During the month of July, Network of Enlightened Women’s book club read the novel Upstairs at the White House: My Life With the First Ladies written by J.B. West. The work dives deep into the intimacies of the White House as experienced by West in his role as the chief usher. Through his writing, West describes how each woman took on and served their role as first lady while also showing us how the public perception of political figures can be different than reality.
The novel covers six different administrations, from the Roosevelts to the Nixons. Within each of these powerful families, West describes the relationship between the president and the first lady, their hospitality towards their guests, and how they carried themselves throughout their everyday lives. What I found amazing about this novel is how much my perception of each first lady changed. West provides intimate details about the first lady’s lives that portray them differently than the media at the time did. The way each woman was portrayed in the media was carefully crafted by their press secretaries. West, however, shows each woman as a caring mother, supportive spouse, and unique in their leadership styles within the White House.
West particularly enjoyed the different lifestyles that each woman brought to the White House, in addition to each of their completely different personalities. Mrs. Truman was described as hospitable and dry-humored, Mrs. Eisenhower as elegant and a great hostess, Mrs. Kennedy as soft-spoken yet determined, Mrs. Johnson as selfless and cool, and Mrs. Nixon as composed and friendly.
The first lady who really surprised me was Eleanor Roosevelt, who is completely different than what I originally thought her to be. The media portrays her to be the most robust and “out-of-the-box” first lady to ever step foot into the White House. She is known for her travels across the country and for changing the role of the first lady from housewife to the president’s partner and support. West’s writing, however, reveals her estranged relationship with President Roosevelt, how she ran everywhere she walked, and how she invited so many random civilians to dine at the White House that she would forget she even invited them in the first place.
Someone whom I grew to like and admire was Mrs. Truman. West explained in detail how she was able to keep her family grounded throughout the entirety of her husband’s presidential term. She greatly valued spending quality time with family, which led her to break White House tradition and eat meals every night with her husband. Although this might sound mundane, it was not common for presidents to eat with their wives and children. However, Mrs. Truman made sure they stuck to their Midwestern roots and never allowed the fame of the presidency to change who they were. West took great care to shine light on how instrumental Mrs. Truman was to her husband’s success, something not described by the media at the time.
What drew me to speed-read this novel was the impartial and intimate take West had on the White House. From budgeting to redecorating, he offered a unique perspective on how each lady ran the White House and what they believed their role was. What I found important was how West never focused on the politics of each presidential administration. Instead, he focused on supporting and preserving the legacy of the White House and each first family. West solely judged each person who stepped into the White House on their demeanor and character. This is an important lesson we all should take away from the book: It’s not about what you believe in, but rather who you are.
This blog post was written by Loredana Lohan, a Summer 2021 Intern with NeW.