Wednesday, April 3, 2024

The Gentleman Boss

The White House, 

President Chester A. Arthur was a tall and fashionably-dressed metropolitan who enjoyed the finer things in life. Once the highly-paid Collector of the Port of New York, Arthur artfully dispensed patronage jobs over the course of his political career, causing him to be called the “Gentleman Boss.” His brief tenure as Vice President ended with the assassination of James Garfield in 1881. Although the 
dignified spoilsman “looked like a President,” it can be said without exaggeration that nobody in the country, regardless of party affiliation, thought he could rise to the occasion. Arthur was even distraught at the idea of having been elevated to the highest office in the land. Making the best of his predicament, Arthur had the White House redecorated in accordance with his aristocratic tastes, and installed a French chef named Alfred Cupplinger, supposedly from New York.  A recently-discovered menu provides rare evidence of one of the high-water marks of presidential cuisine. 

Printed menus were almost never employed at the White House between the Hayes (1879) and Eisenhower (1955) administrations. The origin of the silk menu below is known because it was passed around for autographs and was hand-dated February 27, 1885, four days before Arthur left office. The menu was signed in pencil on the back by President Arthur and his sister, Mary Arthur McElroy, who performed the duties of First Lady for the widower President during the social season. Protocol dictated that the First Lady be seated directly opposite the President, which is where Mary McElroy was seated according to the position of her signature. The dinner was attended by twenty-two notable men and women, including Nevada Senator John P. Jones, Attorney General Benjamin Harris Brewster, and four Associate Justices of the Supreme Court—Samuel Blatchford, Stephen J. Field, Horace Gray, and Samuel Freeman Miller. 

The menu does not bear the presidential seal, most likely because Arthur regarded such dinners as private affairs. In much the same vein, the presential seal was dropped from invitations to the Executive Mansion during his administration. Colonel William H. Crook, a long-time White House staffer, recalled that President Arthur “wanted the best of everything, and wanted it served in the best manner.
 Reports of his lavish, 14-course dinners are confirmed by this bill of fare, featuring dishes that were de rigueur in upper-class circles of the Gilded Age, such as terrapin à la Maryland and canvasback duck. The coming of spring is reflected by grilled alose (shad), perhaps the first of the season. The presence of pâte en foie gras en Bellevue indicates Alfred Cupplinger was a chef of the top rank; and the dish named pommes à la Brunswick hints that he may have once worked at the tony Brunswick Hotel on East 26th Street. 

At the time of this dinner, Arthur was suffering from a terminal kidney disease that had been diagnosed in 1882 and was still a well-kept secret. After he died in 1886, a newspaper editor observed, “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired...more generally respected.” A bronze sculpture of President Arthur is mounted at Madison Square Park, just a few yards from where the Brunswick Hotel once stood.


Bob Ridout said...

Henry, I admire how you always work in several little known historical facts..
I learn something from each of your posts.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic story—well done.

Michael Peich said...

Henry--This wonderful little retelling of Chester A. Arthur's White House dinner is the essence of ephemera--recapturing retelling history by examining artifacts. Thank you for sharing this with us!


Rich Newman said...

A wonderful read! Its interesting that “Cardinal Punch” is the only beverage on this menu. Surely with all these rich dishes, there must have been an accompanying wine service.