Book #25 Upstairs at the White House

I can distinctly remember as a little girl watching the television miniseries Backstairs at the White House and being enthralled with it. It aired in 1978, so I guess my parents must have let me stay up past my bedtime to see it. I was only seven. It was based partly on the book Upstairs at the White House, written in 1973 by J.B. West, Chief Usher at the house serving six presidential families. He served the Franklin Roosevelts through the Richard Nixons. The job of the Chief Usher, at least at the time Mr. West was serving, was to work mainly with the First Ladies as head of household operations and staff. He had a first hand look at the personal lives of the presidential families, and his observances were so telling. For instance, did you know that before Jackie Kennedy’s project of turning the White House into a museum and acquiring antique furnishings from all over the country, much of the furniture in the White House came from a local department store and was of mid-grade quality?
West takes us through each presidential term, starting with the Franklin Roosevelts. He describes the Roosevelts marriage as cool and more of a political partnership than a loving relationship. Of course, the extent of FDR’s paralysis from polio is now common knowledge, but at the time the book was published, West was revealing a big secret. 
The Trumans were one of his favorite families. Their Midwestern, down-to-earth ways made it easy to love them. Together with daughter Margaret, the Trumans were the closest family that West ever served. They stuck together, spending most of their free time hanging out in the House.
I was a bit shocked about Mamie Eisenhower’s demeanor as reported by West. She seemed to be as much a drill sergeant as was her military-general husband. She ran the White House with a firm hand, but was ever the lady about it.
About the Kennedys, the most shocking fact to me was that President Kennedy swam in the White House pool everyday NUDE. Is this fact common knowledge and I just didn’t know it? Nude? What if somebody came in? He didn’t even lock the doors!
Of all the presidents west served, President Lyndon Johnson worked the longest hours. I guess I just assumed that all presidents went to work very early in the morning and worked long into the night. Actually, many of them went to the Oval Office mid-morning, came home for lunch, went back to the office for a while, and came home for dinner around 5:00-ish. Of course, much work was done from a home office as well, but LBJ was the first president to keep really long office hours.
West didn’t serve the Nixon family very long, so there isn’t much written about them. However, I find one aspect of their lives quite humorous. The Nixon’s daughter Julie married David Eisenhower, grandson of President Eisenhower. When First Lady Pat Nixon moved into the White House, “General” Mamie was still making her wished known, advising the new First Lady how she would have run things. I do get the impression that both ladies were gracious, but I thought it to be a little funny.
Upstairs at the White House is now out of print, so if you want to read it, you’ll have to visit your library. For history buffs, it will be worth your effort.

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