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 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, 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 book is an enlightening and rich account of the American history that took place just behind the Palladian doors of the North Portico.
J. B. West (1912–1983), chief usher of the White House—or executive director of the executive mansion and grounds—was once called “the most powerful man in Washington next to the president.” Discreet and witty, he supervised the large permanent staff that provided for every personal want and need for six presidents and first ladies, including at state dinners, weddings, and funerals, redecorating the facilities for each family and tending to every special request. He served first as assistant to the chief usher and then as chief usher after retiring as a high-level civilian officer of the US Navy. A native Iowan, his White House tenure (1941–1969) followed a career in the Veterans Administration. Upstairs at the White House was published in 1973 and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for months, with more than five hundred extraordinarily positive reviews, editions in seven languages, and more than two million copies sold in the US across hardcover and paperback formats.
I definitely enjoyed this. It covers life in the White House under the administrations of FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and finally the first six weeks of Nixon's first term. The author began as Assistant Usher in 1941 to the Chief Usher Howell Crim. In 1957 he became the Chief Usher and continued in this post until March 1969. A Chief Usher oversees the First Family's private as well as public life, ensuring that public and private events don't conflict. They are responsible for the management, maintenance and budget of the Executive Residence. Budgetary duties are extensive and intricate. (For example, costs for a State Dinner are not to be charged to the Executive Residence.) They supervise the White House staff. The post is not political; they must be able to provide exemplary, individualized service without personal preference. It is both a powerful and a delicate position that calls for the ability to communicate with politicians, officials, servants and First Families of widely divergent character. Diplomacy is essential to hold this job.
Much of what is presented here concerns what the author learned about the respective First Ladies. Funny incidents. Each of these women was very different and you get a feel for their personalities. Eleanor Roosevelt was a whirlwind. Bess Truman treated the staff with immense respect, even taking the time to introduce each to visitors. Mamie Eisenhower knew what she wanted. She was friendly, out-going and vivacious. But she insisted that no footprints should ever be visible on rugs and the staff was only to use service elevators, no matter how impractical that might be. There is a hysterical incident about once when she had a cold. In bed, in the dark, she thought she grabbed Vicks Vapor Rub but instead.....read the book. Very funny! Marital relationships are revealed. One bed was broken. The Roosevelts were distant, the Trumans loving and discrete, the Eisenhowers visibly affectionate. Oh, and the Johnsons, they were fanatical about turning off the lights. I haven't said a word about the Kennedys.
This is a book I read several decades ago but am now realizing I haven't added to my "Read" list on GoodReads. Many books that I read in my youth have long been forgotten, but this is one that has always stuck with me with parts of it coming to the forefront of my mind at random times. Many historical figures are ones we just see in short news clips or are referenced in conversations. But I still remember how struck I was by the author's first moments in FDR's white house. All of a sudden history became a lot more real and tangible as we experience actual moments in time from behind the scenes. We go with the chief user through the decades as he tells us what life was like with each family including the difficult times, such as Jackie having to plan for JFK's funeral. It's been years since I've read the book, but If I remember correctly she wanted it to match as closely as possible to what was done for Lincoln - even down to the material that was used, which was no longer available and had to be tracked down.
J.B. West mentions he writes this as his predecessor wrote one for the time he worked in the White House. After finishing this story, I always wanted to read that story as well - to see what life was like in the White House for Presidents in the early 1900s. That book was rather difficult to find prior to the Internet, but perhaps now I can track a copy of that story too.
Author J.B. West spent just under 3 decades in the White House, serving first as assistant to the chief usher, and then as chief usher himself.
All of us wonder what really goes on behind the scenes at the White House, and arguably no one knows the answer to that question better than the chief usher, whose responsibilities are great and varied, touching all aspects of the life of both the staff and the President and First Lady.
The book devotes a chapter to each President and First Lady that J.B. West served under, beginning with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and ending with Richard Nixon.
Well written, West succeeds in bringing you into the lives inside the White House, giving an insider's view into what it takes to keep the place running smoothly, and it takes a lot. The thing I found most interesting was the adjustments the staff had to make every time a new President and his family moved into the house. Some were, obviously, easier to deal with than others.
West treats all of the Presidents he served with kindness in this book, although he doesn't shy away from letting the reader know of some of the "different" habits some of the Presidents and their families had that impacted those who served them. I would have to admit my biggest surprise was Eleanor Roosevelt. I won't divulge more than that due to spoilers.
If you like history - and even if history isn't something you are normally drawn to - I still think most people would enjoy this book, especially those of us who can remember the JFK administration and on through Nixon. I was very young then, but even I remember seeing JFK in person when he came to Joliet, IL. My dad put me up on his shoulders in the pouring rain so we could see the man so many people loved. I will never forget that day, and I will never forget this book.
