Amazon has apparently recognized that some of my reading tastes have slanted toward history and politics, so when Upstairs at the White House came up as a recommendation, I decided to give it a try.
Written by J.D. West, who spent 28 years as an usher and then the chief usher of the White House, it is a charming collection of stories and observations of the First Ladies who occupied the President’s House during West’s tenure. With so many biographies relishing revelations of scandal, I appreciated that West was able to emphasize the strengths and talents of each of the First Ladies and respect the differences among them without ever describing them negatively.
Each First Lady had a distinctive managerial style. Eleanor Roosevelt traveled extensively, met with people and entertained a large group nightly and needed to manage all of those logistics. Bess Truman was part of the closely knit trio of Harry, Bess, and their daughter, Margaret, and managed with the thriftiness of a Midwestern housewife. Maisie Eisenhower, as the wife of a general, was accustomed to handling a large complex household, so she had a regular morning meeting with the staff, which she handled while sitting in her pink bed. Jackie Kennedy was highly organized but more informal, so instructions from her tended to come on the fly. She was soft-spoken so you had to listen closely to her, but ultimately the staff learned that, “Do you think it would be possible…” from Mrs. Kennedy carried the same weight as, “I want you to do this now” from Mrs. Eisenhower. Lady Bird Johnson prioritized herself far behind her family, particularly her Texan husband who strode around the halls and shouted through the rooms as though he was still occupying the wide expanses of his home state. With each new First Lady, the White House staff adjusted to her and she adjusted to them. The key to continuity for the staff was loyalty to the White House rather than to a particular family.
Perhaps because I knew little of the Trumans, I was particularly intrigued by some of their stories. When the Trumans arrived after the death of FDR, the idea that the President and First Lady actually shared the same bedroom created quite a stir among the staff. That the Trumans enjoyed a close relationship was certainly obvious when a rather embarrassed Mrs. Truman had to ask to have the President’s bed fixed after two slats broke in the middle of the night.
The Trumans and Margaret liked to take meals under the south portico facing the Washington Monument. The area was shaded by awnings, which regularly needed to be cleaned, so President Truman proposed a new balcony on the second floor that would provide an excellent view while also eliminating the need for the awnings. In spite of his growing disfavor with Congress, who held the purse strings, Truman managed to push the project through. After the balcony was completed, however, the Trumans realized that the space was extremely public and visible to the growing number of tourists who passed by for a picture. Thus other than using the balcony to watch the odd baseball game played on the Ellipse, the Trumans went back to their first floor dining habits.
Sometime after the balcony was completed, Mrs. Truman was entertaining the DAR in the large oval Blue Room, which is in the center of the second floor. She suddenly heard the tinkle of glass, and she realized that the large chandelier overhead was swaying, clinking the crystals together. She sent for Mr. West, who investigated, and discovered that the source of the vibration had been the large head butler merely walking across the floor of the room overhead to fetch a book for the President who was taking a bath. Further investigation revealed that the whole White House interior was structurally unsound, and the President had been fortunate that the ceiling didn’t give way and drop him and his bathtub into the laps of the DAR ladies below.
While the Trumans were away on their successful campaign for re-election, a thorough study of the White House was carried out, and it showed that the interior walls were built on soft clay footings rather than solid rock, that doors built into interior walls had further weakened the structure, and then three sets of plumbing, multiple revisions to the electrical wiring, and even large mounds of sawdust left in the walls during construction had turned the structure into a fire trap. The bathtub did indeed start to sink through the floor, as did one leg of Margaret’s piano. The only part of the house that seemed to be structurally sound was the new balcony!
The Trumans thus moved into Blair House across the street for the duration of the necessary renovations, and during that time they had one close call with a pair of assassins who tried to shoot their way into the White House to kill the President. Had the gunmen arrived a mere half an hour later, President Truman would have been coming down the front stairs in full view of the front door. It was this incident that marked the beginning of significantly increased security around the President.
In West’s 28 year career, there were only five transitions among Presidents. He started when FDR was President, and he left a mere six weeks after the Nixons arrived. Because both Roosevelt and Kennedy died in office, there were only three times that West experienced the tightly choreographed transition between families that occurs on Inauguration Day. The belongings of the new First Family are not allowed to enter the White House until the incoming President takes the oath of office at noon, and then it is a highly orchestrated maneuver to arrange and unpack all of the possessions in the two hours before the family arrives to take up residence.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, in part because having been to the White House, I could envision many of the rooms that they discussed, and I could imagine the changes described, such as the addition of a stage to the East Room for performances under the Eisenhowers. A good read with delightful stories and (almost) no snark.