24/30 Book Review: Upstairs at the White House


Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies
J.B. West with Mary Lynn Kotz
Nonfiction/memoir

Summary

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.

J. B. West, whom Jackie Kennedy called “one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met,” provides an absorbing, one-of-a-kind history of life among the first ladies. Alive with anecdotes ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt’s fascinating political strategies to Jackie Kennedy’s tragic loss and the personal struggles of Pat Nixon, Upstairs at the White House is a rich account of a slice of American history that usually remains behind closed doors.

Old and Relevant

Upstairs at the White House was first published in 1973, but it’s still a fascinating read. It’s surprising readable even if you don’t know/care much about history and politics. You’ll learn a lot about how the White House functions and you’ll probably laugh at surprising antics of the staff and executive families.

West is a consummate professional throughout the book, careful not show favoritism or reveal any serious indiscretions. He is an archetypal butler, clever, competent, and occasionally inscrutable. The breadth of his responsibilities at the White House is breath-taking and it seems a wonder that such a huge organization continues to function with such grace.

A highly recommended read for nearly anyone.

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