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Suite Inspiration on Mackinac Island

Lady Bird Johnson struggled not just with that weird nickname (friends actually called her Bird) but also with a nose along the lines of Louis XIV's. Had she known she was headed for Pennsylvania Avenue, she once ruefully admitted, she would have changed both.

One theory, mine, is that Lady Bird buried the grief her moniker and proboscis caused her in her defense of flowers, the issue for which she is best remembered, as the lovely Redouté prints in a suite designed in her image and named for her at the Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinac Island attest. But if I am reading Carleton Varney, who renovated the classic 1887 Great Lakes resort, correctly, the room also jibes with other things First Lady junkies know about their Bird that are less rosy.

Becoming a millionaire many times over amazingly did nothing to break her of the habit of buying seconds, as in sheets and pillowcases; as if to apologize for walls covered in swanky canary yellow damask, the Grand's Lady Bird Suite has a fiberglass tub and plastic shower curtain, two items to make her thrifty heart sing. Some of the furnishings seem chosen to shut out her occasionally cruel husband, so that this would be her lair, a place to lick her wounds. Lyndon Johnson thought his wife looked fat in full skirts and T-straps and forbade her to wear them. He preferred her in high heels, even though Lady Bird felt she was always about to fall over in them and that "people weren't really meant to wear [such shoes]; the Lord didn't fix the foot that way." Varney's revenge on her behalf is a pair of fussy, underscaled upholstered armchairs with backs that are high, buttoned, scrolled, straight, and quite painful, certainly for a famously broad-beamed man who stood six feet four inches tall.

Take that, Mr. President.

It's an amusing game, mining the First Lady suites at the Grand for significance and hurt feelings, and I haven't even told you about Nancy Reagan's, whose scarlet bedspreads and black-lacquered headboards brilliantly capture the dragon lady persona she cultivated before widowhood magically rehabilitated her public image; Jackie Kennedy's, where Hyannis Port meets the White House in a deliriously confused cocktail; and Betty Ford's, which hints darkly at her Valium-a-day habit.

A less magnanimous decorator might legitimately plead lack of inspiration with Rosalynn Carter and Barbara Bush, but not Varney, a sixties protégé of the great Dorothy Draper who now owns her firm and has a long history of working with First Ladies on everything from state-dinner favors to china services. While the dominant color of Carter's rather twee suite is Georgia peach (no surprise), Bush's is done in a brittle, chilly scheme of blue (for her eyes) and white (the hair she stubbornly refused to dye). The room suggests the "small nasty streak in an otherwise kindly genteel front" that Betty Boyd Caroli, in her coolly bipartisan, lightly scholarly book, First Ladies, from Martha Washington to Laura Bush (Oxford University Press), identified in G.W.'s mother.

For an institution with the Grand's flag-waving patriotism and evolved tradition of themed accommodations (Wicker, Vanderbilt, Tiffany), the memorabilia-filled First Lady suites were a natural. According to the Grand's resident historian, Bob Tagatz, at the turn of the last century the hotel was one of some 1,200 wood-frame resorts in the United States with 250 rooms or more. (Today there are just 12 such establishments.) Many, including the Grand, which has 385 rooms and is marooned in the straits where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron, were built by transportation companies in fantasy locations to entice Victorian travelers into their railcars and onto their steamships. "Some of the places were never meant to last or make money," says Tagatz.

Despite its unintended longevity, the Grand was for many years hobbled by a lack of design credibility. When it came up for refurbishment in the forties, W. Stewart Woodfill, a world-class eccentric who wore sneakers with his smoking jacket and had worked his way up from desk clerk to owner, cheaped out by hiring a no-name concern out of Chicago. With sofas in Howard Johnson's-blue matellassé vinyl, Varney says, the hotel looked like the lobby of New York's Roxy Theater.

Unfortunately for Woodfill, his guests were comparative shoppers. In 1948 the Greenbrier Hotel, the West Virginia behemoth on the same circuit as the Grand, commissioned a Romance and Rhododendrons makeover from nobody less than Dorothy Draper. The imperious New York tastemaker coined the look Modern Baroque to authorize the pairing of throbbing Regency stripes with cabbage-rose chintz, and hunt-club pink with lime and cobalt. The Greenbrier's interiors were the ones you remembered.

The Grand had been going a full 90 years before finally acquiring the right sort of visual oomph. Casting about for help in 1977, R. D. Musser Jr., Woodfill's nephew and soon-to-be successor, telephoned—and who couldn't see this coming?—Dorothy Draper & Co. After asking for the lady herself (Musser did not know she'd been dead eight years), he signed Varney up when it was explained to him that this was the person you hired to channel Draper's genius. Substituting geraniums for rhododendrons as a motif, Varney zapped the hotel with his mentor's signature mix of audacious colors and eye-bending patterns. In the time since, he has become the decorator du jour for traditional all-American properties in need of a jump-start. Among recent commissions is the once-tired, now-sprightly Mount Washington Hotel & Resort in New Hampshire.

To spend the night with Nancy Reagan, however, you will have to go to Mackinac Island, a place whose decided populist flavor (Main Street is lined with fudge shops) would give Queen Nancy the shivers. Meanly, I thought, her suite is hung with posters for the colossal duds she made as a movie actress, like 1958's Crash Landing ("Standby, New York! Standby, Lisbon! Flight 627 preparing to ditch in midocean!"). But Varney, a flamboyant figure from the old-school world of pagoda lampshades and Axminster carpets, insists Reagan is as proud of these films as Charlize Theron has a right to be of Monster.


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