Socialite, and Spy Master: Vincent Astor, FDR’s Area Controller of Intelligence for New York

By William Villano,
Astor Project Digital Curator


Lunch with Royalty: Vincent Astor and FDR entertain the Duke and Dutchess of Kent, Lord and Lady Clifford of the Bahamas. April 1935, Nassau, Bahamas. NPx 47-96:1900.

Shortly after 10:00 am on Tuesday morning May 27, 1941 the tall, thin, well dressed gentleman approached Hudson Terminal. His fine tailored suit, immaculately polished shoes, and priceless pocket-watch, that relic which had been held by his father as he perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic aboard the Titanic, hinted at his immense wealth. With over 60 million annual visitors, Hudson Terminal was one of Manhattan’s busiest transportation hubs which made the gentleman’s office in one of the twin 22-story towers above the terminal an ideal location for his secret meeting. Vincent Astor, the fifty year old, fifth generation Land-Lord of New York and one of the wealthiest men alive, was about to meet with representatives of the F.B.I., the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division, and the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence to discuss defending New York from Axis sabotage, espionage, and military offensives in the months before America’s entry into World War II. Two months earlier President Franklin D. Roosevelt had created a new position specifically for him and Astor had promised his life-long friend and Dutchess County neighbor that “In this job I shall do my very best.”

At 10:15, in Vincent Astor’s office at 50 Church St, across the street from the present day World Trade Center, the meeting began. Astor, as Area Controller of Intelligence for New York, brought the six other men to order and the meeting was underway. Names and dossiers of intelligence sources and informants were exchanged by the various agencies, briefings on supplies of food and fuel necessary to England’s war effort were made, and information on potential threats were disclosed, for this was Astor’s primary duty: make all intelligence operations in New York run as efficiently as the many business ventures the multi-millionaire had managed. Next he made arrangements for the Navy and Army to discuss the Axis’s finances with a representative of the American Express Company who had recently returned from the Nazi puppet regime in Vichy France. This was followed by a verbal report on conditions in North and West Africa. By 11:30 Astor’s office had emptied and he resumed his civilian duties of managing a vast business empire which included Chase National Bank, Western Union Telegraph Company, and entire blocks of New York real-estate. He would have to remember to review the Chase bank accounts of the AMTORG Corporation to note what military materials the Russian government was purchasing; particularly molybdenum, which was used in tank armor and when shown to the right military personnel, would give the President a good sense of Russia’s military strength.

This wasn’t Astor’s first assignment in the defense of America and like previous forays into national defense, he intended to use every resource available to him. Astor’s global business connections in banking, telecommunications, and shipping made him uniquely useful to the President. Without these connections Astor, an inactive Commander in the Naval Reserve, surely would not be coordinating America’s intelligence agencies while the nation was not even at war.

For some time the multi-millionaire had been providing housing in his luxurious Hotel St. Regis to England’s head of intelligence in North America, William Stephenson and had been using Ferry Reach, his estate in British held Bermuda, to illegally access international diplomatic messages. Just twelve days earlier, on May the 15th, Astor and Admiral Adolphus Andrews of the Third Naval District had hosted envoys from the navies of South and Central American aboard Astor’s palatial 263 foot yacht Nourmahal. Armed with movie stars, beautiful women, and Astor’s tremendous wealth, America’s alliance with Latin America had been further cemented. Three years earlier, Astor had sailed that same ship through the pacific with Kermit Roosevelt to gather intelligence for FDR on Japanese defenses in the Marshall Islands. Of course his fondest memories aboard the Nourmahal, were not related to America’s defense, but centered on the five fishing cruises he spent with the President.

FDR sits in wheelchair aboard yacht, looks out to sea. April 1935.

President Roosevelt in his wheelchair aboard Vincent Astor’s yacht, the “Nourmahal.” April, 1935. NPx 06-01.

