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Review: 'Real Life at the White House' goes behind the curtains


"Real Life at the White House"
By John Whitcomb and Claire Whitcomb
464 pages

In this story:

Backstairs glimpses

Public receptions, private life

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

(CNN) -- Two hundred years ago, the first residents moved into the most public private residence in the United States. They found an unfinished, cavernous stone building surrounded by grounds littered with construction materials and hastily constructed sheds. They complained that it was all but impossible to heat and lacked a water supply. Even so, President John Adams pronounced it "in a state to be habitable," and dutifully took up residence in the White House.

The challenges faced by the next 39 residents at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are revealed in "Real Life at the White House." Historian John Whitcomb and his daughter Claire Whitcomb, a former staffer at House and Garden, chronicle the history of the White House through the lives of the families that have lived there.

The building itself was a pet project of George Washington. He oversaw the design and added a few architectural flourishes of his own. The mansion wasn't finished until a year after his death, but the Whitcombs demonstrate how his presence lingers in the White House even today. His concept of "The President's House" has served as a blueprint through each remodeling and renovation for two centuries.

"Real Life at the White House" examines 200 years of presidential families and history at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue  

Backstairs glimpses

The authors go beyond formal biographies of the presidents to flesh out what daily life has been like inside the Executive Mansion. Thomas Jefferson, they tell us, kept a caged mockingbird in his office. "When Jefferson was alone, the bird flew about freely, often sitting on his shoulder. He let it eat a cherry or other pieces of fruit from his lips; at night it hopped up the stairs after the president."

"Real Life at the White House" offers a backstairs glimpse at First Families and those who have served them. It details how each First Lady has tried to put her own stamp on the house and the formal events that occur there.

The Whitcombs pay special attention to food. White House menus, both formal and informal, have oscillated between opulent and spartan from the beginning. Sarah Polk, who instituted the tradition of having the Marine Band strike up "Hail to the Chief" when her husband entered the room, hired a French chef to provide elaborate meals of up to 150 courses.

"But the Polks," the Whitcombs write, "ate little at these affairs, preferring plain foods. When, on leaving the White House, they were honored with a lavish repast, Polk was less than appreciative ... he discreetly asked a servant to please bring him 'a piece of cornbread and boiled ham.' "

Air conditioning units were installed at the White House in 1935, with central air arriving in the '50s
Air conditioning units were installed at the White House in 1935, with central air arriving in the '50s  

Public receptions, private life

The physical layout of the White House has evolved considerably over its history. Sometimes, the changes have been made to accommodate the needs of the First Family. At least twice, extensive work was necessary to keep the building from falling down. Stables and animal pens gave way to greenhouses. Putting greens have come and gone, as have swimming pools.

The house has taken a beating, and not just from the British Army, which burned it virtually to the ground in 1814. Americans have done nearly as much damage. Through the first hundred years of its history, the White House was regularly thrown open for public receptions, particularly on New Year's Day, when the president and First Lady would personally greet thousands of well wishers. Many of those visitors decided to take unauthorized souvenirs (pieces of the draperies have been a popular choice).

The crowds would be so large, a ramp had to be erected outside a window so people could leave without getting crushed. At one point, the floors had to be propped up so they wouldn't cave in under the weight.

The White House was a pet project of George Washington, although he is the only president that hasn't lived there
The White House was a pet project of George Washington, although he is the only president that hasn't lived there  

Many First Couples have had strained marriages. More than a few presidents have sought out the company of other women. (Bill Clinton wasn't the first to use the Oval Office for his trysts. Warren Harding beat him to it by seventy years.) Several First Ladies have complained of isolation, compounded by a lack of privacy. Presidents have hidden serious medical problems from the public.

Through it all, they have been expected to keep up appearances. It's no wonder, then, that many a president has expressed relief at the end of his tenure.

"Real Life at the White House" is a lively account of private lives being lived in a public place. It's a handsome volume with some well-chosen illustrations. (A few more illustrations, in fact, might have helped explain the changing face of the building.) The Whitcombs have brought history and architecture together in a very human story of an enduring monument to American democracy.

Clintons celebrate White House's 200th birthday
November 11, 2000

The White House

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