IT WAS THE BEST of times, it was the worst of times. Etc. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had arrived in Washington with little to offer except his ebullient personality and his infectious optimism--as he was first to admit to the people in whom he confided: his wife, for one; also Louis McHenry Howe, his closest adviser; Harry Hopkins, another close friend and adviser; and his personal and private secretary, Marguerite "Missy" LeHand.
Mrs. Roosevelt, entering the White House to live there, found the place dismaying. The unhappy fact was, it was shabby. Carpets were worn through; drapes in some rooms were faded, and some were in shreds; furniture was in ill repair; the kitchen was inadequately equipped. Floors creaked. In some places they seemed to yield as one walked across them. The roof leaked, and some of the walls were streaked from water running down.
The trouble was that successive presidents had been reluctant to demand of Congress the large appropriationsnecessary to restore the building. Right now, in the depths of a depression that had left hundreds of thousands of men out of work and their families reduced to penury, with businessmen literally reduced to selling apples on the streets and farmers losing their land to foreclosures ... now was not the time for the president to go to Congress and say that millions of dollars were needed to restore the White House.
Besides ... there was a widespread impression all across America that the Roosevelts of Hyde Park were an immensely wealthy family who could afford at least to buy pots and pans for the White House kitchen and new drapes, for the family quarters anyway, and to furnish their living quarters in the style to which they were accustomed. Herbert and Lou Hoover had done just that, after all.
The impression was totally wrong. The president's mother had inherited the estate of his late father. It afforded her a comfortable living at Hyde Park, by no means a luxurious one.
Her son Franklin had cost Sara Roosevelt a great deal of money. His polio had rendered him for several years unable to make a living. He had practiced law in New York City, without earning any very large amount. She had to subsidize him--pay him an allowance--until he was elected governor of New York.
Now he was president of the United States. To Americans, many of whom were living on less than one hundred dollars a month, the presidential salary oftwenty-five thousand dollars--on which he paid income tax like everyone else--seemed huge. The salary would not sustain him as a president had to be sustained in the White House, and his mother still had to extend help.
One of the problems was that it was a long-standing tradition in the White House that not only the members of the Secret Service detail but also the members of the press corps ate from the White House kitchen. There was a twenty-five-thousand-dollar appropriation for travel and entertainment--meaning chiefly state dinners--but the daily food bill was to be paid by the president, from his salary.
The living quarters were, to say the least, eccentric. Located on the second floor of the White House, they occupied the West Wing. A long central hall ran the entire length of the house, from west to east. The focus of the living quarters was what was known as the West Sitting Hall. This was the First Family's living room. Two rooms to the south became Mrs. Roosevelt's study and her bedroom. Two rooms to the north were guest rooms, for family visits.
The hall continued east in what was called the Center Hall. A room to the south of that was the president's bedroom. East of that room was a large oval room that became the president's study.
All of these rooms except the oval room had to be furnished by what the Roosevelts brought with them from their New York town house or from Hyde Park. The furnishings were therefore assorted and not matched.Lou Hoover had achieved a degree of elegance in the living quarters, but she had taken her furniture with her when she left.
President Roosevelt immediately established a tradition that would last as long as his presidency: a cocktail hour in the West Sitting Hall at the end of the day. Coming up on a balky elevator from the Oval Office, he would wheel himself into the Sitting Hall and call out, "Who's home?"
Always home, then, were Louis Howe, Harry Hopkins, and Marguerite "Missy" Lehand, the president's private and confidential secretary, who had been with him since his unsuccessful vice-presidential campaign in 1920.
Mrs. Roosevelt had a problem with the cocktail hour. Prohibition was still the law of the land, and the gin and Scotch and bourbon served in the West Sitting Hall were strictly illegal. She kept her peace. Franklin Roosevelt had ignored Prohibition from the beginning. There had always been a cocktail hour. Rumor had it that most of the liquor served in the governor's mansion in Albany and now in the White House came from a Massachusetts banker named Joseph Kennedy, who apparently imported it, using fast motorboats to meet ships at sea and run the liquor to inlets on Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard.