Vincent Astor relished his duties even more due to the jealousy his espionage missions elicited from his friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who dreamed of retiring and writing detective novels. For fifty years the Dutchess County neighbors had been friends and in fact were distant cousins. FDR’s half-brother James R. Roosevelt had married Vincent’s Aunt Helen. As boys Astor and Roosevelt would vacation together at Lake St. Regis, and later Campobello with their friendship growing as the two boys turned to men. Even during the difficult years following Roosevelt’s affliction with polio; when he withdrew from the limelight, Astor was there for Roosevelt, lending him the use of his indoor pool at Astor Courts to help with FDR’s hydrotherapy treatments. To Astor, it was no surprise that he, a trusted, close and capable friend, would be appointed to a position so integral to the defense of America.

Coordinating America’s defenses was only one aspect of Vincent Astor’s duties. As he had done in World War I, when he hunted German submarines aboard his yacht the Noma, Astor wished to strike at the enemy, and again Astor’s business ventures afforded him the opportunity. In the Newsweek Building, Astor’s 43 story skyscraper at 444 Madison Avenue, Astor lent room 629 to his friends in the FBI. From this specially equipped room the FBI was monitoring the offices of William Sebold’s “Diesel Research Company” in rooms 627 and 628. The ”Diesel Research Company” was a front used by the Abwehr, Nazi Germany’s military intelligence agency, to distribute funds to secret agents in America. Unfortunately for the Nazis, William Sebold was a double-agent working with the FBI. Astor took solace in the fact that even now the FBI was using state of the art listening devices and hidden cameras to record the meetings between Sebold and thirty three Axis spies, including Fritz Duquesne the Nazi’s head operative in North America. Soon a crippling blow would be dealt to the Axis fifth column in America and New York would be safe from the German sabotage attacks that had shocked the city during the First World War.


FBI Agent observing the Diesel Research Company. FBI photo.

For Astor, business and national defense went hand in hand. That is why in 1927, he had organized “The Room” in a small non-descript apartment at 34 East Sixty-Second street. “The Room” was an unofficial spy ring, comprised of bankers like J.P. Morgan, businessmen like Astor, and other prominent members of New York’s high society. For thirteen years this group of powerful New Yorkers had acted as informal advisors and economic spies for their close friend and fellow New Yorker, President Roosevelt.
Astor’s tremendous wealth had caused both the Germans and British to court his favor before America’s entry into the war. Only a year earlier, wealthy German lawyer Gerhard Alois Westrick, who had had previous business dealings with America’s captains of industry had attempted to woo Astor and arrange close business connections between the U.S. and Nazi Germany in the event that Germany conquered Europe. Westrick, of course, reported directly to Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentop. Similarly,  Astor’s wealth and power had prompted the British to request his assistance in acquiring one of American’s secret weapons: The Norden Bombsight. Just about one year earlier Astor had worked so hard to prevent that device from falling into the wrong hands. On that occasion he even had to order FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to send an agent to Europe, despite the fact that Astor had no authority to issue such an order and despite likelihood that it would cause an international incident.

Despite his pressing business responsibilities, Vincent Astor’s first loyalty was to his old friend and fishing companion Franklin D. Roosevelt. It had been a month since his last trip to the White House and in only six days the Area Controller of New York was scheduled to report to the President. This friendship, combined with deep roots in New York, would drive the aging gentleman to devote himself to the defense of New York City, much as his love of the city had driven him to care for the city’s poor through making generous donations to housing projects, libraries, parks, and hospitals.


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Marguerite “Missy” LeHand: FDR’s Right Hand Woman

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director

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.


FDR, Missy LeHand, and Grace Tully at Hyde Park, 1938

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.


Gov. Roosevelt with Missy LeHand and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1929

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.


FDR, Frances de Rhaim, and Missy LeHand on board the Larooco, Florida, 1924

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.


Missy LeHand, FDR, Dutchess County neighbor Maunsell Crosby, and Frances de Rham, 1924

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.


FDR, a young patient, and Missy LeHand, Warm Springs, GA, 1928

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.


Portrait of Missy LeHand, 1936

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.


Missy LeHand and FDR at the White House, 1940

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.”


