WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) — Unlike the White House, the vice presidential residence is not accessible to the public, one of the reasons the public knows little about where the vice president lives. A new book, Number One Observatory Circle, could help change that.
Here are some of the fun facts author Charles Denyer found about the house and the people who lived there.
Although Nelson Rockefeller never lived in the residence, using it only for social functions, the bed in the masterbedroom was the talk of the town. The vice president personally chose the $35,000 “cage bed” by the surrealistic artist Max Ernst. Barbara Walters described it in a book as “covered in mink, watched over at the head and foot by medallions of the sun and moon” with trapdoors to hide lamps, telephones and electrical gadgets.
But while Rockefeller was willing to leave it behind for his successors, he had no takers.
“Mrs. Bush politely said, `You’re welcome anytime; We don’t need the bed,’” Denyer said.
Eleanor Mondale’s ghost
Convinced she was being visited by a ghost one night, Walter Mondale’s teenage daughter Eleanor called the Secret Service to report a man in her room. When the agents burst in with guns drawn, Eleanor explained it was a fleshless man she’d sensed. “They requested I never do that again,” Eleanor recalled in a 1998 interview.
(Years later, Dick Cheney’s granddaughter would inadvertently summon the Secret Service by mistaking a panic button in the bathroom for the way to flush the toilet.)
Secret Service pranks
Secret Service agents were not above pranking each other during the long, and often tedious hours they spent protecting the Second Family. One agent, for example, convinced another it was perfectly fine to do his laundry at the residence. That came as a surprise to Barbara Bush, who nonetheless found it amusing.
The agents, however, had Barbara Bush’s back when, clad in a bathrobe, she took her dog for an early morning walk not knowing the Soviet foreign minister was about to arrive for a breakfast meeting. Alerted by a helpful agent, Bush avoiding the waiting photographers by sneaking back into the residence and crawling to her closet to get to her clothes.
Enjoying the privacy
One of the main reasons vice presidents and their families enjoyed the residence is the relative privacy and seclusion it offered. Wanting to keep a low profile even when ordering pizza, the Quayle family appropriated the name of one of their Secret Service agents, Joe Petro. The tradition stuck. Even after leaving public office, the Quayles still used Petro’s name when ordering pizza.
After the Bushes developed Graves’ disease, and their dog also acquired an autoimmune disease, water tests were conducted at the various homes they had lived before moving into the White House. And the eight years they’d spent at One Observatory Circle were the longest they’d lived anywhere. The water testing made the current occupants, the Quayles, nervous. But a connection was never made.
Another mystery was the identity of the “undisclosed location” Dick Cheney would routinely slip off to. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, neighbors of One Observatory Circle complained about loud blasts, leading to speculation that an underground bunker was being constructed. Years later, Biden described being shown a hideaway when getting a tour of the residence. His spokeswoman later said Biden was not talking about an underground facility. But Denyer said the existence of the bunker is “widely known.”
Foreign dignitaries, political leaders, media heavyweights, and artists are among the luminaries who have socialized at the residence. When Andy Warhol attended a gathering Joan Mondale held for modern artists, the vice president’s press secretary got the bright idea of asking him to sign a can of Campbell’s tomato soup in honor of one of Warhol’s iconic works. Not being able to find tomato soup, however, the steward brought instead a can of mushroom. Warhol still signed it.
Pope John Paul II stopped by during his 1979 visit to Washington, but as a quid pro quo. The pope was staying at the Apostolic Delegation across the street from the Naval Observatory, and Mondale’s staff offered the pope the use of the residence’s helicopter pad in exchange for stopping to greet Mondale and giving the vice president his blessing.
Sharing the grounds with history and science
The vice presidential residence is not the only noteworthy aspect of the 72-acre compound. The Naval Observatory provides the astronomical and timing data used by the Navy and other components of the Defense Department. The library, one of the nation’s top scientific libraries, holds more than 800 rare books, including works by Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein and Newton.
Vice presidents have used the circular library as a setting for receptions, media interviews and other functions. Vice President Pence met with students in the library in August before taking them to the observatory’s telescope to view the solar eclipse.
Pence wasn’t the first vice president to take advantage of the telescope.
“You would often find Mondale and (Al) Gore viewing stars and the heavens,” Denyer said.
Contact Maureen Groppe at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @mgroppe.