Backstairs at the White House

I just finished watching Backstairs at the White House, the terrific 1979 mini-series based on the autobiography of Lillian Rogers. Lillian and her mother Maggie worked at the WH from the Taft administration thru the Eisenhowers. We see each first family in private moments, almost exclusively in the west end of the second floor. It’s like every presidential anecdote from the period brought to life–Taft’s tub, Wilson’s wives, Harding’s scandals, Coolidge’s terseness (altho we don’t get the “you lose” anecdote), Hoover’s aloofness, Roosevelt’s relaxedness, Truman’s familiarity, and Ike’s regimentation. The drama focuses almost entirely on family drama, and the compressed nature of the story-telling makes it seem like White House occupants drop like flies.

The series obviously didn’t have a very big budget (my first jolt was seeing the real, modern WH south face–complete with Truman Balcony–as Maggie goes to work in 1909). Aside from a couple of apartments the Rogerses lived in, we only see a few WH second floor rooms, a bit of the third floor, and part of the kitchen and housekeeper’s office. The decor changes appropriately, altho I can’t vouch for the exact correctness of the furnishings. The pre-Truman layout seems accurate enough, altho the elevator lobby seems backwards and never changes (the creators may have been mixing up the kitchen elevator with the Family Elevator). The post-Truman mansion looks pretty much exactly like the pre-Truman mansion, tho, which is quite wrong, especially on the third floor.

I’ve added several images that help flesh out the spaces shown for the time period (which is woefully underrepresented with real archival photos). These consist of the West Sitting Hall, Master Bedroom, Master Dressing Room, Central Hall, Private Dining Room (as the Coolidge boys’ room) Elevator Hall, Kitchen, and Kitchen Pantry (as servant’s dining room, which may be historically inaccurate).

Also: John Anderton sent me a scan of a nice letter and card from Betty Ford in response to his letter of encouragement back when she was recovering from breast cancer surgery. I’ve added it to the Master Bedroom page, since I figure that was where she probably wrote it while she was recuperating. Thanks, John!

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8 thoughts on “Backstairs at the White House

  1. Just a thought, would the Eisenhower photo of the MB actually be the LR next to the MB? Often the LR was actually a second BR since most first couples never slept together. On CNN yesterday talking about Ford’s death, they commented that the Ford’s were the first couple in a longggggggggggg time who opted to actually sleep in the same room.

    I also see the door next to the window as a hint that it may actually be the LR.

  2. Well, I went out and bought “Backstairs…” yesterday. I’m almost done watching it. They did a fairly good job of capturing the Family Quarters. I did notice that the closet into which Lillian ran when FDR was going to the elevator is in reality the beauty shop, or painting room, or First Ladies office throughout history.

    I also wondered about the number of servants at any one time dusting and cleaning. It seemed that they all were hanging out together for the sake of the story.

    The Eisenhowers slept together in the Master Bedroom. The Living Room was Ike’s nap and dressing room. They had the identical arrangement at their Gettysburg farm.

    Finally, Eileen Heckart as ER? Maybe the energy matches, but definitely not the voice. I do like the scene where she moves out the “Man Who Came to Dinner.”

  3. I agree that the doorway at center in Mamie’s bedroom recreation is inaccurate. But I’m certain it’s the right room and that Ike has his occasional room next door.

    And the elevator/back stair hall is mixed up in general. I avoided adding pics of things that were clearly inaccurate.

  4. The more I think about BSATWH, I realize they took some liberties that are not historically accurate.

    I have never read anywhere that the West Sitting Room and Central Hall are stripped of all furnishings between administrations as if the President is taking all of it with him. There is no cloak room on the Second Floor, the theater has been used for that for many years. I don’t believe that “Lincoln’s” bed was ever moved around as much as they imply or stored in the attic. However it was used, that bed was in a second floor bedroom, somewhere. And, I note with Derek that after the Truman renovation, the third floor became much more than an attic.

    Finally, I don’t like the portrayal of Mamie E. I have never seen a picture of her where she is NOT smiling. And, from all accounts, even though running a tight ship, she was one of the most caring First Ladies.

  5. The presidents were portrayed fairly accurate but there should have been more attention given to the casting of the first ladies especially Mamie and ER. Their voices (right?) and the hairstyles. It would have been nice to see a close up shot of a page in a photograph album or such turned over with each new administration.

  6. (I forgot to post my username)
    The presidents were portrayed fairly accurate but there should have been given more attention to the casting of the first ladies especially Mamie and ER. Their voices (right?) and hairstyles. It would have been nice to see a close up shot of a page in a photograph album or such turned over with each new administration. Ron

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