Missy LeHand and FDR at the White House, 1940

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.

The Grace Tully Collection

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.


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A First Lady on the Front Lines

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Tour of the South Pacific – August & September 1943

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director

The summer of 1943 was a critical time for the Allies. The tide was just starting to turn as the Allied forces marked a series of hard won victories. The capture of Sicily was a stepping stone to the invasion of Italy. German forces surrendered in North Africa, and the brutal island hopping campaign in the South Pacific had brought American forces all the way to the Solomon Islands. The war in the Pacific stretched across thousands of miles, from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska all the way to Australia. The book “Guadalcanal Diary” by Richard Tregaskis was published in early 1943 and was an instant bestseller. It immortalized the heroic efforts of U.S. Marines to secure the island, and it had come to symbolize the struggle of ordinary boys in extraordinary circumstances.


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On August 17th, Eleanor Roosevelt began a month long journey to the South Pacific to visit our Allies in New Zealand and Australia, but more importantly to meet the soldiers and sailors stationed on remote islands cut off from their families and friends. Military commanders, especially Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, were unhappy with the First Ladies’ plans, and were deeply concerned that she would be a distraction from the war effort. They would soon change their minds.

In her first My Day column about the trip, delayed until August 28th for security reasons, she wrote this:

“I am about to start on a long trip which I hope will bring to many women a feeling that they have visited the places where I go, and that they know more about the lives their boys are leading. “ She knew how those mothers felt. All four of her sons were serving in uniform, and two had been stationed in the Pacific. Her son James had told her to eat with the enlisted men, not just the officers, if she wanted to know what was really happening. And she did.

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Eleanor was traveling as a representative of the Red Cross. She arrived on Christmas Island on the 19th, and toured the island’s hospitals and Red Cross Center.  Her itinerary was exhausting. From Christmas Island she traveled to Penhryn Island, Bora Bora, Aitutaki, Tutuliua Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia in six days. She wrote this in her diary regarding her visit to Bora Bora.


“I went through the hospital, saw the Red Cross man, the headquarters building, tents, and mess hall and day room and outdoor theatre in a colored troop area. There seems to be no trouble anywhere out here between the white and colored. They lie in beds in the same wards, go to the same movies and sit side by side and work side by side, but I don’t think I’ve seen them mess together, but their food is as good and everything just as clean in their quarters. Southern and Northern Negroes are in the same outfits.” Her efforts to end segregation in the military had not been successful, but she never stopped trying.

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She arrived on Noumea in New Caledonia on August 25th.  From there she would travel to New Zealand and Australia, then return to Noumea on Sept. 14th.

Admiral Halsey had complained bitterly about the stream of military leaders, congressman and “do-gooders” who insisted their duties included a personal inspection of the frontlines. They were a drain on resources, took up badly needed space on planes and in barracks and distracted Halsey and his staff from the duties of fighting a war. But protocol required that he meet the First Lady on her arrival, and so he did.  As she stepped off the plane wearing her Red Cross uniform the Admiral asked her what her plans were. Mrs. Roosevelt answered  “What do you think I should do?” In his war weary voice he grumbled, “Mrs. Roosevelt, I’ve been married for some thirty-odd years, if those years have taught me one lesson, it is never to try to make up a woman’s mind for her.”


Eleanor then handed the Admiral a letter from the president asking him to let her visit Guadalcanal. In his autobiography he described their conversation: “Guadalcanal is no place for you, Ma’am” he answered firmly.  Mrs. Roosevelt said she would take her chances, but Admiral Halsey insisted that with the battle currently raging he needed every fighter plane he had and “If you fly to Guadalcanal, I’ll have to provide a fighter escort for you, and I haven’t got one to spare.”  Seeing how disappointed she was, the Admiral relented a little. “I will postpone my final decision until you return.”  Eleanor was particularly interested in visiting Guadalcanal because one of her close family friends, Joe Lash, was stationed there, and she had promised his wife she would try to see him.

