William V. Elder III ’54 spent two years working closely with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy at the White House, but it was not something he talked about often. “He was not someone who blew his own horn,” says Genie Moore, his niece.
An expert in the decorative arts — furniture, glassware, and other objects that are decorative but also functional — Elder helped Kennedy with her signature project, redecorating the White House. As registrar and later curator of the White House, he examined furniture and other objects that had been kept in storage, sorted through donations, and acquired 19th-century furnishings and important American paintings and sculpture.
Elder seemed to have an easy rapport with the first lady. In an oral history for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, he recalled, “She would pop in and out of our office. ... She had a very active role and [knew] exactly what was going on at all times.” The president also was involved: “I would get notes from Mrs. Kennedy saying, ‘The president wants such and such.’”
Elder was appalled by some previous White House renovations, particularly during the Truman administration. “The whole building, you know, was scooped out and replaced with a steel frame,” he recalled. “It was pretty much of a, say, hack job.” Few records were kept, he added, and a dumbwaiter from Thomas Jefferson’s time was ignored. Though there was a move to buy historic furnishings, Bess Truman apparently didn’t want them and ordered furniture from B. Altman, he said.
After Elder, a lifelong bachelor, died of a heart attack at 82 near his small farmhouse outside of Baltimore, Moore read for the first time dozens of handwritten notes on White House stationery from Jacqueline Kennedy that Elder had saved. One begins: “Dear Bill, I do wish you’d stop buying cars — apartments — horses — and the like and stay in the office — please ... ” Another letter, of several pages, says, “I have one suggestion which may help you to survive the nervous distraction of the blasted telephone — Have a partition (sound proof if possible) put between your and Blair’s desk ... ”
“You can tell she knew him well — she was ribbing him,” Moore says. “I think Jackie felt really comfortable with him.” Their connection perhaps was due to Elder’s background: He grew up in Maryland’s Baltimore County, hunting and riding horses, and attended prestigious boarding schools.
“Bill was of a social standing that would be equal to Mrs. Kennedy,” says James Abbott, who succeeded Elder as curator of decorative arts at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where Elder worked for 34 years after resigning from the White House shortly before President Kennedy’s assassination. “I think Bill didn’t like the politics of the White House. He was burned out,” Abbott says.
At the Baltimore Museum of Art, Elder spearheaded a major expansion that celebrated Americana. More than once, he intervened to rescue sections of historical buildings. When several row houses designed by early 19th-century architect Robert Mills were about to be demolished, he arranged for two parlors and a stairway with rare mantle pieces and ceiling ornaments to be salvaged. The rooms were reassembled by hand and installed in the museum. Says Moore, “He cared deeply for historical objects.”
Jennifer Altmann is an associate editor at PAW.