December 10, 2009
By Georgia Fisher
Jennifer Boswell Pickens spent three years tracking down every living first lady, a score of White House staffers, and hundreds of rare photographs for her first book, Christmas at the White House. And when she couldn’t find a publishing company that would print it for her inside the United States, she and her husband, Bryan, started their own.
“Arguably, 90 percent [of coffee table books] are printed in Hong Kong,” said Pickens, of Highland Park. “It’s very tough on the environment, and I don’t think they pay their employees enough.”
Printing at home and going green was costlier, she said, but with the help of family, friends, and “one or two other investors,” Pickens was able to publish the 408-page book about presidential holiday décor at Williamson Printing in Dallas under her own label, Fife and Drum Press.
Christmas at the White House has since been picked up by a string of local stores and is “selling remarkably well,” said Pickens, whose next book signing will be Wednesday at Arlington Hall.
“We have a girls’ group, so I got one for everybody, but we’re going to all end up giving each other the same book for Christmas,” said Ruthie Pack, who left a signing at Write Selection last month with 13 copies and sighed when she saw a picture of Ronald Reagan dressed as Santa — with Nancy in his lap. “See, isn’t that just adorable?”
Pickens said she combed through about 1,500 photographs, many of them exclusive, to compile the book. To her delight, she was also able to land introductions from Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush — plus interviews with staffers, florists, chefs, volunteers, and others who could describe each administration.
Pickens, who graduated from SMU with a degree in political science, was appointed to the Texas Historical Records Advisory Board by Gov. Rick Perry last year. She began compiling Christmas at the White House as a means of maintaining her career while staying home with daughters Abby, 4, and Maggie, 21 months.
Pickens often did her research over the phone, online, or with the help of librarians willing to churn up documents from hundreds of miles away, she said.
“A lot of this has been done at home,” Pickens said. “You just take the phone calls when you can, and try to get as much done while [the kids are] napping. And you drink a lot of coffee.”
A favorite memory, however, is of a jaunt she took to Virginia to meet former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier.
“I spent a day at his house, and we were sitting on the floor of his closet, going through shoeboxes, trying to find photos of things that the libraries didn’t have,” Pickens said with a laugh. “I am proud to say he has become a very good friend of mine.”
Although Pickens has a background in political consulting, she thinks the book will appeal to people on both sides of the aisle.
“I went to painstaking efforts to ensure that this book is in no way politically natured,” she said. “Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, I think you’ll appreciate that.”
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