By Herman Eberhardt, Supervisory Museum Curator
This is the story behind a small group of objects that are not the type of things you normally expect to find at a presidential library.
Here we have a dog’s food bowl, a rubber ball and a stuffed sock.
So what can these objects possibly have to do with Franklin Roosevelt? Well, they all belonged to a dog, named Fala, who belonged to FDR and lived at the White House.
Here is Fala’s White House dog tag to prove my point. There you can see his name and “The White House” etched into the metal. And this is Fala who, as you can see, was a full-bred Scottish terrier.
Now, at this point, some of you might be thinking—“That’s is all very nice, but why is Fala important?” And why are artifacts associated with him in the Roosevelt Museum’s collection?
Well, for starters, during World War II, Fala became the most famous dog in America. And in 1944—as I will demonstrate—he had a surprising role in FDR’s campaign for a fourth term as America’s president. I also think Fala’s story offers us interesting glimpses into Franklin Roosevelt’s personal side.
But before I get to all of that I want to say a few words about president’s and their dogs.
Many of America’s presidents have found friendship and solace in dogs. It’s a tradition that goes all the way back to George Washington, who bred foxhounds.
Among our more recent Presidents many people remember Buddy—Bill Clinton’s Labrador Retriever.
Barney, one of a pair of Scottish terriers beloved by George W. Bush.
And Barack Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog, Bo.
Franklin Roosevelt was no exception when it came to keeping a canine pet at the White House. In fact, FDR had a lifelong affection for dogs. They were a constant presence in his life from his early childhood.
One of our earliest photographs of FDR is this charming image of the future president at age three aboard a donkey with his dog, Budgy.
And here is FDR in his teenage years with his dog Monk (on the left) and Tip (on the right).
Dogs continued to be part of FDR’s life as he grew to adulthood. Here we see him and Eleanor Roosevelt relaxing with their young daughter, Anna, and their dog Duffy—who they had acquired in Europe during their honeymoon.
Other dogs would follow in the decades to come. One that was especially beloved by the Roosevelt family was a German shepherd named Chief. Here Chief sits alongside then Governor Roosevelt outside the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park in 1930.
But while FDR owned a number of dogs during his lifetime, without question the best-known was Fala, the Scottish terrier he was given in August 1940.
Fala was presented to FDR when he was four months old by Margaret Suckley, the President’s distant cousin and close confidante.
His original name was Big Boy, but FDR renamed him “Murray the Outlaw of Falahill” after a Scottish ancestor. That’s the name that was listed on this registration certificate from the American Kennel Club. However, over time the dog’s nickname—Fala—became the one that FDR and the public used.
President Roosevelt took an immediate and strong liking to Fala, who quickly became his constant companion. He slept in a special chair at the foot of FDR’s bed and every morning had a bone that was brought up on the President’s breakfast tray.
Throughout the day Fala would often beg for food from the White House staff, who enjoyed giving him treats. But when the dog started putting on too much weight the President issued orders that only he could feed him. In this photo taken in FDR’s private study at the White House you can see the President holding up Fala’s food dish.
The ball and stuffed sock you saw at the start of this essay were also kept in this room at the White House and were two of Fala’s favorite toys.
Now, as I noted, Fala quickly became President Roosevelt’s close companion. Consequently, during World War II he often pops up in photographs of FDR at historic moments and with famous people.
For instance, here he is sitting amid a group of British and American officers and officials during the August 1941 Atlantic Conference, one of President Roosevelt’s famous meetings with Winston Churchill. That’s Churchill to the left of FDR in the photo. And the mound of dark fur you see at the Presidents feet is Fala.
And here is Fala during the 2nd Quebec Conference held in Canada in the late summer of 1944. That’s Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King looking on while Eleanor Roosevelt feeds Fala a treat.
In this 1941 photo, our intrepid terrier mixes company with Prime Minister Churchill and FDR’s trusted aide Harry Hopkins on the lawn outside the White House.
Fala often traveled with the President during vacations and inspection tours. Here he is riding alongside FDR during a visit to a military base. In fact, Fala became so closely associated with FDR that the Secret Service gave him the codename “The Informer”—because if you saw Fala, it was likely President Roosevelt was somewhere nearby.