Admiral Halsey’s initial misgivings were replaced with awe the next day. In less than 12 hours Eleanor inspected two Navy hospitals, traveled by boat to an officer’s rest house, returned and inspected an Army hospital, reviewed the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion (her son James had served with them) delivered a speech at a service club, attended a reception and was guest of honor at a dinner given by General Harmon. Even the crusty old sea salt Halsey was impressed, particularly with the amazing impact she had on the wounded in the hospitals. Astonished that the First Lady was talking to them, many came to life, smiled and appeared rejuvenated by her mere presence. She spoke to everyone.  Halsey recounted “I marveled at her hardihood, both physical and mental: she walked for miles, and saw patients who were grievously and gruesomely wounded. But I marveled the most at their expressions as she leaned over them. It was a sight I will never forget.”

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Eleanor left the next day and arrived in New Zealand on the 26th where she was greeted by cheering crowds. The Auckland Star described her as dedicated to “the quest for a better way of life, not only for her own people of the United States, but for all the peoples of the world.” She made a determined effort to highlight the work women were doing while the men were off fighting the war.  She visited Australia and was hailed as a beacon of hope. In Sydney she declared, “Perhaps here is the germ of an idea that in the postwar period women will be encouraged to participate in all activities of citizenship.”

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When she returned to New Caledonia on her way home, Admiral Halsey agreed to let her visit Guadalcanal, and he expressed his new found appreciation for her efforts. ” I told her that it was impossible for me to express my appreciation of what she had done, and was doing, for my men.  I was ashamed of my original surliness. She alone had accomplished more good than any other person … who had passed through my area.”

The Admiral’s initial concerns were well founded. The night before Mrs. Roosevelt arrived on Guadalcanal the Japanese bombed the island, and there was an air raid warning while she was there. They bombed it again the night after she left.

Her trip to Guadalcanal was rough, flying lights out at night to prevent detection by the Japanese in an unheated military transport.  She had been traveling non-stop for a month. She was exhausted and had lost thirty pounds. She was anxious about causing problems for the men stationed on Guadalcanal, and about seeing her good friend Sergeant Joseph Lash.

Eleanor’s friendship with Lash began five years earlier when Eleanor was finding ways to help the nation’s young people and he was a leader of the American Youth Congress. They had become political allies, friends, and something more. He was like a son to her, and she kept his photo with her at all times. When he was shipped overseas, she wrote him, “All that I have is yours always, my love, devotion and complete trust follow you.” Eleanor was also very close to Trude Pratt, Lash’s fiancée, and had helped her decorate their apartment.

The First Lady arrived in the early morning and met with General Twining. Eleanor asked the general if she could see Sergeant Lash, and soon Joe and Eleanor were reunited, upsetting military protocol with a warm embrace. Joseph and Eleanor met privately and discussed the war and its devastating impact on the soldiers.

Relieved to be with such a good friend after a month among strangers, Eleanor may have let him see the fatigue that she tried to hide from others. He wrote Trude telling her he had seen “a very tired Mrs. Roosevelt, agonized by the men she had seen in the hospitals, fiercely determined because of them to be relentless in working for a peace that this time will last.”

This photograph of Joe Lash taken during the war was still in Eleanor’s wallet 19 years later on the day she died.

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Eleanor visited the island chapel and the cemetery which made a deep impression on her. She wrote in her My Day column,

“On the island there is a cemetery and, as you look at the crosses row on row, you think of the women’s hearts buried here as well and are grateful for signs everywhere that show the boys are surrounded by affection. On their mess kits their buddies engrave inscriptions, such as “A swell pal, a good guy, rest in peace.”

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She also visited the hospitals once again, spending time with each and every patient. One reporter on the scene wrote, “Every time she grasps a new hand her face lights up with a resolute effort to feel sincere, not to leave this a mere empty gesture. She tries to feel a genuine impulse of friendship towards the person she is greeting.”

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“Hospitals and cemeteries are closely tied together in my head on this trip,” she wrote, “and I thought of them even when I talked to the boys who were well and strong and in training, ready to go wherever they had to go to win the war.”

