For many, June 12, 1971 was the social event of the season. For President Richard Nixon, it was an opportunity to just be a dad for a day, in an era of discontent. But for one young woman, it was the biggest day of her life, because she was Tricia Nixon — the president’s oldest daughter — and she was marrying law student Edward Finch Cox in the White House Rose Garden.
“It was such a happy day at the White House,” Jennifer Pickens, a White House historian focusing on first ladies told TODAY. “Everyone embraced the moment. It was all about two people in love committing their lives to each other.”
White House weddings were not unheard of: Tricia Nixon was the ninth presidential offspring to be married there. Another 12 presidential children have been married while their fathers were in office, but not at the White House (TODAY’s Jenna Bush Hager wed at the Bush family ranch in Crawford, Texas). And this particular wedding, a first daughter getting married in the legendary outdoor Rose Garden, was certainly a special occasion. As the country roiled with protests about social changes and the Vietnam War, it was a singular piece of good news — like an American royal wedding.
“People always say they remembered her wedding,” said Pickens. “They wanted the wedding cake recipe; they wanted to know what the bridal attendants were wearing. There were stories about how she had to sneak her wedding dress in and out of the White House. There’s something people love when it comes to stories like that about everyday life in the White House. It gives us something to relate to — they are like our royal family.”
So even though our invitation got lost in the mail sometime back in 1971, let’s revisit that special moment in White House history by walking through the most important parts of the day:
Tricia Nixon, 25, and Edward Cox, 24, originally met at a high school dance in 1963, according to the Nixon Foundation; he escorted her to the International Debutante Ball the following year. They dated through college, and in 1970, Cox asked her father for her hand in marriage.
But not before she’d had at least one other date, with future U.S. president George W. Bush. Then a pilot in the National Guard, Bush, 22, was set up by his father, future President George H.W. Bush (who was then a Texas congressman) to meet Nixon at a gala.
But as TIME reported, in a 2014 memoir, “41: A Portrait of My Father,” George W. Bush recalled spilling wine and lighting up a cigarette during the date, which led her (Tricia Nixon) to ask to be taken home “immediately after dinner.”
Back to Cox, then, who clearly felt comfortable around the Nixon family and the surrounding high-stakes political milieu. “They’d been together for years,” said Pickens. “Because he had been in the White House, they were very prepared [for being in the public eye].”
They chose June 12 for their wedding, and it felt natural to hold the ceremony in the Rose Garden. And that morning, the bride woke up to a note from her father placed under her door, wishing her well. “Today is the day you begin a long and exciting journey,” he wrote. “You have made the right choice.”
As the first White House bride to have her ceremony in the Rose Garden, Tricia Nixon was gambling a bit with the weather. “There was a lot of back-and-forth about whether they’d move it inside, but they had a plan for rain,” said Pickens. “They kept bringing the chairs in and taking them out.”
But a brief window of time opened up where it promised not to rain, so the event stayed outside. “The reason she really wanted to have it there was there were so many volunteers who’d come out from around the country and worked to make the Rose Garden beautiful,” said Pickens. “She wanted to share their work.”
An elaborate white iron gazebo had been created for the reading of the vows and the actual ceremony. It now resides at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California.
Priscilla Kidder, founder of Priscilla of Boston, had gained fame by helping dress Grace Kelly’s bridesmaids in 1956, along with designing the wedding gown of Luci Baines Johnson (daughter of President Lyndon Johnson). She was a natural to dress Tricia Nixon, and found a way to be both elegant — the dress was white silk organdy appliquéd with Alencon lace and embroidered lilies of the valley over silk crepe — and a bit scandalous, since it was sleeveless.
Adhering to the traditional “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a sixpence in her shoe,” according to a White House press release, the bride wore a sapphire and diamond engagement ring which had been given to Cox’s grandmother (old); her wedding gown (new); a pair of diamond and pearl drop earrings from her sister and matron of honor, Julie Nixon Eisenhower (borrowed); an inscription in blue thread on white satin inside the dress that read “Gown by Priscilla of Boston for the White House marriage of Tricia Nixon to Edward Finch Cox, June 12, 1971” (blue). And yep, she did have a sixpence in her shoe!
Meanwhile, though the bride’s dress white, the color scheme for her four attendants was mint green and lilac, with the matron of honor wearing mint green, under-skirted with lilac. Their hats were created with layered organdy in colors that matched their gowns and featured “transparent crowns vined in silk and embroidered flowers,” a White House press release noted.
