Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies

Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies

by J. B. West, Mary Lynn Kotz


$14.39 $17.99 Save 20% Current price is $14.39, Original price is $17.99. You Save 20%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Wednesday, October 23


In this New York Times bestseller, the White House chief usher for nearly three decades offers a behind-the-scenes look at America’s first families.
 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504038676
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 06/21/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 398
Sales rank: 23,182
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

J. B. West (1912–1983), chief usher of the White House—or executive director of the executive mansion and grounds—was once called “the most powerful man in Washington next to the president.” Discreet and witty, he supervised the large permanent staff that provided for every personal want and need for six presidents and first ladies, including at state dinners, weddings, and funerals, redecorating the facilities for each family and tending to every special request. He served first as assistant to the chief usher and then as chief usher after retiring as a high-level civilian officer of the US Navy. A native Iowan, his White House tenure (1941–1969) followed a career in the Veterans Administration. Upstairs at the White House was published in 1973 and remained on the New York Times bestseller list for months, with more than five hundred extraordinarily positive reviews, editions in seven languages, and more than two million copies sold in the US across hardcover and paperback formats.

Mary Lynn Kotz, the author of four books, is a freelance magazine journalist based in Washington, DC. A contributing editor of ARTnews , she has written many cover stories, including “A Day with Georgia O’Keeffe.” Her book Rauschenberg: Art and Life is the biography of the late American artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), about whom she has given illustrated lectures at more than seventy museums and festivals, including at the 2009 Venice Biennale.

Read an Excerpt

Upstairs at the White House

My Life with the First Ladies

By J. B. West, Mary Lynn Kotz


Copyright © 1973 J. B. West
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-4938-1


Contrary to published reports, Eleanor Roosevelt never walked anywhere. She ran.

She always raced down the halls of the White House from one appointment to another, skirts flapping around her legs. And then she would sail out the front door at full speed, jump into her waiting car, and call out to the driver: "Where am I going?"

Or she hurried down the driveway and out the front gates to the bus stop or, on a sunny day, marched resolutely a full ten blocks up Connecticut Avenue to her volunteer office on Dupont Circle—and on her way back, she gathered up people to bring home for lunch. There were no Secret Service men hovering around Eleanor Roosevelt.

I was introduced to this awesome study in human motion on my first day in the White House, March 1, 1941. I had just begun work as assistant to Chief Usher Howell G. Crim, a small, proper man in a black suit, and was sitting beside his desk near the front door. Suddenly, the First Lady of the Land appeared in the doorway of the Usher's office. I jumped to my feet.

"Mrs. Roosevelt, may I present J. B. West, my new assistant," announced Mr. Crim.

The tall, imposing woman smiled, showing more teeth than I'd ever seen, and extended a slim, graceful hand. It was surprisingly soft in my grasp.

"How do you do, Ma'am," I managed to say.

She was wearing a dark skirt and a white ruffled blouse, and wisps of gray were beginning to stray from her hair, which was loosely pulled back into a knot. When she spoke, her voice was high-pitched and shrill, and she talked so fast I had trouble understanding her.

Dismissing me with a pleasant nod, she turned to Mr. Crim, who handled all appointments in the mansion: "I'm having the Japanese Ambassador to tea," she said. "I'll see him in the Red Room, but please don't leave me in there too long with him—I don't know what to talk about!"

And she was off.

Mrs. Roosevelt well knew that American and Japanese leaders were engaged in a delicate verbal sparring match, while her husband sought to prepare the country for any eventuality, including war. And as a single male of twenty-nine, reading newspaper warnings of impending war, and reports about Japan's invasions, I, too, was concerned.

A few minutes after Mrs. Roosevelt hurried down the red-carpeted hallway, Secretary of War Stimson, Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau, and Presidential Advisor Harry Hopkins entered the White House through the North Portico facing Pennsylvania Avenue. The liveried doorman brought the three gentlemen to the Usher's office, the first door to the right off the marble-floored main lobby.

