Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Conger, Clement Ellis

Clement Ellis Conger

RESIDENCES: Alexandria, VA

PUBLIC_SERVICE: Deputy Chief of Protocol for 8 years; Chairman, Special Fine Arts Committee, Department of State; Curator of the White House .

Clement Ellis Conger was written up in "The Sunday Courier and Press," of Evansville, IN on 1 Mar 1970 by Dorothy McCardle, as follows: .
Together President and Mrs. Nixon twisted the arm of Clement E. Conger to pursuade him to take on a White House Americana Project comparable to the one he heads at the State Department.

Conger had three other job offers. A top U.S. Museum was trying to draft him. The Bicentennial Commission wanted him as a commissioner. The Secretary of State dangled an ambassadorship.

Conger, who now relinquishes his job as Deputy Chief of Protocol, finally decided to accede to the President and Mrs. Nixon's wishes for two reasons: .
"The challenge at the White House is terrifc," says Conger, "I shall do my best."

His second reason is that the White House job leaves him time to continue with the State Department Americana Project ... his first love.

Clem Conger has won a world-wide reputation as a antiques sleuth. He has tracked down more china, silver, paintings and furnishings from America's beginnings than most men ever see in a lifetime. And he is determined to get the best of America's cultural heritage for the two spots in Washington where it will be displayed in an international showcase -- the White House and the State Department.

He won't discuss just what he will do at the White House. It has been learned from other sources that a top reason he was asked to move his talents there is because of wear and tear on the public rooms by the hundreds of tourists who go though them daily and scores of guests entertained there nightly.

Conger is expected to stockpile a substitute collection of Americana at the White House which will be as historic as anything that has to be replaced or repaired.

The idea got started last November when President Nixon attended the Governor's Conference at the State Department. For the first time, the president took in the full significance of what Conger and his special fine arts committee have done to give an authentic historic setting to the rooms in which the Secretary of State entertains the heads of foreign governments. The President was astounded as he inspected various items of the five million dollar collection of American antiques on view in the State Department's hospitality suite.

"This is one of the most important projects of its kind in the American government," the President told Conger. Then he added, "Clem, could you help us over at the White House?" Conger did not take this at face value until he was summoned for a talk with the First Lady.

When he spoke of other job offers, he was assured that he was much too valuable at the State Department and could be, too, at the White House, for him to leave. He did not want to leave anyway.

An antique desk, designed and used by Thomas Jefferson, illustrates the fast action and sleuthing ability of Conger. He heard about the desk at a party in the Thomas Jefferson Room at the State Department. He didn't let one day go by before he headed for Philadelphia, where the desk was in private hands. He interviewed George Holcombe Parsons, a wealthy Philadelphian, who told him he planned to give the desk to a museum in Philadelphia. Conger talked him out of it. He gave Parsons statistics of the number of presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens who would see that desk if it was at the State Department.

That's where the desk is right now, on loan, it may be given later as a permanent fixture. The top of the desk lifts up into an architect's drafting board. Jefferson designed it this way because he liked to stand up when he wrote. The "great penman" of his day drafted the Declaration of Independence on this desk.

Conger's ability has been listed as "having a practiced eye, a discriminating taste, and an appreciation for excellence -- things found in a rug merchant, a horse trader and a Florentie aristocrat -- rolled into one.
(Source: The Conger Family of America - Maxine Crowell Leonard)

BIOGRAPHY: Clement Ellis Conger 1912-
Clement Conger was born and raised in Rockingham County, VA and joined the White House state in the 1930's and by 1941 was an Electrician in the White House. He served in the US Army in WWII and after the war served as a Foreign Service Officer in the State Department. By the 1960's he had advanced to the position of Curator of the Diplomatic Reception Room of the State Department. His work caught the eye of Mrs. Richard (Pat) Nixon, wife of President Nixon, in 1970 and she asked Clement to be the White House Curator. He diplomatically accepted, but only on a half-time basis, retaining his position in the State Dept.

Clement's speciality was locating pieces of furniture that once were in the White House or State Dept. and getting people to donate them to the federal government for display in the White House or elsewhere. Clement continued in his role as White House Curator until 1986 when Mrs. Ronald (Nancy) Reagan, wife of President Reagan, had him fired for not showing "proper deference" to her. Clement was only one of perhaps 10 persons around the White House that Mrs. Reagan had fired for the same "offense" in the 1983-1991 period.

One story told was when Michail and Riasa Gorbachov visited Washington, DC in 1987, Riasa requested a tour of the White House. Nancy Reagan and the new Assistant White House Curator hosted the tour. Riasa Gorbahov asked a lot of questions about the White House and it's furnishings. Mrs. Reagan couldn't answer half of the questions and the new Asst. Curator didn't do much better. The snide comment made by some State Department officials was that if Clement Conger were on the tour he could have answered all of the questions off the top of his head.

Clement Conger retired from the State Department in the early 1990's and went to work as a Consultant for Sothby's Auction House in New York City.

