One of the benefits of researching Richard Nixon’s life is meeting and getting to know those that were close to Nixon. One such person was Clara Jane Nixon.
From mid 2010 through the end of 2011 Clara Jane welcomed me to her home numerous times. She was a perfect host and a delightful lady. She lived by herself in Irvine, California, in a beautifully furnished townhome. When she passed away on January 18th of this year, she was 93 years old.
Clara Jane explained to me how she met Don Nixon, brother to President Richard “Dick” Nixon. She had been in Alaska on a 7 day cruise with a friend in 1941. Upon her return, on September 7, 1941, she stopped by Murphy Hospital in Whittier to see a friend. Then she went to see her uncle William Milhous, who had married Clara Jane’s aunt Lena Scott. “Uncle Bill had wanted to introduce me to a young man, so he asked me to go with him to the local store. As we drove from his house, we passed the local store and continued on to the Nixon Market, where Uncle Bill introduced me to Don.” Later that day, Don joined Clara Jane and the Milhouses for dinner, and then drove Clara Jane to her parent’s home in Placentia.
Once Clara Jane and Don began dating, the Nixon family enjoyed her company very much. In fact, Clara Jane explained that when “Dick and Pat had a party at their house, they asked Don to invite me.” Don was especially smitten.
When Clara Jane introduced Don to her parents, they all had a good laugh because her mother had known Don for years from buying meat at the Nixon Store. After just three weeks of dating, Don proposed to Clara Jane.
Clara Jane and Don Nixon were married at the Capilla de San Antonio Wedding Chapel in Anaheim on August 9, 1942 while Dick was serving in the Navy in the South Pacific. Don and Dick were very close. Clara Jane and Don named their son after “Uncle” Richard Nixon.
For his first congressional campaign Richard Nixon spent a good deal of time at Don & Clara Jane’s house on Whittier Boulevard. “Dick would come over in the early afternoon, retire to a back bedroom and start writing and rewriting speeches and plotting strategy. As soon as I could throw out his discarded notes, Dick would make a new pile.” Clara Jane recounted one of the first times Richard came over during that campaign, where he liked to have an early dinner and prepare for his evening speaking engagements. “When Dick came over at 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon, I met him at the back door. He walked in right passed me and went to the back bedroom. I thought to myself ‘Just who does he think he is?’ Then a little while later he called out to me: ‘Hey, Clara Jane, come here.’ He was resting on the bed, in his shorts and undershirt, with a stack of notes a pile high, and said as friendly as ever ‘Now tell me what happened here today.’ I realized then that he has a very focused mind.”
Clara Jane was a great cook, and Richard Nixon especially loved her enchiladas. In fact, when he was president, he even arranged for Clara Jane to make up a batch of enchiladas and ship them to him so he could enjoy her home cooking at the White House.
When Eisenhower and Nixon were re-elected, the inauguration was on Monday, January 21, 1957. But on Sunday, January 20th there was a small swearing in ceremony for close family only. Clara Jane recalled the event: “Once Ike and Dick were sworn in, they came through shaking hands with everyone. I happened to be at the end of the line, and when Ike reached me, he said: ‘Have you had breakfast yet?’ to which I replied ‘No.’ So he said ‘Okay, let’s go’ and he took my hand, and we strode arm in arm into the East Room where there was an incredible buffet set up.” Overall regarding Ike, Clara Jane summed up her feelings: “I liked him.”
Clara Jane’s fondest memory of Richard Nixon was that when he was Vice-President, after Frank Nixon died in 1956. Richard bought Clara Jane a gold ring with diamonds to thank her taking care of Hannah, and sent it to Clara Jane with a hand written note, on the Vice President’s stationary, that read “Thank you for the loving care of Mother.” This was significant to Clara Jane because Quakers did not op for or wear jewelry, and still Richard thought to go out and buy her such a gift.
After Hannah died, Richard wanted only one thing – a clock that his parents’ had. The clock was a wedding gift to Hannah and Frank Nixon from her parents, Almira and Franklin Milhous. That clock now sits on the mantle of President Nixon’s birthplace in Yorba Linda where his Presidential Library is located.
Clara Jane is credited with collecting and preserving the furnishings for his birthplace. At least one of the important items was saved by coincidence. In the early 1950s, when Don and Richard’s parents were moving into a new house in Whittier, Clara Jane took the old wrought iron bed frame from the bed that Richard was born in, had the legs cut off the headboard, and moved the footboard to the headboard. She then put the cut down headboard in her garden to grow sweet peas. Nearly forty years later, when the Richard Nixon Birthplace was being renovated for the opening of the Presidential Library, Clara Jane found the headboard in a Milhous barn and took it to an antique shop where she knew the owner. Together they located a near match and had the legs welded on.
During our discussions, Clara Jane related funny moments with Richard and Don, such as when her daughter Lawrene was married at the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. President Nixon, Pat and Tricia attended the wedding and reception at the Newporter Inn. Clara Jane recalled that there was a huge sea food buffet, and the secret service agents were startled when they detained a man with a bulging sports coat only to discover he was attempting to exit the reception with a large crab under his coat. It was an event that Don and Richard got a good laugh out of.
After 1974 when Pat and Richard lived full time in San Clemente, Clara Jane and Don enjoyed the occasional evening when Pat and Richard came by their house in Newport Beach for dinner. “We would have dinner, and sit out on the patio and watch boats go by in the back bay area. It was very pleasant. ”
The last time we visited together, Clara Jane smiled and reflected: “Four times I have sat on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. When I was taking civics in school I never thought that I would meet a President, much less know one and be related to him. It’s been an interesting run.”
An interesting run, indeed.