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Book Rec: Upstairs at the White House by J.B. West

Updated: 5 days ago

“My loyalty was not to any one President, but rather, to the Presidency, and to the institution that is the White House.” J.B. West

After finishing Gill Paul’s Jackie and Maria, I was on the hunt for more behind-the-scenes stories about America’s first families. This book nailed it! West provides such a fascinating look at the Presidential families from the Roosevelts to the Nixons. It’s hard to believe one First Lady stayed in bed until noon, while another President swam nude in the pool!

picture of a hand holding a serving tray with the White House on the tray

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.

Discussion Guide

  1. Which First Lady surprised you most?

  2. Which family do you think would have been the most difficult to work for?

  3. Which First Lady do you now admire more?

  4. Which stories did you find surprising? Did any of them change your image of the Presidential family?

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