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Mrs. Roosevelt with sentry, Pvt. Clarence D. Robertson, Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking over wrecked Zeroes at Guadalcanal

Eleanor’s visit to Guadalcanal made a deep impression on her. In her last column before returning to the United States she tried to find meaning in her experience, and in the experiences of the many people she had met. Her closing lines summarize her feelings, and her hopes for a better world.

“Long ago a man told me the big thing men got out of a war was the sense of shared comradeship and loyalty to each other. Perhaps that is what we must develop at home to build the world for which our men are dying.”

You can find interactive maps of Mrs. Roosevelt’s trip here and here.

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Summertime, and the Livin’ is easy…

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director
with Reagan Brown, intern


80 years ago, on July 29th 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Campobello Island for the next to last time. It was a short visit, just two days, and it was only the second time he had returned since he came down with polio there in 1921. He had sailed up the coast of Maine with three of his sons, James, John and Franklin Jr. aboard a 56 foot schooner the Sewanna. This would be the last cruise FDR would take as the skipper of a small sailing ship, and as he cruised lazily off the coast, he was followed by the USS Hopkins, a Navy Destroyer, the Presidential Yacht the Potomac and the Liberty, a 114 foot sailboat filled with reporters and photographers.

Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada is one of those amazingly beautiful places where the wealthy elite of the 19th century went to escape the summer heat in an era before air-conditioning. Located just across the Lubec Narrows from the northernmost point on the coast of Maine, it is a sailor’s paradise. And Franklin Roosevelt navigated the riptides, narrow channels and rocky coastline of the Bay of Fundy, Passamaquoddy Bay and the Quoddy Narrows with a skill that impressed even the most jaded old Canadian salt.

James Roosevelt built a 15 room “cottage” there in 1885 and the family summered there almost every year. Franklin visited the island 31 times, and it was here that he first showed the symptoms of polio that would define the rest of his life. But more importantly it was here that he honed his skills as a sailor, and a skipper, and learned many of the leadership skills that would serve him so well in the White House.  Robert Cross in his brilliant book ‘Sailor in the White House” describes it this way:

“Roosevelt carried his sailor instincts unto the White House, the halls of Congress were fraught with hidden dangers and pitfalls, just as were the waters along New England’s treacherous coastline. He always was willing to alter his plans or make compromises in order to reach his goal, whether that goal was to reach landfall or to get a piece of important legislation through Congress, Franklin Roosevelt was a consummate sailor-politician. “

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Pokemon Go has come to the FDR Presidential Library and that’s a good thing.

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is swarming with Pokemon Go characters. Visitors are wandering around staring at their phones, and catching them left and right.

Man holds smartphone near Library entrance

Facility Manager Corey Gower surveys the grounds for Pokemon possibilities.

I’ve caught four and I never played the game before and only spent ten minutes at it. We have several Poke Stops as well.

Pokemon Go screen shotWhat does this say about us? Is it the end of civilization as we know it? Probably not. And if Pokemon Go brings new people to the FDR Home and Museum than that’s a very good thing indeed. Having younger more technologically savvy visitors is critical if we are to remain relevant in the future.

Yes we all know Pokemon Go is the latest fad sweeping the country. Even the New York Times mentioned it (with a whiff of vox populi.)

It’s the best selling app right now, soon to overtake Twitter in daily users, and has driven the stock price of Nintendo through the roof. But what does it say about our culture when people are looking at their phones while visiting a museum? Well that will depend on what they do when they look up.

I welcome any Pokemon Go players who want to come to the FDR Library and Museum, and I hope they will take a moment to think about why those characters are here.

According to Blaire Moskowitz one of the geolocation sources that Nintendo uses to determine where characters appear is something called the Historical Marker database, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The database includes the FDR Presidential Library, and eight other markers within two miles of the Library.

Informational plaque about the FDR Presidential Library & Museum

I hope players will think about what makes the location important enough to earn a marker.

