Year
1911

White House housekeeper frets over presidential waistline

On this day in 1911, Elizabeth Jaffray, a White House housekeeper, writes in her diary about a conversation she’d had with President William Howard Taft and his wife about the commander in chief’s ever-expanding waistline.

According to the White House Historical Association, Jaffray was also quoted regarding Taft’s growing girth in a 1926 book called Secrets of the White House. In it, she detailed a typical breakfast consumed by the 332-pound president: “two oranges, a twelve-ounce beefsteak, several pieces of toast and butter and a vast quantity of coffee with cream and sugar.” When she and Taft’s wife, Nellie, commented on his eating habits, he jovially responded that he was planning to go on a diet, but lamented the fact that “things are in a sad state of affairs when a man can’t even call his gizzard his own.”

Taft’s 5′ 11″ frame carried anywhere between 270 pounds and 340 pounds over the course of his adult life. According to his biographers, he had to have his shoes tied by his valet and often got stuck in the White House bathtub and had to be lifted out by two or more men. Once, while visiting the czar of Russia, Taft split his pants seam while descending from a carriage.

Taft’s weight did not stop him from serving a full term as president, nor did it prevent him from accepting a subsequent appointment as chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1921—he was the first and only president to hold both offices. In fact, he successfully dropped down to 270 pounds after leaving the White House. Still, by today’s body-mass indices, Taft remained clinically obese. Although he rarely drank more than the occasional beer and did not smoke, his obesity and a lifelong struggle with severe sleep apnea eventually took its toll. In March 1930, he retired as chief justice citing poor health. He died the following month from heart failure.

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