When I was a young reader I purchased a trivia filled book called, The Last Cow on the White House Lawn. It contained interesting facts about the U.S. Presidents of the past and present pertaining to their life in the White House with fun facts that not everyone knew about. Our latest book club read Upstairs at the White House is very similar to my childhood read with it's insider look of the First Ladies, the Presidents and their families through the eyes of Chief Usher, J.B. West.
J.B. West, the Chief Usher, during the Roosevelt period and into the Nixon era before his retirement gives us a sneak peek into his head of household duties (aka: budget task master) with the First Ladies. Mr. West is known to be agreeable, resourceful and very devoted to his job with his dedication first to the White House and then to the First Ladies. He works very closely with the First Ladies and is there to answer their calls, see to their needs and tries his best to make it all happen within his power or budget. When a new presidential family arrives that is when the real work begins as the First Lady usually wants to make changes to the White House rooms into her own taste and style. The book tends to go (a tad too much) into every detail of the room redecorating and even the infamous White House renovation during the Truman era, but that is how the reader gets to know West and what he does. Sandwiched in between the pages are several interesting facts that the Chief Usher divulges that will make you sit up and take notice.
Spoilers - darn those interesting facts!
These tidbits of inside stories told by the Chief Usher come through loud and clear and make this memoir a worthwhile read but overall Upstairs at the White House is a mild account of the comings and goings of the First Ladies, the Presidents and their children but an excellent book club read none the less.
*Get your fun presidential facts with this newer release! The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia or Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents: Strange Stories and Shocking Trivia from Inside the White House
Trouble in Camelot
After finishing Upstairs at the White House I came across a memoir released five years ago called, Once Upon a Secret My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and Its Aftermath, based on the true story of intern Mimi Alford and her 18 month affair with JFK in and out of the White House. Reading that novel together with Upstairs at the White House made me wonder if Mr. West truly knew or at the very least have an idea of what was going on under his watch. Nothing is implied or hinted in Upstairs at the White House but the one thing that comes across is a sense of favoritism for President Kennedy and the First Lady. He writes with complete loyalty for Jacqueline Kennedy in describing her decorating style, the way she spoke, her children and the tragic death of her newborn. If he indeed knew about JFK's well known affairs we can only speculate as to why he was silent. Maybe J.B. West wanted only to highlight the things he admired most about Jackie Kennedy and leave out that particular heartache. There is little mentioned of the former President Kennedy compared to the other Presidents and that was the kind of reading I wanted more of unfortunately. Jackie Kennedy once quoted regarding J.B. West as "one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met" and as she said goodbye to Mr. West upon leaving the White House she whispers to him, "Mr. West, will you be my friend for life?"
Mr. West left behind a legacy as a dependable, steadfast, honorable Chief Usher and I truly think he accomplished that.
Upstairs at the White House Book Club
The Book Club
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