The White House has been my life,” pipes Lillian Rogers Parks. “I just hope the new folks over there will stop wearing blue jeans all the time.” If Mrs. Parks, 82, sounds strangely proprietary about the place, it is understandable. Nearly 20 years ago she retired as a seamstress and maid at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and co-authored (with Frances Spatz Leighton) a best-seller called My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House. Next week the book, novelized to provide more of a plot, and starring Leslie Uggams as “the original Miss Lillian,” will debut as a four-part NBC miniseries. Mrs. Parks is delighted, but doesn’t want to be known as a gossip. “I wish people would stop writing ugly things about the first families and treat them with the respect and dignity they are entitled to,” she says. “You don’t come in contact with people for that amount of time without knowing something about their personal lives, but if you think I’m going to tell you what President Roosevelt really said to his sons when he was mad, you’re wrong. There are some things I wouldn’t tell you for a million dollars.”
When her mother, Maggie Rogers, took a job as a White House maid in 1909, little Lillian came along. One of her earliest memories is of being given a bit of caramel-coated ice cream that President William Howard Taft had returned to the kitchen. “Poor Mrs. Taft,” Lillian recalls. “She was always trying to keep his weight down. A special bathtub had to be installed in the White House because the President would get stuck in a normal tub and it would take two men to pull him out.”
Lillian’s mother toiled on at the White House through five administrations and took sewing home to her daughter, plus gentle observations about all the first families. Though Coolidge was known as a pinchpenny, Lillian was told, he was Diamond Cal when it came to clothing his wife. “If the President saw his wife in a dress for the second time,” she says, “he would say, ‘Mother, haven’t I seen that dress before?’ So Mrs. Coolidge would wear it one time and give it to my mother.” Mrs. Parks (married in 1935; divorced without children 10 years later) wore one such castoff for years before turning it over to the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1929 Mrs. Herbert Hoover (“He never spoke to the staff”) brought Lillian back to the White House for $48 a month. Lillian tactfully refuses to name her favorite President, though she admits she felt a “special kinship” with FDR. Like Roosevelt, the 4’10” Mrs. Parks was partially crippled by polio. “He always called me ‘Little Girl,’ ” she says, “and he made me use the presidential elevator between floors.” In those days, Winston Churchill was a frequent White House visitor. “He would parade down the hall to see the President wearing a towel,” says Mrs. Parks. “I always thought he had a face like a baby. He would wheel the President all around, and they would argue and argue.”
Mrs. Parks retired in early 1960, and her memoir was published the following year. Appalled by the implied threat to her own privacy, Jacqueline Kennedy made her entire staff swear never to write about life in the White House. Not everyone, Jackie must have realized, would be as discreet as Lillian. “I never revealed any bad things,” Mrs. Parks points out. “My mother always told me to be a lady.”