Mr. Crim checked their names off the list of Presidential appointments and accompanied the three men upstairs to meet with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

"That's the only ushering I do," the Chief Usher explained. "We always accompany guests to a formal appointment with the President and First Lady. We simply announce their names. The rest of the time, we run the place. I have a budget of $152,000 a year, a staff of 62, and a free hand to furnish and direct the mansion as I see fit." He added that he had working under him two ushers, Wilson Searles and Charles Claunch, on duty in shifts from the time the President awakened in the morning until his valet put him to bed at night.

And I, because I could type and take shorthand and, I was told, mind my own business, was sent over from my job in the Veterans Administration to be assistant to the Chief Usher.

"I'd like you to handle Mrs. Roosevelt's travel arrangements, the mail, and assist in the operation of the White House," Mr. Crim told me.

"The President's mail as well?" I asked, thinking I'd surely be snowed under.

"No, just the mail that comes to our office, concerning anything related to the mansion itself. The President's and Mrs. Roosevelt's mail is handled by their personal staffs."

That first day, I thought the Usher's office was a twelve-by-twelve-foot madhouse. People ran in and out of the room all day, the phone rang incessantly, and the buzzer buzzed.

Mr. Crim tried to explain the signal system, which registered on the electric callboard above his desk. Listed on the board were the names of every room in the house, the corridors, the elevator. When the buzzer sounded, an arrow popped up, indicating one of those locations.

"This is to alert everybody—police, secret service, doormen, ushers—when the President is on the move," he said. "Three buzzes are for the President, two buzzes mean the First Lady, and one is for a guest—and that includes the President's children."

One buzzer rang, the arrow pointed toward the word "elevator," and minutes later Mrs. John Roosevelt, the President's daughter-in-law, stopped in on her way to see her ailing husband at the Bethesda Naval Hospital. "I'll be bringing him back here this afternoon for a few days," the young woman said.

Mr. Crim made a note for the housekeeping staff to prepare a bedroom for John Roosevelt.

"Is he very ill?" I asked the Chief Usher.

"Indeed not," he said. "You sneeze around here and they call it pneumonia. This goldfish bowl is made out of magnifying glass."

Houseguests, including Alexander Woollcott—"The Man Who Came to Dinner," opera star Grace Castagnetta, Henrik Van Loon, wandered in and out trying to make themselves at home.

"We assign them to their rooms and hope they stay there," Mr. Crim explained. Then, in a whisper, he confided: "Mr. Woollcott is impossible. He was supposed to stay for two days and stayed two weeks. He rings for coffee at all hours of the night, and he invites guests right up to his room."

The short, balding Mr. Crim was easily horrified at anything he considered a breach of the highest standards in manners and morals. He was so correct, his eyebrows seemed perpetually raised. When his employers appeared, he almost bowed and clicked his heels.

"You 'Mr. President' the President," he instructed me, "and 'Ma'am' the First Lady."

My strongest impression that first day was of Eleanor Roosevelt, who kept popping in and out of the office, her gray hair more disheveled with every appearance. She thrust a new list of appointments at Mr. Crim and was off again. I could have sworn the wind whistled as she zipped into the office still another time.

"Frances Parkinson Keyes is coming for lunch," she announced and zipped out.

Mr. Crim pulled out a place card from his top desk drawer, carefully lettered the lady novelist's name, and took me down the hall where we made a right turn into the Private Dining Room. "Set up one more place for lunch," he ordered, introducing me to head butler Alonzo Fields.

The Private Dining Room, adjoining the larger State Dining Room, was set for sixteen. "It's hardly private," Mr. Crim said. "She has a luncheon here nearly every day."

During the noontime lull, while the luncheon guests chattered away, and between every visitor, Mr. Crim quietly instructed the staff—head butler and his men, housekeeper Henrietta Nesbitt, doormen, gardeners, engineers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, painters, drivers—in their duties for the day.

By afternoon, I had met most of the people who kept the President's House a going concern. And at four o'clock I watched Mr. Crim escort the Japanese Ambassador in to the Red Room, to have tea with Mrs. Roosevelt.

"She hasn't changed her dress or combed her hair," Mr. Crim reported when he returned to our office, only a few yards away. At the end of fifteen minutes, he looked at his watch, then, as Mrs. Roosevelt had instructed, marched into the Red Room to help her end the tense appointment.