On this day in May, the summer's damp heat had already settled over Washington, slowing everyone down as people sweated and sat in the currents of air from electric fans. Evening brought little respite. The BritishForeign Office listed Washington as a hardship station and paid people extra to come there, as it did people sent to tropical capitals in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
This evening only Louie, Harry, and Missy had responded to the president's cheery call of "Who's home?" The president sat in his wheelchair and happily shook martinis in his silver shaker. He had recently changed his recipe. Having for years mixed martinis with five parts of gin to one of vermouth, he was now making them stronger: seven to one. Mrs. Roosevelt had seen her formidable mother-in-law become giddy after drinking two of those.
"Will you join us, Babs?" the president asked. Babs was his nickname for Mrs. Roosevelt.
She rarely sat in on the cocktail hour. She was not skilled in the light repartee that the president so loved and that was invariably a feature of these sessions. In any case, she usually left the White House in the evening, sometimes for dinner with friends, more often to represent the president at some function it would have been burdensome for him to attend.
"I've been invited to attend a dinner of the executive board of the United Mine Workers," she said.
"I hope you're wearing chain mail under your dress," said the president.
Mrs. Roosevelt smiled weakly. This was the kind of banter she could not join. "I shall probably be late," she said.
The president poured martinis for Louie, Harry, andMissy. Each of them would rather have drunk something else, but Franklin Roosevelt took such innocent pleasure in his martinis that they did not like to ask for the rye or bourbon they preferred.
The president raised his glass. "To happy days," he said. It was an allusion to his campaign theme song, "Happy Days Are Here Again."
At fifty-one, Franklin Roosevelt was a big, robust man--he was, that is, except for his legs, which were paralyzed and withered by polio. The president and his sons were all big men. Mrs. Roosevelt herself was well over six feet tall.
Franklin Roosevelt had a large strong head with a jutting jaw. His hair was thick and healthy, beginning to turn gray only at the sides. He had bushy eyebrows. His eyes sat within a tangle of deep lines, often obscured by his pince-nez. He smoked Camel cigarettes in a holder, which, gripped atilt in his teeth, became a Roosevelt signature. As the fashion of the time dictated, he wore double-breasted suits, often rumpled and in need of pressing.
Louis McHenry Howe was a graying, wizened gnome, sixty-two years old. He was in constant ill health, hacking and coughing incessantly. The cause of his problem was apparent to him and to everyone who knew him: he was a chain-smoker who literally did light his next Sweet Caporal cigarette from the tip of his last. His ill-fitting suits were smeared with ash. He smoked while he ate, whilehe drank--during whatever he was doing; and he inhaled deeply.
But he was a political genius. He was a journalist by profession. Franklin Roosevelt had come to his attention while Roosevelt was serving as a state senator in Albany. He had attached himself to FDR. It was Howe who had convinced the future president to return to politics after his polio attack cost him the use of his legs. It was Louis Howe who had convinced the at-first-reluctant Eleanor Roosevelt to become a campaigner. Now he was the president's closest adviser. He lived in a suite of rooms on the third floor of the White House, and he was always available.
Harry Hopkins--Harry the Hop to FDR, who had also given the sobriquet Missy to Marguerite LeHand--was a small man as compared to the president. He was forty-three years old and had served FDR as emergency relief administrator in Albany. He was in Washington to administer the Federal Emergency Relief program. He was already the most controversial man in the New Deal. A senator questioned emergency relief, asking if it were not true that all would work out "in the long run." Harry Hopkins's reply was quoted everywhere--"People don't eat in the long run, Senator. They must eat every day."
Marguerite Alice LeHand, Missy, was thirty-seven years old and was a handsome blonde, a Roman Catholic, originally from Massachusetts, later from New York. She was the president's confidante and adviser, not just hissecretary. She called the president Effdee, meaning F.D. He dictated most of his correspondence to other secretaries, who typed the letters; but Missy read them before they went out. "This doesn't sound like you, Effdee," she would say, pointing at a passage in a letter. On one occasion she listened to him reading the draft of a speech on economics that he was to deliver before a mass audience at the Polo Grounds. The speechwriters and several cabinet officers were present. Missy began to shake her head. Finally she spoke: "By this time the bleachers will be empty, and the holders of boxes will be streaming up the aisles."
No one in the White House misunderstood Missy's relationship with the president. She met his needs. She ate with him, drank with him, joked with him. Mrs. Roosevelt admitted that she could not have functioned as she did without Missy. With no Missy she would have felt obligated to stay at home and do as much as she could to fulfill what she regarded as wifely duties. But Missy took care of those. She worked with him on his stamp collection. She arranged little surprises, such as an impromptu after-dinner poker game.