This is a wonderful look into the lives of the First Ladies, life in the White House, and the everyday stresses that come from being married to the president of the United States of America. A thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the personal history of the White House, and the inner circles of Washington DC.
James Bernard West – or J.B. as he was known – was born in 1912 and died in 1983. Following a career as a civilian officer in the US Navy and then in the Veterans Association, he served as Chief Usher in the White House from 1941 to his retirement in 1969. The post of Chief Usher may not sound very important, but in effect it meant that he ran the White House and was once called “the most powerful man in Washington next to the President”. He was responsible for everything that happened and was answerable to the President. He oversaw the day-to-day running of the house, he organised banquets, state dinners, weddings, funerals, decoration, rebuilding. He was there when Roosevelt died and when Kennedy was assassinated. He had almost unlimited access to the President and First Lady. This memoir, first published in 1973, remains a unique glimpse behind the scenes during the presidencies of the Roosevelts, Trumans, Eisenhowers, Kennedys, Johnsons and Nixons. Gossipy and full of anecdotes, it makes for an absorbing and fascinating read. He shows the foibles and whims demonstrated by all the famous residents, and gives us many an insight into what life was really like out of the public gaze. But he remains respectful at all times, which is a refreshing change from the far too ubiquitous scandal-mongering exposés that such insider memoirs often degenerate into. There are some wonderful photos too. This is an immensely enjoyable and informative book, and one which deserves a new readership after its initial popularity and its long stay on the New York Times bestseller list.
This was not my cup of tea. West served as White House Usher (the department responsible for the managing of White House operations) from late in the Roosevelt administration until a few weeks after the inauguration of Nixon. This is a memoir of his 30 years serving in that post, focusing on his interactions with the First Ladies. This is definitely NOT a kiss and tell; he is extremely deferential to the presidential families. His overall impression of these families was completely consistent with everything I have read. The bits of trivia (e.g. Mamie Eisenhower liked to play a card game called Bolivia, Lucy Johnson signed her notes with a happy face, or the colors the First Ladies chose for the presidential living quarters) were of no interest to me. I found the writing style straight forward to the point of lackluster which added to my disinterest in this book. If this were not a book group choice, I would not have read it.
I really loved this book, it was fascinating. I would have given it 5 stars except it wasn't a page turning novel. I now want to read about the last 5 president's wives. I'm not sure I would be as impressed with their character.
This book was an unexpected treat. My favorite period in American history is the mid-20th century, which is right where this book starts off. Chief Usher J.B. West begins working at the White House while the Roosevelt family was living there and he shares snippets of his experiences with first families through the early Nixon administration. The authors did a marvelous job of taking me back in time and making the White House come to life. Not once did they overstep or over-share any details that I think would embarrass any of the first families, yet they still managed to humanize each family. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read.
J.B. West served as chief usher at the White House for 28 years. This is his account of those years and the personalities he worked with. While he focuses upon the First Ladies (Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, and Pat Nixon), West can't help but give his impressions of the presidents also. As it turns out, the usher's role at the White House is enormous. For such an unassuming title, his responsibility was to ensure the smooth running of the White House for the presidents and their families. No request of theirs, large or small, could be overlooked.
Some interesting anecdotes are:
* Eleanor and FDR had so many guests living semi-permanently at the White House that the bedrooms were always full. The guests were left to entertain themselves or given to the ushers to help occupy them. No surprise here, but the couple lived independent lives and each had their own paramour.
* The Lincoln Bedroom was a favorite for many guests - Everyone wanted to sleep there. There's a Queen's room that was designed for real queens to use while visiting.
* "Give'em Hell Harry" always went ballistic whenever he perceived that either his wife or daughter were attacked - Bess had to calm him down.
* Mamie Eisenhower was a clothes horse, having much more clothing than any other first lady. She could be rather arrogant and demanding with the White House staff.
* Jackie Kennedy had a lovely sense of humor that the public did not see too often. While at the White House, she made sure that a special nursery school classroom was designed for her children complete with a professional teacher. When JFK came "home" from the oval office for lunch each day, he and Jackie had their own private time in his bedroom. The staff knew to never interrupt them.
* Lady Bird told J.B. West that she came last on the totem pole in order of importance. She wanted the staff to prioritize the needs of her husband and children over her own. (The Ushers certainly did not listen to this request of hers.)... Her daughters had their own teen suite in the White House where they could evade all grown-ups and just hang out. The ushers had converted Caroline Kennedy's classroom into a teen suite for them.
