BOOK REVIEWS: “Upstairs at the White House” and “Backstairs at the White House”

Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by J.B. West (1973), Warner Books
My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House by Lillian Rogers Parks (1961), Fleet Publishing
Reviewed by Gregory Hilton
Margaret (Maggie) Rogers could not afford a babysitter so she often took her daughter to work. She was a maid and her daughter Lillian would follow her from room to room as she did her daily cleaning. One afternoon she was told to turn down the bed in the master bedroom. As soon as Mrs. Rogers finished, she was summoned to help the lady of the house with a dress fitting. Lillian, 9, was told to stay behind in the bedroom.
A few minutes later the master of the house entered the bedroom for his afternoon nap. He was surprised to see the young child and said “Are you the ghost everyone keeps telling me about?” Lillian laughed and the large man said “Are you sure you are not a ghost?” He continued to talk to her in a kindly manner, and was the first President she met. The year was 1909, the home was the White House, and the man was William Howard Taft.
Lillian would live to see her 100th birthday. Her mother worked as head maid at the executive mansion for 20 years while Lillian, who suffered from polio, would be a White House seamstress for 30 years before retiring in 1960. President Franklin Roosevelt had a special bond with her because of polio, and she was the only staff member who was allowed to use his elevator.
Maggie Rogers kept a diary because she knew her experiences were unique. The stories she heard from First Ladies such as Helen (Nellie) Taft, Edith Wilson and Grace Coolidge were far more accurate and well ahead of the newspapers. How did Maggie know so much about the affair between Roosevelt and his secretary Missy LeHand? Missy had a stroke and for two years was bedridden on the third floor of the White House. Few people came to see her, and Maggie came out of retirement to be her primary caregiver. Missy wanted to talk and vent her frustrations, and Maggie was an eager audience.
Maggie Rogers never wrote her book but her notes and diary were inherited by her daughter who eagerly sought out additional stories from other servants. The result was My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House by Lillian Rogers Parks. It was made into a 1979 nine hour NBC miniseries with an all star cast.
Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) was Woodrow Wilson; Academy Award winner George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke) was Warren Harding; Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H) was Harry Truman; Academy Award winner Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire) was Ellen Wilson; Academy Award winner Lee Grant (Shampoo) was Grace Coolidge; Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons (Bonnie and Clyde) was Bess Truman and Leslie Nielsen (The Naked Gun) was Chief Usher Ike Hoover. The star of the series was Lillian who was portrayed by Leslie Uggams (Roots).
The book was on The New York Times best-sellers list for 26 weeks, and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy reacted by making all employees sign a confidentiality agreement. According to the Times, “The task of collecting the signatures was given to Mrs. Kennedy’s secretary, Mary Gallagher, who neglected to sign one, herself, and eventually wrote her own tell-all, My Boss, in 1969.”
Another person who was not asked to sign an agreement was Chief Usher J.B. West, but that oversight would not occur today. West wrote a far better book. I thought of these books when the White House announced this week the appointment of Jeremy Barnard as the new Social Secretary. He will be the first man as well as the first gay person to serve in the post.
These books are a social history of the White House. West covers the final four years of the Roosevelt administration to the beginning of the Nixon era. As Chief Usher he supervised a staff of over 100 employees who worked at the 132-room structure.
During their time in the executive mansion, West and Rogers never gave an interview and saved all of the anecdotes and observations for their books. Because of the confidentiality agreements it is doubtful we will ever see similar behind the scenes accounts.
These books are filled with fascinating details and interesting perspective on the day to day lives of the first families. Many of them were never previously known.
The First Ladies in these books were very different. Mrs. Roosevelt never stopped talking to the press, while Mrs. Truman did everything possible to avoid them. The White House staff never remembers seeing the Roosevelts together, while on evenings in the residence the Trumans were rarely apart.
Social Secretary Letitia Baldridge gave Mrs. Kennedy a list of 100 “must do” activities which were a carry over from the Eisenhower administration, and Mrs. Kennedy said she was not planning to do any of them. She kept her promise!
Every First Lady would enjoy reading these books because they all are portrayed in a favorable light. That does not mean the books avoid negatives comments. Mrs. Roosevelt did not get along with her husband, Mrs. Truman tried to avoid the White House, Mamie Eisenhower scolded the staff after a state dinner, and Jackie Kennedy went on numerous vacations. Nevertheless, readers will like them all. Their actions behind the scenes were never intended for the public, and they must have been surprised years later when then were revealed. My conclusion is that from Nellie Taft to Pat Nixon, we were fortunate to have them, and it is understandable why they all have far higher approval ratings than their husbands.

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