News & Politics

America’s First Families: An Inside View of 200 Years of Private Life in the White House

The reason to pick up this book: the photos.

Everything you never wanted to know about US presidents, historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony wasn’t afraid to ask—all the way down to “boxers or briefs?” (Eisenhower wore his “love bug” boxer shorts on Valentine’s Day.)

Anthony—author of a well-received biography of Mrs. Warren G. Harding—offers such tidbits as these: President Wilson’s luggage was lost during his inaugural-day move, so he had to sleep in his underwear; the Trumans broke their bed while having sex. “The Trumans, both in their sixties, enjoyed a healthy intimacy,” Anthony writes. “One morning a rather demure First Lady told the chief usher, ‘[W]e have a little problem. . . . It’s the president’s bed. . . . Two of the slats broke down during the night.’ ”

The book also has truly trivial trivia (Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson were the first couple to dance at an inaugural ball) and often-tiresome charts: Presidents and First Ladies Who Had No Living Birth Children Together at Time of Presidency; Grandchildren Born During President’s Terms. A chapter on the evolution of the White House rooms is interesting for its peek inside the family quarters, but it quickly becomes a blur of names, rooms, and decorations.

The reason to pick up this book: the photos. The images—Hillary and Bill unpacking Chelsea’s things at Stanford, the Bushes in the White House movie theater—give an inside view that far surpasses the text. Too bad this wasn’t a coffee-table book.

Carl Sferrazza Anthony