When I got home, 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."

On my second day in the White House, Charles Claunch, the usher on duty, took me on the elevator to the second floor. The door opened, and the Secret Service guard wheeled in the President of the United States. Startled, I looked down at him. It was only then that I realized that Franklin D. Roosevelt was really paralyzed. Immediately I understood why this fact had been kept so secret. Everybody knew that the President had been stricken with infantile paralysis, and his recovery was legend, but few people were aware how completely the disease had handicapped him.

I'd seen the President once before, three years earlier, when he brought his campaign train through Creston, Iowa.

"Why on earth do you want to see that man?" asked the owner of the store where I was bookkeeper. "I wouldn't step across the street to look at him!"

But after all, it was the first time a President of the United States had ever stopped in Creston, and I went to the train station to see him, even though he was a Democrat. (I spotted my boss in the crowd, too.)

We all knew he was supposed to be "crippled," that he walked with a limp or something, but then, standing with Mrs. Roosevelt on the back platform of the campaign train, he looked strong, healthy, and powerful. He had a huge head, broad shoulders and a barrel chest, and he stood well over six feet tall. I don't remember a word of his speech, but there was something in his manner. He was truly dynamic, I thought.

Now, as I watched him in his wheelchair, the vitality was gone. His little black Scottie, Fala, ran into the elevator, the door closed, and Claunch introduced me to Mr. Roosevelt. It was a tight squeeze in the car, and I felt uncomfortable towering over the President of the United States. It was a long two minutes back down to the first floor. As he wheeled out, Mr. Roosevelt flashed that famous smile at me:

"You're going to have to go some to be able to type and take dictation as well as Claunch can," he said. Mr. Claunch beamed.

I soon learned that the White House staff took extraordinary precautions to conceal Mr. Roosevelt's inability to walk. Special ramps had been built all over the White House for the President's wheelchair. During State dinners, butlers seated the President first, then rolled the wheelchair out of sight. Only then were guests received in the dining room. For ceremonies in the East Room, the doormen would quietly close the double doors, which were covered with red velvet curtains, after all the guests had assembled. Mr. Roosevelt then rode to the doors in his wheelchair, someone lifted him from the chair, and we flung open the doors and curtains. The President, on the arm of an aide, swung his legs the two steps to the podium, on which he could lean while speaking. No photographs were permitted. His entrances were passed off as Presidential dramatics.

At formal receptions, the gardeners set up a wall of ferns at the south end of the Blue Room. A special seat, like a bicycle seat, was placed between the ferns. It protruded just enough for the President to sit on and still look as if he were standing. His legs, shrunken and useless, could not balance him. With his heavy, steel braces, he could only remain in an upright position with the assistance of someone or something.

My entire first week I spent observing the comings and goings in the White House—Ambassadors, the Secretaries of War and Treasury, the omnipresent Mr. Hopkins. We were in the midst of growing international tension, first about the German armies which had swept through Europe and now threatened England, then also because of Japan's drive deeper into China. The President's visitors, I discovered, had to do with the Lend-Lease program of aid to the Allies, which he signed into law on March 11, and which was eventually to cost fifty billion dollars.

The mansion was always full of people. But sitting just inside the front door, I soon found that the White House had two kinds of visitors: there were the President's people, and then there were Mrs. Roosevelt's people.


For the Roosevelts, The White House was like a Grand Hotel. Eleanor Roosevelt's life was filled with visitors from early morning until late at night. Her house was full of guests, some of whom stayed for months, and some of whom she'd just picked up on the street. Sometimes she invited so many people, she forgot who they were.

Mrs. Roosevelt never took a meal alone, that I remember. Dressed in her wrapper, a flowing morning robe, she'd step out of her tiny, austere bedroom, to the chintzy, floral West Sitting Hall, where she presided over a table of assorted houseguests, business appointments, or just friends. The bacon and eggs, carried up two floors and served by two butlers, were usually quite cold by the time breakfast began.

