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Commentary Government & Politics

Frank DeFilippo: Transitions Involve Households and Not Just Politicians

Government House, the governor’s mansion, sits just across the street from the State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Handing off the baton to the next duly elected person in line is often assumed to involve only the bric-a-brac of government. But the democratic (small d) act of transition, more often than not, carries with it the additional chore of personalizing the job of governance by setting the tone and the style of life not only in the State House but across State Circle at Government House, the governor’s mansion.

Over the decades, life in the 54-room Georgian mansion has been quiet to chaotic, mundane to miserable and, well, as private as a life in a fish tank will allow. Take a peek:

Maryland has always been a quirky, schizophrenic state, bedeviled by the Mason-Dixon line, halved by its North-South sympathies, split by Eastern and Western Shores, carved into five regions, communicating in seemingly different dialects, it is, despite it all, but a single entity.

Gov. J. Millard Tawes (1959-67) represented all of the above during an era of crushing turbulence and social upheaval with an Eastern Shoreman’s sensibilities and a courthouse clerk’s twinkle.

The squire of Crisfield seemed, at times, uncertain about what to do. Anti-war demonstrations on the streets, rioting on the Eastern Shore, civil rights demands by students practically in his hometown, and Gov. George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, invading his state as a candidate for president, Tawes dispatched the National Guard to Cambridge, sent snarling State Police dogs to Princess Anne, and backed away when President Lyndon Baines Johnson asked him to run as a stand-in candidate for president against Wallace.


Frank A. DeFilippo

Tawes recommended Sen. Daniel B. Brewster instead, and Brewster defeated Wallace by the skin of his teeth, 50,000 votes. Johnson thought Tawes was a genius for suggesting Brewster and never forgot the gesture.

But life at the governor’s mansion under Tawes was quiet and genteel, Eastern Shore beaten biscuits, and other Eastern Shore delicacies – swamp critters and water fowl – served as the bill of fare in the family dining room. Crab cakes were a must. The mansion’s cooks – they were not chefs – were mostly retired U.S. Naval Academy cooks who were used to preparing meals for thousands.

Tawes’ wife, Avalynne, had been a voice student at the old Peabody Conservatory. And Victor Frenkil, a Baltimore contractor, who tried to remake himself into a patron of the arts (as well as a beneficiary of government contracts) was allowed frequent access to the mansion, where he sponsored recitals by musicians and vocalists he favored.

George H. Hocker, the beer lobbyist and Tawes’ facilitator and moneyman, had free run of the mansion and spent many evenings there plotting strategy during legislative sessions. The annual legislation to increase the tax on beer was dubbed “the Hocker rocker.” The governor’s annual salary at the time was $15,000.

Change was swift and relentless. Tawes was the last of his generation and breed to serve in the State House. But Tawes returned to government two years later, at the request of Gov. Marvin Mandel, as Maryland’s first secretary of natural resources under a remodeled cabinet system of government.

When Spiro T. Agnew (1967-69) followed Tawes to the State House, he brought with him tastes acquired from his ambassadors to the wonderful world of money and their willingness to support the new governor’s habits.

Maryland’s capital city and its political class had always been a beer-and-crab cakes kind of milieu. Agnew’s arrival ushered in the haughty Chivas Regal years.

First, Agnew’s benefactors installed a wine locker and fully stocked it with pricey vintages, as much to accommodate their tastes, as frequent dinner guests, as well as Agnew’s. This contribution was arranged by Walter Jones, who ran interference for Agnew on many of his sideline schemes, and whose wine tastes leaned into top-rated burgundies such as Romani-Contee and La Tache.

Next, Agnew ordered that the mansion’s many rooms be wired for sound to pipe in his middlebrow taste in music – his favorite, Mantovani. (Agnew played sing-along piano by ear.)

Immediately upon taking office, Agnew let it be known that he would be a 9-to-5 governor and had no intention of being in the office on Wednesdays, which were set aside for golf with his buddies. (Somewhere there is a caricature of Agnew and a dozen of his closest friends, most of them wealthy businessmen, from the good old days. It was described by one writer as “fourth-rate Bruegel.”)

At one point during Agnew’s brief governorship, the mansion was in need of serious repair. The Agnews – including wife Judy and two daughters – were dispatched to take up residence on the Maryland Lady, the state’s 120-foot yacht (which was once owned by Arthur Godfrey). Agnew complained of constant backaches from the yacht’s sleeping accommodations during his stay on the water.

But his wealthy friends were ready to open their checkbooks again. They paid to install a sauna in the mansion so that Agnew could soothe his aching back and relax his sore muscles from a day on the links.

