The Children’s Hour

Whistler, James Mcneill, Artist. The wine-glass / Whistler
. , None. [Between 1860 and 1903] Photograph.

By Kevin Thomas, Archives Technician

The process of making a cocktail can evoke sensations of confidence and creativity – even before imbibing. The person creating or preparing the cocktail, exerts a certain amount of control. Do they follow the prescribed recipe? Or do they venture out on their own, and tinker with convention, to create something unique and special? Changing course, can potentially lead to devastating results.

Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed preparing cocktails, and drinking them as well. He also enjoyed the challenges of the Presidency. Metaphorically, the two mix well together.

For example: The Great Depression. It was far from the first major economic crisis facing the United States, but this time the crisis appeared far worse, and the stakes far greater. Should the President tackle the crisis using known and trusted economic formulas, or should he attempt something new to create the results he wanted? As the nation’s mixologist, failure for Roosevelt risked far more than a horrible tasting Daiquiri or Manhattan.

With that said, try to imagine that tremendous burden of responsibility he carried while steering the nation through those difficult waters in the 1930s, and later on during World War II. Perhaps only those who have served as President could even remotely understand what was required. The office, in any era, is notorious for the physical and psychological toll it extracts.

Finding rest and distraction from stress can be in and of itself, a difficult task for any individual. It is far more difficult for someone who is never truly away from their work. Individuals often turn to social activities or hobbies to distance themselves. Roosevelt had several hobbies that he used to distract himself from the stresses of his day as President – stamp collecting perhaps the best known. But enjoying an evening of socializing – centered on a cocktail – was another escape for FDR.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York. Taken right in front of his room at the FDR Library. 1942. NPx 48-22:3715(2). FDR Library Photograph Collection

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s position as President required him to be accessible – so getting away from his surroundings during the day or night was not always possible. He was also restricted by the physical limits set by his paralysis, due to a bout with Polio earlier in his life. Roosevelt would instead gather his closest staff, friends, and confidants, known as his “inner circle,” into his White House study; one of the few spaces on Earth where he could feel any sense of privacy. Out would come his cocktail set.

Cocktail Set

Called “The Children’s Hour” by the President (it is believed in homage to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem of the same name), these intimate social gatherings immediately preceded dinner during most evenings of his Presidency. The only regulation for attendance – leave official business at the door.

Those lucky few who ever attended one of these exclusive cocktail hours – whether at the White House, or at another location the President was visiting – knew their role was to entertain the 32nd President. Discussing politics however, was not completely prohibited. In fact it was irresistible. The gatherings gave the President and his guests the chance to air out their feelings on issues and people. Some of the barbs and banter would be directed at one another. Something that probably wasn’t discussed – FDR himself. The President rarely revealed anything deeply personal. Not even in this intimate roundtable of friends.

The cocktail hour was the President’s time to unwind – with stories and jokes as copious as the gin ratio. The President himself, usually prepared and served the cocktails at these gatherings. What would he mix for you? That depended on what he had available, and what he knew how to make. Roosevelt enjoyed the classic Old Fashioned, but the Martini was perhaps his favorite – though his recipe was not always traditional, or consistent.

The martinis started out simple enough, usually as a 3:1 or sometimes 4:1 Gin and Dry Vermouth. Shaken over ice. Cocktail glass. Olive or lemon peel garnish. Then it gets complicated. Sometimes if inspiration came to him, the President would add a drop or two of absinthe for flavor, according to some sources, including his grandson, Curtis Roosevelt. Sometimes a splash of brine to make it dirty. At other times, he might add more vermouth than his sons or guests cared for. Perhaps he might add some fruit juices or liqueurs, or substitute with an alternative liquor for gin when his home bar was limited. Sometimes an extra measure of gin to be on the safe side, as he could lose track of his measurements while deep in storytelling. You can see how quickly things could get out of control. According to his grandson Curtis, the martinis were said to be “truly awful.” Even his brother-in-law Hall Roosevelt, was known to have told FDR that he didn’t know how to make a martini.

Sam Rosenman, a close friend and one of the President’s speechwriters, recalled FDR making such a cocktail in his book, Working with Roosevelt (Harper & Brothers, 1952):

 … the President, without bothering to measure, would add one ingredient after another to his cocktails.  To my unpracticed eye he seemed to experiment on each occasion with a different percentage of vermouth, gin and fruit juice.  At times he varied it with rum – especially rum from the Virgin Islands.

If anything, Roosevelt appears to have rejected the purist’s notion of what a martini was, and may have been out to satisfy a more adventurous side – even though it apparently didn’t work well for his friends. The President’s apparent taste for experimentation in his cocktails, seemed to mirror his style of experimentation in confronting the challenges facing the nation.

Aside from the martinis, FDR appears to have been successful at producing crowd pleasing cocktails. In her book, F.D.R., My Boss (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1949), Grace Tully, Personal Secretary to the President (1941-1945), recalled a summer cocktail FDR created using rum, orange juice, and brown sugar. She described it as “a nice summer drink.” It may have proven a little too much for her though, as she tried to avoid bringing it up, for concern it might be recreated for her.

Would he take requests? Certainly. The President however, would gently rebuke your choice if it deviated from what he thought made the best drink. Missy LeHand’s or Grace Tully’s preference for an Old Fashioned made with Scotch whisky, was considered “silly” and “sacrilegious.” There was still something of the traditionalist in FDR it seems.

