By Paul M. Sparrow, Director, FDR Library.
Throughout his life, Franklin Roosevelt was surrounded by remarkable women. His mother Sara Delano, his wife Eleanor, his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins the first woman to be appointed to the cabinet, and his distant cousin Daisy Suckley. But the woman who is perhaps least remembered but most important was Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, his personal secretary and closest confidant for more than 20 years. Missy suffered a terrible stroke in 1941 and left the White House, so her assistant Grace Tully took over for her. When President Roosevelt died, Grace Tully took all of her and many of Missy’s papers with her. In 2010 when those papers finally came to the FDR Library they were known as the Grace Tully Collection, but most of them were really Missy’s papers.
Kathryn Smith, author of The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency the first full biography of Missy LeHand, describes her as “…tall and slim, with wavy dark brown hair and large blue eyes under dark arched brows – the classic black Irish coloring. She had a long face and a prominent jaw and nose, but a sweetness of expression that spoke of her good nature. “
Missy came into the Roosevelt world in August 1920 when she was offered a job as a secretary to support Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice Presidential campaign. James Cox was the democratic candidate for President, and it was widely assumed he would lose to the Republican candidate Senator Warren Harding. But this was FDR’s first shot at national political office and he went at it with his trademark gusto. Although Missy had little contact with FDR, she worked closely with the inner circle of FDR advisers including Louie Howe, Steve Early, and Marvin McIntyre.
After the election, Eleanor asked Missy to come to her home in Hyde Park and help finish up the correspondence. She did such a good job that when FDR was hired to be a vice president for the Fidelity and Deposit Company he asked her to become his full time secretary. Thus was born a truly remarkable partnership. Just a few months later FDR would be stricken with polio, and Missy would become his companion and gatekeeper.
To fully understand why Missy LeHand had such influence in the White House it is important to look at her role during the years FDR was out of public view recovering from polio. These were without doubt the most difficult years of his life, and those who were with him during that period became his most trusted confidants and advisers.
Polio struck without warning on August 10, 1921, while he was vacationing at his home on Campobello Island in Canada. Months of medical treatments and intense therapy followed and Missy was one of the few who were allowed to see him at his Manhattan apartment during this time. After resigning his job FDR left for an extended cruise on a houseboat in Florida with Missy, his personal valet LeRoy Jones and a rotating cast of old friends. Eleanor did not enjoy or entirely approve of the bohemian lifestyle FDR was engaging in, fishing and drinking and frivolous pastimes, and so she spent little time onboard. But when FDR returned to New York after several months at sea he displayed marked improvements both physically and mentally. FDR was convinced he had found a new form of therapy.
He bought an old boat with his friend John Lawrence and christened it the Larooco (Lawrence, Roosevelt Co.) and in the winter of 1924, FDR, Missy, and Leroy set sail for the warm Caribbean waters near Florida. While there has been speculation that FDR and Missy had an affair during this time, there is no evidence to support it, and her long and warm relationship with Eleanor and the children casts serious doubts on it. But there is no question that the time they spent on board the Larooco laid the foundation for a deep bond between them that lasted until Missy’s death.
The year 1924 also introduced FDR to Warm Spring Georgia, where he would focus his efforts on finding an effective cure for polio and provide a world class rehabilitation clinic for its victims. Once again Eleanor did not care for the informal lifestyle and poverty stricken countryside, so Missy became the hostess for FDR’s Warm Springs home. Missy grew to love this special place, and between the cruises aboard the Larooco and the rehabilitation work at Warm Springs, Missy had become a critical part of FDR’s recovery efforts.
Over the years FDR would invest a good portion of his fortune into Warm Springs, and created the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation which raised millions of dollars for polio research. This eventually became the March of Dimes Foundation which funded the research that led to a polio vaccine in 1954.
But the siren call of political life drew FDR back into the arena and in 1928 he ran for Governor of New York and won. The next four years in Albany provided FDR with a powerful platform to re-establish his national profile. His team included Louis Howe, Frances Perkins, Sam Rosenman, and of course Missy. It was during this transition that Grace Tully entered the picture as Missy’s assistant. A complete collection of their correspondence can be found here: The Grace Tully Collection Finding Aid
Missy lived in the Governor’s Mansion with the Roosevelts, and was part of the family in every way. It was during their years in Albany that Missy first came to the attention of the roving pack of reporters who covered FDR. She was dubbed FDR’s “Right Hand Woman” and when Eleanor traveled Missy would act as the hostess for dinners and other social events.
When the stock market crashed in October 1929, Governor Roosevelt immediately took action. After his reelection in 1930 he became the most activist governor in the country. He started the first unemployment program and fought a corruption scandal with the mayor of New York. Missy later told an interviewer that “Albany was the hardest work I ever did” (The Gatekeeper). During this period Missy had a serious medical issue with her irregular heartbeat and Eleanor grew deeply concerned about her health. She spent time in Warm Springs getting FDR’s new cottage ready for him. When he arrived in May of 1932 the local Meriwether Vindicator became became the first newspaper to endorse FDR for president, and locals began calling his new home, the Little White House.
