Upstairs Downstairs, US Style
September 20, 2011 - 8:00 am
J.B. West was an Usher, and eventually Chief Usher at the White House from 1941 until 1969. His book, published in 1974, Upstairs at the White House — My Life with the First Ladies (written with Mary Lynn Kotz) is a delightful, respectful, apolitical description of the his life running the White House under (or next to) Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon. I first read it years ago, and while it’s not yet available on Kindle, I found a used copy on Amazon and just had the pleasure of rereading it.
Although West does not hide his personal political affiliation, it is only in the context of pointed out that “even” as a Republican, he want out to see our President when FDR’s train stopped in West’s home town, long before West moved to Washington. Throughout the book he tells secrets and provides personal glimpses of the various First Ladies, the staff, and guests without a hint of political agenda or prejudice.
He spends more time on the Kennedy years, perhaps because Jackie made the White House her personal project. And while the book documents the trials and tribulations of Mrs. Kennedy’s White House Restoration project it also tells of the surprise birthday party for Nancy Tuckerman, Jackie’s social secretary and class mate from Miss Porter’s School when the First Lady had West dress up as Jackie and Nancy’s housemother from Miss Porter’s; and he admits to the lie he told avoid having peacocks brought onto White House grounds.
There are also wonderful glimpses of Mamie Eisenhower, who ran the White House with military precision at her morning meetings conducted from her bed, propped up on pink pillows, wearing a pink bed jacket with a pink ribbon in her hair. And the day Bess Truman blushed as she requested the White House Carpenters come up to fix the slats in the President’s bed, the morning after she returned back to Harry from a trip to Missouri.