The President, after all, knew what he liked – and if he made a cocktail to his liking, he would sip it and say “yummy, that’s good.” According to John Gunther, in his book Roosevelt in Retrospect (Harper & Brothers, 1950), some other creations included Goldwasser and Demerara rum, or gin and Benedictine.

There is one unsubstantiated tale Gunther recalls, of the President stocking a top shelf gin and a bottom shelf gin – the former for his favorite guests, the other for everyone else. Perhaps this contributed to the poor rating some gave for his martini.

Franklin D. Roosevelt sits with Fala in the White House Oval Study. December 20, 1941. NPx 59-109. FDR Library Photograph Collection.

Those sharing a drink and a laugh with the President, were in elite company.

One staple attendee of the evening socializing was Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, Personal Secretary to the President (1933-1941). She would act as hostess for the very small gatherings, which would include over the years White House staff and advisors such as Grace Tully, Louis Howe, Harry Hopkins, Marvin McIntyre, and Steve Early. Family and friends would also attend, such as his daughter Anna. In later years, Fala, the President’s beloved Scotty dog, would be by his side.

FDR even held his cocktail hour at large diplomatic conferences, and enjoyed sharing a moment over a drink with other world leaders, such as Winston Churchill. After partaking in one of FDR’s mixed drinks at the Teheran Conference, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin noted it was “cold on the stomach.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at the Teheran Conference in Teheran, Iran. November 29, 1943. NPx 48-22:3715(107). FDR Library Photograph Collection.

One notable absence – the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Alcoholism ran a deep vein through her family. Her father, brother, and several other members of her family on both sides fell victim to it. While she tolerated alcohol consumption in her husband and others, it was not something she appears to have been completely at ease with. She would make an occasional appearance at the cocktail hour, usually when friends of hers were invited for dinner, and thus were invited to the pre-dinner ritual gathering. Even so, she would often be seen standing in the doorway, according to Curtis Roosevelt in his book Upstairs at the Roosevelts’: Growing Up with Franklin and Eleanor (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). Her son James recalled that sometimes she could be seen with an offered cocktail in hand, but this may have been more out of politeness, than for personal enjoyment.

Eleanor Roosevelt did not approve of FDR’s choice of leisure activity, considering it an inefficient use of his time, and according to Grace Tully, usually “had some plan for the evening,” that would preclude her from attending. The First Lady also never seemed completely comfortable in the atmosphere of jokes and small talk. She preferred to dedicate much of her time to her work, even in the evening, feeling her responsibility to help those in need could afford few frivolities, and chose her own methods for relaxation. It was one of the contrasts between Franklin and Eleanor.

Shaking Up History: Curator Bustard’s Artifact of Choice

The First Lady did however, have an important ally in Sara Delano Roosevelt, the President’s mother. She also felt Franklin had become too infatuated with his cocktail hour. Neither of them though, appears to have gone beyond their verbal disapproval. Perhaps they each knew the true purpose of the gatherings.

Curtis Roosevelt, who was nine years old when he began to receive an invitation to attend the cocktail hour, described in his book being a witness to the scene surrounding his grandfather, with a ginger ale in his hand.

There was an atmosphere of conviviality. Conversation was spontaneous, even noisy, a mixture of lighthearted banter and serious dialogue, but it always touched on politics.

Grace Tully recalled the cocktail hour as “the pleasantest period of the day, especially if the group was small.” If the number of guests grew larger than 15 people, Tully recalled the drinks would sometimes be prepared in the kitchen, leaving FDR to pour them, as mixing so many cocktails would be a “chore” for the President.

FDR understood his time was limited at these gatherings. In his book, That Man: An Insider’s Portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt (Oxford University Press, 2003), Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson described FDR as usually enjoying a “couple of cocktails” before dinner, but Tully also described FDR’s practice of extending the good times as long as he could:

After a second cocktail, he would look around at the empty glasses and say, “How about a little dividend?” or “How about another sippy?” and usually added, “Will you have a smig?”… On some occasions it was done to use up what was in the shaker and on others he wanted to be sure he had enough customers to warrant making a third round.

The Children’s Hour was often less than that, in spite of efforts from his daughter Anna to move up the time for the gathering, to give her father more time to mix and socialize, and avoid the rush he so disliked. At the White House however, the ultimate say in their duration was left to Eleanor. Preferring dinner on time at 7:30, she would appear at the gathering, which meant it was time to wrap things up.

Franklin D. Roosevelt being presented a globe by the United States Army at the White House in Washington, D.C.. December 1942. NPx 61-244. FDR Library Photograph Collection.

This article is far from the first glance at FDR’s Children’s Hour. But, in these days of social distancing, the act of mixing a drink at home has developed a resurgence. Socializing has happened more often at home, on-line, instead of in bars or at a friend’s house. In our contemporary case, it is foisted on us by Coronavirus. We have been in many cases, compelled to find new and different ways to unwind, converse with friends, or to change our routines, in order to separate ourselves from stress.

For FDR, it was no different, if we set aside the Great Depression and World War II. Because of the life he led, going out for the evening was out of the question. So he brought the fun home, and got through each day – with their successes, and their failures.

The Children’s Hour was an important part of the President’s day. As much as breakfast in his bed with a stack of newspapers each morning helped him get started right – the evening unwind helped him finish the day with levity. He wanted fun. So did his guests. All of them had witnessed many days when laughter and smiles seemed in short supply. Together, they could cope.

In retrospect, the taste of the cocktails mattered little. The fellowship mattered much more.