and other presidential felines at The White House
Socks was arguably the first superstar cat extensively written about in printed media and internationally known at a time when the World Wide Web was still only in its earliest years of being publicly accessible (the first official White House website went online during his tenure), and many years before the advent of social media. He received masses of letters, all answered by his staff, there was a fan club, and a whole merchandising industry existed because of him. It did no harm that he was a very photogenic cat, and by all accounts an equable one.
Our website didn't exist until after he'd retired, but he was still living when this page was first published in 2005 and it was still possible then to obtain information about him. The page has been added to since for further White House feline (and canine) residents, the most recent update being for Willow Biden in early 2022.
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When Bill and Hillary Clinton moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, on 20 January 1993, it took a few days before their cat Socks came to join them; he had to endure a two-day car trip from Little Rock, Arkansas but at least that gave time for his bed and litter-box to be made ready for him. There had not been a cat in the White House since Amy Carter's Siamese 'Misty Malarky Ying Yang', and Socks was only the fourth cat there since Calvin Coolidge left office in 1929 but he wasted no time in imposing his personality on the place, and it was not long at all before he became an internationally known celebrity.
Before Socks . . .
But there had been presidential felines in the past, long before the White House became the official residence, so before telling Socks' story we'll give them a mention.
As far back as Martha Washington's time, she kept cats at Mount Vernon and even had a special door put in for them to come and go (the precursor of the cat-flap?) The youngest son of Abraham Lincoln Tad, who lived to be only 18 (1853-71) had a pet called Tabby; the great man himself is said to have liked cats. Rutherford Hayes, nineteenth president (from 1877 to 1881), had a cat called Piccolomini, and also a Siamese kitten that was actually the first of the breed to be brought into the United States a gift from the US consul in Bangkok to Hayes' wife Lucy. It was named Miss Pussy. William McKinley (president from 1897 to 1901, when he was assassinated) and his wife Ida had an Angora cat. When it had kittens, they were named after prominent figures. To the president's amusement, the runts of the litter were named Weyler and DeLome, after two Spanish dignitaries; however, these unfortunate kittens were the first casualties when war broke out between the US and Spain, and Ida promptly ordered them to be drowned.
Theodore Roosevelt, president for two terms from 1901 until 1909, seems to have had quite a menagerie of various pets, which included two cats, a six-toed (polydactyl) grey called Slippers (left), and a feisty kitten known as Tom Quartz. A letter exists, dated January 1903, from Roosevelt to his son Kermit in which he describes some of the kitten's antics: 'Tom Quartz is certainly the cunningest kitten I have ever seen . . . an exceedingly playful little creature.' He goes on to describe how Tom had 'ambushed' Jack, the long-suffering dog. As for Slippers, she, as is the way of her kind, wasn't going to move from the spot she had chosen, even for the President of the USA! The story is told of an evening when Roosevelt, after a formal dinner, was leading an ambassador's wife out of the dining room towards the East Room, when they encountered Slippers, stretched out across the centre of the hallway. Instead of holding everyone up by waiting for the cat to move, or be moved, the President led the woman around the purring feline and all the dignitaries behind were obliged to follow suit.
Woodrow Wilson, in office from 1913 to 1921 (including WW1), had a cat called Puffins. Calvin Coolidge (president from 1923 to 1929) had a range of creatures to rival Roosevelt's, among which were a bobcat called Smoky and a pet canary. The bird is said to have 'fallen in love' with a cat named Timmie (left), belonging to Washington journalist Bascon Timmons; Coolidge ended up giving the bird to Timmons. (I haven't been able to establish whether this story had a happy ending or not!) Coolidge himself kept domestic cats as well; various names crop up in different accounts, including Tiger (nicknamed Tige), Smokey, Blackie, Marmie and Bounder. All agree that Coolidge liked to walk around the White House with a cat draped around his shoulders, and most accounts say it was Tige (right). He was a grey-striped tabby, who apparently was quite destructive to furnishings, causing the loss in particular of a valuable antique bedspread. His destructive ways led to his banishment after a while to a new home, leaving Blackie as 'top cat'; he apparently loved to ride in the White House elevator (lift).
