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From My Old Kentucky Home to the White House

From My Old Kentucky Home to the White House: The Political Journey of Catherine Conner

Catherine Conner
Copyright Date: 1999
Edition: 1
Pages: 200
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130jrn1
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  • Book Info
    From My Old Kentucky Home to the White House
    Book Description:

    This lively memoir recounts the story of a determined woman who led a remarkable life in the highest circles of power in both state and national politics. Catherine Conner spent her formative years on a farm named "Solitude," located outside of Bardstown. Her father, who taught her early to ride and swim, told the young woman, "I can't teach you how to be a lady, but I can teach you how to behave like a gentleman." She was weaned on a secret "early breakfast" of bourbon and milk toddies that her father brought to her every morning. Though she enjoyed privilege, Conner also witnessed the harsher sides of rural life. Those experiences markedly shaped the personality of a woman who would become the youngest National Democratic Committeewoman and would subsequently serve in FDR's inner circle. Conner began her political career in Kentucky under the tutelage of J. Dan Talbott of Bardstown, heading the successful effort to have Federal Hill, better known as "My Old Kentucky Home," preserved as a state park, which has now become one of the most popular in Kentucky. When local leaders proved only mildly supportive of the project, Conner devised a campaign in 1921 that raised $45,000 by having schoolchildren all over the state drop their pennies into a cardboard replica of the famous home. She acted as a special assistant to Harry Hopkins for five years, helping set up departments to carry out New Deal programs and lobbying. She befriended many of the shapers of the 20th Century, including Senator Sam Rayburn, A.B. "Happy" Chandler, and Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia. Throughout her life, Conner witnessed remarkable events. She saw the Hindenburg crash, met Amelia Earhart, and had Cary Grant show her how to gut a Thanksgiving turkey.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4981-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Solitude
    (pp. 1-8)

    My personal history began in February 1898, when my mother, Nancy Barbee Hayes, married my father, James Valandingham Rouse, at the old Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky. Following the ceremony on that bitterly cold day, they went to the wharf at the foot of Fourth Street to board a boat on which they floated down the Ohio River to the Mississippi; and, after several days, to a festive and warm New Orleans. At the end of the honeymoon they returned on the boat to Louisville, where they were met by Mama’s brother with a beautiful carriage and a spanking pair...

  5. 2 Jenny
    (pp. 9-20)

    There were the three of us—Mama, Papa, and me. But most of all there was Papa. Six feet tall and just under 160 pounds, he had piercing green eyes, black hair, and strong, prominent features, doubtless from some distant Irish ancestor. I used to love to roll his name off my tongue, “James Valandingham Rouse.”

    A prince on a white charger was what Papa was to me. I took this image from a picture in a childhood storybook from which he used to read to me. When supper was finished, he would pull a chair up to the table...

  6. 3 A Time to Grow
    (pp. 21-32)

    Papa’s efforts had brought about adequate roads, mail delivery, and later telephones; but there were still very few schools in the area, so he set about to find a teacher who would live with us and teach me. He finally located a Miss McKinley, from Massachusetts, who had retired as a teacher because of her health and who was willing to share our lovely farm and instruct me until I was old enough to go to a boarding school.

    She arrived one fine fall day, and the next I saw of her was in an upstairs bedroom with maps, charts,...

  7. 4 The Picnic
    (pp. 33-46)

    When America entered World War I in 1917, Sam Conner joined the aviation branch of the army, which was in its infancy. Oh, my, he was so handsome in his uniform, I fell in love with him. I had been a little bit in love with him ever since he’d dug me out of the snowbank.

    It seemed as though every time Sam came home from the army to visit, we would have a big storm and the creek on our farm would rise. Sam wouldn’t be able to get across so my father would take me to meet him...

  8. 5 The Democratic Convention
    (pp. 47-62)

    After my successful picnic, I rose from precinct chairman, to county chairman over twenty-two precincts, to chairman of my seventeen-county district. The following year I was selected by a Democratic majority to be the Democratic national committeewoman from Kentucky. My political star was rising.

    My election did not come easily. It was bitterly contested by Ben Johnson, former Democratic congressman for the Fourth District (my district). He had been congressman for many years and had built up a good-sized following, and he wanted his wife to hold the position of national committeewoman from Kentucky.

    Much scandal was implied about me....

  9. 6 First Political Appointment
    (pp. 63-72)

    In September, I received a brief note from Governor Byrd, asking me to attend a meeting of the finance committee to raise money for Roosevelt’s campaign for the presidency. The meeting was to be held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City.

    In 1932 we were in the midst of a money panic, and business was going badly. I was fearful that I could not afford the trip, but I called my husband and Dan Talbott into consultation; and after we’d studied the home situation carefully, it was decided that I must go. Dan was very careful to get...