She always had guests for lunch. Every day she was at the White House, the butlers served a formal seated luncheon for at least twelve, in the Private Dining Room on the first floor. She arranged the seating herself, stopping in at the Usher's office to pick up the place cards, sometimes scribbling the names herself, sometimes handing the cards to Mr. Crim to letter. There were always at least two more people to fit in at the last minute.

Her dinner guests, again in the Private Dining Room, wore black tie, although they were usually "working" guests, people involved in the projects in which she was interested— subsistence homestead, National Youth Administration, Work Corps for single women, WPA art, and anything else to do with public welfare or social justice. Unless the dinner were a State occasion, the President rarely appeared.

On Sunday nights, Mrs. Roosevelt's table was like a European salon. The President did attend, if he felt well, and listened to authors, artists, actresses, playwrights, sculptors, dancers, world travelers, old family friends—mixed in with Ambassadors, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet officers, and Presidential Advisors.

Eleanor Roosevelt, using a large silver chafing dish she'd brought from Hyde Park, scrambled eggs at the table. But the main course was conversation.

We called the menu "scrambled eggs with brains."

Mrs. Roosevelt often entertained her personal guests in her two-room suite on the second floor. Her sitting room, a drab parlor with sofa and desk, adjoined a small dressing room, where she slept in a narrow, single bed. As in her husband's suite, the walls were covered with framed photographs of official life. There were so many pictures that we had to draw a detailed plan of their arrangement each time we cleaned or painted the walls.

The Roosevelts were great collectors. President Roosevelt's books took every inch of space on the White House shelves, and they overflowed into stacks and stacks on the third floor. His intricate ship models and Naval mementoes were not appreciated by the staff, however. Each tiny sail and gangplank had to be carefully dusted, and he was in the room so much the servants hardly had time to finish their chores. His study was not air-conditioned, and in the summer, with the windows always open, his collections collected more dust.

Eleanor Roosevelt collected people. We could accommodate 21 overnight visitors at a time, but Mrs. Roosevelt often invited more. And it was always musical chairs with the guest rooms at the President's House. "We've got them hanging from the hooks," Mr. Crim told me one day as two new arrivals appeared, suitcases in hand, and we had to move one of the President's sons to his third bedroom of the week, to make room.

By 1941, the Roosevelt children, Anna, James, Franklin, Elliott, and John, were grown, with families of their own. When they visited the mansion, they were accorded no special privileges because they were Roosevelts. Mrs. Roosevelt saw them briefly by appointment or at breakfast, treating them just like any other houseguest.

Movie stars, political friends, just plain people she had met on her travels—Mrs. Roosevelt invited them all to spend the night at the White House. The First Lady was so busy with her own work, however, she sometimes didn't know who was sleeping down the hall. Once they came, she left the visitors to their own devices. They used the White House like a hotel, meandering in and out at will, sometimes stopping by the Usher's office for help in scheduling their day in Washington.

Some never went home. There were two "permanent guests" at the White House. One of them, Lorena Hickok, a former reporter who currently worked at the Democratic National Committee, lived in the little room on the northwest corner of the second floor, across the hall from Mrs. Roosevelt's bedroom. "Hick," as she was called, had become an intimate friend of Eleanor Roosevelt's while covering the first Presidential campaign, and moved into the White House after she left journalism to join the Roosevelt administration. A heavy-set, mannish woman, she kept to herself, never taking meals with the family or staff, never appearing at any social functions. Sometimes there were so many people in the house that Miss Hickok would have to relinquish her room to another guest and sleep on the couch in Mrs. Roosevelt's sitting room.

The other "staying guest" was Joseph Lash, a young man in his early thirties, who when he was in Washington slept in the small blue bedroom on the second floor, across from the President's study. Lash was executive secretary of the American Student Union.


