Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by JB West

Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by JB West
Publisher: Open Road Media
Genre: Historical, Non-Fiction
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Nymphaea

In this New York Times bestseller, the White House chief usher for nearly three decades offers a behind-the-scenes look at America’s first families.

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 and funerals, gardens and playgrounds, and extensive renovations; and, with a large staff, supervised every activity in the presidential home. For twenty-eight 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, as well as their parents, children and grandchildren, and houseguests—including friends, relatives, and heads of state.

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What a glimpse into the world of the White House.

First, I have to say this isn’t a political book. It’s got the words White House in it and First Lady, but honestly, it’s not a political book. It’s about the women who ruled the White House, no politics involved. I have to also admit right off that it’s the end of FDR’s presidency through the beginning of Nixon’s presidency. It’s dated. It’s long before my time and can come across as old. But it’s also a snapshot into the lives of these people.

The writing is somewhat simplistic, but oddly, it worked. The book was originally published in 1973 and the author is dead, but that didn’t bother me while reading. I enjoyed the sneak peeks into the lives of these ladies. There isn’t much about the presidents, but more of the first ladies, as the title states. Yes, there is a lot about how the ladies decorated, but it’s of the time. The ladies of the era the author worked in weren’t concerned with social causes, per se. Their domain was making the White House a home for them and their children. That’s not to say they didn’t have causes, but if there seems to be a big chunk of description on the decor and furnishings–that’s why.

I rather liked learning about the presidents as people through the eyes of the author and the first ladies. I loved that Johnson had dogs named simply Him and Her. It’s cute. Or that Eisenhower loved watching westerns and that the staff had to hunt down new ones because he’d seen the rest at least a half dozen times. It made them seem more like people than simply names in a book.

If you’re looking for a book that’s an easy read, engrossing, but somewhat tedious at times (the descriptions of the decor can get tiresome), yet a book where you’re going to learn about the presidents and first ladies, then this might be the book for you. I enjoyed it.

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