Here’s a good non-fiction read for the lazy days of August. While it is not a kiss-and-tell memoir of the goings on “Upstairs at the White House,” it is an interesting account of how six women defined their role as first lady. We also learn some interesting facts about the abode at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And sadly, we see how security concerns drastically alter life for its residents.
The “Chief Usher of the White House” once escorted visitors in and out of the White House. When JB West is hired in 1941, the “Chief Usher’s” responsibilities also included making arrangements for the first lady’s daily schedule, overseeing the maintenance of the White House and ensuring that each diplomatic and social function goes off without a hitch, without exceeding the White House budget.
After a career spanning from Eleanor Roosevelt to Pat Nixon, West employed Mary Lynn Kotz to help him write his behind-the-scenes story. His fly-on-the-wall view into the daily lives of the first families provides a unique perspective on history.
West quickly learns that adjusting to each woman’s distinct mannerisms, priorities and peccadilloes is key to staying employed. Eleanor didn’t give a hoot about domestic tasks, but West certainly needed her approval before moving houseguests to another room. Bess Truman and housekeeping squared off; Bess won. Mamie Eisenhower expected and got military spit and polish cleanliness. Jackie Kennedy looked exquisite as she welcomed world leaders to the White House, but would have rather been upstairs playing with her children. Lady Bird Johnson loved hosting parties for her Texan friends. Pat only wanted “a little cottage cheese,” no matter how many courses were being served.
Before Kennedy’s assassination, the first lady was free to come and go as she pleased. Eleanor, who championed many causes before her husband’s election, used her new status to improve funding for her “youth” and “social welfare” projects. Whizzing in and out of the White House throughout the day, her movements were unfettered by Secret Service agents. She took commercial flights, crisscrossing the nation to give speeches. In Washington D.C., she walked or took public transportation to meetings.
At times, Eleanor acted as an ambassador for the president, but the couple had a peculiar relationship. West said staff members never saw Eleanor and Franklin alone in the same room together. They conferred, but conducted their lives separately. Whether Eleanor was bothered by Franklin’s pretty personal secretary, who lived on the third floor, isn’t revealed. Nor does West enlighten us about Eleanor’s two personal friends – who slept down the hall. Today, the media would have devoured the Roosevelt’s three permanent houseguests faster than a cat eats a mouse.
But that’s not all the press kept mum about, from Roosevelt through Kennedy, the public rarely knew when the president was seriously ill. In spite of Eleanor’s volunteer social works, West gives the award for the most “politically influential first lady” to her successor — Bess Truman. She was the proverbial fish out of water, but knew enough to turn to West for advice. She spoke to him as an equal, had a mild temper and learned the ropes quickly. Publicly, she played a supporting role to her husband, standing well outside the limelight. But West said Truman’s famous sign, “The Buck Stops Here,” was a lie. “We knew the buck didn’t stop there. Every night the president would go upstairs to discuss each and every issue with the real boss.”
During the Truman Administration, the White House was declared a wreck! The extent of the damage became clear when the President’s bathtub, with him in it, almost collapsed through the second floor. Structural engineers discovered that load-bearing walls and major supporting beams were removed during earlier renovations. In addition, electric wiring installed in 1891 had merely been patched and added to ever since, making the mansion a tinderbox.
After Congress allocated $5.4 million for reconstruction, the Trumans moved across the street to Blair House, and the White House interior was gutted. During the renovation, several “secrets” were uncovered that I’m sure readers will find interesting. West’s job required him to keep his political opinions to himself and to stay aloof from members of the first family. He found the latter hard to do, and his “likes” sometimes show through in his discourse. That’s understandable, since one day he was serving a mild-mannered Missouri family, and the next he had to march in step to a general’s wife. Although Mamie’s public persona was that of an average American housewife, she was born into wealth; always had a staff; and was used to having her orders obeyed. Running the White House was a snap for her, but a little tough on the staff.
Oddly enough, West grew to love her style. The woman knew what she wanted. Yet, her softer side appeared when she interacted with her grandchildren, who slept on the third floor.
Television had now taken its place in American living rooms, along with those handy TV trays. Keeping in step with the public, the Eisenhowers often ate their evening meals while watching a Western. And how’s this for a salacious tidbit? They were the only “First Couple” to share a bed during West’s employment. But Mamie had a mean streak, exhibited by her behavior when Jackie came to inspect the White House after the 1960 election. I won’t reveal that tale. Jackie survived and quickly made her mark by redecorating the White House, unveiling her handiwork on a network special. We all tuned in!
The Kennedys’ three short years in the White House started with glamour. Camera crews couldn’t get enough of the couple. West describes Jackie as soft-spoken and somewhat vulnerable, “almost childlike.” It’s in this section that West provides the best sense of history as it unfolds around him. Tucked between children’s birthday parties and diplomatic events, there’s the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s assassination. And somewhere in between, West becomes Jackie’s life-long friend.
When Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office, Lady Bird and her daughters found themselves locked onto a world stage guarded by Secret Service agents. Freedom of movement would be forevermore relinquished by all members of the first family. However, Lady Bird insisted on one concession. She established a “Secret Service Free Zone” on the third floor so her daughters could entertain guests — without armed guards.
West retired two months into the Nixon administration, staying just long enough to see Pat remove most of Jackie’s décor. It’s amusing to see how each first lady carved up the private living space — what they tossed (return to museums) and what they couldn’t live without.
Occasionally, the president had a say. Johnson demanded multiple shower heads, and Truman usurped Lincoln’s bedroom for his daughter. But West spent much of his time catering to the first lady’s choice of décor, cooks, housekeepers and seat arrangements. Read what it is like to have Churchill as a guest. Learn who pays for those bridge club luncheons and poker nights. Discover why there is always a rat in the White House. “Upstairs at the White House” will make you realize living there can be magical, tragic and everything in between. But at the end of the day, we all ask the same question:
“What’s for dinner?”