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That Hilarious Story About Taft Getting Stuck in His Bathtub? It’s Not True

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Ask your average American what they know about their nation’s 27th president and 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and they’ll probably say something like, “well, he was so fat that he got stuck in the bathtub.” The Schadenfreude-laced tale, in which six men had to be called to dislodge William Howard Taft from his bath time predicament, is legendary. Yet the problem with the anecdote isn’t just that we’ve been body-shaming Taft for an entire century—it’s that it's a big fat lie. Despite the story’s ubiquity in the popular imagination, it probably never happened.

Historian Alexis Coe, co-host of the podcast Presidents Are People Too!, did some digging into the myth, and found that there is no proof that the event ever happened, as she explained in The New York Times in September 2017. Coe traces the story back to Irwin Hoover, a 42-year veteran of the White House staff. In his memoir, published in 1934, Hoover wrote that big-boned Taft would “stick” in the bathtub and have to be helped out, but never mentioned who did the helping or how they pulled him out. Another former White House domestic staffer, Lillian Rogers Parks, describes Taft getting stuck in the bathtub, but the account was secondhand—she heard it through her mother, who worked for Taft, but she herself didn’t start working for the presidential residence until Herbert Hoover took office.

The story's salience is perhaps not surprising, since Taft’s size was a pop culture touchstone even in his time. At his heaviest, he weighed around 340 pounds, and newspapers would regularly print jokes about his weight. But there is no substantial, historical proof of the great bathtub-sticking incident during Taft’s White House tenure. It seems to have been just a piece of gossip with incredible endurance.

None of this is to say that Taft didn’t love a good bath—he certainly did, and he went to great lengths to take them. In 1909, the 2000-pound, 7-foot-long custom bathtub he brought with him on a trip to Panama on the USS North Carolina was the subject of an entire article in a journal called the Engineering Review, one that ran under a photo of the bathtub with four men resting inside.

The tub’s manufacturers told the journal that it was the largest tub they had ever made. As most people would do with a bathtub custom-made for them, Taft took the bathtub along when he moved into the White House later that year. And according to the National Constitution Center’s Constitution Daily, it wasn’t the only extra-large bath he carted around. He also had a super-sized tub installed on his presidential yacht in 1910.

But by all historical accounts, it appears that the 7-foot-long custom tub was, in fact, large enough to accommodate Taft’s sizable girth. The famous photo of the four men in Taft’s bathtub is often mislabeled as showing the men who installed the new tub after Taft got stuck in the White House bath, but his trip on the USS North Carolina, where the photo was taken, predated his presidency entirely.

Taft did, however, have a verified bathtub incident that had nothing to do with getting stuck: In 1915, while attending a bankers’ conference after he left office, he went to take a bath in the New Jersey hotel where he was staying. He didn’t quite get the water level right, though, and when he stepped in, so much water surged out that it flooded the floor and water began trickling down through the floor into the hotel’s dining room, where the bankers who were waiting for Taft to finish his bath and come back downstairs were sitting.

The unfortunate flood made it into The New York Times, among other papers, but the former president took it in stride. The Times reported that at one point as his trip came to a close, he looked out at the ocean and said, “I’ll get a piece of that fenced in some day, and then when I venture in there won’t be any overflow.”

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Pop Culture
Bea Arthur: Golden Girl, U.S. Marine
Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

When Bea Arthur joined the cast of The Golden Girls in 1985, she had already established an impressive career on stage and television. But one of her most important jobs predates her acting career—for 2.5 years, Arthur served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

According to the National World War II Museum, her service came at a time when women enlisting in the military was still an anomaly. The country had recently entered the Second World War, and the Marines began recruiting women as a way to free more men to fill combat roles. The Marines opened the Women's Reserve in 1943 after every other military branch had already started accepting female members.

One of the program's first enrollees was a 20-year-old woman who was called Bernice Frankel at the time, and who's best known as Bea Arthur today. Prior to enlisting, she had attended Blackstone College in Virginia for a year, worked as a food analyst at the Phillips Packing Company, and volunteered as a civilian air-raid warden. As she later wrote in a letter, she joined the Marines on a whim: “I was supposed to start work yesterday, but heard last week that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so [I] decided the only thing to do was to join.”

After attending the first Women Reservists school at Hunter College in New York, Arthur spent the remainder of her service at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina as a truck driver and typist. According to her Official Military Personnel File (OMPF), she exhibited “meticulous good taste” and was "argumentative," "over aggressive," and “officious—but probably a good worker if she has her own way!”

