The Embassy’s Animals
In addition to the elaborate flora planted in the gardens of the British Ambassador’s Residence, there were failed attempts to import some fancy fauna: peacocks.
With their colorful plumage and stately gate, peacocks are standard fare at many European estates, wandering the grounds at will. But at the Residence, a succession of the birds proved to be at an often-fatal disadvantage, especially in a section of Washington close to the wooded corridor of Rock Creek Park—which provides a natural commuting route into the city for foxes, raccoons, and other predators.
News reports indicate the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo delivered a succession of peacocks to the British Embassy, but only a few ever returned alive. The first to arrive kept wandering into the middle of Massachusetts Avenue traffic; Embassy staff tired of fetching it back to the garden, and banished it from the grounds. A replacement was soon found dead in the garden, probably killed by dogs. The third turned up with a broken leg. A fourth “was silenced with the bird’s ugly death.”
A Washington Post report recorded the travails of one lonely female peahen that outlived several suitors in the Residence’s gardens. “Her periods of mourning were notable for their brevity” and whose piercing cries and screams would often fill the neighborhood, much to the neighbors’ displeasure. Finally left without a mate and now “visibly depressed since her last gentleman friend expired of the Black Spot,” the bird was shipped back to the Zoo in 1965 at the insistence of Lady Dean, where it could scratch out an existence with its own kind. How the noisy peacocks were kept away from eating the bedding plants is not know but perhaps that was another issue.
Most British ambassadors to the United States brought or obtained a family pet during their posting in Washington. At receptions, formal dinners, press conferences, garden parties, an animal provided a means of breaking the ice, particularly with shy guests. The first was Sandy, the much-beloved and well-traveled Scotch terrier owned by Sir Ronald and Lady Lindsay. Sandy died in the Residence, having swallowed a dropped sewing needle. Lady Lindsay planted her remains in the gardens that she did so much to create; exactly where is unknown, as the headstone (“Sandy Lindsay, January 1932”) has been misplaced, but apparently near the pool. A black cocker spaniel called “Dumbo”, adopted by Lindsay from a stay in Bar Harbor, Maine, came to wander her plantings.
The next recorded dog was Frankie, a dachshund owned by Lord and Lady Halifax (1941−45), known for eating hotdogs, which were an addition at garden parties during the war years, perhaps as an economy or a nod to the famous picnic served by the Roosevelts to the King and Queen during their 1939 visit. When asked by reporters where the dog got its name, Lord Halifax diplomatically said: “You can take your choice between the President [Franklin D. Roosevelt] or [Supreme Court] Justice [Felix] Frankfurter.”
“Alison’s Cat”, was “a playful black cat with amber eyes,” semi-wild but strongly attracted to the food at garden parties and teas, belonging to the four-year-old daughter of Sir Oliver and Lady Franks (1948−1952). Also regularly appearing was Delle, “a huge, white, photogenic French poodle of regal poise,” owned by the Embassy butler (1956). News reports noted that Delle “poses obligingly with lovely women for pictures and invariably steals the scene.” Delilah was a Golden Labrador owned by Lady Marjory Wright, wife of Ambassador Oliver Wright (1982−86), with a thick, healthy coat. Her heavy shedding caused considerable angst for Embassy staff during the overwhelming preparations for the 1985 Residence stay of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales. But as “part of the family,” Delilah was not banished, even temporarily.
By far the most famous Embassy pet was a gray and white American tomcat named Bluffy, who was adopted by the staff as a kitten during the tenure of Ambassador David Ormsby-Gore (1961−65). His origins were variously reported from the Robert Kennedy compound in Virginia, Hickory Hill or won in a raffle at a flower show. Bluffy remained a humble downstairs kitty during the appointment of the next ambassador, Sir Patrick and Lady Dean (1965−69), whose family pet—a bulldog named Bumble—enforced his upstairs prerogatives.
That changed with the next rotation and arrival of Ambassador and Mrs. John Freeman (1969-71), who had no dog and liked cats. With Bumble the bulldog gone, the Freemans granted Bluffy drawing room privileges, which the cat quickly seized and never surrendered. Bluffy soon was getting the kind of press coverage that many Washington politicians could only envy:
At one holiday buffet supper, Bluffy led the way for the 100 formally dressed guests into the dining room. Buffy has acquired the well-known English restraint, and she made no effort to hop onto the table or even jump on a chair. Guests were less restrained. Some put down their half-finished plates for Bluffy to polish off with an appreciative tongue. (The Washington Post, 28 December 1969)
During the extensive renovations to the Ambassador’s Residence in 1973, Bluffy, unlike the Ambassador, Earl of Cromer (in a hotel) and the furnishings (in storage), was left to fend for himself but stayed on, loyally patrolling the gardens and sleeping under the portico.
The cat had reputation for rubbing up on many famous guests (such as the sculptor and artist Henry Moore), a sneaky habit apparently encouraged by one ambassador’s wife, Frances Rambostham, “what one reporter suggested was an attempt to mislead guests about who or what was stroking their legs” (obituary for Sir Peter Ramsbotham, 10 April 2010, The Washington Post). Bluffy was known for his unusual tail—having “lost a considerable length of tail to the vicious jaws of a raccoon which invaded the embassy gardens a few years back,” according to the Post. Secure in his position, he also liked to lead dining-room processions for Embassy events. At the start of the Queens’s dinner at the Residence during the American Bicentennial celebrations:
… as the British State Trumpeters in their gold royal livery got the word that the queen was about to ascend the embassy staircase, Bluffy, the embassy cat, had marched between them to the dining room … Shortly after midnight the President left the embassy and the queen and Prince Philip departed soon thereafter. Bluffy by this time was stretched out on his back playing dead. (The Washington Post, 9 July 1976)
Bluffy ruled at the Embassy and ended up with a book (perhaps starting a trend that continued with White House pets), written and illustrated by Esme Cromer: The Embassy Cat (Jersey, Channel Islands, 1980), with illustrations by the author (Lord Cromer served as ambassador from 1971 to 1974).
Bluffy lived to a grand old age, through several ambassadors, and became increasingly opinionated over time; one Embassy staffer publicly declared him to be “a snob.” After Bluffy petulantly scurried out of one official Embassy fete, then-Ambassador Peter Jay (1977-79) noted the cat, perhaps 17 years-old at that time, “grows more disdainful with each ambassador.” But Ambassador Jay also noted that Bluffy has spent more time in the Embassy than any other living creature and toasted him as an institution. Bluffy was laid to rest in the gardens, buried under a favorite magnolia facing Massachusetts Avenue.
In The Letters of Elizabeth Sherman Lindsay is this declaration:
No proud mother has ever been more moved at her child’s first step, than am I on seeing the oak trees, which we planted, put on their autumn colouring. Truly when the days come on which my successor walks this garden, the ghosts of Sandy and myself will accompany her. And we will freely admit that it is not beauty which brings us, but the love created by loving labour in the vineyards (6 November 1933).
Perhaps there are other ghosts wandering the gardens as well. There is one identifiable pet grave near the pool: “Smudge, 1937–1952.” But exactly what or who Smudge was remains a mystery.
Today, the animal that serenely presides over all the Ambassador’s Residence gardens is Dame Elisabeth Frink’s bronze sculpture, Lying Down Horse (1974), in place since 1976, in time for Queen Elizabeth’s visit for the Bicentennial. With energy in repose, the animal is alert to all.