Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Upstairs at the White House by J.B. West

I'm nosy. I admit it. I'm especially nosy when it comes to the Presidency and the way everything works behind the scenes. That's why I couldn't help myself when I found Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies, by J.B. West for a great price in e-book format.

West started his employment in the White House as an assistant to the chief usher, and when the chief retired, he stepped into the position. This book covers his experiences through the FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. 

West directed the operations and maintenance of the White House including state functions; planned parties, weddings and funerals, gardens and playgrounds, and extensive renovations; and with a large staff, supervised every activity in the presidential home. For twenty-eight years he witnessed national crises and triumphs, and interacted daily with six consecutive presidents and first ladies as well as their families and house guests (modified from Goodreads). 

Can you even imagine? 

I was terribly impressed with the breadth of detail in this book and definitely with West's patience. Every presidential family put a distinctive mark on the White House and the office of the presidency. Eleanor Roosevelt was a flurry of activity, rushing from one appointment to the next with no real care about the depth of the housekeeper's cleaning. The Truman's had to adjust to a White House LITERALLY falling down around them. The exterior walls were the only bits left when the interior had to be completed reconstructed for safety. Jacqueline Kennedy was soft spoken but mischievous and spearheaded a complete restoration of the historic furnishings. Some first ladies were uptight. Some were bullheaded. But I got the distinct feeling that West admired every president for his notable qualities and dedication to the presidency and every first lady for the effort she put into doing America's hardest "volunteer job." 

I learned plenty I'd never even thought to wonder about: the massive amount of renovating and redecorating that went on from administration to administration, the rules governing who takes care of various White House responsibilities (the grounds, the housekeeping, the curation of historical artifacts). And did you know that the President pays quite a few expenses out of his own pocket? Or he did back during West's time in the White House. I'd be interested to read more on the workings of the White House now and how they differ from this particular time period. LBJ was quite the stickler about turning off the lights in the evenings to keep the electric bill down!

There were lots of amusing moments reading this book, but one of the most memorable sections was West's recollections of the days following the Kennedy assassination. He was quite close to Mrs. Kennedy, and he had a front row seat  to the struggles both the Kennedy family and the incoming Johnson family endured in those dark days. I might've teared up. 

If you're at all interested in life behind closed doors at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I absolutely recommend this book. You won't be disappointed! 

Pub. Date: January 1973 (my edition, October 2013)
Publisher: Open Road Media
Format: E-book
ISBN: 069810546X 
Source: Bought it!

20 comments:

  1. This definitely sounds like my kind of book... sorry I missed the ebook deal.

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    1. I'll let you know if I see it discounted again. It was really worth the price of a buy, though, if you get a chance. :)

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  2. My grandmother would have loved this book! She was fascinated by presidents. Read about them all the time. I may have to just read it for her because it does sound hella interesting.

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    1. It was awesome. The daily workings of the White House are truly fascinating. Way more "everyday" than politics, that's for sure.

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  3. I've never really been interested in books about the Presidency but I do like the idea of this one. First Ladies are rather interesting for some reason.

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    1. Yeah, this one is WAY more about daily life than the iconic presidents. How they interact with their wives, their guests, how the wives exert their influence, how they cook for THAT MANY PEOPLE. LOL

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  4. We just watched The Butler this past weekend and this book sounds somewhat similar. I may have to snag a copy!

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    1. I need to watch that! This one is really interesting, Les, so I hope you get a chance to try it out.

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  5. This sounds fantastic! And hahaha re: LBJ and turning off the lights. Awesome.

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    1. So many cool facts like that, Monika! It's a treasure trove!

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  6. I love this kind of behind the scenes look at famous places. I think i'm going to have to read it, especially since it spans so many years.

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    1. Me too! I think you should totally pick it up and then tell me what ya think of it so we can DISCUSS! Those Kennedys. Hmmphf!

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  7. I've always been fascinated to learn more about what goes on behind the doors at the White House. This book sounds like one I would enjoy reading.

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    1. DO IT, Kathleen! I think you'd totally love it.

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  8. Good for LBJ for turning all the lights off! I am that way in my own apartment, but I have, er, slightly fewer rooms to be mindful of.

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  9. Ooh, this sounds very interesting! What a fun way to learn about important historical figures :)

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  10. This sounds like a great read, although I fear it would send me to Netflix to re-watch The West Wing...Who really needs to sleep?!?

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  11. I've seen this book cover a few times but didn't know what it was about. Thanks for the review! This looks like my kind of book and I'll definitely have to pick it up.

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  12. So…… I just added this to my TBR. For sure.

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  13. Oh wow, this sounds really great! I've wondered about things like if the President has to pay for anything! The renovation stuff would be interesting, too! The days after the Kennedy assassination sound sad and enlightening. Thanks for putting this one on my radar!

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