Although President Harry Truman (in office 1945-53) was not an animal lover, one cat made determined attempts to move in with him at the White House. 'Mike the Magicat', 'psychic' pet of famous seer Jeane Dixon, arrived uninvited one day and was offered a meal before being driven home by limousine to the address on his collar. Thereafter he had to be collected regularly from the White House gardens by his owner. President Eisenhower (1953-61) apparently loathed cats, to the extent of issuing an order to his staff that any found around the White House were to be shot!
Later on, Caroline Kennedy and John-John had Tom Kitten, who adored their father, JFK. Unfortunately, though, the President proved to have an allergy to cats, and so Tom had to be found another good home. Nevertheless, when he died, the cat merited an obituary in one of the Washington-area newspapers. 'Unlike many humans in the same position', wrote the paper, 'he never wrote his memoirs of his days in the White House and never discussed them for quotation, though he was privy to many official secrets.' Susan Ford (Gerald Ford's daughter; he was president from 1974 to 1977) had a Siamese called Shan Shien in the White House (near right). Apparently Shan's favourite sleeping place was in the Lincoln bedroom. Ford was followed in 1977 by Jimmy Carter's administration and, as mentioned before, daughter Amy's Misty Malarky Ying Yang (far right) took over from Shan.
Ronald Reagan was very fond of the animals and had several tortoiseshell strays, although it seems likely they were at his ranch and not in Washington. Some didn't have names, but two of them were Sara and Cleo.
And so to Socks . . .
Socks, a black-and-white or 'tuxedo' cat, joined the Clinton family when Bill was governor of Arkansas; the much loved family cocker spaniel Zeke had been run over in the autumn of 1990, and it was not planned to get another dog for a while. However, one day the following year when Chelsea went for a piano lesson, there were two little kittens playing in her teacher's garden. The teacher had been trying to trace their mother, without success; but when returning to the car after the lesson Chelsea reached out to greet the kittens whereupon the little black-and-white one promptly jumped up into her arms. Thus Socks became a member of the family: and a good home was also found for his sibling, 'Midnight'. Their exact birth date seems to be a little hazy: when answering questions about Socks in February 1993 Chelsea said he would be 'three years old in July', thus 1990; but his commemorative plaque has 1991.
Socks goes to Washington
Socks soon made himself at home at the governor's mansion and proved to be a great explorer. When Bill made his successful bid for the presidency in 1992, it was decided that the cat should accompany the family to the White House and so he became the 'First Cat-elect'. One day in November 1992, leaving the mansion for his usual rounds, a crowd of press photographers lured him into range with some catnip, and so he got his first picture in the papers (main picture, above). The Clintons, unused at the time to this level of publicity, were said to be not pleased by the intrusion.
When they moved to Washington, it was decided that, for his own safety, it would be better if Socks was not left to roam free over all 18 acres of White House grounds, doubtless to return with 'trophies'; there was only an iron fence as boundary in parts, which he would have been easily able to slip through into traffic and crowds. He was therefore, somewhat reluctantly, confined to a long leash on the South Lawn when he was outside. However, this did not prevent him from following with interest the comings and goings of squirrels, birds and other wildlife in his territory; and for some months he also had a stray tabby cat as a friend dubbed 'Slippers', she shared his food and water during her visits.
Life at the White House
Socks' favourite outdoor spots included the garden outside the Oval Office, under one of the commemorative trees, when it was sunny; in summer, as it became very hot and humid, he took refuge in the thick hedge near the swimming pool. In cold or rainy weather he retreated indoors and although, understandably, he did not have the free run of the White House either, he naturally had his favourite spots. The Visitors' Office in the East Wing was one, where high-backed chairs provided a good vantage point to view goings-on, but also there he had a fantastic three-storey cat house, handmade by a Florida fan, into which he could retreat to 'get away from it all'.
