Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on July 6, 2014
“The secret was loyalty to the White House and to the Presidency, rather than to whoever happens to be occupying the office for four years, or eight.”
J.B. West, Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies

This was published in 1973 by J.B. West, who began work at the White House as assistant to the chief usher in 1941, later became the chief usher and 'retired' in 1969. I believe he was the person in the movie "The Butler" who denied the workers of color at the White House equal pay until the Johnson administration, but I would have to rewatch "The Butler" to be sure.

Like "The Butler," West describes life in the White House from the start of his career during FDR's residency until the beginning of the Nixon administration. Unlike "The Butler," West worked more directly with the First Ladies and details of the mansion and management of the employees that served the mansion rather than working solely for the president. Thus, if you are interested in knowing the habits and personalities of the First Ladies or the details of interior decorating, this is your book.

Of course, we also see West's side of the deaths of FDR and JFK, the illnesses of DDE, and the relationships between incoming and outgoing presidents. But in this book there is more about the upkeep of the structure of the mansion, which was gutted and completely rebuilt on the inside during Truman's office as it was discovered when Truman's bathtub began to fall through the floor. There is also a lot of information about the First Ladies management skills, decorating preferences, relationships with their spouses and the behaviors of the children. We find out which presidents slept in the same bed with their wives and which did not.

West discusses the difficulties of meeting the needs of family guests versus the needs of diplomatic guests. He provides amusing anecdotes about Winston Churchill, who must have been quite a character, and Queen Elizabeth, who sounds more down to earth in West's view than I would have imagined. He also tells of the elaborate plans that must happen behind the scenes so that White House events came off without a snag.

While West declares an allegiance to the mansion first and foremost, he doesn't throw dirt about the First Families. Granted this book was published in the '70s and there was still a certain respect of the First Family at that time by the press and the opposing political party, as opposed to the dirt that is slung in all directions at this time. He takes an objective view of the personalities of the Presidents and First Ladies, describing them with respect even when he struggled to meet their demanding requirements.

Not the best written book, and I eagerly looked forward to reading about the next administration being somewhat bored with household details such as furnishings, china and carpets of the previous. However, if you are interested in the history of the mansion itself, this would be a worthwhile read.
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