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
Source: Bought it!