At 91, Nell Yates has been content to live in quiet obscurity in her home near downtown Belmont.
But that obscurity was briefly interrupted this month with the publication of the latest book by Bob Woodward, the journalist who helped break and later chronicled the Watergate scandal.
Yates has a brief cameo in “The Last of the President’s Men.” The book is largely the account of Alexander Butterfield, the White House aide who disclosed the existence of the secret tapes that implicated President Richard Nixon in the coverup of the Watergate break-in.
(Nixon) clearly liked one secretary better than the others. And that was Nell Yates.
In 1972, Yates was a 48-year-old White House secretary working for her fourth president.
“(Nixon) clearly liked one secretary better than the others,” Butterfield told Woodward. “And that was Nell Yates. But he didn’t know how to say, have Nell come up … he simply couldn’t reveal his preference.… Eventually I just started using Nell all the time if she was available.”
Woodward describes Yates as a slender woman who wore her hair in a bun and presented “a figure of quiet authority.”
He goes on to describe a night in May 1972 when she and Butterfield were among aides who accompanied the president to Camp David. According to the book, Nixon asked her to join him for dinner in his cabin, the Aspen Lodge.
“She came back about three hours later,” Butterfield recalled, describing her as distraught. “ ‘Nothing happened,’ she said. “ ‘Nothing happened… the conversation didn’t flow well. He didn’t know what to say’…
“He clearly had her over there for company and I guess he got something from that,” Butterfield went on. “It was just another example of a lonely man.”
When Woodward reached Yates in June, she declined to comment. But the story took on a tabloid life of its own. The New York Post, for one, included the anecdote with others from the book and described Nixon as “a bumbling ladies man.”
Yates told me she doesn’t remember it the way Butterfield does. And she called the tabloid spin “repulsive and ridiculous.”
It’s just an attempt to drag him further and further down. It’s stupid. It’s not even true.
Nell Yates, on Woodward account of Nixon
“It’s just an attempt to drag him (Nixon) further and further down,” she said by phone. “It’s stupid. It’s not even true.”
The book threatens to overshadow the real story of a woman who grew up on a Gaston County farm, went to Washington in the 1940s and ended up working for seven presidents. A high school graduate, she worked for several federal agencies before making an impression on a woman who worked for Dwight Eisenhower as he was coming into office.
For over three decades she worked on the staffs of presidents from Ike through Reagan. She typed speeches for Lyndon Johnson and once traveled around the world with his presidential entourage.
Over the years she worked in the West Wing and the East Wing, got to know presidents and First Ladies.
“They were all nice to me,” she said, declining to name a favorite.
I had a wonderful, wonderful life. And I really am thankful.
Along the way she took night courses in religion at George Washington University and later studied photography and traveled. The girl who grew up in rural Gaston County had always dreamed of seeing a real castle in Europe, and finally got the chance.
“I had a wonderful, wonderful life,” she said. “And I really am thankful.”