Book Review – Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies

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Book TitleUpstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies

Author: J.B. West with Mary Lynn Kotz

Genre: Nonfiction — Biography

Rating (out of 5 stars): StarStarStarStar

I am the first to admit that I love a good biography. I enjoy glimpsing the inner workings of someone’s life and mind. With that said, there are a few biographies that stand out above the crowd. Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies is just such a book.

Upstairs at the White House is the memoir of J.B. West. West served at the White House, first as an assistant and then as the chief usher for twenty-eight years. From 1941 to 1969 he walked the floors of the most famous residence in the country. As the presidencies of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon ebbed and flowed, West was there to see it all. “The secret,” he says in his book, “was loyalty to the White House and to the Presidency, rather than to whoever happens to be occupying the office for four years, or eight.”

More than just a simple biography, Upstairs at the White House is written in an easy, conversational style.

Many times throughout the reading I felt as if I could have been sitting next to him enjoying an easy afternoon chat. For example at one point he says, “I wrote in my diary: “Spent the day wondering if I’ll like the job. The first day wasn’t too impressive, but I’ll know more tomorrow.”” I said that myself a time or two after my first day starting a new job.

The tone was always respectful. There was never any talk about any of the scandals that plagued a few of the presidencies. There were also very few places where I felt it was getting even the least bit gossipy. I enjoyed hearing about the idiosyncrasies of each first lady and how they each dealt with living the life of the ultimate volunteer. It was quite fascinating to get a glimpse into how much it took to run an estate of that size. Just the amount of planning to handle guests and menus and that entire period when the White House underwent renovations is staggering.

This book wasn’t initially on my “to read” list.

Actually I just happened to run across it randomly one day. What a fortunate accident that was. While not a page turner in the dramatic sense, I read this book in just two days due to its witty and charming nature. I highly recommend Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies.


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