Bea Arthur entered the Marines a private and had risen to staff sergeant by the time she was discharged. Her exit paperwork shows that she expressed interest in going to drama school after the military, foreshadowing a long career ahead.

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5 Things You Might Not Know About Henry Kissinger
Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

You probably know Henry Kissinger as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the German-born political scientist and diplomat.

1. MAO ZEDONG TRIED TO GIVE HIM "10 MILLION" WOMEN.

In 1973, Henry Kissinger was engaged in a discussion of trade with Mao Zedong when the chairman abruptly changed the subject by saying, “We [China] don't have much. What we have in excess is women. So if you want them we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands.”

Kissinger sidestepped this bizarre offer and changed the subject, but Mao later returned to the subject by jokingly asking, “Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you 10 million.”

This time Kissinger diplomatically replied, “It is such a novel proposition. We will have to study it.”

Other Chinese officials in the room pointed out that Mao’s attitudes toward women would cause quite a stir if the press got their hands on these quotes, so Mao apologized to his female interpreter and talked Kissinger into having the comments removed from the records of the meeting.

2. NO, HE'S NOT THE INSPIRATION FOR DR. STRANGELOVE.

Here’s a riddle that’s been bugging film buffs for decades: who was the basis for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? For years many observers thought that Kissinger might have inspired Peter Sellers’s memorable performance. Blame it on the accent and the glasses. Even though Kissinger was still a relatively obscure Harvard professor when the film premiered in 1964, the rumor that Kubrick modeled the character on him just wouldn't die.

Kubrick did what he could to dispel this notion before his death, saying, “I think this is slightly unfair to Kissinger ... It was unintentional. Neither Peter nor I had ever seen Kissinger before the film was shot.” Most observers now think that Dr. Strangelove was actually a distorted version of Herman Kahn, an eccentric nuclear strategist for the RAND Corporation.

3. HE WAS QUITE THE LADIES MAN.

Even in his youth, Kissinger didn’t quite fit the bill of a matinee idol, but he has always been a hit with the ladies. A 1972 poll of Playboy bunnies selected Kissinger as the man with whom Hef’s ladies would most like to go out on a date. He also had a string of celebrity girlfriends in his younger days, including Diane Sawyer, Candice Bergen, Jill St. John, Shirley Maclaine, and Liv Ullman, who called Kissinger, “the most interesting man I have ever met.”

Kissinger’s swinging bachelor days are long gone, though. He was married to Ann Fleischer from 1949 to 1964 then married philanthropist Nancy Maginnes in 1974—a union that at one point seemed so improbable that just a year before they tied the knot, Maginnes had called speculation that she and Kissinger would marry “outrageous.”

4. PROTECTING HIM ISN'T ALWAYS EASY.

In 1985 former Secret Service agent Dennis McCarthy released the memoir Protecting the President—The Inside Story of a Secret Service Agent, in which he described being on Kissinger’s security detail as “a real pain.” McCarthy shared a funny anecdote about a 1977 trip to Acapulco with Kissinger and his wife. There were signs warning of sharks in the water, but Nancy wanted to go for a swim. Kissinger then told his security detail to get in the water to guard for sharks.

Personal protection is one thing, but McCarthy and his fellow agents drew the line at fighting off sharks. Instead, they made the reasonable point that if the Kissingers were afraid of sharks, they shouldn’t go swimming. Agent McCarthy did, however, offer a compromise; he told Kissinger, “If the sharks come up on this beach, my agents will fight them.”

5. THE STATE DEPARTMENT NIXED HIS OFFICIAL PORTRAIT.

Official portraits of government luminaries don’t usually become big news, but in 1978 the painting of Kissinger commissioned by the State Department for its gallery made headlines. Boston artist Gardner Cox had previously painted Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk, so he got the $12,000 commission to paint Kissinger. The finished product didn’t earn rave reviews, though.

Some viewers at the State Department thought the painting lacked Kissinger’s dynamism and made him look “somewhat a dwarf.” Others felt the portrait was “a rogues' gallery thing." The State Department offered to let Cox fix the painting, but he said he didn’t see anything that need changing. He lost the commission but got $700 for his expenses.

Kissinger took the whole episode in stride, though. When Houston artist J. Anthony Wills painted a replacement, Kissinger declared it to be, “an excellent likeness, swelled head and all,” and called the unveiling "one of my most fulfilling moments. Until they do Mount Rushmore."

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