first lady is coming to Michigan’s “white house” this summer.
When Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel opens for the season this month, Laura Bush will be the seventh first lady to be honored with a suite bearing her name.
She joins Jackie Kennedy Onassis, “Lady Bird” Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Barbara Bush. (Hillary Rodham Clinton is not yet included because she holds public office.)
Famed New York decorator Carleton Varney designed the suites, as he has done for the entire hotel beginning three decades ago. (He’s the man responsible for the trademark geranium-pattern carpet.)
No stranger to A-List décor, Varney’s celebrity clientele dates to actress Joan Crawford who was, he says, “a doll.”
“I know all the first ladies,” Varney says. “I was the White House decorator for Rosalynn Carter. Barbara Bush was very good to me.
“Rosalynn wanted the White House to be about American life.” Holland, Mich., for example, was the source for tulips for White House luncheons in the Carter era, Varney says.
He describes the former first ladies as a rainbow roster: “Lady Bird was definitely the Yellow Rose of Texas. Rosalynn Carter was Georgia peach. Nancy Reagan was bright red; she was all about show. Betty Ford was a soft sort of teal green. Barbara Bush was Kennebunkport blue.”
As for Jackie “O,” her suite is royal blue with gold. As Varney describes her: “Jackie had taste, but was low key; it was refined WASP.”
Varney says he wanted the Laura Bush suite to “look residential.” He included framed Bush-family photographs and a fireplace flanked by bookcases that display Bush-related books.
Varney, who is known for the liberal use of color, took cues for his palette from Laura Bush’s portrait, which includes elements of lace, aqua, blue, white, and cream.
“The walls are vanilla-y,” he says. “The damask is aqua-blue on cream. The draperies are a passion fruit: orange, melon, tone-on-cream with green.”
The furnishings, he says, are very Dorothy Draper, referring to the interior designer who founded the New York firm Dorothy Draper & Co., which he now heads.
Their projects have been featured in Architectural Digest more often than any other designer, Varney says. The Grand is among those featured (August 1981 issue).
Varney’s collaboration with the Grand began when he was hired by Robert Daniel Musser Jr. and his wife, Amelia. “Amelia says I was the Grand’s 90th birthday present,” Varney says, adding that it was “Amelia’s idea to do the first ladies.”
Today, Robert Daniel Musser III is president of the hotel.
The first-lady suites, he says, are among their best rooms. And they’re booked on that basis — not politics. “We’ll joke if we put a prominent Democrat in the Bush suite for fun,” he says, “If I know them.”
Varney, who hosts Living Vividly on the Home Shopping Network, says he likes to offer Grand guests a sense of an American institution, not a space that’s “black, white, and empty.”
What the Grand Hotel has, he says, “is glamour.”