* As West retired just weeks after the Nixons moved into the White House, he did not write much about them. He did say that one of Pat's first requests food-wise was for the family to be served steaks, but she herself just wanted cottage-cheese. This was the one food that the well-stocked kitchen did not have and they scrambled to get it for her. She was a tiny eater.
This is a sampling of stories found in the book. I enjoyed them!
Through this book the reader is allowed a glimpse into how first ladies of the past have publically supported their presidential husbands and how they chose to use their influence. This book gives insight into who several of the first ladies of the twentieth century were as individuals and how their personalities and values contributed to the way they filled their roles within the While House. As a reader I felt like I was learning history by chatting with someone who knew them personally. In this case, the chat was with J. B. West, chief usher of the White House, who worked with first ladies from the time of the Roosevelt administration to the first weeks of the Nixon presidency. His role in the White House was primarily to fulfill their wishes within both their private and public lives. He gives a unique insight into the mentality of those working in the White House from one administration to another. In order to not be devastated when one first family leaves and disloyal when another comes in, the staff must align their allegiance to the national agency that is the White House.
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 walked, 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.
This is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the First Ladies from Eleanor to Pat Nixon. You get good insights on their personalities. Mamie Eisenhower was the biggest surprise, since I knew little about her, so it was easy to stereotype her as a quiet, military spouse. Not so.
I also learned more about how the White House functioned as an organization. You learn a little more about the staff and the relationship between WH staff and the First Lady and President's own staff they bring to the White House.
I did really enjoy this book, from beginning till the end. This book is about the life of the Chief Usher J. B. West who served for the First Ladies for 28 years at White House. I read so many interesting episodes of First Ladies and the Presidents that I've never heard from TV shows. Some episodes are funny, some are sad, and heartfelt. This is the stories behind the American history. It's over 500 pages, but I did get into the book because well written with much details. Highly recommended!
I prefer to think of myself as a "people" person, rather than a Nosy Parker (I am, however, a proudly skillful Facebook stalker). Fortunately, I'm not alone; J.B. West is my kind of guy. His engrossing bestseller about his years as a White House usher is packed with gossipy tidbits about America's First Ladies. He seems particularly smitten with Jack's Jackie O and Dwight's pretty, petite Mamie, yet he finds nice things to say about all of them - even Eleanor Roosevelt - and drops more than a few bombshells.
Apparently, Give 'Em Hell Harry's nocturnal romps with No Nonsense Bess were so wild that they broke their bed. President Kennedy used the White House pool to skinny dip twice a day, after which he padded up to his bed chamber clad only in his robe. Speaking of bed chambers, Winston Churchill liked to lounge around his during WWII without any clothes, much to the distress of the unlucky staff required to attend to his needs.
I don't want anyone to get the idea that this is only about implausible bedmates and immodest heads of state. West is equally concerned with the challenges of maintaining the integrity of the house without sacrificing the privileges and privacy of its inhabitants. He is respectfully sympathetic to the tensions faced by first families as they struggled with the pressures of everyday life while living in a fishbowl. He accepts the changes which accompanied the arrival of each new family, but he also laments the consequences of some of their decisions:
"The house “belongs” to whoever lives there. But I hate to see history disappear....For that reason, I was sorry to see the swimming pool go....It was a gift to President Roosevelt from the schoolchildren of America who collected millions of dimes to pay for constructing the heated indoor pool, which that President used every day in his first years of office for post-polio therapy. I remember President Truman swimming there, his glasses all fogged up, as part of his fitness regimen; the Eisenhowers’ grandchildren, coming over on weekends, splashing around with the greatest glee; the mural, a colorful sailing scene, commissioned by Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and painted by artist Bernard Lamotte, that brightened up the walls for the swimming races between President Kennedy and his Cabinet; the scores of bathing trunks hanging from the hooks for President Johnson’s guests—in all sizes from King Farouk to Mahatma Gandhi."
Ironically, it was Nixon who turned the pool into a press room. Something he would live to regret.
J B West began his career at the White House while still in the Navy reserve, serving first in the Franklin Roosevelt administration. In time, he was promoted to the position of Chief Usher, basically the head of household for the residence. This memoir details his years of service from 1943 to a year into the Nixon administration.
I really enjoyed this look at the private lives of the first families. Due to his position, West’s primary contact within each administration was with the First Lady. Her wishes as to how the private rooms would be used, preferred decorating colors and schemes, and private family routines governed how West and his crew handled things. Whether it was converting a closet to a nurse’s bedroom (and back to a closet), or “borrowing” space from a couple of adjacent rooms to create a private kitchen space, he and his staff handled every request with aplomb and professionalism.
