Long before politicians adopted the teams of political consultants, set designers, and makeup artists responsible for making presidents appear polished yet approachable on television (or, alternatively, whatever it is Donald Trump’s team does), there was Lillian Brown. She was a glam squad of one who not only became a makeup artist to nine presidents but also was a pioneer of set design, public speaking, and image consultancy.
Brown died September 13, at the age of 104. Her New York Times obituary is an absolutely fascinating tour of presidential history in the second half of the twentieth century, and an account of a very interesting life. Born in 1914 on an Ohio farm without electricity or running water, Brown took a pony cart to school and eventually became a teacher. But her true calling was television. After creating a public access show about presidents and the churches they attended in the 1950s, her skills caught the eye of a producer from CBS’s Face the Nation, who wondered why “Your people look wonderful and mine look terrible.” The answer was makeup.
After proving herself adept at talking reluctant male politicians into wearing makeup, Brown also convinced producers and politicians alike to think about presentation, from how rooms around them looked to whether or not JFK should take voice lessons (he did). In addition to working with presidents from Eisenhower to Bill Clinton, she wrote three books on public speaking, one of which is still used as a college textbook to this day, and taught a summer course at Yale specifically designed for woman political candidates.
The New York Times obituary has some great anecdotes from Brown’s career, which included working with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and doing Jackie Kennedy’s makeup for her famous televised tour of the White House. But the real presentation-obsessed member of the household was JFK, according to the Times:
“‘He drove us crazy,’ she said, with constant questions like whether he should cross his legs (“whatever makes you comfortable”) and whether he should take voice lessons (“yes”). He followed her suggestion and attended a workshop in New York City on television technique...She said he was the first president who understood the phrase ‘camera ready.’”
She also confirmed that Ronald Reagan wore too much blush:
“Ronald and Nancy Reagan, coming from Hollywood, knew all about makeup and liked a lot of it, she said. But television producers often thought that the president arrived on set wearing too much rouge, and they would instruct Ms. Brown, just before airtime, to remove it. “And so I would,” she said.”
It was Brown who calmed Richard Nixon, who was crying hysterically, before his 1974 resignation speech so he wouldn’t ruin his paint job by reminding him of a funny story of the time the pair got locked in a bathroom together by the Secret Service.