A fascinating behind-the-scenes look at life on Pennsylvania Avenue with America's first families, by the man who spent nearly three decades in their midst. J. B. West, chief usher of the White House, directed the operations and maintenance of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - and coordinated its daily life - at the request of the president and his family. He directed state functions; planned parties, weddings, funerals, gardens, playgrounds, and extensive renovations; and with a large staff, supervised every activity in the presidential home. For 28 years, first as assistant to the chief usher, then as chief usher, he witnessed national crises and triumphs, and interacted daily with six consecutive presidents and first ladies, their parents, children and grandchildren, and houseguests - including friends, relatives, and heads of state. In Upstairs at the White House, West offers an absorbing and novel glimpse at America's first families, from the Roosevelts to the Kennedys and the Nixons. Alive with anecdotes ranging from the quotidian (Lyndon B. Johnson's showerheads) to the tragic (the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination), West's audiobook is an enlightening and rich account of the American history that took place just behind the Palladian doors of the North Portico.
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According to my records I read this book in 1973, but I must admit I cannot remember one fact from the book. So I decided to re-read it as it was re-published again in 2014. The book was on the New York Times best seller list in 1974 and again in 2014.
The book is about J. B. West’s 28 years career (1941-1969) as assistant, and then Chief Usher at the White House. The book covers the time from the Roosevelt (FDR) to the early part of the Nixon Presidency
The Chief Usher is the manager of the Executive mansion. The book provides the behind the scenes peek at the running of the White House. West tells about the difference between the Presidents and their families. Each was distinctive and had different requirements. Some Presidents and first ladies were incredibly demanding, while some were as gracious and pleasant as a friend.
The book is packed with information about the needs and running of the White House. Personal tidbits about the First Ladies and their husbands were quite revealing but nothing inappropriate was revealed.
The author says that Eleanor Roosevelt never walk, she half ran down the halls. He said she was constantly in a rush, meeting, speeches, and teas. Said sometimes she was rushing down the hall dictating to her secretary as she was rushing off to an appointment. As a trivia fan I found this book a delight as it is so packed with unusual and little known facts.
I missed out on all the photographs because I read this as an audio book. Eric Martin narrated the book.
The author, John West, was Chief Usher at the White House through several presidential administrations, from Roosevelt to Nixon.
What are the key character attributes of anyone holding this job? Well, obviously, the person should be well-organised and a good communicator, but they should also be discrete and tactful, and able to be trusted to keep a secret. So can we still consider John West to be trustworthy now that he has spilled the beans, revealing the secrets of the presidents’ wives? Or do these revelations mean that trust in him was misplaced?
Somehow John West manages to tell the story while retaining his reputation as a man of discretion and honour, so we aren’t left with the feeling that this is a tacky case of Kiss and Tell.
How does he achieve this? Well, firstly, he says that his principle motive is to ensure that the lives of the First Ladies over three momentous decades are not lost to history. Secondly, he must have seen, or suspected, some scandalous behaviour going on within the White House walls, but if he did, he omits these incidents from the book. For example, he never mentions JFK’s infidelities, or any other sexual impropriety for that matter. Thirdly, without being sycophantic or bland, he manages to portray the characters of the presidents and their wives in a largely positive light. It seems as if he genuinely is telling us his story for the sake of history, and because he wants to share the interesting narrative with us, and with posterity, without resorting to scandal or gossip.
It is fascinating to be a fly on the wall, getting an insider’s insight into the characters of the World’s most powerful men and their wives, as each couple displaced its predecessor and the White House staff adjusted to their different personas. We are privileged to get intimate behind-the-scenes views of such events as the death of Roosevelt, the Cuban missile crisis and the JFK assassination.
The book has some weaknesses, but in fairness, they are probably an inevitable result of its structure and subject matter: Although the author has a masterly ability to portray the characters of the presidents and their wives, it is inevitably conveyed as a long series of anecdotes. If this was the autobiography of a great inventor or adventurer, then there might be some sense of the protagonist gradually building towards the climax of achieving their life’s goal. Whereas in this book, each presidency is a new chapter, without a sense of it building on the previous chapter’s momentum, and there is no overriding goal, because the chief protagonist is essentially a passive witness to the lives of the first families, rather than having a historically significant life of his own. So for this reason the book fails to be truly captivating.
Because of the subject matter the story also, equally inevitably, gets caught up from time to time in the details of room décor, furniture, bedlinen, etc., and so the listener can be forgiven for drifting off a little from time to time when such particulars fail to hold the attention.
But these negative aspects of the listening experience are outweighed by the positives, and the overall impression as a listener is that I’m glad John West shared his story with us.