Readers hoping for some juicy private gossip will NOT find it here. Discretion was paramount for the position, and West maintains that characteristic in his memoir. Still, it is a touchingly personal account. Twice he had to deal with a transition that was NOT due to an election (following the deaths of FDR and JFK), and the contrasts in how these were necessarily handled vs the typical handing over of power following an election is evident.
All told, I was interested and engaged throughout.
Eric Martin does a fine job of performing the audiobook. The pace was good and his diction was clear. He made little effort to imitate the voices of the first ladies, and I applaud him for that.
This book was written by an usher in the White House who was promoted to Chief Usher (CH). He described the role of CH as the White House mansion general mgr who saw to supervising / hiring/ firing 100 employees IE maids, cooks, carpenters, engineers, gardeners, etc. supervising maintenance/ remodeling of the mansion, making transport arrangements & guest accommodations at the WH, maintaining the 16 acres surrounding the WH. Also coordinating w/ other government organizations IE The Park Svc, The National Art Gallery, the Smithsonian museums, The Navy, Air Force, Marines etc.
I learned some history related to the First Families IE the Trumans discovered that the inside walls of the WH weren't reinforced, which caused structural instability and floors to slope. The Truman fam. lived several yrs in Blair House (across the street) while the White House needed all but it's outside walls gutted. The Trumans had more privacy @Blair House than in the WH. President Eisenhowser became the 1st POTUS to conduct a televised news conference. Each POTUS, by tradition, hosted the Supreme Ct Justices in Sept, before the court came into session in Oct.
The White House cooks & butlers got off work at 8PM, the exception being state dinners. LBJ came across as selfish, he had lunch around 3PM & supper: whenever, as late as midnight or in the wee hours. He insisted these staff, who received no overtime pay, jump to his tune, on his time schedule.
The author noted which POTUS slept in the same bed as his wife: just tacky. Considering so many Presidents he dis- cussed had workaholic tendencies, why wouldn't some of these men elect to sleep alone, in order to avoid disturbing the sleep of their wives?
The author discussed his perception of each of the 6 First Ladies' personalities with whom he worked.
I found this book fascinating and entertaining. An unusual peek into what goes on 'upstairs in real White House' told by Usher J. B. West, as he worked alongside five First Ladies: Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, and Pat Nixon. Filled with anecdotes and insights and told with self-effacing humor and great respect for the Presidential families, J. B. West gives a delightful history lesson from behind the scenes.
Anyone who likes history and our presidents or is curious about life inside the White House will enjoy this book. It was a fascinating look at our first ladies, mostly, but also gave some glimpses of our leaders Roosevelt through the first month of the Nixon administration.
Interesting book about the families that occupied in the White House from Presidents Roosevelt to Nixon. JB West, the head usher, gives an insider's look at the First Ladies and the way they made the house their own. Fascinating on many levels, it's a unique microcosm of our changing society. The shift in social status and the way things are done, as the Roosevelt's upper crust lifestyle exits, compared to the bread and butter of Harry Truman's middle America. Mami Eisenhower's velvet gloves fifties style housewife, contrasts Jackie Kennedy's upper crust finishing school style that brought a new elegance to the White House. Everything is lovingly detailed from the strange requests, the guest and parties, births and deaths, making each First Family unique. This book concentrates on women thrust into a peculiar position, torn from their regular lives, to create the illusion of normalcy for their families, all while being a role model for a country that has not quite figured out exactly what they are supposed to do.
I took my time with this one. . . .from the Roosevelts to the Nixons, got to see how the inner workings of the White house personnel, the families that lived their and their lifestyles, and Mr. West (the author) in his role as Chief Usher.
Had absolutely no idea how complicated all that is, and God Bless them all. That is a job only a very special kind of person could do. I'm not one of them! But fun to read about.
This is a very entertaining read about the White House and the families who live there. I truly enjoyed learning the role of the Chief Usher! The photographs were great, especially for this Canadian who has never visited the White House. (4 stars, KUYH November BOTM)
I really liked this book! I learned a lot about the First Ladies. I thought the book might be really dense covering so many tears, but the writing was light and easy to follow with just enough detail to give you a glimpse into their lives.
For those obsessed with Presidential history, this book of about as close as you can get to the intimate details of the inner workings of the White House and the First Families from a man who worked hand-in-hand with them for almost 3 decades. J.B. West served first as assistant usher and then head usher at the White House for Presidents Roosevelt through Nixon, amassing textbooks full of knowledge about these leaders and their wives and the way they ran their households.
