Vincent Carmody shares the life of Listowel native, Kathy Buckley with the readers of The Irish in America. Kathy Buckley made her way all the way to Washington, D.C. and the White House. I love Kathy’s spirit – she definitely made Listowel proud. Vincent’s account is full of great details about the people and history of Listowel, as well as entertaining anecdotes about the life and career of Kathy Buckley.
From Upper William Street to the White House: Kathy Buckley’s story
by Vincent Carmody
Kathy Buckley was born on the tenth of March 1885 at 26 Upper William Street, Listowel. She was the eldest of a family of seven, born to Lawrence and Ellen Buckley Her father worked as a cooper in his workshop at the rear of the house. Her mother’s family Kearney’s, were a long-established Church Street family of grocers and shoemakers.
Some time after Kathy had finished her formal education at the Convent Primary School in Listowel she secured employment from the Huggard family at the renowned Butler Arms Hotel in Waterville. It did not take her long to find her feet as a trainee cook and in a short time was held in high regard by both management and senior kitchen staff.
In the early years of the 1900s the hotel played host to an entourage of wealthy Americans led by the famous banker and financier J.P. Morgan, not only were they impressed by the natural beauty of the area but they were equally impressed with the quality of the cuisine prepared in the kitchen. Morgan at this time was seeking an assistant to his own chef at his mansion in Hartford, Connecticut and shortly before leaving he offered Kathy this position. She however told him that he would first have to speak to her father. Shortly after he returned to America he was in touch with Lawrence Buckley and permission was secured, however with conditions, one of which was a guarantee to send Kathy home if she was unhappy or unable to settle.
Arriving in Hartford she soon settled in as she had done previously in Waterville and busily engrossed herself in learning new culinary skills. During her time there, the head chef, a Frenchman succumbed to severe alcoholism and Kathy was his ready-made replacement. She thrived in her new position and the lavish banquets which herself and her staff prepared and served for J.P Morgan and his influential friends and guests were legendary.
One man who did not forget Kathy was an incoming President, Calvin Coolidge, a personal friend of J.P. Morgan and a frequent visitor to Hartford. He invited her to become head of the White House kitchens, an offer which she gladly accepted. She retained this position during his and the subsequent terms of Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. After leaving the White House she worked in the Seaport City of Providence, Rhode Island with an American family for some years. She finally returned in retirement to Listowel in the early fifties.
Because of family connection and as we lived quite close I got to know Kathy quite well during these years, however when one is younger as I was at the time one does not always appreciate a sense of history or indeed the historical significance of what someone so close and from our own street had achieved.
I can recall been with my cousins in their father Paddy’s cooperage when Kathy would come to the back door and call out, ‘Come in while the meat pies are warm’, these particular pies are a local delicacy in the area and would have been widely baked and eaten especially during the Listowel Races. The recipe she used, at one time she recalled, came from publican’s two doors up the street, appropriately called Mike (the Pie) O’Connor. She first got this recipe in 1907 when the O’Connor’s bought the public house from the departing McElligott family who had decided to seek fortune in California in the aftermath of the earthquake. Kate O Connor would have baked these pies especially for fair and market days. Over one hundred years on, this public house is still known as Mike the Pies.
As in Washington, Kathy dominated Buckley’s small kitchen, her two sisters Nora and Tessie relegated to the role of, as it were domestiques, albeit happy ones. When one entered her domain the smell of cooking was ever prevailing and one never left hungry.
During a radio review of the Vincent Carmodys book, North Kerry Camera, well-known Listowel short story writer Bryan McMahon was asked by the presenter if he had a memory of Kathy. He replied as follows:
‘When I was young, my Mother, who would have grown up in the same street as Kathy, would send me up to see had Kathy White House come on her holidays, asking my Mother how she got that name, she replied, Bryan , because she works in the White House in Washington, the home of the President of America. There after I would listen, one day my Mother asked Kathy had she seen any world crises during her time in the White House, Kathy’s immediate was ,’ Joanne, if my sandwiches came back from the Oval Office uneaten, I knew then there was a world crises’
Bryan told the presenter that Kathy Buckley saw world politics with eyes glazed by gastronomy.
