Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 4, Page 20
Summer 1994
The woman who furnished camelot

     1961 was a year of firsts for Lorraine Waxman Pearce, Delaware
'58M. Her first job out of graduate school was as the very first White
House curator, with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy for a boss.
     Quite a leap for the self-styled, "timid and over-educated" New
Yorker. From Winterthur to Camelot. From the leafy seclusion of Henry
Francis du Pont's Delaware museum to perhaps the most high-profile
museum appointment in the nation.
     "There's no way I could describe that experience," she recalls.
     Mrs. Kennedy's project-to refurbish the White House in the
authentic furnishings and character of its founders, in the spirit of
Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and their successors-was announced the
month of JFK's inauguration. Henry Francis du Pont, chairperson of the
Fine Arts Committee for the Restoration of the White House,
recommended Pearce to the first lady, and by March, Pearce was at
     Knee-deep in work, to be precise. "I was ushered into this room,
and it was knee-high with stacks of public mail where people had
responded to the announcement. 'I've got a chair; I've got my
grandmother's stays; I've got an old toothbrush that belonged to
General Grant.' And, out of all this, we had to create."
     The early going was tough. With an 11-month-old infant son at
home, the young Mrs. Pearce found her attentions at work divided among
a bewildering number of interested parties: the Fine Arts Committee,
an auxiliary committee, the Smithsonian Institution (which actually
paid her wages), Mrs. Kennedy and the media.
     And the task was unprecedented. "I was the first curator. There
was no machinery to be a curator: no backup, no staff, no real money
to do the work for which I'd been trained. Just a roomful of mail."
     Yet, by the time 80 million Americans tuned into Mrs. Kennedy's
historic televised tour of the restored White House in February 1962,
the groundwork for the renovation-the groundwork that remains "the
basis, the idea at least" for the White House interior to this day-was
     Pearce is especially proud of the guidebook/ catalog for which,
with the aid of Mrs. Kennedy, she lobbied. Persuading reluctant
superiors that a suitable publication was essential to a building of
such stature, Pearce wrote the The White House: A Historic Guide,
which in various editions, still funds White House museum work.
     Lorraine Pearce's 15 minutes of fame lasted about 18 months. She
left her position in September 1962 to rear her second child, Hannah,
but remembers her Pennsylvania Avenue period as a fascinating
interlude. Lately, of course, with the death of Jacqueline Kennedy,
the memories are touched with sadness. Though not a personal friend of
Mrs. Kennedy, she worked closely with the first lady.
     "She was just a little older than I am. In my mind's eye, I think
of her as she was then, so youthful, so beautiful. When I knew her, we
both had young children. I've been remembering one little thing that
happened, and it involved both Mrs. Kennedy and the president."
     The happy little thing was a tale of two chairs. One of the
letters in one of the knee-high piles had offered the White House a
blue armchair, bought by President Monroe following the burning of the
Capitol in 1812. Pearce acquired the piece, lectured on its history,
and as a result, turned up two more of the set-side chairs nobody even
knew existed.
     When they arrived, they were ratty with attic dust. Mrs. Kennedy
was away that morning, but President Kennedy, as was his habit, popped
into Pearce's office to see if any interesting artifacts had been
added to the collection. He was elated. Where Mrs. Kennedy tended to
appreciate objects for their beauty, Pearce remembers, her husband
valued them more for their provenance and history.
     But, Pearce remembers these chairs particularly because she and
the President spontaneously decided to make a gift of the pair to the
absent first lady. Pearce spent the rest of the day cleaning them,
wrapping them in an enormous bundle of paper and tying them with bows.
"She was thrilled, absolutely thrilled," recalls Pearce. "She loved
     The 30 years since Pearce left the White House have been
fruitful. She reared a family, built up an antiques business and fed
her passion for the decorative arts by teaching privately. Usually,
she teaches out of her own Georgetown home-an extraordinary, four-
story ship captain's house built in 1810.
     She's slowing down the business now, to leave more leisure time
for travel and grandchildren. But, in their time, her career and
avocation allowed her to furnish those four stories in remarkable
period detail-so remarkable that Colonial Homes magazine featured her
creation in April.
     She plans to continue to teach and lecture. There's a projection
screen mounted inconspicuously in the ceiling of her otherwise
exquisitely antiquated dining room, where pupils come to glean the
intimate harvest of a life spent working and living with the nation's
material heritage. She recently bused 48 students up to her old
stomping grounds at Winterthur.
     And her latest project is a 19th-century loggers' cabin in Loudon
County, Va., which she's refurbishing as a summer cottage.
     Don't get the idea that Lorraine Pearce is in flight from
contemporary reality, however. She may live in a mini-museum decked
out in the sumptuous stuff of centuries past; she may retire once in a
while to a rural retreat. But, she's equally a modern city dweller-a
former New Yorker quite as comfortable talking about the latest movie
release as Export Porcelain. She needs the bustle of people as much as
the balm of mahogany, the pulse of the present as much as the
pleasures of the past.
     It's just that the woman lucky enough to have touched more than a
little history in her life happens to have found a way to enjoy both.
                                  -Steven O'Connor, Delaware '94 Ph.D.