Through his chronological story, we see the vastly different leadership styles and the approaches the First Ladies take when they enter the White House. The Roosevelt family genuinely enjoyed each other's company and sat each night talking and reading together. Harry Truman called upon the WH carpenter's department to replace a bed frame after a particularly energetic night. Mamie Eisenhower redid the interior bedrooms primarily in pink. Jacqueline Kennedy was the quintessential lady and a dear friend to the author. Lady Bird Johnson had one of the calmest and most serene personalities to counter-balance her husband's "Johnson treatment". And as the Nixons took office, West was leaving after a career and life through some of the most memorable years in history.
I took off a star because of how long the book was--I sometimes paused it and came back to it after reading another book because it was very long and sometimes tedious. But the sheer depth and intricate detail to which West was privy during his tenure is staggering and will interest any history buff.
4.5 🌟 I really enjoyed learning more about all these First Ladies and certain work ethics they had or little quirks about them. You can tell this usher was very respectful of every Presidential family and did his best to make each resident happy. Facts I found intriguing: Mrs. Roosevelt was extremely hard working, always on the go, but didn’t spend much time with her husband. Mrs. Truman was quiet and resourceful and noticed all the dust and cobwebs. Mrs. Eisenhower liked to stay in bed until noon (although working, not sleeping that whole time!😆) Mrs. Kennedy brought so many artifacts back to the White House with her restoration projects and sought ways to think outside the box to bring in extra funds for her projects. Mrs. Johnson knew how to handle her husband and had 2 daughters marry while in the White House. Mrs. Nixon was barely known by JB West.
Some parts of the book drug in with details that don’t keep attention well, however the majority of the book was fascinating and I truly loved it!
This was interesting, it's hard to say that I actively liked it, but I continued quite quickly through to the end, so I obviously enjoyed it more than maybe I think. Anyway, I did enjoy a little peek into the life of the president and his family as they made the transition to living in the White House and it was fun to get a little bit of history mixed in. I would find this same book continued on from the Nixons till now very interesting, but I don't think they would allow it...probably have all sorts of nondisclosure agreements. Mr. West for sure had his favorite (Jackie O), but he was also very complementary to the others First Ladies. In reading between the lines he is a very interesting man...I could NEVER do his job! I'm just not that formal and I despise setting up for parties! He dedicated 30 years of his life to the WH and the wants (whims) of some of these very privileged ladies. I wonder how much that job has changed? It does seem, although they were always talking about the budget, that it would be more economical just to have a WH decorator and each FL could have input but not free reign to do whatever. It does seem silly that the American people are paying to have that house redone every 4-8 years! Towards the end I found my interest in the goings on waning...I didn't care what they did with the Queen's room or or any room and what color they painted it or what chairs they pulled out of storage.
Loved it! Mr. West is amazing, totally non judgmental as he worked tirelessly to fulfill the every wish of 6 different First Ladies as they settled in to the White House on a limited budget! I Loved Mamie!!!
I would give this a 4.5. a very interesting book by J.B. West. written years ago. Mr. West was an usher at the White House from 1941-1969. His job was to be of service an usher to the first ladies. he began in 1941 With Eleanor Roosevelt. he was very good at describing each first lady.Mrs.Roosevelt was described as "always on the go and very busy" back then she thought nothing of walking by herself around Washington D.C. or driving herself when she wanted to go somewhere much to the protests of security. she loved to entertain and would invite strangers to visit her and the president. Mr. West eventually was promoted to head usher. I found this very interesting with his descriptions of each first lady. The all had very different personalities. and tastes in decorating the White House. Every time a new president came in it was clear it was First Ladies "job" to decorate the White house and the rooms they occupied. He shared about which rooms were occupied as bedrooms, others for entertaining. the Truman's did not get to actually stay in the White House because it was completely rebuilt inside staying at the Blair house instead. I every much enjoyed reading what Mr. West had to share about working for the first ladies. each lady being different from each other. I especially liked reading about Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy. this is NOT a mean spirited tell all kind of book. Mr. West always showed great respect about his experiences working with the first ladies. it was nice to get a chance to learn more about them.
Ahhhhh just so fun. I admit I came away feeling a bit unsettled that such a huge budget can go into redecorating every few years. I really loved how Mr. West had such unique comments to sum up each First Lady - they're always admiring but specific, showing how different people with opposite personality traits can be effective and excellent BECAUSE of their opposing personalities. (For example, he'll show how social and gracious and grandiose one First Lady was and extol the virtues of their openness and flair, and then he'll turn around and show how private and unassuming another First Lady is and extol the virtues of their unapologetically very opposite approach.) So many great details and stories. Loved this book and I wish there was one like it that included every First Family.