— The “flower czar’’ who created floral decorations and beautiful arrangements at the White House across the span of six presidencies, died Saturday at 66.
Nancy Clarke, who retired in 2009 after three decades as a florist at the White House, began as a volunteer in the Carter administration in 1978 until her promotion to chief floral designer during the Reagan administration. During that time she became well-acquainted with the floral tastes of six first ladies, with whom she worked closely.
First lady Michelle Obama issued this statement to TODAY.com: “We were deeply saddened to learn of Nancy Clarke’s passing. For three decades, Nancy brought beauty and elegance to the White House, brightening the grounds for Presidents and their families, and delighting coworkers and visitors alike. She will be dearly missed.”
Clarke died from a respiratory ailment, her husband, Michael Clarke, told The Washington Post.
In September, Clarke released a memoir through Sellers Publishing of her time in the White House, titled “My First Ladies: Twenty-Five Years as the White House Chief Floral Designer.’’
“Pleasing the first lady was more important to me than anything else,’’ Clarke wrote in the book.
In the book she notes that Michelle Obama enjoys forsythia, Hillary Rodham Clinton liked tropical flowers such as birds of paradise, Nancy Reagan adored peonies and bright colors, Barbara Bush was fond of lavender and Laura Bush liked traditional flowers. She worked closely with all the first ladies on the arrangements in the Oval Office and for state dinners as well as seasonal decorations.
Clarke employed a staff of three that dealt with flowers supplied by local growers and as well as ones shipped in from around the world. She became close with several first ladies, helping Laura Bush select the china for the White House and preparing a special bouquet for Nancy Reagan that was commissioned by her husband as she recovered from breast cancer surgery. Clarke also dealt with the quirks of floral arrangements during visits by foreign dignitaries, making sure to avoid white flowers for any Muslim visitors because they are usually associated with funerals.
“I thought she was really, really lovely, and very grateful to have had all those years in the White House,’’ her literary agent and friend, Jane Dystel, told TODAY.com. “She was very proud of what she had been able to accomplish there. She was very easy to work with, and I translated the experience in creating the book into what she was like at the White House.’’
Clarke ascended to the chief florist position in 1985, replacing the retiring Dottie Temple, who praised Clarke’s “wonderful sense of color’’ and “innate sense of proportion and style’’ in an interview with The Washington Post.
“She was very much admired by everybody who worked with her,’’ Dystel said. “Her arrangements were classic, and she would never say anything negative about anybody.’’
She first became fascinated with becoming a florist in the 1970s when she worked at a shop in Dayton, Ohio, and then later enrolled in a floral design school outside Cleveland. She began as a volunteer in the Carter Administration, which often favored understated centerpieces because of an ailing economy, before being hired full time by the Reagan administration. She worked as head florist until 2009, when she retired to spend more time with her children and grandchild.
“I can't imagine they'll be somebody who has that scope again,’’ Dystel said. “She went from the Jimmy Carter administration to the Obama administration. She was just very classy.’’