Upland Chronicles: Mable Walker worked closely with three first ladies

Feb. 19, 2013 @ 03:10 PM

Most Americans’ knowledge of the presidents is obtained from media sources or reading. But Mable Elizabeth “Liz” Walker Ciarrochi, who lived the last three decades of her life in Sevier County, knew three U. S. Presidents and their families intimately.

Born Dec. 24, 1912, in Knoxville, Mable grew up in Oakwood, a neighborhood in north Knoxville. Along with her family, which included six younger siblings, Mable moved to Inskip about the time she graduated from Knoxville High School.

She attended night classes at National Business College in order to learn Gregg’s Shorthand Method, took advanced bookkeeping courses and worked for several years as a bookkeeper.

Hoping to obtain a job with TVA, she took the federal government civil service clerk-secretary examination, and her name was placed on the Civil Service Registry.

Using passes available to her because her father was a railroad employee, she traveled to Washington to visit friends in 1943. While there she was offered a civil service position in the management division of the General Services Administration as a secretary.

Despite the reluctance of her protective parents, Mable accepted the job and moved to Washington. Within three months she was promoted to the GSA Engineering Department, and additional advancements followed. Mable was working for the Commerce Department when she was called back to the GSA and offered a different type of government job.

It all started over a stick of butter. Henrietta Nesbit was the executive housekeeper at the White House during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. Shorty after his death, Mrs. Nesbit overstepped her bounds when she refused to allow first lady Bess Truman to take a stick of rationed butter from the White House kitchen to serve at a luncheon for her bridge club.

Mrs. Nesbit was immediately dismissed and her assistant Mary Sharpe was promoted to the executive housekeeper position. Surprisingly, Mable was offered the job as assistant to Mary Sharpe.

After some hesitation because of having moved through various jobs, Mable accepted the position on a trial basis. Before the Truman administration ended Mary Sharpe resigned and Mable, whose principal job was keeping books, was promoted to executive housekeeper.

On Sept. 18, 1947, Mable married Eli Ciarrochi. For about two weeks Mrs. Truman tried calling Mable by her married name, but admitted she and her staff struggled with the correct pronunciation.

Mrs. Truman asked Mable if she would ask her husband if he would mind if they called her by her maiden name. She was henceforth called Miss Walker throughout the years she worked at the White House. However, Mable’s husband Eli always called her Liz.

In 1973 J.B. West, chief usher of the White House, wrote a book titled “Upstairs at the White House, My Life with the First Ladies.” In the book he stated that Miss Walker protested to him that she didn’t know much about food — and after a month or two, Mrs. Truman agreed.

“I think she has a list of menus exactly two weeks long, and at the end of two weeks she runs through them again,” the first lady chuckled. That gave West the idea to divide the duties, allowing Miss Walker to run housekeeping and books and put head butler Alonzo Fields in charge of food preparation and services.

Mable adjusted to the White House routine and enjoyed working there while the Truman family was in residence. In 1949 her office was moved to the Blair House when Truman vacated the White House while renovation took place for almost all of his elected term.

During the Eisenhower years, a bond similar to a mother-and-daughter relationship developed between Mamie Eisenhower and Mable. The first lady encouraged Mable to write a book about her experiences in the White House. However, Mable declined, choosing instead to honor the privacy of the first families.

Normally, she would refuse to talk about her life at the White House and usually declined offers for interviews. The respect of privacy went on to include the family of President Kennedy.

Apparently the rapport Mable shared with Mrs. Truman and Mrs. Eisenhower never materialized with Jacqueline Kennedy. In 1963 she retired when the position of executive housekeeper and her duties were divided among several individuals.

Throughout the 21 years she spent working in Washington, Mable yearned for the day when she could return home. Frequently, she and her husband visited the Great Smoky Mountains while on vacation.

By the time she retired, they had purchased property and had a retirement home built. Their house was located on Grassy Branch Road between Gatlinburg and Pittman Center.

Once she was settled in Sevier County, Mable was known to her friends and acquaintances as Liz, because that’s the name her husband Eli called her.

In 1979 a NBC television mini-series was aired based on the book “My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House” by Lillian Rogers (with Frances Spatz Leighton). In the Emmy winning production, the role of housekeeper Walker was played by actress Marged Wakeley.

While watching the four-part drama on television; Mable learned, much to her surprise, that the White House staff affectionately referred to her as “Tennessee Darling.”

Mable “Liz” Ciarrochi passed away on April 26, 1993, at the age of 80. She is buried in Zion Grove Cemetery near her beloved retirement home.

After her death, Eli Ciarrochi donated his wife’s extensive White House memorabilia collection to the Pigeon Forge Library.

The priceless collection includes items such as a western shirt worn by President Eisenhower, photographs of presidents and personal letters from first ladies. Also on display are inauguration tickets, campaign buttons and music boxes which were gifts from Mamie Eisenhower.

Ciarrochi’s desire was for the exhibit to be enjoyed by everyone, especially those who might not have an opportunity to visit historical exhibits in our national capitol.

— Carroll McMahan is the Special Projects Facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, would like to submit a column or have comments; please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.