"Believe me, Nancy thinks she's equal to, if not better than, Joan Crawford," he says. "Van Johnson's a client of mine, and he told me she still thinks of herself as a movie star."
Also in the room, framed, is the handsome scarf with Reagan's initials that Varney created at her behest and had put into limited production. Reagan's Associate Presidency was in full swing then, and she gave the scarves as gifts (apparently, you really had to earn one). Each of the First Ladies was solicited for contributions to her suite, but beyond agreeing to send a (very fuzzy) copy of her White House portrait, Reagan short-circuited all participation in a note from her assistant, which Varney, oddly, has elected to display. Well, maybe not so oddly. If you have stars in your eyes, I suppose, a brisk rejection on Nancy Reagan letterhead might be interpreted as an embrace.
Reagan's choice of the romantic society portraitist Aaron Shikler to immortalize her was no accident. Shikler had already done the official likeness of another First Lady and queen, Queen Jackie, a copy of which (also 10th-generation) adorns Kennedy's suite. The two works are so similar in composition, it is easy to imagine Reagan ordering, "Make me look like Jackie—or else!"
By the evidence, Varney does not seem very fond of Kennedy. There is no shortage of beautiful pictures of the world's most photographed woman. But he has gone out of his way to choose wire-service images for her room that show her looking either painfully vulnerable (at JFK's funeral) or plain crazy (wild hair and strange black spaces between her teeth at Henley in 1969). I guess you could imagine the bed, which is freighted with finials, whorls, and volutes, in the White House after Kennedy Frenchified it. But the glitzy way Varney has painted the bed is more Highpoint than Jansen. Referencing his subject's long association with Martha's Vineyard is a beefy seaside-ready check stitched into curtains and bed hangings. But the fabric is a slimy synthetic taffeta. Synthetic?Jackie Kennedy?I don't think so.
On the other hand, Varney should get the Purple Heart for his mere willingness to engage with the exasperatingly negative style of the senior Mrs. Bush, who took a sinister pleasure in weariing $29 shoes with her made-to-order Arnold Scaasi inaugural gown, and Carter, whose clothes were so far below the radar that they failed to register.
While Varney never worked on the White House itself, he did do Rosalynn and Jimmy's log cabin in Ellijay, Georgia, as well as the couple's main residence in Plains. To repay their patronage, I have a suspicion, Rosalynn's is the only suite with a four-poster. But if designing her room was a breeze, because of their shared history, Betty Ford's was the most challenging.
"I'm theatrical, so it was a little difficult, what with Mrs. Ford being so low-key, such a nice woman," says Varney. "My first thoughts were Michigan, where the Fords started out when he was a congressman. Michigan is very subtle, which is why I decided to do the walls in a limpid teal green. The Betty Ford Center and all that only came into my head afterward."
Another thing about those walls: they're padded.
GRAND HOTEL, Mackinac Island, Mich.; 800/334-7263 or 906/847-3331; www.grandhotel.com; First Lady suites from $600, double; standard doubles from $370.
CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.