Excerpted from Upstairs at the White House by J. B. West, Mary Lynn Kotz. Copyright © 1973 J. B. West. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Upstairs at the White House; My Life with the First Ladies 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 89 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had this book in paperback for years and read it in fascination, getting a glimpse into several First Families' personal lives. I was delighted to find it available for my Nook. The focus is really on Mr. West (the Chief Usher)and his relationships with the First Ladies whom he served. My favorite section, by far, is the Kennedy's and getting to peer into the personal world of Jacqueline Kennedy. I think he was very fond of her, and that he admired her accomplishments. I loved this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A truly heartwarming account of serving the women who had the position of being the First Lady. Mr. West showed the power and strength these remarkable women held as the President's wife and their work in helping to implement the programs that continue today. The heartwarming and respectful account of each of the families he served is evident of his professionalism and respect for the position he held. Mr. West's description of the events of President Kennedy's death and Mrs. Kennedy's strength was filled with kindness and the emotion he felt brought me to tears. As ordinary people we don't hear or know about the employees of the White House that keep the First Family's accountability in tact and on track at all times.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
wonderful read~~~great info on the whitehouse
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm a White House/First Lady groupie and this book did not disappoint! A real inside look at the ways of many First Ladies and their families. Mr. West is a gentleman so there is no nasty gossip which I found refreshing. This book concentrates on the day to day workings of the White House, which is a story all by itself.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a great insite to the women in the White House from the point of view of an employee.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A newsy, down at home look at the white house and the families who lived there, from the Roosevelt's to the Johnson's. Easy to read and a pleasant fairly non political commentary on life in America during these years. I really enjoyed this book.
Ginger46 More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book about the first ladies..a behind the scene glimpse of life in the white house. J.B.West told his experiences as Chief Usher with the upmost respect for his employers. No gossip, no scandals just honest reporting. I especially enjoyed the description of the living quarters and history of fhe furnishings.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. It's a great little history lesson and sneak peek into the lives of the First Ladies and their families. I enjoyed every minute of the book and highly recommend it.
bluespruce7597 More than 1 year ago
This was an enjoyable book. It gives a perspective of the workings of the White House from the Head Usher's point of view. I found it interesting to learn about the First Ladies that I'm too young to remember and then to learn about the First Ladies I do remember.
squirrelySW More than 1 year ago
I found this a delightful and informative read. Makes me eager to read more about these Presidents and their families.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
J.B. West has had a fascinating career as chief usher at the White House for three decades. His insights into the personas of the First Ladies that have lived in the White House during his career. Also interesting insight into the Presidents that served during his tenure. A classy book full of interesting stories.
Pash More than 1 year ago
Loved the stories of behind the scenes of the First Families and their lives at the White House. It is also a great history lesson as the writer includes information about what our country was going through also.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed reading about the presidents and their families. Great insight to our country's history. Didnt want the book to end.
juicedbooks More than 1 year ago
Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies is the memoir of the former Chief Usher at the White House, J.B. West. His role involved managing every aspect of the White House, from planning official events, aiding the First Family, helping curate the artwork, and maintaining the finances. He did this for the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt through the Presidency of Richard Nixon. With the experience of six administrations and six First Ladies, West writes with an amazing amount of knowledge about the White House as a cultural institution, museum, and most interestingly, as a home. Hundreds of pages detail the ways that each First Lady spent her $50,000 appropriation (and sometimes more) to redecorate. However, this never gets tiresome because West peppers in hilarious and moving anecdotes about each First Lady. His understanding and respect for each First Lady is apparent, and he has almost nothing bad to say about each one, as he is the classic house manager, discreet and respectful to the families he served even decades later. He reveals the whirlwind of Eleanor Roosevelt, the simplicity of Bess Truman, the queenliness of Mamie Eisenhower, the sophistication of Jackie Kennedy, the quiet strength of Lady Bird Johnson, and the formality of Pat Nixon. After you read this book you'll be obsessed with the idea of visiting the White House to see the memories that West outlines. He paints each of the First Ladies in a way that will make you respect their office, but also want to be their best friend, and you'll feel sad along with J.B. West as he walks out the door after twenty-eight beautiful years.
B-loNY More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
pk868 More than 1 year ago
An interesting look at the First Ladies of several administrations from an inside source. Written without apparent political bias West provides a look at operating the White House and the demands (both reasonable and unreasonable) of the occupant.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SisH More than 1 year ago
I so enjoyed this book. Each of the first ladies was very interesting. I loved hearing about the White House is run. Great to know how it works behind the scene.
Monte54JH More than 1 year ago
Haven't finished it yet, but so far I think it's great!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago