Life upstairs and downstairs at the White House vividly evoked by a presidential daughter.
With more vignette and anecdote than analysis, mystery-writer Truman (Murder at Ford’s Theatre, 2002, etc.) describes the men and women who have lived and worked in the “people’s house,” as well as the residence itself. She addresses subjects as diverse as presidential bets and children; First Ladies; the men and women behind the scenes who keep the place running, from chefs and housekeepers to ushers and calligraphers; the inhabitants’ often rocky relations with the media. As she recalls First Families from John and Abigail Adams (the initial residents in 1800) to the current occupants, Truman also details structural alterations that have occurred over the years. Though the building was considered large for its time, she notes, the original 36 rooms have increased to 132, while vegetable gardens and conservatories have been replaced by lawn and rose gardens. Until 1929 every president opened the White House to the people on New Year’s Day, the author tells us in a section on entertaining. Jefferson was an indifferent if quixotic host (he wore slippers to one formal dinner), but Dolly Madison was superb. Truman also details changes in staffing over the years, including the addition of gourmet chefs and office help for the First Lady, increased numbers of security personnel (more than 250 mentally disturbed visitors try to gain access each year), and the evolution of chief of staff into a powerful position. Her own recollections and impressions are mostly warm and appreciative, but a few about her father’s predecessors, the Roosevelts, are more tart. Eleanor, she notes, integrated the household staff at the White House, but when the family traveled to Hyde Park on weekends, the black White House servants had to eat separately. Her father, Truman is proud to report, ended segregation both in the army and in the presidential household.