The White House is the People’s House, but few Americans have ever been inside it. J.B. West’s and Mary Lynn Kotz’s Upstairs at the White House, provides a look into the lives and personalities from the Roosevelt’s to the Nixon’s.
During a span of twenty-eight years, West was an assistant to, and Chief Usher of, the White House. He oversaw operations, personnel, event planning, and a plethora of other duties.
The book was originally published in 1973, but in the last few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in it. West traces the lives of each of the six First Families he served. Along the way, he underscores some of his dynamic responsibilities such as security, welcoming foreign dignitaries, American guests, and fixing “emergencies”.
One of the interesting parts is West’s assessment of how well each First Lady performed her role. Eleanor Roosevelt, for example: he admired her work on behalf of racial justice—how she welcomed African Americans such as Mary MacLeod Bethune to the White House—but he was critical of her dismissive attitude about housekeeping and structural condition of the White House:
Mrs. Roosevelt . . . didn’t have much time for housekeeping problems either, and the mansion suffered because of it. Even to me, an Iowa boy . . . it seemed dingy, almost seedy. She left things up to the housekeeper [and] . . . didn’t pay much attention to White House food, either. (West, p. 27).
Unlike other works, Upstairs threads no dominating, overarching argument through its chapters. Indeed, there is no conclusion. West provides all the details he recalls—from Pearl Harbor and funerals, to segues into new administrations.
West’s unbiased account is the reason to read Upstairs. As Chief Usher, his loyalty was “to the institution that is the White House” (West, p. 11); he worked for Democratic and Republic administrations, but says he wrote the book to “help to future historians”. He succeeds by creating a uniquely credible, and independent primary source. (West, p. 9).
West also provides important—and quirky—specifics that probably could have been remained unsaid. For example, First Ladies’ Bess Truman and Jaqueline Kennedy were clear about their desire for privacy. (West, p. 269). But, he also divulges how FDR, who was unable to walk, feared a fire would kill him at night, and how the assassination attempt on President Truman tormented Mrs. Truman. (West, pp. 25; 118).
Overall, I recommend Upstairs at the White House to anyone interested in history, or presidents and their first ladies. It transcends the typical narrative, which only focuses on the president. West’s story proves that running the White House is a family business. Each first lady and her staff have—for a very long time—played major, but practically invisible roles–in operating 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and supporting the Chief Executive and his work.
Quentin Levin is a college student majoring in Government who is passionate about history.