Agnew was among the nation’s best-dressed governors. His suits were bespoke, cut and sewn by the same tailoring company, and paid for by the same wealthy benefactor, as would eventually haberdash Gov. Marvin Mandel – political impresario Irv Kovens.

Agnew was once asked how he remained so wrinkle-free. He responded instantly: “I never cross my legs or lean my back against the chair.” Talk about your anal-retentive.

Agnew’s wife, Judy, incidentally, was strictly a homebody. She was never seen in the State House. She made no fuss over the mansion. She embraced no causes or crusades. She was rarely seen in public as Maryland’s first lady.

When Marvin Mandel (1969-79), Maryland’s first Jewish governor (how quaint that sounds now), took up occupancy in the mansion, a quick inventory of the wine locker found the racks to be completely empty except for a single bottle of Manischewitz that Agnew left behind – probably Agnew’s idea of an ethnic joke.

If the state’s yachts, the Maryland Lady and its smaller companion, the 50-50, were Mandel’s playthings, his wife, Barbara “Bootsie” Mandel, made it her business to fuss over the mansion. She didn’t so much refurbish it as realign it and make certain that every article was in a proper place.

Mandel was not a fussy eater – often a hot dog from the State House canteen for lunch, or a plate of cold crab meat and fruit ferried from the mansion larder to his office across the street. Dinner at the mansion was sometimes preceded by a bourbon and water, followed by a burger and fries with the ketchup bottle within easy reach.

The mansion also served as a temporary chapel and reception-dinner hall for the wedding of their daughter, Ellen.

Sensing that her marriage was headed for the rocks, Bootsie assembled and printed a glossy brochure to show that she was still chatelaine. When Mandel announced that he was leaving her for another woman, Mandel initially lived at the Hilton Hotel on the Annapolis waterfront, and later at a rented apartment.

When divorce and remarriage struck, Mandel’s life underwent a significant change. Burgers and the ketchup bottle were banished from the dining table and replaced by fine Bordeaux and Veal Oscar. Mandel could be seen having lunch frequently with his new young wife, Jeanne Blackistone Dorsey, at a French restaurant on Main Street in Annapolis.

Around holiday time, a concoction indigenous to Jeanne’s Southern Maryland called “stuffed ham” – a ham stuffed with kale and cured – now appeared on the mansion’s dining table.

Bye-bye members of Baltimore’s Crosstown Democratic Club, and hello cousins and friends from St. Mary’s County.

To further insinuate her presence in the mansion, Jeanne ordered the State Police from their basement command post to appropriate the space for a love nest of wicker and fern that resembled a Clyde’s restaurant. Jeanne’s drink was vodka and tonic, two limes.

Whereas Bootsie had respected the invisible barrier between the State House and the mansion and remained on her side of the circle, Jeanne suddenly was everywhere – at news conferences, in meetings, a constant presence in Mandel’s office offering her two cents worth to the governor and his staff. Friction developed as she identified staff members for firing, though none ever happened.

As a condition of her divorce, Bootsie established a gallery of first ladies along the mansion’s winding staircase to assure that her portrait would always hang in the mansion. When she moved out after barricading herself in the mansion for six months, one of Jeanne’s first acts was to reverse the order of portraits by sending Bootsie’s upstairs and out of view.

But a real ruckus erupted when Mandel and Jeanne abandoned the mansion after Mandel’s indictment and conviction for fraud and racketeering: Furniture, including valuable antiques, were missing from the governor’s official residence. Mandel didn’t know the difference between an antique and an orange crate.

Lt. Gov. Blair Lee 3d and his wife, Mimi, couldn’t give a fig about the mansion. As acting governor and first lady, they took up temporary residence there because they had to.

Maryland’s most patrician couple was the state’s least formal pair.

Lee complained that the mansion help laundered his pajamas every day. He preferred them wrinkled and soft from wear a few times.

Mimi Lee roamed the big house in Sunny’s Surplus fatigues. She commuted back to Silver Spring almost daily – boats lashed to the roof of her car – to teach canoeing and swimming to Girl Scouts.

Lee complained about being trailed by janissaries (armed and dangerous State Trooper-security guards) everywhere he went.

The Lees hosted one grand party during their brief time at the mansion – on the occasion of their departure for home in Silver Spring after losing the election to his good friend, Harry R. Hughes.

Immediately after taking up residence, Patricia Hughes, wife of Maryland’s new governor, pronounced the governor’s mansion “tacky.”

But wait! Trouble ahead. Maryland’s new first lady pressured her husband into ordering an audit of the mansion’s furnishings. The investigation concluded that Marvin and Jeanne Mandel had made off with mansion furniture, including one-of-a-kind antiques, when they packed up and left in disgrace.