Missy arrived in Washington to much fanfare and excitement. She would be the first woman to hold the position of the secretary to the president. In a short period of time she became the most famous secretary in America. She was also romantically involved with the dashing and daring William Bullitt who served as FDR’s secret spy and later as Ambassador to Russia and France. Their long distance relationship proved both exhilarating and frustrating for Missy.
Grace Tully described Missy as “the Queen” of the White House staff, and her authority was rarely challenged. Many cabinet secretaries, congressmen, senators and ambassadors courted favor with Missy in an attempt to gain access to the president. Missy’s role as Gatekeeper gave her enormous influence in who the president spent time with. And while she clearly had her favorites, she was widely respected for her fairness and devotion to the president’s needs.
The White House staff grew quickly as the work load of the “First 100 Days” and the ever growing volume of correspondence demanded attention. Missy was part of FDR’s most inner circle, those few people who crossed over from the political to the personal worlds of the Roosevelts. This small group included Grace Tully, Louis Howe, Harry Hopkins, Marvin McIntyre, and Steve Early. Several of them actually lived in the White House at one time or another. And every day they would gather for “Children’s Hour” and FDR would mix martinis or some other cocktail and they would drop the world’s woes and spend time gossiping, chatting, and generally having fun.
They provided FDR with an important escape from the pressures of the White House, and their personal bonds allowed them to speak truth, sometimes uncomfortable truths, to the Boss.
After a major White House renovation in 1934 Missy was moved into a prime office with a view of the rose garden, and a door that opened directly into the new and improved Oval Office. Hers was the ONLY office with such a door. Her office also had a door leading to the garden, allowing “unannounced” visitors direct access to FDR when he didn’t want their names showing up on the official White House registry.
In her book The Gatekeeper, Kathryn Smith describes Missy’s role this way:
“Missy was the Swiss Army Knife of the White House. A formidable, multitalented multitasker.”
From March 1933 until May 1941 Missy assisted FDR and the family in every imaginable way. She traveled with them and paid their bills, acted as hostess when Eleanor was away, provided advice on personnel, personal and political matters, and kept the White House secretarial staff operating at a remarkably high level of effectiveness under constant stress. It was a virtuoso performance.
But in 1941 Missy’s health problems finally caught up with her, as they would with FDR four years later. Missy had suffered from a bad heart from the time she was a little girl. FDR himself was suffering from a range of medical problems during the spring of 1941 the pressure of the war in Europe was taking a toll. On June 4th, at a party in the White House, Missy collapsed, probably from a combination of a stroke and a heart attack. She was laid up in her bed for weeks, then transferred to a hospital. Despite all of her work in helping bring FDR’s dream of a presidential library to fruition, on June 30th, 1941, when it was dedicated, Missy was not there. Partially paralyzed and barely able to speak she was confined to the hospital in D.C. She was later moved to Warm Springs, Georgia, to help in her recovery. She was there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. She called the White House and her former assistant Grace Tully took a message for the President, but he did not call her back that day. But FDR never gave up on her. He paid all of her medical bills and changed his will so that half of the proceeds of his estate would go to help support her until she died. Then it would revert back to Eleanor.
In March 1942 Missy returned to the White House, a shadow of her former self, and moved back into her apartment on the third floor. FDR would visit her for short periods of time while he fought a global war, and the old “Children’s Hour” gang kept her company. But after she accidentally started a fire while lighting a cigarette the decision was made to send her home to Somerville, Massachusetts.
Missy lived with her sister and two nieces for several years, and finally passed away on July 31, 1944. FDR was on a military tour of the Pacific, and issued this statement:
The great esteem in which Missy was held is reflected in the list of people who attended her funeral on August 2, 1944. It included Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and 1,200 others. But with a World War raging Missy’s passing was soon lost in the swirl of news about battles, victories, and another presidential campaign.
Missy’s very capable protégé Grace Tully took over the administrative responsibilities, but her personal relationship with FDR was not the same as Missy’s. When FDR died, Grace Tully ended up with all of the papers that she and Missy had collected over the years. The remained with her until her death, and in 2010 they finally arrived at the FDR Library as the Grace Tully Collection. But many of those papers belonged to Missy.
Kathryn Smith’s new book goes a long way to correcting the error of omission that history has made regarding Missy LeHand. In an era when it was very difficult for women to rise to the highest levels of government, she was truly FDR’s “Right Hand Woman.” Hopefully The Gatekeeper will finally put to rest the sexist gossip that Missy gained her power because she was FDR’s mistress. Because it was not her looks but her extraordinary talent, commitment, and dedication that earned her the privilege to work by FDR’s side for more than 20 years.