Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Behind the Scenes at the White House

I've been interested in life at the White House since I was a kid. Not the policy decisions made there, but the everyday details of actually living at the White House. HGTV's "Christmas at the White House" specials each December? I'm there! I liked the policy discussions of The West Wing, for a few seasons, anyway, but there wasn't much about the domestic life at the White House. Watching the Inauguration events earlier this month has reminded me of that interest. So I've sought out some books I haven't read, picked up one I'd set aside for a while, and thought about some of the books on this topic that I have read.

Bagni, Gwen, et al. Backstairs at the White House: A Novel. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Parks, Lillian Rogers. My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp, 1961.

It all started for me with the tv miniseries Backstairs at the White House, starring Olivia Cole and Leslie Uggams. I watched it when I was a kid, in the late 1970's, when tv miniseries were a big deal. My parents were history buffs, so it's no surprise we watched this at our house. I discovered and read the novelization (by Bagni) of the mini-series. The novel extended from the Taft administration through the Eisenhower years.

The miniseries and novel are based on the memoirs (recently re-released) of Lillian Rogers Parks. Sad to say, I haven't read those memoirs yet, but I hope to soon. Parks (played by Leslie Uggams in the mini-series) worked as a seamstress at the White House. Her mother (played by Olivia Cole on tv) was a housekeeper, I believe. Their tenures at the White House overlapped by about 10 years. Now that I've visited Washington DC multiple times, it might be fun to re-read the novel, or watch the miniseries (released on DVD in the last few years).

West, J. B., and Mary Lynn Kotz. Upstairs at the White House; My Life with the First Ladies. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973.

The miniseries also piqued my interest in the lives of the First Ladies. I read the two compilations of First Lady biographies that I could find at my local public library. My mom had a copy of J.B. West's Upstairs at the White House at home, so I read that too. West was an usher at the White House from the Truman administration through the Johnson administration. He was chief usher in his later years, where he supervised (well, along with the First Ladies) the running of the White House as a household. He helped the Trumans when they had to move to Blair House for a while, because the White House was literally crumbling around them, and helped Jackie Kennedy on her endeavor to restore the building's interiors to their former glory. One of the things I really liked about reading this was coming across references to "characters" (other ushers) from Backstairs at the White House. The characters were (at least somewhat) based on real people!

I should be clear: both Backstairs and Upstairs weren't just about cleaning the White House, mending things, arranging rooms. There were lots of interactions with and observations of the First Families, the things they experienced, and their different styles, as well as accounts of famous visitors to the White House.

Weidenfeld, Sheila Rabb. First Lady's Lady: With the Fords at the White House. New York: Putnam, 1979.

Next came this book...I found it at a used book store, or going through some of my mother's books. Weidenfeld was Betty Ford's press secretary from 1974 to 1977. Betty Ford was a different kind of First Lady, living in the White House during the 1970's women's movement. She was an active supporter of women's rights, including the Equal Rights Amendment, and spoke about her surgery for breast cancer in 1974. Weidenfeld didn't work for the White House per se, as the other authors did; she worked for Mrs. Ford. So it doesn't give the same kind of view of "everyday life at the White House." But it is a view we rarely see, and the First Lady does deal a lot with the White House itself.

Baldrige, Letitia. A Lady, First: My Life in the Kennedy White House and the American Embassies of Paris and Rome. New York: Viking, 2001.

Clinton, Hillary Rodham. An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Halley, Patrick S. On the Road with Hillary: A Behind-the Scenes Look at the Journey from Arkansas to the U.S. Senate. New York: Viking, 2002.

Mesnier, Roland, and Christian Malard. All the Presidents' Pastries: Twenty-Five Years in the White House: A Memoir. Paris; London: Flammarion; Thames & Hudson [distributor], 2007.

Scheib, Walter, and Andrew Friedman. White House Chef: Eleven Years, Two Presidents, One Kitchen. Hoboken, N.J: J. Wiley, 2007.

Temple, Dottie, and Stan Finegold. Flowers, White House Style. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

And then, there's a big gap in my "behind the scenes at the White House" books. I just didn't come across much published. Probably the first one I read in a long time was Letitia Baldridge's A Lady, First. It's the same Baldridge that wrote etiquette books. I knew from West's book that she was Jackie Kennedy's social secretary. That part of her book was interesting, but I found other parts of her life even more intriguing. She worked for the U.S. embassies in Rome and Paris in the late 1940's and early 1950's. She oversaw public relations at Tiffany's jewelers, before going to work for Kennedy. And after leaving the White House, she opened a public relations firm. I'd recommend this book to people interested in event planning and public relations, as well as the White House.

Big surprise: there are lots of books covering the Clinton years. Hillary Clinton wrote a coffee-table book, An Invitation to the White House, accounts of various events that she planned at the White House. Lots of pictures. I really enjoyed Patrick Halley's On the Road with Hillary (all the more because I bought it from a bargain table). Halley was an "advance man" for Hillary Clinton, meaning he went to the places she was to travel to ahead of her trips, and worked out all kinds of details. He worked not only on her official visits overseas, but on campaign events, for her husband's reelection, and her 2000 Senate race in New York state.

I'm currently reading White House Chef by Walter Scheib, who cooked for both the Clintons and George W. and Laura Bush. This book is heavy on photos, and has a number of recipes (no idea how good the recipes are). There's a fair amount of detail about the workings of the White House kitchen...at first, I could've done with a little less detail on the Clintons' personal dining habits. But now that Scheib has moved on to the Bush years, I find the contrasts between the two families' tastes and working styles very interesting. There is a lot about cooking for big events, as well. Mystery author Julie Hyzy (I reviewed one of her books in this post, who's written two mysteries about a fictional White House chef, acknowledges her debt to Scheib.

I haven't read, but am looking forward to, Meisner's All the Presidents' Pastries. I'm curious what observations a person in such a specialized position, White House pastry chef, might have about the First Families.

I own Flowers, White House Style by former White House florist Dottie Temple, but I haven't read it yet. It's yet another book heavy on pictures, which is what you want in a book about floral arranging! But something about the book, or the arrangements, feels a bit musty to me. Temple's tenure spanned a couple of decades; she started when Nixon was in office, and retired during Reagan's second term.

There are a few other books on this general topic that I want to read: Susan Ford (daughter of Betty and Gerald) has written two "First Daughter" mysteries. And I'll give Entertaining at the White House with Nancy Reagan a shot. What I'm looking forward to in 10 years or more: books on the Obama White House style!


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