On the bookshelf

I’m back! Home from Bouchercon and beavering away, putting the finishing touches on the first round of Veronica’s third adventure. While I’m busy with my favorite Victorian lepidopterist, I thought I’d spend the rest of the September posts giving recommendations for nonfiction reads.

Today we’re starting with a little Americana–not my usual field, to be sure. When I was very young, my grandmother gave my mother (her daughter-in-law) a copy of a White House cookbook featuring recipes from all the First Ladies from Martha Washington to Lady Bird Johnson. (My grandmother, who was a famously awful cook, was always giving glossy paperback cookbooks to my mother, and they always featured recipes for extremely complicated food that no one in their right mind would ever cook. But I LOVED looking at the pictures.) The headnotes in this book featured little snippets of White House history, and I remember a stunningly pretty Frances Cleveland in her wedding dress and an elegant Jackie Kennedy in a sheath. What recipes were featured, I could not tell you–I’m not sure I ever read them. But I was tremendously interested in how the various presidential families engaged with the White House during their tenures. It always intrigued me that the house just carried on, sheltering all kinds of families and enduring all sorts of redecoration. I was curious as to how each family managed to make a home out of what has sometimes been an inhospitable place. (It very nearly collapsed on top of the unfortunate Trumans who had to decamp to Blair House while renovations commenced.)

My curiosity was finally satisfied when I ran across J.B. West’s UPSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE: MY LIFE WITH THE FIRST LADIES. Over the course of three decades, West was Chief Usher at the White House, serving each administration from Franklin Roosevelt’s to Richard Nixon’s. He gives a fascinating peek into the running of the Executive Mansion as it has adapted to each family’s tastes and expectations. It’s not a tell-all book; there are no juicy revelations or political axes to grind. West’s assessments of the men and women who passed through the White House are endlessly interesting on their own, as are the tidbits about the day-to-day responsibilities of the White House Staff. (Did you know that the staff moves one president out and the other one in during the two hours of an inauguration? They are nothing if not efficient.) Now I want to hunt down information on how the presidential families since the Nixons have adapted the Residence…