The White House’s First Celebrity Dog

Bo, the Obama’s First Pooch, has a legacy to live up to in Laddie Boy, the family pet of President Harding

As First Dog, Laddie Boy was worthy of an official portrait. (Library of Congress)

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"Airedales are very people-oriented and want to please their masters," says Kansas State's Elmore. Laddie Boy did his best to keep the Hardings happy. He brought the newspaper to the president at breakfast each morning. He did charitable work at the behest of Florence. On April 20, 1921, the Times published a story reporting that the terrier had been invited to lead an animal parade that would benefit the Humane Education Society in Washington, D.C. The unidentified reporter wrote: "Announcement that Laddie Boy had accepted the invitation was made today at the White House." As if Laddie Boy had his own press secretary!

Occasionally, though, the Airedale balked at life in the presidential fishbowl. Like other administrations before them, the Hardings continued the tradition of the annual Easter Egg Roll, held on the White House lawn. On April 18, 1922, the Times published a story about the well-attended event: "It wouldn't have been a children's party without Laddie Boy, [who] was the first resident of the White House to appear on the south portico. His keeper let him loose down the steps, but so many were the little hands put out to pat him that Laddie Boy raced back and spent the remainder of the morning sitting proudly on a table. There was almost as large a crowd of youngsters watching the Harding Airedale as there was around the five truckloads of bottled pop on the driveway."

Fourteen months later, Harding undertook a cross-country train tour, in part to distract the American public from allegations of wrongdoing by some of his cabinet secretaries. Harding, who had an enlarged heart, had been in failing health before leaving Washington, D.C., and during the trip, his cardiovascular troubles became more acute. On August 2, 1923, the nation's 29th president died in his room at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.

The Hardings had not taken Laddie Boy on the whistle-stop tour, instead leaving him in the care of his White House handler. The day after Harding died, the Associated Press ran a story about the dog: "There was one member of the White House household today who could not quite comprehend the air of sadness which hung over the Executive Mansion. It was Laddie Boy, President Harding's Airedale friend and companion. Of late he has been casting an expectant eye and cocking a watchful ear at the motor cars which roll up on the White House drive. For, in his dog sense way, he seems to reason that an automobile took [the Hardings] away, so an automobile must bring them back. White House attachés shook their heads and wondered how they were going to make Laddie Boy understand."

Sympathy for the grieving dog inspired a woman named Edna Bell Seward to write the lyrics for a song titled "Laddie Boy, He's Gone," which was available on sheet music and piano roll. The third verse reads:

As you wait—brown eyes aglisten
For a master's face that's gone
He is smiling at you, Laddie
From the peace of the Beyond

While making arrangements to leave the White House, Florence gave Laddie Boy to Harry Barker, the Secret Service agent who had been assigned to protect her. Barker had been like a son to Florence, and when his White House assignment ended, he was transferred to the agency's Boston office. Laddie Boy settled into a new life at the home of Barker and his wife in Newtonville, Massachusetts.

To honor Harding's background as a newspaperman, more than 19,000 newsboys around the country each donated a penny for a memorial to the fallen president. The pennies were melted down and cast into a life-size sculpture of Laddie Boy by Boston-based sculptor, Bashka Paeff. While Paeff worked on the sculpture, Laddie Boy was required to complete 15 sittings. Today, the sculpture is part of the collection at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History (the artifact is not currently on display).

Florence Harding died on November 21, 1924, at a sanitarium in Marion. She was survived by Laddie Boy, who passed away on January 22, 1929, nearly six years after he had reigned as first dog. Ever the faithful chronicler of Laddie Boy's charmed life, the New York Times ran a story describing the terrier as "magnificent," and reporting that the "end came while the dog, ailing for many months of old age, rested his head on the arms of Mrs. Barker." The Airedale was then buried at an undisclosed location in Newtonville.

Laddie Boy's celebrity as a presidential pet might never be surpassed—even by the Obama dog. Certainly, current news-gathering technology makes filing stories now a lot easier than it was in 1921. But with our country fighting two wars and the U.S. economy in turmoil, it's hard to imagine New York Times reporters giving as much sustained coverage to the Obama dog as they did to Laddie Boy. In the end, though, who can resist a cute dog story?


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