Guest columnist Richard Szlosek: Rebecca the elite raccoon 

By RICHARD SZLOSEK

Published: 05-19-2023 2:34 PM

I am a volunteer docent at the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Museum in Forbes Library and, as a result, random ordinary things often trigger thoughts about Calvin and Grace Coolidge to my mind. An example of this is Bill Danielson’s column on raccoons that appeared in the May 10 edition of the Gazette [“Parenthood and midnight raiders”]. As bizarre as it might sound, Coolidge once had a pet raccoon named Rebecca that lived in the White House with him and Grace.

Apparently in the 1920s there was an effort by many farmers and ranchers to convince the White House to serve a meat other than turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. The most extreme example of this occurred in 1927 when someone from Mississippi sent a raccoon to Coolidge as a possible substitute holiday choice.

The Coolidges, who already had a small menagerie of dogs, cats and birds, chose to make Rebecca a pet instead. At Christmastime she was even given a special collar inscribed with the words “White House Raccoon.” If you can imagine, Rebecca had full run of the White House and sometimes would open drawers or knock over houseplants and then unpot them. On at least one occasion she unscrewed a light bulb. Mrs. Coolidge wrote that Rebecca loved to be immersed in a shallow amount of water in the bathtub where she would play with a bar of soap for an hour.

I don’t know if Rebecca was housebroken, but she was regularly walked on a leash on the White House grounds. Reportedly, she was present at the annual Easter egg hunt. A structure was built in a tall tree for her use and a tall fence surrounded it for her protection. Rebecca also was kept chained while she was outdoors. She never had to worry about food as she enjoyed a fare that included shrimp, persimmons and eggs.

She was such an accepted member of the presidential family that, when the Coolidges traveled to the Black Hills while the White House was being renovated, Rebecca, along with two dogs and five canaries, was included in the 1,800-mile rail trip.

A White House guard once brought a wild male raccoon, named Reuben, to the residence as a possible mate for Rebecca. Reuben, however, did not take to the domestic life. He often ran away and finally disappeared completely. Mrs. Coolidge wrote that Rebecca was resentful of and overbearing toward her potential spouse and clearly preferred the bliss of a single life.

In 1929, as the Coolidges prepared to leave the White House, they donated Rebecca to what is today the National Zoo. Rebecca did not take well to the pent-up life. She had been the most famous and pampered raccoon in the world, with a staff meeting her every need. She had traveled on a presidential train, had her own treehouse, the companionship of other animals and was often cuddled by the first lady.

Now all that was gone. Rebecca died only a few months after entering the zoo, perhaps from a broken heart caused by losing all contact with Calvin and Grace Coolidge.

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Richard Szlosek lives in Northampton.

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