Culture

Upstairs Downstairs, US Style

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.

Political issues appear only as a bit players, for example when Truman is given such a small appropriation for redecorating, the end result is many of the upstairs bedrooms rooms looked like cheap hotel rooms.  However, Congress came up with some more bucks to renovate a crumbling White House after a started to shake when an usher walked through the President’s study above the Blue Room where a luncheon was being held.  That led to an engineering report which confirmed Truman’s prediction that “I would have come crashing through the ceiling in the bathtub, right in the laps of the D.A.R.”

In fact some foreign dignitaries’ exploits as guests get as much attention as the Presidents do.  There’s Winston Churchill, in all his naked glory.  Young Queen Elizabeth makes an appearance, impressing the White House maids because the queen told her maids not to wait up for her, but rather undressed herself and left the crown jewels “just lying around” after a late formal dinner, while Mamie Eisenhower’s personal assistant had to wait up until the wee hours to undress the first lady.  And Madame Chiang Kai-shek, her very unusual niece and the silk sheets which had to be hand washed daily, has her few pages.

I didn’t miss the politics or the Presidents.  The book is filled with such warm and loving memories of what is really our house, and the ladies of that house.  West, and/or his co-author have a way of telling tales and still managing to catch West’s fondness for the first ladies.  Or at least so it appears.  This is not a kiss and talk trash book.   As West’s relationship with each Presidential wife matures, you get the sense that he truly comes to respect all of them, like most of them and genuinely care deeply for a few.

In a day and age when writing a book about a famous person usually means digging up dirt, digging out this old gem will present a stark contrast.

Upstairs at the White House –My Life with the First Ladies a personal and intimate journal of a very public building is a great read and highly recommended.