A wing chair in the receiving room in the West Wing, just outside the Oval Office, was a favoured spot for a catnap. As time went on, he forged a particular friendship with Betty Currie, President Clinton's personal secretary, and spent a lot of time on a chair in her office. His permanent bed was in the engineers' room, where there was always someone around if he wanted company. But judging from the photographs accompanying this article, Socks made his presence felt in various areas and had many friends among the president's staff, so there were plenty of people willing to care for him when duties took the Clintons away from home. It also became evident that he was a cat of great character!
Visits, stamps and fan mail
He didn't appear to be particularly keen on publicity but of course he got plenty! He was quite often taken round on visits to children, or senior citizens, in the local hospitals, orphanages and nursing homes, and seemed to be happy to oblige; he would sit on Hillary's lap and purr, enjoying the attention. For these visits he travelled in his own smart carrying basket, complete with presidential seal; on occasion he travelled in a limo and in several motorcades. During the Clinton administration it was a cartoon 'Socks' (right) that guided visitors around the White House for Kids section of the website, launched on 19 January 1996, and that proved very popular.
Socks himself was featured on a great sheetlet of 9 stamps issued by the Central African Republic in 1996 (see right).
Both he and, later, the dog (see below) received huge amounts of fan mail, especially from children, and special efforts were made to answer them all. To the left is an example of the card that was sent to children who wrote to Socks. The retired service personnel who live at the US Soldiers' and Airmens' Home in Washington helped out a lot with dealing with all the mail and replying to it; sometimes Socks would visit them to express his appreciation.
But Socks' pleasant lifestyle was to be upset. When Chelsea Clinton went to college at Stanford in California, and Bill had been elected president for a second term, the family decided to get another dog. Chelsea wanted a small one she could pick up and carry, but Bill said he would like a big one that he could run with. It was felt a Labrador would be suitable in size and temperament: and so, at about 3 months old, Buddy erupted onto the White House scene, in December 1997. He and Bill hit it off straight away; but unfortunately, no one had consulted Socks . . .
In Hillary Clinton's words, Socks 'despised Buddy from first sight, instantly and forever'. He had had all the family attention for some years and found the dog's presence hard to deal with. He refused point-blank to be friends with this boisterous and intrusive canine, despite everyone's best efforts. If they were left together, Socks would be found hissing, fluffed up and with back arched, while Buddy tried to chase him under the sofa. Although the cat had clipped claws, he never lost an opportunity to take a swipe at the dog.
End of the presidential term and of Buddy
When Bill Clinton's second presidential term was coming to a close early in 2001, Socks' future had to be considered. Relations with Buddy had not improved. Several options were considered, including keeping him in Hillary's new Senate office, or having him in the new Clinton residence in Georgetown while Buddy stayed at the Chappaqua house. However, Betty Currie, who was taking retirement, expressed an interest in having her feline friend go to live with her, and in the end that was thought to be the best solution for Socks especially in view of Hillary's new commitments in the Senate, meaning she would have less time at home. It is not true that the Clintons simply 'got rid' of the cat, as some of their detractors would have us believe.
We learned that Socks' rival, Buddy the chocolate Labrador, was run over by a car and killed on 2 January 2002, while the Clintons were on vacation in Mexico. He was apparently chasing after a contractor's van leaving the premises of the Chappaqua house and in doing so ran out into the busy road that passes the cul-de-sac where the house is located. See New York Times article reporting the incident. Buddy was only 4½, and it must have been very upsetting for his owners, particularly as their earlier dog Zeke had died in the same way (see above).
One website remarked at the time that 'Socks did not attend the funeral and did not send a representative.' Later the same year Bill was given another chocolate Labrador which he named Seamus, who seems to have died of old age in about 2016.
