Barry H. Landau's life would be hard to imagine. If not for the documentary evidence he's amassed, it would be hard to believe.
When he was 10, Mamie Eisenhower invited him to the White House. On the verge of 14, he watched from the wings as Marilyn Monroe sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy.
He's gone on to serve one administration after another as an event planner extraordinaire, all the while building a collection of presidential artifacts that he says outstrips the Smithsonian's. He's danced with a queen; rubbed elbows with kings, an emperor and a shah; and shuttled autographs among Charles Lindbergh, Apollo 11 astronauts and President Nixon.
”It's a good thing I have these,” Landau says, nodding toward the memorabilia that cover a wall of his Manhattan apartment. Prominent among the framed items is a color photograph taken at President Reagan's second inaugural gala in 1985, an event for which Landau helped draft a guest list that included Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, James Stewart and Charlton Heston. In the photo, Reagan's gesturing in appreciation toward the tall, bearded Landau.
Other photos on the wall find Landau posed with every president since Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as with foreign heads of state and movie stars. He's invariably smiling, a Zelig at ease among the age's cultural and political icons.
”My grandparents were immigrants,” he says. “Only in America.”
His penchant for things presidential dates to Oct. 12, 1958, the day his mother Eva drove him to New York's LaGuardia Airport, where the Eisenhowers were arriving to celebrate Columbus Day. Security wasn't what it is today.
”When the president came through the
door, I went running up and saluted him,” Landau says. “He saluted right back.”
Young Landau, free of shyness from the start, told the first lady she looked beautiful, prompting her to kneel down and kiss him on the cheek. She invited his mother and him to visit the White House. That night, Landau wrote the president.
He still has the napkin that came with the milk and cookies he was served the following spring at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Ushered into the Oval Office, he sat at the president's desk while waiting for Eisenhower to come off the White House putting green. Landau sharpened pencils, then went to circle his birthday, June 14, on the president's calendar. That being Flag Day, the date was already highlighted.
”But I wrote 'Barry's Birthday' next to it anyway,” Landau says.
When the president came in, Landau admonished him for failing to remove his golf shoes. Months later, amid renovations, the White House sent him a cleat-marked square of the pulled-up flooring.
”That was really my first piece, but I wasn't a collector yet,” he says.
He saved the president's reply to his October letter, but there was no saving a copy of Landau's original correspondence. Then, last November, “life came full circle” when Landau launched a tour to promote his first book, “The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy,” at the Eisenhower Museum and Library in Abilene, Kan., Dwight D. Eisenhower's hometown. David Eisenhower, the president's grandson, and his wife, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, presented Landau with a laser copy of the letter he'd written nearly 50 years earlier.
Like Landau, the White House saves things.
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Landau, afflicted with chronic bronchitis and asthma as a child, says he felt inferior to his peers, and figures that's why he gravitated toward adults. While his illnesses kept him from “playing in other reindeer games,” he grew up wanting to be where the action is.
”I didn't have a game plan. I didn't have an M.O.,” he says. “People assume I'm from wealth and high society, but that's not true. My mother lived on the Lower East Side.”
Landau's airport meeting with the Eisenhowers is but the first in a series of serendipitous encounters that have steered his life's course.
After his defeat in the 1962 California governor's race, Richard Nixon moved to New York - into the building where the Landaus were then living.
During Nixon's presidency, Landau, who'd gotten a foot in the White House door as a teenage intern during the Johnson administration, started working on entertainment for state dinners.
At an Aug. 13, 1969, dinner honoring the Apollo 11 astronauts, Landau brokered an exchange of autographs. Dinner guest Charles Lindbergh wanted the astronauts' signatures, they wanted his and Nixon wanted all of them, Landau says. So he gathered up four menus, had everyone sign them and kept one for his collection.
”Everyone has their nose pushed up against the glass, whether it's you, the astronauts, Charles Lindbergh, Nixon …,” he says.
And everybody loves movie stars, including the Queen of England and the Shah of Iran, both of whom asked Landau to help plan events.
”We'd like to invite you and have you invite your friends to our New Year's Eve party in Persia,” Landau says the shah told him at a Washington function during the Gerald R. Ford administration. “The shah said, 'I'll send a jet.' “
At a dinner marking America's Bicentennial, Landau was dancing the “Lindy” with first lady Betty Ford when Fred Astaire cut in. Obliged to exchange partners, Landau turned to find Queen Elizabeth, the dinner's honored guest, awaiting him.
The queen invited Landau to a reception in New York two days later aboard the royal yacht Britannia. “She had 55 people for dinner,” he remembers. “I sat next to Pamela Harriman, across from Barbara Walters. … My mother had advised me to send flowers and then took care of it herself. None of the other guests sent them.”
Landau has the queen's thank-you note.
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After working briefly for the Carter administration, which favored an “understated” approach to entertaining, Landau returned to New York and launched a consulting business in event planning, public relations, marketing and talent management.
”Then the Reagans came in (to the White House),” he says. “I was in my element.”
Amid rehearsals for the Reagan inaugural gala, Sinatra hosted a private Super Bowl party at a Washington restaurant, and enlisted Landau's help in gathering up bags of the Little Tavern hamburgers the stars craved.
Later, in a suite at the Watergate Hotel, Sinatra had Landau place a call to Bette Davis in Westport. Rich Little, the impressionist, got on the phone pretending to be James Stewart. When Stewart found out about the prank, he wanted to make amends.
But the president himself insisted on making the second call, Landau says.
”Bette, this is Ronald Reagan.”
Davis cursed, and hung up, Landau says.