“It was in every way a garden wedding,” said Pickens. “It was very spring-like. I could see a bride today wearing that dress — it was fashion-forward, but also traditional. The bridesmaid dresses were more of the period.”
And there were a few other party guests who got “dressed”: President Nixon had ensured that the family dogs were given flower wreath collars. “We forget our commanders-In-chief are human, and it’s nice to think about him having the White House florist make wreaths to be placed on the dogs,” said Pickens.
As President Nixon recalled in “The Memoirs of Richard Nixon,” the bride emerged from her room between 3 and 4 p.m. that day in her wedding gown and veil, and met up with her mother and sister in the West Hall. Military officers who served as social aides in the White House were holding the 400 guests indoors in case of rain, but a weather report indicated that at 4:30 p.m. things would be clear.
As the weather held up, the ceremony began. The couple had written their vows themselves, and afterward there was a reception line and dancing in the East Room.
After greeting guests, the bride and groom waltzed to “Lara’s Theme” from “Doctor Zhivago” for their first dance, and after the band launched into “Thank Heaven For Little Girls,” President Nixon took over with his daughter while Cox danced with Mrs. Nixon.
The guest list for the event was extensive and full of important names from all walks of life, including former first lady Mamie Eisenhower (her grandson David had married Julie Nixon in 1968), former first daughters Lynda Bird Johnson, Luci Baines Johnson and Alice Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt), F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, Rev. Billy Graham, Ethel Waters, Red Skelton, and Ralph Nader — but no members of Congress.
Eventually, the newlyweds left for their honeymoon, and in his memoir, President Nixon wrote about watching the ceremony again on TV specials that night.
“He definitely felt the need to be seen [by the public] as a dad, to look better to young people,” Ian Randal Strock, author of “The Presidential Book of Lists” and “Ranking The First Ladies” told TODAY. “It was his inner personality that was the driver of things like a public-relations campaign taking the form of a wedding.”
With six tiers, the lemon pound cake was, according to the Chicago Tribune, 350 pounds and big enough (by design) to serve to the press as well as the guests. It was created by White House chef Henry Haller, White House pastry chef Heinz Bender and pastry specialist Maurice Bonté. The ingredients were reasonably simple: sugar, butter, cake flour, lemon zest, salt, eggs and baking powder.
“Newspapers were trying to crack the recipe,” said Pickens. “Everyone wanted to have a piece of this cake; everyone was trying to copy it.”
The White House sent out a recipe of the cake that would yield a 12-inch round version, but there was a problem with the proportions, Pickens said, and a revised version was quickly issued to adjust things properly:
Though the ceremony wasn’t broadcast live, network specials that were airing later in the day invited the world into the ceremony. According to Pickens, hundreds of journalists were credentialed to cover the wedding and the TV shows attracted 110 million viewers (those numbers include a preview show the night before the wedding).
Of course, not all members of the press were as welcome as some. Judith Martin, who covered social events for The Washington Post before starting her “Miss Manners” etiquette column, was on what she told the Post and Courier in 2010 was President Nixon’s “deep freeze” list for having “crashed” Julie Nixon’s wedding. She’d also opined about Tricia Nixon in previous coverage, noting that “a 24-year-old woman dressed like an ice cream cone can give even neatness and cleanliness a bad name.”
The Post (and Martin), were banned from covering the wedding, former Post publisher Katharine Graham wrote in her 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Personal History” memoir. But, she added “the paper had the best coverage of the event” because reporters from around town handed Martin their notes on the wedding. The Post’s story showed up on the front page, with no byline.
Meanwhile, Barbara Walters was working for NBC at the time, and joined co-anchor Edwin Newman on the breezy South Lawn of the White House for special coverage of the wedding. She wrapped things up by saying, “Of course, whenever there is a wedding like this, there are those who say, oh perhaps too much attention is being paid for, to it, and too much money being paid for it … But why are we so interested? Well, it is historic. And it is a chance perhaps to see a little of the backstage gossip, to view the closest we have to tradition and royalty. To see the powerful in their off-guarded moments.”
Nevertheless, the wedding was not the entirety of what the press was covering. On June 13, The New York Times famously printed a photo of President Nixon and Tricia along with wedding coverage on the front page — but just a few columns over featured a story about the release of what would become known as the Pentagon Papers.
But for at least an evening, with President Nixon and his family watching their home movies on national television, any looming problems likely seemed far away.