Tricia Nixon remembers her White House wedding, 50 years later

Fifty years after her stunning and well-remembered White House Rose Garden wedding, I spoke exclusively with former first daughter Patricia Nixon Cox to reminisce about that magical day.

By Jennifer Boswell Pickens

It’s not surprising that Tricia Nixon Cox still has vivid memories of such a historic and memorable day 50 years ago, despite having never watched any of the footage of it. It is not the cake, the dress, not even the amazing gazebo that she recalls most, it’s the small details that all brides cherish. As TIME Magazine, which featured the wedding on the cover, wrote of the 1971 affair: “Dearly beloved, the thing to remember about a White House wedding is that, despite its elevated tone, it is fundamentally like other weddings.”

World-renowned and legendary wedding designer Bryan Rafanelli says that a “wedding should always tell the couple’s story,” and there may be no greater example of that than the historic and celebrated Nixon-Cox White House wedding. Although she was the eighth first daughter to marry at the White House, Tricia was the first and only first daughter to have an outdoor wedding when she married on June 21, 1971, in the historic White House Rose Garden.

It was a wedding that by today’s standard would be commended. Yet more importantly as Rafanelli would say, “it told their story” while at the same time it would also tell the story of our nation and the times in which we were living. It was a story of a young couple very much in love that had a wedding that not only reflected them but also reflected our great nation. It echoed days when partisanship was set aside —even for a time!— for more important matters, and when the public shared in the significant moments that we all can relate to.

Tricia and Ed’s story began many years before when they met at a school dance in 1963. After their engagement, they decided to only immediately share the news with family and close friends. It wasn’t until March 1971 on First Lady Pat Nixon’s 59th birthday and a state dinner in honor of Taoiseach John Lynch of Ireland that the news was formally announced by President Nixon. And from that moment on the nation was captivated by the young bride-to-be and all the details of her wedding.

Seated at the State Dinner where the engagement was announced was famed designer, and personal friend to the Nixon Family, Priscilla Kidder of Boston. The Washington Post, Times Herald wrote, Priscilla of Boston, “the queen of Alencon lace, illusion silk and detachable trains, the creator of Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s white lace and ruffles, was there that night and has been hard at work ever since. She is producing four-layered silk organdy dresses, with matching floppy hats, for the bridal attendants, and the grand wedding dress itself, the design of which is a closely guarded secret”.

Kidder took many precautions to protect the design of the bride’s dress. Tricia recalls after seeing the original sketches she shared with Priscilla that her favorite period of fashion was more of the Edwardian style and that she preferred something simpler. The two had a close working relationship for Priscilla had even created her debutante gown years earlier, along with many of her mother’s, the First Lady’s ensembles. Priscilla flew from Boston with the wedding gown in her own suitcase where she would strap it into a first-class seat beside her for a fitting. (Reportedly the airline was going to charge her half fare for the case, but when Priscilla told them that Luci Johnson’s gown had flown for free the airline succumbed). The end result was a perfect gown for the bride. Famed White House Social Secretary to Jackie Kennedy, Tish Baldridge said that when a lady “chooses well, her bridal gown will reflect both the romance of the occasion and her own personality,” something that Tricia’s gown certainly did.

Designer Herve Pierre who has created designs for First Ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush tells me that Priscilla of Boston was “The” designer for couture bridal gowns and that Tricia’s dress was both classic and advanced, one that he could see a bride purchasing today.” Pierre compliments Tricia as a beautiful bride and especially loved the morning jackets that the groomsmen wore and the hats for the bridesmaids, styles that we do not see as often today now that weddings tend to take place later in the day and evening. Priscilla also created the mother of the bride, First Lady Pat Nixon’s beautiful tea-length gown.

Selecting the White House Rose Garden for the location was the choice of the bride and groom. Rafanelli, who also designed many historic events at the White House including the State Dinner in the Rose Garden in honor of Germany’s Angela Merkel in 2011, tells me of all the fantasies a bride could have of where to be married, there is no greater space than the Rose Garden. “The Rose Garden is the ultimate outdoor venue. It is one of the few places in the world that could truly never be replicated.”

