Friday, May 13, 2016

Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by J.B. West

Published in 1973 and then reissued, Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies is an account by the Chief Usher in the White House, J.B.West, of his interaction with First Ladies from Eleanor Roosevelt to Pat Nixon. It is a book filled with anecdotes and insight. This was selected for the May meeting of the Gables Book Club.

It was an interesting read to be sure and a fairly quick one. The stories shared by West are enlightening and give insight into what it was like to live in the spotlight of the world scene. Because of confidentiality agreements now, it is unlikely that such a book would ever be written again.

What was intriguing was how each of the women viewed her role and her place on the world stage. From Eleanor Roosevelt's loquaciousness with the press to Bess Truman's avoidance. There are also glimpses into the the relationships between the Presidents and their wives. It is so refreshing to see Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman's devotion to their husbands compared to the almost indifference Mrs. Roosevelt felt. Jacqueline Kennedy was dedicated to her children, while at the same time zealous about redecorating the mansion.

The pompousness of Lyndon Johnson (who needed a reengineerd shower to keep him happy), the quirky swim habits of John Kennedy, and the hidden world of wheelchair bound Roosevelt are all portrayed with decorum and respect. 

The complete reconstruction of the White House in 1950 was a fascinating look at what could have happened if the engineers had not realized the structural deficiencies. It was something that I had never realized. One other theme that ran through the book was how the White House staff were so competent in dealing with last minute arrangements and requests. In anticipation of the Kennedy's baby in 1963, a nursery was outfitted in the private family rooms. When Patrick Kennedy died two days after his birth, the room was restored to its previous state so quickly that it was a wonder. 

It was a shame that West retired 6 weeks into the presidency of Richard Nixon. It would have been fascinating to read some of the accounts of that term. This was a very good book, an interesting and enlightening read. For some earlier accounts of life in the White House, pair this with Backstairs at the White House by Gwen Bagni.