Socks moves to Maryland
For some while the Clinton Press Office in New York maintained a dedicated telephone extension for enquiries about Socks. In mid-2006 we were able to report that he was in good health and enjoying life with Betty and her husband in Hollywood, southern Maryland, about 80 miles (130 km) from Washington. In October 2004 he made a rare public appearance when Betty was guest speaker at an Officers' Spouses Club luncheon at Andrews Air Force Base. Socks accompanied her and took part in the 'photo op.' (left)
A couple of years later, in June 2008 we were very pleased to hear that Socks continued to enjoy a relaxed retirement in Maryland with his best friend. He was still making the occasional public appearance, but his age was starting to show (at this time he was thought to be almost 19 years old) and he had age- and health-related issues. Southern Maryland Newspapers Online ran an excellent article about him at this time, with photos, entitled Socks Still Rocks.
Socks' last public appearance was at a fundraiser for local animal welfare groups on World Animal Day, 4 October 2008, at Leonardtown, MD, where he 'signed' photographs and books. Someone involved and who knew him well has since said he 'still had his Presidential bearing and drew quite the crowd'. A visitor to the event remarked that Socks 'graciously let everyone pet him' and commented, 'O what a cat: a once in a lifetime cat.'
Reports in mid-December 2008 brought the unwelcome but not unexpected news for a cat of Socks' age that he had cancer and was said to be close to death. For his many fans the world over this was sad news indeed. The cancer was in his throat and jaw region.
US News & World Report
Old trouper that he was, Socks battled on till mid-February 2009 and was still able to enjoy a reasonable quality of life. But it was a battle he couldn't win; he was rapidly losing weight and by the middle of the month he was hardly able to eat. Betty took him for a final walk, but when next day, on Friday 20 February, he could no longer stand up, she knew that his time had come. She took him on the final sad journey to his long-time veterinarian; and was heartbroken.
It was reported that Chelsea Clinton contacted Betty later that same day, as did the former President; and Bill and Hillary issued the following statement: 'Socks brought much happiness to Chelsea and us over the years, and enjoyment to kids and cat lovers everywhere. We're grateful for those memories, and we especially want to thank our good friend, Betty Currie, for taking such loving care of Socks for so many years.'
Southern Maryland Newspapers Online (archived copy)
Obit Magazine (archived copy)
People (archived copy)
Fox News (archived copy)
It's understood that Betty either buried or scattered a portion of Socks' ashes at one of his favourite spots overlooking the river near to her Maryland home. She sent another to his hometown at Little Rock, and in March, during a private ceremony at the Governor's Mansion, the ashes were scattered in the west garden. The First Lady of Arkansas, Governor's wife Ginger Beebe, read a piece she had composed to honour Socks, and a commemorative plaque was put in place we believe not far from the back porch near to the kitchen. The occasion was not reported in the press until July, when Mr Ron Maxwell, the mansion's administrator, was quoted as saying, 'That's where Socks hung out, on the back porch there'. The wording reads: Socks. 1991-2009. First Cat of Arkansas 1991-1993. First Cat of the US 1993-2001. The small urn which contained the ashes is now at the Clinton Presidential Library, Little Rock.
Socks 1991 - 2009
God sends some of us a special mission
To take in stray kitty cats,
To feed them and give them a permanent home,
To love them and make them our very own.
That's how it was for the cat named Socks,
Socks was very smart to have jumped
In the arms of little Chelsea,
For now Socks had a home at 1800 Center Street
The Arkansas Governor's Mansion.
While his time here was short
The move to the White House brought him
More family, fame and the envy of cats around the world.
Socks became a household pet name with his picture in
Magazines and image on posters.
He wrote a book that brought smiles to many a face,
Then retirement it was with his companion and friend
From his White House days.
Socks was loved by many and will forever be a part of the
History of this place, the Arkansas Governor's Mansion.
And so it was that Socks returned home. Our warm thanks to the First Lady who gave permission for her words to be reproduced here, and we are also most grateful to her assistant, Natalie Smith, for responding to our enquiry and arranging a photo of the commemorative plaque.