The Nixon’s worked with their friend, horticulturalist and famed florist J. Liddon Pennock of Philadelphia as well as White House staff to create elements that would enhance the natural architecture of the historic Rose Garden. It included a one-of-a-kind ironwork gazebo covered with hundreds of white roses, (her father’s favorite according to White House florist at the time Dottie Temple), and stephanotis intertwined with a lush green garland. The gazebo created in the White House metal shop acted as an altar for the young couple and can currently be seen at the Nixon Presidential Library in California. Chairs for the guests were placed in rows to create a center aisle leading to the altar, decorated with ribbons and clusters of flowers. The White House carpenters created magnificent bases similar to French-style tubs filled with gorgeous topiary trees of pink and white roses setting the tone. It created what is best described to me as a “perfect floral walkway,” according to Heather Cooper, former White House florist for Bush, Obama and Trump and now lead designer at Blair House, the President’s guest house across Pennsylvania Avenue. The weather that day proved threatening, only letting off enough for the service to be quickly held but according to Tricia the soft rain “added a fresh dewy effect to the already spectacular setting”.

The six-tiered wedding cake was also part of the media frenzy, featured in countless magazines and newspapers. Tricia recalled that they chose to use a family recipe for old-fashioned pound cake with lemon, slightly altered for size created by White Pastry Chef Heinz Bender. Connie Stuart, the first lady’s press secretary, reported that there were over 700 press that were credentialed in one way, shape or form to cover the wedding, including technicians and the cameramen. Tricia said one of the reasons that the cake was so big was that she and her parents wanted to make sure there was enough cake that the press would be able to have a slice as well- all 700 members of the media! The cake was the focal point in the North Portico Hall, standing in the front of the historic gilded mirror with a gazebo on top and the bottom layer of the wedding cake was decorated with blown sugar love birds and the initials “P” and “E”.

Speaking with the bride today, Tricia describes how the day began: “full of lovely emotion” first with a note that had been placed under her door after she went to bed by the President of the United States. Her father, famous for his thoughtful notes in his distinct handwriting (that she remembers as an acquired taste) wrote “Well today is the day you begin a long and exciting journey. I want you to know how proud I have been of you through the years – some of them pretty difficult for you I’m sure. The years ahead will be happy ones because you will make them so”.

She remembers the difficult but decisive decision of having the wedding in the Rose Garden despite the threatening weather not because her heart was set on it in the Rose Garden (she knew it would be lovely in the East Room) but because she wanted all the amazingly talented people who had volunteered their time and talent to shine. She remembers descending the beautiful steps of the South Portico and her father pointing her to their left where White House electrician Traphes Bryant (who was also unofficial dog handler) stood with all three of the family dogs wearing wreaths made of the flowers, a beautiful gesture from a father to his daughter, a special surprise! She remembers the fragrance in the air of the magical White House Rose Garden that was fresh from the soft rain. She recalls the Reverend Edward G. Latch, who married them not because he was the chaplain of the House of Representatives, but because he was the Chaplin at the church she attended growing up as a child.

Among the 400 invited guests, Tricia was honored to have ninety-eight-year-old Alice Roosevelt Longworth, President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter who had been married at the President’s House in 1906, along with both daughters of former President Lyndon B. Johnson in attendance. Lynda Johnson had been married and had her reception at the White House and Luci Johnson had her reception inside the White House. “The Nixon wedding brought to a close the grand tradition of twentieth-century White House weddings,” said White House florist Dottie Temple, who served during the Nixon Administration through the Reagan years. It struck the perfect balance of respect of where they were and what the couple envisioned for their wedding.

Most importantly for Tricia Nixon Cox, who will celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary at the Nixon Library among friends as she uses the occasion to celebrate COVID-19 first responders, she remembers that “it was truly the happiest day for her family in the White House. My father was right when he said, ‘It was a day that all of us will always remember, because all of us were beautifully, and simply, happy’”.

Weddings will always be special and the memories last for many years. The customs and traditions we hold so dear will have a resurgence as people reflect on the past which will give new meaning to the future. Rafanelli believes that weddings today will have more significance as America comes out of this pandemic and in many ways have the “symbolism of the past” including those traditions of cutting a cake, clinking of the glasses and the first dance. “The classics stand the test of time,” he says. The Washington Post appropriately titled their article on Tricia Nixon’s Wedding: A Triumph of Tradition. The Rose Garden wedding of Tricia Nixon and Ed Cox celebrated everything we love about American traditions and customs that are uniquely our own.

Jennifer Boswell Pickens is a historian focusing on first ladies and the White House. She is a public speaker and author of three books, “Christmas at the White House,” “Pets at the White House,” and her latest book, “Entertaining at the White House: Decades of Presidential Traditions.” Follow her on Instagram @jenniferbpickens and Twitter @JenniferPickens