“Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies” by J.B. West with Mary Lynn Kotz

 

Book Cover - Upstairs at the White House

“Upstairs at the White House,” is a current NYT non-fiction bestseller first published in 1974. It was a NYT bestseller back then, remaining on the list for many months. It recounts the highlights of J.B. West’s 28 year career (1941-1969) as assistant, and then Chief, Usher at the White House. The book covers the time from the Roosevelt Presidency (Franklin) through the early months of the Nixon Presidency.

 

The job of Chief Usher initially entailed merely walking people in to see the President or the First Lady and keeping track of their appointments, but for the last fifty years, has grown to be so much more. Created as a Civil Service position, the Chief Usher works at the direction of the President and manages the Executive Mansion. Sounds simple? Not so much.

 

“Upstairs at the White House” is an intriguing behind-the-scenes peek at the running of the White House – a place that serves as the family residence while the President is in office. Each of the families that lived there during West’s tenure was distinctive in makeup and had different requirements of the living quarters. Children came and went, couples had varying needs for privacy, some Presidents and First Ladies were incredibly demanding, some as gracious as your pleasant next door neighbor.

 

West’s tales (as described in Mary Lynn Kotz’s narrative) deliver fascinating information about what had to be done to arrange for all the social occasions at the White House. Food had to be purchased, furniture had to be moved, tablecloths and china needed to be carried from storerooms by the truckload. This encompassed both private family and friend gatherings in addition to the official political dinners and parties, sometimes with just a few hours notice, sometimes more than one gathering in progress at the same time. ‘Creative logistics’ would be putting it mildly. Most food costs were paid out of the Presidential pocket, so the wealthier Presidents entertained visiting dignitaries more often and with splashier events.

 

J.B. West had responsibility for adhering to the Congressional budget for any construction and maintenance projects – including the vast remodeling undertakings initiated under some administrations as well as its transition to Museum status. If the money allotment from Congress was insufficient, private donations sometimes filled the gaps. One enterprising First Lady commissioned a White House Guide Book to be sold as a fundraiser, which more than underwrote the cost of her projects. Thousands of vacationers and visitors walk through the White House each week, so floors, rugs, walls, etc. get lots more wear and tear than can be imagined. Think of what your living room rug looks like after four years with just your family tromping on it every day. Multiply that wear by thousands of feet. Each incoming President received an allotment for repainting and refurbishing the family rooms as well as those seen by the tourists.

 

Personal tidbits about the First Ladies and their husbands are quite revealing, and while nothing said is a scathing indictment of any of the cast of characters, “Upstairs at the White House” allows us an historical perspective to the personalities leading our country during that era. Some of the First Ladies gained stature in their own right; some never really left the shadow of their husbands. Some of the First Ladies behaved as if they were royalty, others took their role of service to the country quite seriously.

 

West did have a sympathetic view of the role of the First Ladies and the toll it took on most of those who held it. There are touching stories, funny anecdotes, eye-opening accounts and always a respect for the White House and what it stands for.

 

Photographs from J.B. West’s personal collection are included at the end of the book.

 

Mary Lynn Kotz gathered the information for “Upstairs at the Whitehouse” from J.B. West’s files and tape recordings, along with personal interviews with him. The collaboration was so successful that the book sold more than two million copies.

 

 

 

 

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