Clement was an active subscriber to the "Conger Confab" newsletter and resided in Arlington, VA.
(Source: Written by Robert Guilinger, 7 May 1998)

RESEARCHER: Clement Ellis Conger corresponded with Charles Leslie Conger about his study of the Conger family. Clement Conger lived in the Washington, DC area. It was Clement who arranged the donation of the Charles Leslie Conger's papers to the Rare Book Room of the Library of Congress. Many articles about the career of Clement Ellis Conger appear in both volumes of "Conger Family of America" and in issues of the "Conger Confab." .

OBITUARY: Curator Clement E. Conger Dies at 91; Beautified Nation's Diplomatic Spaces, By Adam Bernstein, Washington Post Staff Writer, Monday, January 12, 2004; Page B04

Clement E. Conger, 91, the State Department curator who transformed the "motel modern" look of its diplomatic reception rooms into a showcase for early American craftsmanship, died Jan. 11 [2004] at a hospital in Delray Beach, Fla. He had pneumonia.

Mr. Conger's career, which married the worlds of diplomacy, politics and fine arts, was chronicled extensively in print. Seemingly every Chippendale table, every Gilbert Stuart portrait, every Duncan Phyfe cabinet he obtained became cause for a story.

He raised millions of dollars to refurnish State Department rooms for visiting dignitaries and then did the same at the White House and Blair House, the presidential guesthouse.

Although Mr. Conger was long enamored of antiques and fine art, he was a bit of an anomaly in his high-profile job.

A tall, chatty, energetic Shenandoah Valley native with roots in Colonial Virginia, he held no college degree in decorative arts, never worked in a museum and had no scholarly record.

His entry into curating, in the early 1960s, was largely accidental. He was at the State Department helping coordinate visits by foreign officials when the wife of Secretary of State Christian A. Herter approached him worriedly about additions that had been made to the State Department building. She was distressed to see the new hospitality suite looking so sterile. According to Mr. Conger, she "burst into tears," knowing that she soon had to entertain the Queen of Greece there.

He fixed the problem with three borrowed French paintings and then got to work forming a committee of wealthy citizens with a healthy interest in history and antiques.

He sent letters nationwide explaining the benefits of lending beautiful objects to the State Department: "national pride, family pride and tax deductibility."

On weekends, he visited auction houses and private estates for vintage Americana while working full time during the week as an assistant to top arms-control officials.

Over the years, he overhauled more than 15 main reception rooms as well as the Treaty Room suite and the offices of the secretary and deputy secretary of state.

The furnishings are now valued at more than $100 million, said Pat Heflin, his former assistant.

The Nixons admired his work and invited him to be the White House curator. Curating became his main job, and he divided his time between the executive mansion and the State Department.

He raised millions to renovate much of the White House, including the Red, Green and Blue rooms.

In 1986, first lady Nancy Reagan reportedly dismissed Mr. Conger because of artistic differences and replaced him with a Reagan friend, White House chief usher Rex Scouten.

Mr. Conger retired from the State Department in 1992 and then spent two years doing consulting work at Christie's auction house.

Clement Ellis Conger was born in Harrisonburg, Va., where his father was a doctor. He was a graduate of Strayer College and attended George Washington University.

Early on, he worked in Washington as an office manager and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and office manager for U.S. Rubber Co.

During World War II, he served in the Army and became assistant secretary for the United States and British combined chiefs of staff.

He joined the State Department after the war and became deputy chief of protocol in the late 1950s. He helped oversee visits by foreign officials, among them the Shah of Iran, Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, French President Charles de Gaulle and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Although he began curatorial work as a volunteer, he attacked the job with vigor. He earned the nickname "the Grand Acquisitor" for his singular pursuit of certain objects.

At a State Department party, he heard about a man in Philadelphia selling a desk once used by Thomas Jefferson. He rushed that day to meet the owner and dissuaded him from selling the desk to a museum. Giving it to the State Department, he explained, would mean that it would be seen by presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens.

The job also had its foibles.

"Marshall Field V's wife didn't like antiques," he said in 1972, referring to the Chicago newspaper publisher. "But he couldn't stop collecting them, so he lent them to us. But a funny thing happened. He changed wives, and his new wife just loves antiques. So the other week, all the antiques he had lent us went to their home."

Mr. Conger, a member of the Senior Executive Service, was a recipient of the State Department's Distinguished Service Award and the Distinguished Service Medal.

In 1992, Winterthur, the Delaware-based museum of American decorative arts, gave him the Henry Francis DuPont Award for distinguished contribution to the American arts.

He was a former chairman of the Virginia Trust for Historic Preservation and a former vestryman and senior warden at Episcopal Christ Church in Alexandria.

A longtime Alexandria resident, he lived briefly in Arlington before moving to Delray Beach in 2002.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Lianne Hopkins Conger of Delray Beach; three children, William Conger of Maurertown, Va., Jay Conger of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Shelley Conger of Sherman Oaks, Calif.; and two grandchildren.
(Source: c 2004 The Washington Post Company)

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