WASHINGTON — Νicholas Stefanos “Steve” Vasilakes emigrated from Ligerea, Greece, to the United States in 1910 and soon thereafter set up his hot peanuts and fresh popped popcorn cart on what actually was White House property. He listed his business address as “1732 Pennsylvania Avenue” and reporters observed he came to represent the “little man” in America, according to www.whitehousehistory.org.
He was described as a “burly, fierce mustached Greek” and during World War I he boldly advertised on a hand-painted sign on his cart that on specified weeks he donated all of his proceeds to the Red Cross. Vasilakes became one of the most generous individual givers to that charity and gained widespread publicity for his patriotism.1
Vasilakes sold peanuts to Presidents William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding, but his best customer was Calvin Coolidge who came to buy peanuts, munch, and talk to the vendor on the street almost every day. President Coolidge referred to the vendor as his “contact man” with the American people.
When District of Columbia Metropolitan police attempted to remove the peanut and popcorn cart from East Executive Avenue as a traffic menace, the president allowed the vendor to move his cart onto the sidewalk. When asked about his friendship with Coolidge after his death in 1933, Vasilakes noted in halting English: “He talk about everything. Politics, I think no. About everything good. Good business, good prices. Everything get better. Good man.”2
In 1936, a national wire story reported that the Park Police wanted Vasilakes to remove his cart from the East Executive Avenue sidewalk to ease traffic congestion, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt interceded to allow him to stay.3 The press reported that he became a United States citizen in 1938 and due to his accent and celebrity had a formal written statement available as a handout for the press.4
Vasilakes had become a White House fixture and during World War II his ability to sell an astounding $50,000 in war bonds from his cart was legendary. Vasilakes capitalized on the national publicity he had received and started selling bonds by mail order. He began his war bond drive on October 28, 1942—the second anniversary of Italy’s invasion of his native Greece—with the slogan “Make a monkey out of Mussolini.” His first customer was the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn. Each out-of town purchaser also received a bag of peanuts.
Among the flowers banked by his grave at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. were sprays of red carnations sent by President and Mrs. Roosevelt.5 After Vasilakes’s death in 1943 no other peanut concession was granted on White House grounds.