When your wedding is at the White House, no detail is too small – even in the 1800s

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If you think planning a June wedding is tricky, imagine the presidential families throughout our history who have tried to preserve the intimacy of a family wedding amid the disruption of living on our best-known public stage – the White House.

More than a dozen family weddings have been held at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. (Three in June, most recently Tricia Nixon’s 51 years ago in the Rose Garden.) President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden will celebrate the wedding of their granddaughter at the White House this November.

The first White House family wedding was of Dolley Madison’s widowed sister, who married a Supreme Court justice in a social Virginia-style ceremony that fit the first lady’s outgoing fashion of entertaining. But the candlelit wedding of James Monroe’s daughter Maria was limited to relatives and personal friends – which caused consternation in social and diplomatic circles, necessitating a series of balls afterward to mollify official Washington.

The dawn of the celebrity wedding was at the White House?

The ceremony for Nellie Grant, Ulysses Grant’s daughter, after the Civil War triggered a new level of panache and visibility. The East Room was redecorated with gas-lit chandeliers and columns with carved scrolls and rosettes. Orange blossoms were shipped up from Florida. Staircases were draped with lilies, and the Marine Band played Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" as the bride appeared in a $2,000 satin gown trimmed in lace. Locals gawked through the iron fence surrounding the grounds. The New York Times gave the ceremony front-page coverage, and Walt Whitman commemorated it in a poem. (The ceremonial atmosphere might have bottled up the father of the bride’s emotions, but afterward President Grant retreated to his daughter's bedroom to sob.)

President Grover Cleveland’s Blue Room wedding sparked even greater public interest. Newspapers scrambled to report details, including long passages on the wedding cake (slices of which are still preserved at the National Museum of American History). Hundreds of uninvited guests flooded the White House lawn, and journalists followed the newlyweds on their honeymoon.

This portrait photograph of Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, was taken on her wedding day when she married Nicholas Longworth.
This portrait photograph of Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, was taken on her wedding day when she married Nicholas Longworth.

But it was the marriage of Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice in 1906 that foretold the coming age of the celebrity wedding. The bride’s trousseau shopping stopped traffic in New York, where crowds had to be dispersed by the police. Fascinated Americans sent the couple hand-embroidered linens, homemade feather dusters, a Boston terrier, and even oversized turnips and a barrel of popcorn. (The United Mine Workers delivered a train car of coal.) The largest crowd since Abe Lincoln’s funeral poured into the East Room – inspiring the newlyweds to stage an elaborate escape, sending out decoy cars and climbing out a window in the Red Room to leave for their honeymoon.

Six decades later, Alice Roosevelt Longworth returned to the White House for the wedding of Lyndon Johnson’s daughter Lynda – and again in 1971, as one of 400 guests when Tricia Nixon was married.

When nothing can be left to chance, every detail is scripted

The wedding of President Richard Nixon’s daughter – the first White House wedding held outdoors – was a national event. A steady stream of press releases heralded the big day, and 700 reporters got credentials to cover it. The Rose Garden was decked out with nine types of roses and 15 other kinds of flowers.

Nothing was left to chance. A 117-page planning binder included seating charts, minute-by-minute scheduling and even an inventory of Rose Garden plants (including exactly 2,203 white cascade petunias). Special all-caps instructions warned, “CONTROL OF THE RECEIVING LINE IS ESSENTIAL. DO NOT ALLOW LONG BACKUP PERIOD. KEEP THE GUESTS MOVING.”

In this photograph, a beaming Tricia Nixon looks up at her new husband Edward Cox outside the North Door to the White House as her father, President Richard M. Nixon, looks on.
In this photograph, a beaming Tricia Nixon looks up at her new husband Edward Cox outside the North Door to the White House as her father, President Richard M. Nixon, looks on.

Showers fell throughout the wedding day. The White House staff prepared to move the ceremony into the East Room. But at 4:15 the National Weather Service spotted a break in the rain. The gazebo was wiped dry, everyone was seated and within minutes the wedding party was walking down the Rose Garden aisle.

The vows were exchanged beneath a 12-foot gazebo of wrought iron covered in white roses as White House staffers took home movies. About 110 million Americans watched it replayed on television afterward, and the wedding made the covers of Life and Time magazines.

Stewart D. McLaurin is president of the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961.
Stewart D. McLaurin is president of the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961.

Not all first families opt for a wedding ceremony in the national spotlight. President Johnson’s daughter Luci and President George W. Bush’s daughter Jenna married elsewhere, then came to the White House for a reception.

It’s hard to imagine any future White House family wedding being anything other than a national event. It’s important to remember that at the center of each American presidency is a family, trying to fashion a life and find private moments on one of the world’s biggest stages.

Stewart D. McLaurin is president of the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961 to privately fund maintaining the museum standard of the White House and to provide publications and programs on White House history. 

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Planning a White House wedding: What the Bidens can learn from history