This was sometimes the case when FDR traveled by train. Here you see the President with Fala and another dog on the rear platform of the presidential train. During station stops, an aide would often take Fala out on a short walk on the train platform where he was sometimes spotted and recognized by alert members of the public.
Now all this public exposure eventually led to media coverage. Photos and press accounts about Fala appeared in newspapers and magazines around the nation and FDR’s dog became a familiar figure to millions of Americans. This is a typical article taken from the New York Herald Tribune, in which the reporter described Fala as “The First Dog of the Land.”
Here Fala has turned the tables on newspaper photographers in an amusing photo shot outside the White House.
As Fala’s fame spread, he became the subject of books, including this 1942 picture book titled The True Story of Fala. He even starred in two MGM newsreels shown in movie theaters: Fala, the President’s Dog and Fala at Hyde Park.
Fala’s growing popularity is reflected in the thousands of letters he received from the public—they are all preserved today among the papers stored at the Roosevelt Library.
Many of these letters were related to Fala’s role as honorary president of Barkers for Britain—an organization of dog owners created during World War II to raise funds to provide aid to the British people. This is the dog tag awarded to Fala by the group.
Now earlier I mentioned that in addition to becoming the most famous dog in the United States, Fala also had a role in FDR’s 1944 reelection campaign. That story begins in July 1944, when Fala accompanied the President on boat trip across the Pacific Ocean for a meeting with military leaders in Hawaii. During their journey home, FDR visited the Aleutian Islands before continuing on to the American mainland. But when the President arrived in Washington D.C., a rumor began circulating that Fala had been accidentally left behind on one of the Aleutian Islands and that FDR had ordered the Navy to send a destroyer back to retrieve him.
Well, as the presidential campaign heated up that fall, Republicans jumped on this rumor and accused the President of spending millions of taxpayer dollars in his effort to rescue Fala from the island. Of course, the story was completely false and FDR devised an amusing way to disarm his critics. The President chose his moment carefully. On September 23, 1944, he was scheduled to make his first important campaign speech at a dinner attended by hundreds of friendly union leaders. The speech was broadcast live around the nation. And instead of trying to recreate what FDR said—I’m going to let you listen to the actual speech. Listen as FDR uses devastating humor to demolish the Republican rumors about Fala. (Start at 39:06).
Well, as you can hear, FDR brought down the house with what became known as his “Fala Speech.” That speech served to energize his election campaign by showing the public that the President still had the magic political touch he had demonstrated in his previous three presidential campaigns. In fact, historians often cite the “Fala speech” as a key moment in the 1944 election—one that helped to put Roosevelt on a path for reelection in November.
Now, of course, just six months after that election, FDR died.
After the President’s death in April 1945, Fala lived with Eleanor Roosevelt at her Val-Kill estate in Hyde Park. Here they are walking together on the grounds at Val-Kill. Fala lived happily there for the next seven years.
During those years, Fala grew a bit gray and also became largely deaf. Here he is with Mrs. Roosevelt in his later days.
Ultimately, age and an accumulation of illnesses led to his death on April 5, 1952. At Eleanor’s direction, he was buried alongside Chief in the Rose Garden at Springwood, just a few feet away from FDR’s grave.
When we look back on the story of Fala its interesting to see how this scruffy terrier became the best-known dog in the nation—so well-recognized that President Roosevelt could make him the subject of a nationally-broadcast speech. Like the dogs owned by other presidents, Fala also helped to humanize FDR. The American public loves dogs and presidents seeking to make a personal connection with dog owners certainly can’t go wrong by owning one.
But in FDR’s case, the fondness he demonstrated for Fala was not just political theater. His affection for Fala was genuine. These private photos taken at Hyde Park and in the President’s White House Study are evidence of that. And its clear that this small dog returned the favor, giving the President much needed moments of relaxation and companionship amid the tremendous stresses of the war years—years when the loneliness of being commander in chief weighed heavily on FDR.
In that sense Fala played his own small role in helping FDR and the nation through the difficult years of World War II.
If you want to learn more about Fala and Fala-related artifacts in the Museum I encourage you to take our Virtual Museum Tour and explore our Digital Artifact Collection. Our Education Department has also produced an Educational Activity on Fala: “Presidential Pet“
You can also watch a video version of this blog post on our YouTube Channel: YouTube
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