Upstairs at the White House: My Life With the First Ladies by J.B. West

Jul 3, 2019

When I was growing up, my mom always tuned into Paul Harvey on the radio while she was making lunch. Besides the news and interesting stories, he also had a segment called The Rest of the Story where he revealed the little known history behind famous and well-known events.

This book was a little like that radio segment, giving a backdoor view of some of America's First Families.

J.B. West served as Assistant to the Chief Usher and then later as Chief Usher of the White House from 1941 to 1969. I have to admit, before I read this book, I didn't even know there was such a position as "Chief Usher," but basically Mr. West's job was to work directly with the First Ladies, helping each one make the White House her home, ensuring that social events ran smoothly, overseeing the staff, and generally helping with all of the ins and outs of daily life. As such, he had a unique view of the President of the United States and his family, one that was often more personal than was portrayed by the media.

During his time at the White House, he served Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, and Pat Nixon. As each presidency turned over, Mr. West introduced the reader to the new First Lady and immediately shared little anecdotal stories that helped create a clear impression of this woman that contrasted sharply with all of the others. These women did not run together in a blur of First Ladies. Each one was uniquely her own person.

As I neared the end of the book, I wrote down the name of each First Lady and any words that came to mind that would help me remember her. These are merely my own observations and as such are not necessarily an accurate or complete representation of these women:

Eleanor Roosevelt: somewhat aloof, very busy, boundless energy, politically active, more interested in things outside of the White House than in it, distant relationship with the President

Bess Truman: simple, practical, not flashy, well-informed, adviser, private, very much in love with her husband and daughter

Mamie Eisenhower: vivacious, spunky, sparkly, opinionated, formal, elegant, high-class, openly affectionate

Jackie Kennedy: quiet, unassuming, sophisticated, witty, ambitious, educated, dedicated to history and the fine arts, unemotional 

Lady Bird Johnson: selfless, people-pleaser, social but private, loyal, friendly, hands off but particular 

Pat Nixon: reserved, decisive, warm (J.B. West only worked for her for six weeks, so she was the least well-known.)

One of the things that surprised me was how much freedom the First Ladies had to change around the White House and make it work for their families: bedrooms into dining rooms, the swimming pool into a press room (J.B.West's biggest regret), walls torn down and new ones built, a schoolroom designed for Caroline Kennedy and later transformed into a teenager hangout for Lucy Johnson, trees planted for privacy, furniture swapped in and out, a whole network of phone lines added, and the plumbing completely reworked to get strong enough water pressure for Lyndon Johnson (they were never able to actually please him).

I also appreciated how respectful J.B. West was of the privacy of the First Families. If you want a book that is full of scandalous details, this isn't it. And I felt like that was as it should be. Mr. West had a very personal relationship with each of the First Ladies, and trust was an integral part of that relationship. Even though the relationship technically ended once the President left office, I think it shows the kind of man that Mr. West was that he would still hold that trust sacred even once there wouldn't have been any negative repercussions.

And finally, there was just something so comforting in seeing the orderly way in which the Presidency was transferred each time. It was methodical and unemotional. At exactly 12:00 noon on the day of inauguration, the staff unpacked the new President's belongings with crisp efficiency so that by the time the First Family arrived, it was as if they had always lived there. In a world where emotions run high and people have strong opinions and biases, it is nice to know that some things continue to run the same no matter who is in office.

When I started reading this book, I didn't know that it would end up feeling like just the right lead-up for Independence Day. It was a hearkening back to the past while giving hope for the future, and its subtle undertone of patriotism was just perfect.

2 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this book! I love reading about the First Ladies (Jackie is my favorite). I also listened to Paul Harvey with my mom when I was a kid...miss him!

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    1. There was so much to love about Jackie, but I think Bess Truman was my favorite because I related to her quiet, introverted personality the most.

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