Butlers and Maids Talk About Life at the White House in New Book

© Pete Souza/White House Photo President Barack Obama wipes his face with a cloth handed to him by White House Butler Von Everett in the Blue Room of the White House following an event with business leaders in the East Room, Jan. 28, 2009.
© Pete Souza/White House Photo President Barack Obama wipes his face with a cloth handed to him by White House Butler Von Everett in the Blue Room of the White House following an event with business leaders in the East Room, Jan. 28, 2009.

Many of the men and women who have worked in the White House residence — serving presidents and their families in their private quarters — are breaking with a long-held tradition of silence: They are dishing about life behind the scenes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

For her forthcoming book, “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House,” Kate Andersen Brower managed to elicit stories from domestic staff who witnessed up close the loneliness of President Nixon as he faced impeachment, the weariness of Hillary Clinton as her husband’s sex scandal exploded and other surprisingly intimate moments involving the first families.

Most of these stories — from Nancy Reagan’s tirade over three broken tchotchkes to the tearful hug Jackie and Bobby Kennedy shared with a favorite doorman in an elevator — are attributed to staffers by name, not wrapped in the cloud of anonymous sourcing that usually cloaks reporting about the inner workings of the White House.

These kinds of stories have rarely been told. But it seems there was never a formal policy demanding secrecy from residence staffers, just a long-standing culture of discretion. That, plus the fact that few people ever bothered to ask them about their time at the White House before.

James Jeffries — a butler who still works part-time at the White House — said he was glad to cooperate with Brower after he heard other friends had talked to her.

“I’d been planning to do my own book,” said Jeffries, who has served 11 presidents and has nine relatives who have worked there as well. “But when she called, I figured it’s just as easy to go ahead and talk to her, and she could print what she wanted to print.”

Brower’s book is both an homage to the souls who feed, care for and clean up behind the leader of the free world and a dishy collection of tidbits about presidential obsessions, quirky habits and intimate moments.

The former Bloomberg News reporter got the idea for the book two years ago when she and other White House correspondents were invited to a lunch by Michelle Obama in the Old Family Dining room. The familiar banter between the first lady and the butler who served the meal caught her attention. After binge-watching PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” Brower became convinced there was a story to tell in the lives and experiences of the staff who serve in the executive mansion.

She spoke to retired ushers, chefs, florists, maids, butlers, doormen, painters and many other former staff members. Many are elderly; six of Brower’s interview subjects have passed away in the past year and a half.

“There’s an unwritten rule that they stay in the background,” Brower said. “Unlike a lot of people in Washington, they don’t talk about their jobs.”

Jeffries was the only current White House residence staffer — there are 96 full-time and 250 part-time — to agree to sit for an interview with Brower. There’s a general understanding among staffers that a lack of discretion could get them fired, though Brower said that no one indicated they had signed any kind of non-disclosure agreement.

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Source: The Washington Post | Krissah Thompson

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