Lives of Style: Janet Katten 

"I have wonderful memories of the White House," Jan Katten muses. "I started going there when I was 10." And so begins a visit with one of San Francisco’s most charming, cultured, delightful ladies, with bone-deep beauty and refined breeding that transcends time and is as au courant as fresh rainwater. Her voice is crème brûlée, smooth, sophisticated, distinct, with the cadence that speaks of boarding schools and a good education. When she smiles, she reflects the radiance of her persona on a beam of sunlight.

Janet Roosevelt Katten, niece of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, grand-niece of President Teddy Roosevelt, whose father, G. Hall Roosevelt, was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s sole brother, is a treasure trove of recollections of that remarkable era. "My sister (half-sister) Ellie (Eleanor — who lives in Davis) and I are the only two remaining from our generation. All of Eleanor and Franklin’s children are gone."

The youngest of three girls, Jan grew up near Bloomfield Hills, outside Detroit, where her mother, Dorothy, from a prominent family, was a renowned pianist. Dorothy founded the Michigan Orchestra, the WPA Orchestra and played with the Detroit Orchestra. She also "performed on a barge on the Potomac with the National Symphony Orchestra, for 40,000 people," before running for Congress — the first woman to win a Democratic Party primary in the state of Michigan.

Janet’s parents separated when she was very young, "When my dad left, Eleanor took over for him, with Christmas presents. I first went to the White House [as a child] with my mother, when she gave a recital in the East Room."

There are stories of protocol: "When you entered the White House, the first lady was in charge of guests. After you arrived, a bath was drawn. Bags laid out. You’d receive a thermos of water and a bowl of fruit and cookies. And breakfast was brought on trays with creamed finan hadie [fish] on toast because FDR loved that. The next day there was a car and driver and footman and you were taken to every major institution in Washington."

There are stories of daring: "The FBI took me to the basement, where they had target practice. I shot a submachine gun, which they aimed and held while I pulled the trigger"; adventure: "At the Treasury Building, I remember holding $11 million in my hands — at that time I was 10 or 12"; and drama: "I used to swim in the White House pool and there were two Secret Service officers assigned to me. I was a very good swimmer. I preferred to swim underwater. So when I came up two Secret Service officers were taking off their jackets ready to jump in to save me."

Majoring in music and art at Bennington College, Janet went on to study architecture at the famed Institute of Design in Chicago, American home to the Bauhaus renaissance in furniture design, associated with Knoll Associates, one of two major producers of modern furniture. Janet ended up doing freelance work for Knoll and knew major players from that era. (Two Saarinen Eero chairs grace her living room.)

Janet relocated to the Bay Area after she and her first husband parted, "I was invited to become Gump’s merchandise designer by Richard Gump, one of two ever." She helped design crystal for Rosenthal, a plate for Lenox, and ended up doing drawings for full-scale reproductions of antiques. "Gumps is still using some of those drawings," she smiles.

Remarried, to the former CEO of Cost-Plus, Andy Katten — "Mr. Cost-Plus," now deceased, Janet’s proudest of her four children: Hall, "An executive with a major construction company in Seattle — and a great craftsman-style builder," Dana, a Ph.D./professor, recently honored by University of Colorado," Michael, a Ph.D., winner of the Guttenberg Award, who studied under Mellon and Fulbright grants, who’s written a book on southern India, and Steven, a talented musician, who attended Carnegie-Mellon, and now is part-owner of the Elite Café on Fillmore.

Janet’s resided in her Daniel Volkmann-designed, sun-drenched, rife-with-color residence, that’s perched on a promontory above a ravine, for 35 years. Walls of raspberry and light mustard mix with an esteemed collection of good art, modern furnishings framed by pure white Crown molding, setting off a revelry of cut flowers and a wall of historical and family photos that are eye-riveting. With her talented designer friend, Mario Duenas, "I’m building a farm out here with orchards, vegetables." She shows me the deck, "And look at this Craftsman railing my son did. Isn’t it fabulous?"

So much about Jan Katten is fabulous. You don’t need to look outside to see it.

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