Socks had a great life for a stray from Arkansas, and became arguably the most famous cat of his time not only in the US but throughout much of the world, and not just because of his high-profile residence earlier in his life, and the fame that went with it, but because he was a cat of such character. He was greatly mourned by his legion of fans, and we have a very soft spot for him, but fortunately we're left with an excellent legacy of photographs.
More pictures of Socks
The White House website of the Obama administration features a slideshow of presidential pets which includes one of the most well-known photos of Socks.
After Socks left the White House . . .
George W Bush had three cats in Texas. The favourite was Cowboy, who died of kidney failure in 2000 aged 12. The remaining two animals Bush claimed to feed himself every morning when he was governor, and said how he missed them when he was campaigning for the presidency but still he did not bring Ernie to the White House, and gave him to a family friend. Ernie was a six-toed, ginger-and-white stray who had been rescued from a tree at the governor's Texas mansion in Austin, and was named for Ernest Hemingway who also had a six-toed cat.
The remaining feline, who was at the White House throughout the Bush administration but was fairly reclusive, was a black female called India (after a former Texas Ranger baseball player nicknamed 'El Indio'; although the name was also said to be short for 'India Ink', presumably because of her colour). She had been with the Bush family for many years and for some reason gained the nickname 'Willie', and was also referred to as 'Kitty'. India died on 4 January 2009 aged 18, and the family issued a statement expressing their sadness. A photo essay of India is included in the archived pages of the Bush administration. There were three dogs: a Scottie Barney, but English springer spaniel Spot (or Spotty) died in 2004. The family's ornaments of all three animals were pictured in a collection of presidential pet sculptures displayed in the East Room of the White House. A further Scottie was presented to Laura Bush early in 2005 and named Miss Beazley ('Beazley-Weazley').
On 14 April 2009 the Obamas' Bo, a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog, made his debut for the press corps: see the archived White House official video. A companion for Bo arrived in mid-2013, a female of the same breed named Sunny. Bo died in May 2021, aged 12.
Update, January 2022: Willow
After 13 years, a new feline made her appearance in late January 2022 in the form of Willow, named after First Lady Jill Biden's birthplace of Willow Grove. Originally from a farm in Pennsylvania, the kitten jumped up onto the stage and interrupted proceedings while Mrs Biden was at a campaign event in 2020, and the farm owner felt that the cat had bonded with the First Lady. For various reasons it wasn't possible for her to be welcomed at the White House until later, so she lived with a fosterer, but upon arrival in Washington she soon began to settle in and start exploring her new home, where she joined the Bidens' four-month-old German shepherd puppy called Commander. (Originally the Bidens had two adult German shepherds, Champ and Major, but they were only briefly at the White House. Champ died in June 2021 aged 12, and in December of the same year, following advice from experts after a couple of biting incidents, Major was given to family friends in Delaware where he could live in a quieter environment.)
A comprehensive listing of presidential pets can be found at Wikipedia.
For the account of Socks, and many of the photographs of him, I have drawn heavily on information in Hillary Rodham Clinton's book, Dear Socks, Dear Buddy, published in 1998 by Simon & Schuster, New York, which presents a representative sample of the children's letters written to the White House pets. I am indebted also to Deborah Bush, Archives Specialist of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, for her help (and for sending some extra photos); and to the Office of the First Lady of Arkansas as noted above.
Note: you may also like to read about Socks' feline counterpart in Britain,
Humphrey of Downing Street
The page includes his successor Sybil and others and, from mid-February 2011,
Number 10's latest feline resident Larry
Also take a look at our Featuring Felines section where there are many more tales and adventures of past and living cats. By and large they are not as famous, or their fame is (or was) more localised or transient, but they often have interesting stories to tell. There we have collections of Cats' Adventures, Cats in Wartime, Church Cats, Library Cats and many more.