When one first holds this handsome book, embossed in the green and gold of Kathy Buckley’s native county Kerry, there is an immediate yearning to uncover the wonderful story of this formidable lady. 

The cover of "Kathy White House - Her Culinary Odyssey from William Street to the White House" by Kerry historian Vincent Carmody features a wonderful painting, by Ann Redmond, that depicts Kathy standing on the front lawn of the White House in Washington.

Back in her hometown of Listowel, her exploits in America were closely scrutinized and when her employment took her to the lofty heights of the White House, she was soon given the monicker ‘Kathy White House’.

Beyond Listowel, the amazing story of Kathy’s pioneering feats in the kitchens and houses of wealthy merchants and US Presidents was somewhat surreptitious. In an era when women were not encouraged or educated to be pioneers in their chosen fields, Kathy excelled in her chosen discipline, despite these hindrances.

Her story is one of endurance and ambition to be the best at her chosen profession and she worked long hours to achieve this. Kathy never married, so one wonders if she forewent a matrimonial life for her career. She certainly could not have juggled both. 

Kathy was born to Cooper Lar and his wife Ellen Buckley, at Listowel, in 1885. She attended the local Presentation convent where she finished her primary education, having completed an extra year learning basic domestic economy. It was during this year that Kathy first found that she had a natural skill in cooking, a skill which she developed, honed, and became in the years and decades that followed. 

As the new century dawned, Kathy had secured a position as a kitchen help at the Butler Arms in Waterville Co. Kerry, over time she helped with others in a kitchen rota preparing meals. One particular evening, in 1906, having prepared dinner for some American guests, one of whom, who having enjoyed the cooking, asked to meet the cook. He was none other than the famous banker, JP Morgan, then, in a pivotal moment in her young life, Morgan offered Kathy a job as an assistant cook at his home in New York.

So, in 1906, Kathy started working under the tutorage of an experienced French chef, soon becoming a confident cook under his guidance. However, the chef had a drinking problem and one morning he was found drowned, having fallen head-first into a barrel of wine, Kathy then assumed leadership of Morgan’s kitchen. She thrived in her new position and the lavish banquets that she and her staff served for Morgan and his influential guests were legendary. 

Kathy was heartbroken, when, in 1913, news came through that her mentor and friend, JP Morgan, had died in his sleep at his hotel in Rome. Following Morgan’s demise, Kathy decided to seek employment elsewhere with her excellent resume and soon found work with the influential Johnston/Norcross family at their exclusive home in Boston.

Similar to the Morgans, these families entertained extensively, so Kathy had time to experiment, trying out new ingredients, developing new recipes and the opportunity to be introduced to new influential guests. In 1913, after Kathy applied to be a citizen of the United States, she made her first trip back to Listowel since she emigrated in 1906. 

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Kathy was next employed by Dr. Homer Gage and his family at their home in Worcester, Massachusetts, where on December 10th, 1917, she received her full citizenship papers. She now had full rights and could travel freely. In a sense, she had arrived.

In 1924, she was contacted by Mrs Grace Coolidge, wife of Calvin Coolidge, who offered her the position of head of the White House kitchen.  (The Coolidge’s would have met Kathy previously, through their visits to both Morgan’s and Gages).

Kathy arrived to take up her position in the White House following the 1924 Presidential election. She was now exposed to visits by world leaders, statesmen, and famous actors. Nothing phased Kathy.

She continued to work with President Hoover and his wife and was sure she would serve another term under President Roosevelt following his election in 1932. However, Mrs Roosevelt had other ideas and dismissed the entire kitchen staff and replaced them with her own staff. Kathy fought a good fight, but eventually, she relented.

Having her White House experience on her resume, she continued to find employment in the kitchens of wealthy households. Unlike many other Irish emigrants, Kathy was lucky enough to return home to Listowel in 1953, where she lived until she died in 1969.

Kathy Buckley’s life story is only one aspect of this fascinating book. There are multiple recipes used and typed by Kathy with details of musicals and famous musicians of the day.

Previously unpublished menu cards for the period 1926 to 1928 and artifacts and ephemera she collected during her eclectic life abroad also adorn the pages of this wonderful tome.

"Kathy White House - Her Culinary Odyssey from William Street to the White House" will be launched by culinary historian Laura Shapiro at the American Irish Historical Society, 991, Fifth Avenue, N.Y. on Wednesday, March 6th at 6 30 p.m. By coincidence, Listowel native Ms. Elizabeth Stack was recently appointed executive director of the society.