There was endless speculation as to whether or not there was an intimate physical relationship between them. No one dared confront the president with that question. It was known that during the twenties, when he spent winters cruising Florida and Caribbean waters on a boat too unglamourous to be called a yacht, swimming in the warm waters and still hoping to regain theuse of his legs, Missy was with him. Mrs. Roosevelt visited the boat rarely. Cruising bored her, and she had important duties in New York City. Visitors to the boat saw Missy, in her bathing suit, sitting on Franklin's lap, with an arm draped over his shoulder. In the governor's mansion in Albany and in the White House she slept with him. No one would ever know if that was only companionable, or if it was something more. No one knew, and no one would ask.
Mrs. Roosevelt knew about all of this and did not object. She knew something else: that Missy was in love with Franklin. She doubted that his affection for Missy amounted to love.
"What's on the silver screen tonight?" the president asked Missy.
"A thriller. Frankenstein."
Bell & Howell had given the president a sixteen-millimeter sound projector, and Hollywood studios sent sixteen-millimeter versions of their films to the White House. Missy had learned to thread and run the projector. They watched films often. On other nights they listened to music on his record player.
After the cocktail hour, the president retired to his bedroom suite, where his valet helped him in and out of the bathtub and into his pajamas. He propped him up on pillows on his bed. Missy went upstairs and changed into a nightgown and peignoir. They ordered dinner then, which was brought up on trays from the White House kitchen.
So--a Friday evening in the White House in mid-May 1933.
For Mrs. Roosevelt it was a very different kind of evening. In the main banquet room of the Mayflower Hotel she sat at the speakers' table on a dais. To her right was the redoubtable president of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis.
John Llewellyn Lewis was born the son of a Welsh coal miner in Iowa in 1880. He had left school and gone to work in the mines after completing the seventh grade. Soon he became a labor leader, and in 1920 he was elected president of the UMW. He was certainly the most flamboyant labor leader in the United States--and to many people, not just those in his union, he was the most effective.
His head was submerged under a huge shock of unruly hair. His eyebrows were immense and bushy. His frown and stare could frighten. Great jowls bordered his lower face. His lips were fleshy and flexible, and from between them rumbled a deep, expressive, not unmusical voice that he used to excoriate the mine owners and their political allies with allusions to ancient and modern literature and epithets of his own invention.
He was much quoted. Being criticized for taking too much credit for improvements in mine safety, he said, "He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not beee tooted."
He talked animatedly with Mrs. Roosevelt during the dinner.
"I am sorry, my dear lady, that you will not essay some of this excellent bourbon."
Mrs. Roosevelt smiled. "I wonder, Mr. Lewis, if it would be entirely appropriate for the wife of the president of the United States to be seen drinking what remains illegal."
Lewis half smiled, half frowned, and said, "Napoleon said something like this--'I am not an ordinary man, and the laws that govern ordinary men do not govern me.' If Frank could be here, he would enjoy this good bourbon."
"Franklin is not an ordinary man," she said. "I am afraid I am rather an ordinary woman."
"Not at all, my dear lady. Not at all."
The fact was, Mrs. Roosevelt had a reputation throughout the country for being a not-very-attractive, awkward, and gawky woman--and this from people who were not obsessed with hating all things Roosevelt.
She had two large protruding teeth, but they did not spoil her face. When she did not smile too broadly, they were out of sight.
She was not entirely without fault in the matter of her appearance. For some reason she had utterly excruciating taste in clothes. It was a time of unflattering styles, but she seemed to have a talent for choosing the most unflattering things she could find--dresses with excessive numbers of buttons, inappropriate frills, floppycollars ... hats with gaudy feathers and useless veils, and so on. When she dressed simply, she was a comely woman, tall and slender. And she could be poised.
Her inaugural gown was simple and stylish. As though she were aware that it flattered her, she was poised and confident in it and sat for a charming photo portrait. Mornings she liked to ride horseback in Rock Creek Park with her friend Elinor Morgenthau, Hudson Valley neighbor and wife of FDR's soon-to-be secretary of the treasury. When she rode, she wore simple riding clothes: jodhpurs, a plain jacket over a blouse, and a wide yellow ribbon to hold her hair in place. In those togs she was attractive indeed.
