Published: April 7, 2015
Genre: History (Presidential)
Source: Personal Copy (Audible)
You might enjoy this audiobook if you enjoy: Presidential history, Upstairs/Downstairs, Downton Abbey, Lee Daniels' The Butler
America’s First Families are unknowable in many ways. No one has insight into their true character like the people who serve their meals and make their beds every day. Full of stories and details by turns dramatic, humorous, and heartwarming, The Residence reveals daily life in the White House as it is really lived through the voices of the maids, butlers, cooks, florists, doormen, engineers, and others who tend to the needs of the President and First Family.
These dedicated professionals maintain the six-floor mansion’s 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, three elevators, and eight staircases, and prepare everything from hors d’oeuvres for intimate gatherings to meals served at elaborate state dinners. Over the course of the day, they gather in the lower level’s basement kitchen to share stories, trade secrets, forge lifelong friendships, and sometimes even fall in love.
Combining incredible first-person anecdotes from extensive interviews with scores of White House staff members—many speaking for the first time—with archival research, Kate Andersen Brower tells their story. She reveals the intimacy between the First Family and the people who serve them, as well as tension that has shaken the staff over the decades. From the housekeeper and engineer who fell in love while serving President Reagan to Jackie Kennedy’s private moment of grief with a beloved staffer after her husband’s assassination to the tumultuous days surrounding President Nixon’s resignation and President Clinton’s impeachment battle, The Residence is full of surprising and moving details that illuminate day-to-day life at the White House.
This audiobook had been sitting on my phone for a while and I actually started it some months ago, listened to less than an hour, and then--for some reason--switched to something else. Recently, I was looking for something that I could listen through a speaker (instead of headphones) while my kids were around. Frankly, this was probably not the best book for that--thanks to Lyndon Johnson and the Clintons--but luckily my kids weren't really paying attention, so it wasn't an issue.
Here is this book in a nutshell. It is Upstairs/Downstairs except the "Upstairs" is the White House with a revolving door of residents. If you like history, this book has it. If you like gossip, this book has it. If you like personal stories of people who really find a higher calling in jobs that many would label "menial," this book has it in spades.
Anderson has done her research and this book covers from the Kennedy presidency (although it really picks up with the Johnson presidency) up into the Obama residency. Now, she is able to go into these presidencies in various depths. There really isn't that much about the Obama presidency as most of her source pool is still currently employed in the White House. The farther back she goes in history, the more anecdotal her sources become because more of the employees are now deceased. Also, the vast majority of employees, past and present, were not interested in "spilling dirt" on the Presidents and their families, and most of this book is devoted to the lives of the men and women who serve in the White House.
Brower begins by outlining the different positions in the White House, which is quite useful because some jobs are not what most people would expect. Also, the only exposure that most Americans have modern (or modern-ish) domestics is through Downton Abbey. While there are some similarities, the life of a mid- to late-20th and 21st century domestic worker is vastly different from that of an early 20th-century domestic worker in an English estate.
Dozens of mostly former employees shared their memories of their life working at the White House and with the various First Families. There was a spectrum. At one end is Lyndon Johnson, who was a headache for most of the staff. At the other end is George H.W. and Barbara Bush, who seemed to be deeply loved by the everyone on the staff. Everyone else falls somewhere in between the two. And, yes, there is some dirt. For example, did you know that Lyndon Johnson nicknamed his penis "Jumbo"? Well, now you do. And you will never, ever un-know that. (If it makes you feel better, that tidbit came up in regards to hygiene, not sex.) Nearly none of the "dirt," however, is anything new. It isn't a secret that Kennedy and Clinton had a wandering eye or that Nancy Reagan really liked "nice things." If anything, this book confirms that what you thought of the First Families is true.
Frankly, I was far more interested in the household staff than the household residents. If I want to know about the private lives of the Presidents, there are piles of tomes to tell me about that. But I wanted to know about the people who had to flip light switches for Nancy Reagan, watch Amy Carter, or build a custom shower for Lyndon Johnson (and Jumbo).
My favorite chapter of the book was the one that dealt with two most devastating events of the modern Presidencies--the assassination of John F. Kennedy and 9/11. I thought I had heard everything there was to hear about Kennedy's assassination, but hearing it from the eyes of the household staff put an entirely different spin on the event.
I was more deeply affected by her discussion on 9/11--probably because I lived through it (no, I'm not so old that I was alive, much less remember, the Kennedy assassination). The chaos of that day went to another level for those working at the White House--many of whom were evacuated, by the Secret Service coming at them and yelling at them to run out of the house as fast as they can--without even knowing what happened.
Finally, Karen White's narration was really spot on here. She doesn't do the "thing" where she tries to do different voices for different people, but she does alter her own voice to capture the character of whose words she is repeating. Her voice was clear and steady, which is essential for narration.
All in all, this was an enjoyable and fascinating listen--and I'm sure that, if I had opted to read this book instead, would have had the same experience. It is a book or audiobook that I would recommend to pretty much anyone--but you might not want to listen with your kids around.
I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.