Set Charles Momjian is a major collector of many fascinating objects, including White House china and First Ladies letters, and it is a small part of his huge collection of White House china that is currently on display at the National First Ladies Library.
As such, Mr. Momjian was at the NFLL last week to discuss his collection and I was able to listen to him speak. This is a man who is full of stories about Presidents and First Ladies and is a general delight to listen to. Mr. Momjian is a retired Ford executive and served as a UN respresentative for the Carter administration. He is a regular at White House functions. He says that White House china is so fascinating because: "White House china shows the personal style of each First Lady and they are the only items that remain in the White House to give us a sense of their tastes and the times in which they lived."
Now if you browse the NFLL's site, you will see some of Mr. Momjian's pieces on display. I thought I would also share a few stories that he told us last week.
There is no Kennedy china - JFK was assassinated before china was purchased, although it was discussed. Mr. Momjian discovered a letter by Jacqueline Kennedy to the china company, which discusses what she wanted her china to look like. He then decided to try to have some made up in the pattern she mentioned (she wanted yellow china), but he never could find a design he felt reflected Jackie's taste. Some time later he was out looking for pieces and he found a plate that seemed to embody what Jackie's letter had said and it included the presidential seal. He immediately asked the price and was asked if he'd seen the letter with it. The letter was from a Kennedy White House maid, who stated that this was a sample plate for Kennedy White House china that the Kennedys ate off for a week to see if they liked it. Mr. Momjian purchased both the plate and the letter immediately.
Mr. Momjian often loans his plates out to musuems and functions as well as uses them for his own entertainments. He was once asked to provide plates for a reunion of Presidential children and grandchildren so each person could eat off a plate from their father/grandfather's White House. He did this and Eleanor Seagraves (a granddaughter of FDR) was very moved by this as she had not eaten off Roosevelt china since before her grandfather had died. She told Mr. Momjian that she would send him something special. So what did she send him? When the Roosevelts entertained the king and queen of England at their home, they used their own china. They also had to come up with a larger table, so had used sawhorses and cobbled a table together and then covered it beautifully. Dinner went along smoothly, but at the end, a heavy dish was set on one end and the entire table when flying. All the china was smashed execpt for two pieces that Eleanor Roosevelt managed to save. One was perfect and one was cracked, but Eleanor Seagraves now had both. She sent Mr. Momjian the perfect plate.
Now the last story that Mr. Momjian tells actually made the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 1, 1993. You can access the entire story through any number of major databases (I've included parts of the article here as well). Mr. Momjian was in line for a Fourth of July party at the Reagan White House in 1988 when he noticed as an elderly woman, 83-year-old Frances Green, in line in what was obviously her best dress - about 40 years ago:
"This is the happiest day of my life," the 83-year-old woman said. "The president has invited me to the White House." She explained that she took the train from Davis, Calif., and sat up all the way because she couldn't afford a sleeping compartment. As a matter of fact, she wouldn't have any more money until she got home to her next Social Security check, she told him. But none of that mattered because Frances Green was going to have dinner with the president. Momjian was perplexed. He asked to see her invitation. "Did you see the RSVP card?" he asked her. "Yes, but I was taught you write a letter when you receive an invitation, so I wrote to the president and told him I was coming," she told Momjian. "Her manners were correct," Momjian said. "But because she hadn't looked at the RSVP card, she didn't see that it had a little box to check in front of this sentence: 'Yes, I'll be there. Here is my check for $10,000.' "When Mrs. Green got up to the guard's desk, he couldn't find her name on the list," said Momjian, who tried to talk the guard into letting her join the party. But, no, she had not been cleared and she was not allowed in.
A few hours later when Mr. Momjian came back out of the White House, Mrs. Green was still there, looking very forlorn. He offered to bring her back for a special tour of the White House and then preceded to spend the weekend trying to figure out why she had gotten this invitation to a fund-raiser and if there was anything he could do for her. Well, it turns out she was a regular contributor to the Reagan campaigns - she had sent $1 a year for 8 years and the invitations had went out to all regular contributors - no matter the size of the past donations. Mr. Momjian managed to get Mrs. Green a 11 AM meeting with the president after a tour of the White House, but didn't tell her about meeting Reagan as he knew these things didn't always happen. But he told her to wear her white dress again. Now the Tuesday came and Mr. Momjian picked her up for her tour, but was glad he hadn't told her about meeting the President because it seemed that it wouldn't happen. A US Navy cruiser had just shot down an Iranian airliner and the US Attorney General had just resigned. But Mr. Momjian picked up Frances Green and took her on her tour and at the end, he tells us what happened:
"At 10 to 11, I sat her in chair just outside the Oval Office. She didn't know that was the door. I told her just to rest there awhile. "The door opened and the National Security Council walked out. I thought, 'Oh, no.' But this is why Reagan was Reagan," Momjian said. "On his desk was a note telling him all about Frances Green, why she was there and that she sent him a dollar a year." He invited her in. "Mrs. Green," Reagan said. "I'm so sorry about the other day. Those darn computers fouled up again. Of course you had an invitation. They should have called me from the gate." She understood. These things happen. "I knew it, I knew it," Mrs. Green said. And then White House photographer snapped a picture of Reagan, Momjian and Frances Green on the happiest day of her life.
Mr. Momjian even had a copy of that picture to show us last week!
Now I hope you enjoyed these tidbits, but I have to admit, they were better in person!