnylands, Annenberg’s 200-acre desert estate in Palm Springs, which features a dozen man-made lakes, a nine-hole golf course and pink marble floors in the vast main house. “Ted’s work is just outstanding,” says Lee Annenberg, former White House chief of protocol. She and her husband also hired Graber to do their mansion in Philadelphia and their chalet in Sun Valley. “He gives all his ladies a beautiful background to live in.”
With the last valance hung in the White House, Ted is spending more time at his spacious, antique-filled apartment in Brentwood, relieved now that his Washington tour is over. “It’s time to slow down and think about all the other things to do. Besides,” he sighs, “I don’t want to be known only as the White House decorator.”