Tonight, unhappily, she was wearing a dark-blue dress with a row of white buttons from her collar down to the hem of her skirt. In that, with her feathered hat--one plain long feather sweeping from side to side--she really did look gawky.
"I am quite curious, Mr. Lewis, as to why there are no more Negro miners."
"Maybe because they've got better sense than to go down in the mines," he said.
"But I have been told," she went on, "that some of your miners will not allow a Negro man to join the union."
"It's dangerous work, Mrs. Roosevelt. It depends on faithful teamwork. Many of the miners feel they don't want to trust their lives to Negroes."
"You are interested in social justice," he interrupted. "Well, so am I. But right now my attention has to be centered on keeping miners alive. In a perfect world, men would not be sent down into unsafe mines. The government would insist on mine safety. When we come nearer to that perfect world, I will look into the question of whether or not some mines might be worked by Negro crews."
"Should they not work side by side with the white miners?"
Lewis shook his head so vigorously that his jowls flopped. "That would be asking too much," he said.
"I have brief remarks prepared. I suppose it would be well if I don't mention this issue."
"I suggest you don't. This kind of change is not going to come to pass this year or next year or the year after. Festina lente."
Mrs. Roosevelt had a classical education and knew what he meant--"Make haste slowly."
As Mrs. Roosevelt was being driven back to the White House, a rainstorm broke over Washington. Blue and red lightning flashed in clouds briefly made visible. Rain fell in sheets. Her driver had to slow to a crawl because his headlights could not entirely penetrate the sweeping raindrops.
The rain inconvenienced but few Washingtonians. Asmall crowd sheltered in the foyer of the Gayety Burlesque, where a show had just ended. Others huddled in the doorways of bars. Otherwise, very few were out.
Washington was not a late-night town. A desk sergeant at police headquarters, filling out an arrest report, would ask, "Clerk or mechanic?" To his mind, there were just two kinds of people: those who worked with paper and those who worked with tools; and in Washington in 1933 he was not far from right.
Washington was a Southern town. It was rigidly segregated. Segregation was not a way of life; it was a self-defense. No matter how lowly the station a man held in life, if he was white, he was the superior of every Negro. This was understood. It was not a debatable proposition.
The old Washingtonians, those who could claim their families had owned the land on which the city was built, segregated themselves in another way. They kept to their homes and clubs and did not mingle with the clerks and mechanics. They lived in musty mansions, all with the same cloying odor of old dust and burning incense, in the midst of priceless antiques; and they invited each other for visits--and few others. Even so sedate a magazine as the Saturday Evening Post called them "cave dwellers."
They had invited the Hoovers occasionally, though Hoover was an Iowan and an engineer. They had invited the Coolidges, even though Coolidge was originally a small-town Massachusetts lawyer. The Hardings, never--not those gaudy-rude, style-ignorant, hard-drinking bumpkins. They had been pleased with the election ofFDR, though none of them would have voted for him, even if Washingtonians had had the vote. At least Franklin, of the Hyde Park Roosevelts, and Eleanor, of the Oyster Bay Roosevelts, were to the manner born and could be expected to conduct themselves as aristocrats. The cave dwellers had not yet decided that Franklin was a traitor to his class and that Eleanor was a protocommunist.
The New Dealers imported into Washington by the new president were shocking people. They might know the price of eggs in China, but they knew nothing of how to dress and act. They never wore evening clothes--probably didn't own any--and appeared at formal dinners in dark business suits at best, baggy tweeds more likely, smoking cheap tobacco in curved pipes that slurped when they drew, from want of cleaning. Shortly, their kind was excluded from polite society--the cave dwellers telling themselves they had tried to accommodate these professors of economics and such ilk but had been accorded no respect by them.
Mrs. Roosevelt had come to feel isolated in Washington. More and more, she found solace in her own cherished friendships, and she went back to New York to embrace them as often as she could.
Washington was an idiosyncratic, alien city. She had not wanted to be First Lady. She did her best to adjust.
Copyright © 2001 by Gretchen Roosevelt, Ford Roosevelt, Jay D. Wahlin (or successors), Co-Trustees of 26 Trust.