New York Barry H. Landau, presidential collector and connoisseur, remembers the time he was dancing with Betty Ford at the White House and Fred Astaire cut in.
"I recall I was doing a 'Lindy' with Mrs. Ford, and remember 'spinning her out' when I suddenly received a tap on my shoulder; turning around to be face to face with Hollywood icon Fred Astaire," he explains.
"It's customary for the couple to then switch partners; only to realize that Mr. Astaire was dancing with Queen Elizabeth. This didn't faze me, as I had met the Queen 10 years earlier at a Royal Command Performance in England."
The first lady wore green, the Queen yellow.
"I could only think that here I am, the grandson of immigrants, dancing at the White House with the Queen of England," Landau says.
Barry Landau. He's the kind of guy you may not notice in the pictures with celebrities. He is 59 and has been in the company of presidents for nearly 50 years. He is tall and bearded, with a home full of history and a head crammed with names, like boxes in an overstuffed closet ready to tumble out.
He is at work on a trilogy of books about political pomp and protocol. The first, just released, is "The President's Table," a 200-plus year sampling of White House cuisine, to be followed by a history of inaugurations, then a volume on presidential style.
"We couldn't get it all into one book," Landau says with a laugh.
Enter his midtown Manhattan high-rise and you might think the Smithsonian Institution had opened a new wing. The walls are covered with vintage black and white etchings of 19th-century inaugurations. A cabinet holds presidential mugs, plates, goblets and a skeleton key that fits right into the front door of the White House, or did during the administration of John Adams.
Few have succeeded so well in mingling with the famous without becoming famous himself. Like a true insider, his office has a wall of inscribed photographs of presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, of Herbert Hoover and J. Edgar Hoover, of an inaugural ball in which Landau stands on a stage along with Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and many others.
"He has a great power wall," says Larry Bird, curator of the Smithsonian's political campaign collection. "He's sort of like a master broker. He knows a ton of people and he does favors for a ton of people and they do favors for him."
"He's made it his business somehow to know everybody," says CBS newsman Mike Wallace, a friend of Landau's. "He's intense and persuasive and ambitious, in the best sense of that word."
Born in Manhattan and raised in the borough of Queens, Landau did not grow up in a political family. His father was a theater ticket broker, his mother worked in real estate and other fields, and was a photographer for columnist Walter Winchell, a source of endless show business anecdotes. Landau remembers himself as always very curious, not to mention "creative, impulsive and determined to do as many interesting things in life as I could."
Also, he had chronic bronchitis and asthma and couldn't play sports. "So I gravitated toward older people."
Like President and Mrs. Eisenhower.
It was 1958 (Oct. 12, in case you wondered). Landau was 10, on his way with his mother to the theater when police began rerouting traffic: The president was arriving at LaGuardia Airport. Barry begged his mother to take him, and, in those simple times before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, worked his way to the front. A little flattery - he told Mamie Eisenhower she was beautiful, and saluted the president (who saluted back) - led to a White House invitation.
"I sat at the president's desk and sharpened his pencils. I circled my birthday on his calendar and wrote 'Barry's birthday,"' says Landau, who also dutifully saved a White House napkin that came with his milk and cookies, the beginning of a great collection.
He was an intern during the Johnson administration and became friendly with a former neighbor of his mother's, Richard Nixon. He was soon indispensable around Washington and beyond, both for who he knew and what he knew. He helped plan the state dinner for President Ford where Landau danced with the first lady and the Queen. He helped coordinate the participation of Elizabeth Taylor and other celebrities at President Reagan's second inauguration.
In 1993, Landau produced and organized for the incoming Clinton administration a re-enactment of Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural train ride from New York to Washington. Two years later, he planned an event marking the 50th anniversary of the swearing in of Harry Truman.
Food, like handwriting or fingerprints, is inevitably personal. George Washington's meals were highly formal, often silent, with men only allowed at the table. Abraham Lincoln had simple tastes - a typical lunch was an apple and a glass of milk - while William Howard Taft's were expansive, so much so that the already ample president gained 55 pounds his first year in office.