After legal quibbles and many back-and-forths, the Mandels agreed to reimburse the state $9,000 for furniture that “mistakenly” ended up in their new residence. A booklet about the mansion published later by the State Archives referred to the furniture imbroglio as “felonies.”

Hold your horses. There was also ugly talk, too, that Harry and Pat Hughes had allowed many of the mansion’s one-of-a-kind pieces to be auctioned off as a way of raising money to buy furniture that fit the historic demands of the new period theme they introduced. No inventory or records exist.

Over eight years, the Hughes undertook a massive restoration of the Georgian mansion, giving each of the public rooms on the first floor an authentic period appearance.

There were observations, and complaints, that the Hughes’ puppy left its mark, too.

Architectural Digest gave the $3 million restoration its stamp of approval. It published a full-color spread.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer made his entrance scowling.

He was annoyed, as noted last week, that Hughes and his wife had depleted the mansion operating fund to pay for alterations of their wardrobes to accommodate the good life as Maryland’s first couple. So Schaefer had to obtain an advance to cover the tab for his lavish inaugural dinner.

Soon thereafter, Schaefer installed his long-time companion, Hilda Mae Snoops, as a full-time resident at the mansion and named her “official hostess.” She became known as “first friend.”

He was annoyed by the Hughes’ make-over of the mansion. So he eventually dismantled the so-called Billy Baldwin room, named after the famed decorator from Baltimore, and put the authentic furniture pieces in storage in the mansion basement.

Schaefer re-purposed the room into seasonal displays – electric trains and all of the trimmings at Christmas, and in the Spring the room was used for an Easter egg hunt. Schaefer was Maryland’s king of kitsch.

Schaefer also created a special committee to oversee the mansion as well as to collect funds and other contributions toward its décor.

His friend James Hindman, who owned Jiffy Lube and was bidding on a $27 million state contract at the time, contributed a $45,000 oriental carpet which had to be cut to fit its purpose in the mansion – a sacrilege in the rug trade but an accommodation to Schaefer’s whim.

To wit: The General Assembly approved legislation that transferred custody of the mansion’s public rooms from the Maryland Historical Society to a Governor’s Mansion Trust.

At his first inauguration, Parris Glendening paused, briefly, in his inaugural address to intone the words – “Frances Anne, you are the wind beneath my wings.” It was a tribute to his wife, the daughter of former Maryland Sen. George Hughes.

Soon she would be his ex-wife, but not before he helped to raise $400,000 to support her project about Maryland’s first ladies. Word was seeping out that Glendening was being accompanied by a young female staff member, Jennifer Crawford, on out-of-town trips to such events as governors’ conferences.

Eventually, there was an urgent wedding ceremony, and, for the first time in memory, an infant began life in the governor’s mansion.

The O’Malleys, Ehrlichs and Hogans have been either discreet or reticent about life in the mansion. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the first Republican elected since 1966, used the mansion smartly as a political tool. Ditto Gov. Marin O’Malley.

The Ehrlichs, though, made a big deal of, once again, restoring the public rooms of the Georgian Mansion to its period-piece authenticity. And at his inauguration, Ehrlich made a cringe-worthy jock’s remark about having auditioned the bedding.

Ehrlich made another significant contribution to the mansion. He hired and installed professional chefs in the kitchen to succeed what had been cooks recruited from the retired ranks at the nearby U.S. Naval Academy. Still, crab cakes prevailed when the guest list was long.

O’Malley spent a good deal of time batting down rumors about his private life having another private life. They were the handiwork of Joseph Steffan, an Ehrlich appointee, and were never proven, substantiated, or concluded to be anything other than – rumors.

The Hogans, too, have been quiet about the mansion except to open it to the public, briefly, over the Christmas holidays – a holiday tradition reborn, only to be cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hogan also heeded his own warnings about grouping and remained socially distanced. He announced that he cancelled his planned Thanksgiving family get-together to opt for dinner with only his wife, Yumi, where else, but at the mansion.

There was one other cancellation at the mansion earlier this year because of the spreading germ, and that was the planned celebration of Bootsie Mandel’s 100th birthday – a party by invitation that would have spanned decades and generations of guests for a happy reunion.

There was, too, a passing mention by Hogan early on about the installation of a special appliance, or two, to accommodate the first lady’s Korean heritage culinary tastes.

And that’s about it for the mansion’s contribution to Maryland politics – from the sublime to the ridiculous.


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Frank DeFilippo: Transitions Involve Households and Not Just Politicians