In the same interview Bryan recalled that Kathy had told his mother that once the White House staff had lined up to greet the new incumbent, when Kathy was introduced as head of the kitchen, she stepped forward and said, “Mr President, I have something to tell you”, and he said “yes Madame, what is it”, and she said,” Sir, I have never voted for your party and I never will”, to which the President replied, “Madame, that is your right as an American citizen”.
In a further recollection, my first cousins husband Brian recalled been told the following, Once when Kathy was about to enter the lift to take her to the dining room floor level, a senior member of the executive who already was in the lift and who had a disdain for members of the household staff advised Kathy to wait for the lift on its return, like a flash she replied, that’s fine I will share it with the President who was coming upthe corridor to use the lift as well. She was a strong woman, never afraid to speak her mind.
In 1969, Kathy fell and broke her hip, having spent some time in St. Catherine’s Hospital in Tralee she was transferred to a nursing home in Listowel. Her condition deteriorated and on many an evening, as I sat by her bedside in a darkened room, her mind used travel back to earlier days as she used bid me light a fire in the Oval Office or collect a tray from the Rose Garden.
Kathy Buckley, cook extraordinaire, to three American Presidents died on July 19th 1969. From various anecdotes she appeared to have a good personal relationship with the Presidents, the very fact that Coolidge invited her to head the kitchen staff during his time when he took over on the sudden death of Harding in 1923 and again on his election in November 1924.
On a personal note I have in my possession the key which President Coolidge got when he was given the freedom of Fort Worth Texas, this he gave as a gift to Kathy on his return from that city. I received the key as a gift from the family of Kathy’s niece, my first cousin after her death in 2007. I also have correspondence to Kathy from Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover; there is a clear depth of warmth shown to her in this letter, It is also my belief that Herbert Hoover was the incoming President mentioned in the previous story of the interaction when the staff had lined up to meet the incoming President. As a lifetime Democratic supporter one would imagine that the advent of Franklin Roosevelt to the White House would have pleased Kathy, no evidence survives as such, however a conversation with her niece some years ago on her recollections on this period has given me some insight, while her relationship with the President himself was more formal than with the previous incumbents it seems she had a less than warm relationship with Eleanor, the Presidents wife. This may have stemmed from Kathy’s Irish ethnic background. Early Irish emigrants to America congregated and lived in the same neighbourhoods, as time moved on coloured families started to come into these same neighbourhoods. This resulted in the Irish having to move to new areas, because of this an inbuilt snobbery or elitism developed among the Irish emigrant population. Kathy Buckley though a very devout Catholic and a great benefactor of the poor throughout her long life possibly was an unintentional victim of this syndrome. Eleanor Roosevelt was a committed civil rights advocate all her life and during her time in the White House, 1933/1945 she was very much in favour of the employment of a greater number of non-whites especially in the area of household staff. This is where I think that Kathy Buckley had her difference with Mrs Roosevelt. Sadly we will never know the real story.
A bit about the author…
Vincent Carmody of Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland is passionate for local history. In 1985, hee helped publish a history of the local G.A.A. club, the Listowel Emmets, and in 1989, Vincent self published a historical photographic history of the town titled, North Kerry Camera (this book has become a collector’s item). Most recently, Vincent published, Listowel – Snapshots of an Irish Market Town, 1850-1950. (I just received a copy this week – it’s a gorgeous book!)
Vincent was born and raised in Listowel. He spent three years in England, 1963-1966. Returning home, Vincent spent nearly thirty-eight happy years working as a postman around and about the general North Kerry area. Vincent loved every minute of his work until his retirement in 2007.
Click here to read about Elmer Walsh – the Chicago man with roots in Listowel who defeated Richard Daley.
And there’s more from Vincent…
On Saturday morning next, Feb 22 2014 Radio Kerry will broadcast Frank Lewis’ Saturday Supplement at 9.00 a.m. This programme is !by Vincent Carmody’s book, Listowel: Snapshots of an Irish Market Town 1850 to 1950. Vincent’s walking tour of the town is something every Listowel person should experience at least once. If you haven’t done it, put it on your Bucket List. Now, Thanks to Frank Lewis and Radio Kerry, you can experience this tour at one remove, by listening to it on the radio.I am honoured to be part of the tour. I was invited by Vincent to read from Listowel greats like D.C Hennessey, John B. Keane, Joseph O’Connor and Seán Ashe.