  10. 7 The Move to Washington, D.C.
    (pp. 73-82)

    After the election of FDR I returned to my home in Bardstown, with the full intention of settling down again into the quiet life. Yet there was a restlessness in me. In New York I had moved in large and important circles, both political and social; and now I was bored with country life. I missed the eight weeks I had spent there, and I missed Harry Byrd, with whom I had spent much of every weekend of those eight lovely autumn weeks. I had fallen in love, and I was ashamed of myself and didn’t want my husband or...

  11. 8 My Most Famous Dinner Party
    (pp. 83-92)

    I would never have given the dinner party if I hadn’t taken the house in Georgetown; and I would not have taken the house if it hadn’t been for Swing Low, a Chow puppy sent to me by a friend in New York. What that dog cost me!

    I was living at the Mayflower Hotel, enjoying my public relations work with no complications when Swing Low arrived. I had not known I was going to be the recipient of such a gift; so when I walked into my apartment one afternoon and saw a baby’s playpen in the middle of...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. 9 Public Relations
    (pp. 93-106)

    One of my clients was the Austin Powder Company, a DuPont subsidiary. I had worked with Austin since my highway construction experience in Kentucky and I did sales as well as public relations. That was how I met Sam Rosoff at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York in 1935.

    The home office had brought to my attention that Rosoff had been awarded a contract for constructing subways in New York City and suggested that I get in touch with him to see what part of his purchase in explosives and cement we could garner.

    To me, Rosoff was just a...

  14. 10 A Dictator Visits Kentucky
    (pp. 107-120)

    I had occasion to call on Franklin Roosevelt for help again in 1937. The weather had been dreadful in Kentucky in the early spring. It rained and rained and creeks and rivers began to overflow. One night I had a premonition that I might hear bad news; though I had been invited to dinner, I refused the invitation and remained at home alone.

    When I heard thephone ring, I jumped up to answer. It was Dan Talbott calling me from Frankfort. He said that Governor Chandler was down at the old prison in a boat trying to get out the...

  15. 11 Cultural Exchanges
    (pp. 121-128)

    One day in the spring of 1939, I went to Philadelphia to attend a concert conducted by Leopold Stokowski. My friend Joe Sharfsin was going to be my escort. As Hawk drove me to the railway station, we passed the basin where the cherry trees were in riotous bloom. A few years later, when we were fighting Japan, I could never see those beautiful trees blooming without an ache in my heart for all of us who had enjoyed this gift from the Japanese and now were at war with them.

    That night, Stokowski stood on the stage and described...

  16. 12 Major Changes
    (pp. 129-140)

    Late in 1939, Hawk was driving me to Florida to visit a friend when we had a frightening experience. We were traveling through Georgia; and for an hour it seemed we had been following a farmer who was herding his stock down the middle of the road. I had become very impatient by the time we crept into a little town. “Blow the horn!” I commanded Hawk, and he proceeded to do so.

    Immediately, from the porch of a little country store stepped a burly white man in overalls. He came around to Hawk’s window. “We don’t let no goddamn...

  17. 13 Hollywood Years
    (pp. 141-152)

    When I moved to California, I kept my apartment in New York for the excitement and cultural events of the winter season. But I found summer in California, with its perfect climate, delightful. Southern California and Beverly Hills were beautiful, with their wonderfully clean beaches and large swimming pools.

    The lifestyle in the tinsel world of movieland and movie magnates was certainly a far cry from what I was used to in Washington and New York. In 1943 culture had not yet descended. The one great restaurant was Romanoff’s, and there one went to see and be seen and was...

  18. 14 Assignment in Europe
    (pp. 153-166)

    In 1954 I left California to return to Washington, which has always felt more like home to me than anywhere else, even Kentucky. I went to see Vice-President Richard Nixon, who was very kind and gave me valuable advice as to how to go about getting a government position in Europe. I didn’t want to be an ambassador but a roving promoter of U.S. interests.

    Mr. Nixon made an appointment for me to see President Eisenhower, who listened and questioned me. One of the many things President Eisenhower was expert at was the art of listening. After a long discussion,...

  19. 15 Return to Kentucky
    (pp. 167-172)

    To my surprise, Jimmy met me at the airport. He did not look ill, much less near death. He had endured so much after his accident—two months in a coma, facial reconstruction, and the treatment suggested by Edgar Cayce—that it was a miracle he had recovered enough to lead a normal life. I was sure he could be healthy again. I asked for a second opinion. It was the same. My son was dying of cirrhosis of the liver.

    I didn’t want to distress Jimmy with my fears for him so I decided not to come home to...

  20. Index
    (pp. 173-179)