One of the markers on the site reads:

“All that is within me cries to go back to my home by the Hudson River.’ – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944

It was only when passing through the gates at the end of this road that FDR felt truly at home. Roosevelt loved Springwood’s forests and fields. He found stability in the peaceful regularity of life here. As he neared the end of his life, Roosevelt often experienced his longing to return to this beautiful setting. “

Another marker is for FDR’s grave site. Labeled “The World Mourns” it reads:

“I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.’ – President Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s successor.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, was a personal loss for many. Statesmen and ordinary citizens alike mourned his passing. The nation buried him here, in the Springwood rose garden on April 15, 1945 (photo shown).”

Informational plaque about the Roosevelt's Rose Garden, Home of FDR National Historic Site

Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are buried here at the Home of Franklin Roosevelt National Park.  I hope the Pokemon players will look up from their phones and look around the beautiful garden and take a moment to contemplate where they are. They are in the presence of perhaps the most important couple in American history.

View of Rose Garden gravesite, Home of FDR National Historic Site

So while it is fun for people to use their phone to capture Clifairy, I hope they don’t miss the bigger picture of standing next to greatness.

The Director captured this cutie spotted right outside his office.

The Roosevelts are global icons for freedom and democracy. They embraced new technology in their day, and Franklin particularly loved playing games. When he was a teenager FDR loved to capture birds for his collection on exactly the same spot that this new generation is capturing Pikachu. So while some may see it as disrespectful to play a game while walking on the grounds of the Roosevelt home and museum, I think it is fine. As long as they realize that if it were not for the Roosevelts they might not have the freedom to play that game.

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An Act of Faith -The 75th Anniversary of the FDR Library and Museum

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director

June 30th, 1941 dawned a magnificent summer day in Hyde Park. A ferocious thunderstorm the day before had broken a torrid heat wave and left the air clear and fresh. The roses were in full bloom and FDR’s beloved birds sang in the treetops. A large crowd gathered on the lawn in front of the new museum, as family and friends mixed with reporters and the general public.


President Roosevelt, wearing a bright white suit, was helped to his feet and grasped the podium. Sitting next to him was his wife Eleanor, and members of his family. The Library Trustees stood behind him as he spoke. Elected to an unprecedented third term, FDR was a man whose actions in the coming years would determine the fate of millions of people the world over. His belief in the strength of the nation and in the ability of its citizens to protect and preserve democracy into the future were eloquently expressed.

This latest addition to the archives of America is dedicated at a moment when government of the people by themselves is everywhere attacked.  It is therefore, proof – if proof is needed – that our confidence in the future of democracy has not been diminished in this nation and will not diminish.

As the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum celebrates its 75th Anniversary it is more important to look to the future than to the past. My predecessors did an outstanding job of renovating this beautiful old building, updating the exhibits and preparing this great institution for the next 75 years.  More than 13 million visitors have walked through the galleries, laughed at the giant Sphinx head, marveled at the ship models and been surprised by the painful steel leg braces FDR wore as he led America through the Great Depression and the Allies to victory in World War II.

Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Library, Location: Hyde Park NY, Architect: EYP Architecture & Engineering

Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Library, Location: Hyde Park NY, Architect: EYP
Architecture & Engineering

I walk by FDR’s private study every morning and try to imagine how FDR would lead the library today. He built his museum next to his home in Hyde Park because he loved the Hudson Valley. I think he would want to engage with his community, as he did throughout his life. He would want to use the latest technology, as he did so effectively with radio. And he would want to reach as many people as possible, helping them to learn from the past to make a better future.

So the FDR Library and Museum’s goal for the future is to enhance and expand our connection to the community. We also want people to share their memories of the Roosevelts with us. To do that we are launching a new effort called “Tell Us Your Roosevelt Story.


visit-us-main-image httpwww.archives.govmuseumvisitAs a part of the National Archives, the FDR Library and Museum has a mission to strengthen our nation’s democracy by providing access to government records, and to use new technologies to engage the public in a conversation about the American experience.  The issues the Roosevelts championed will be as relevant tomorrow as they were 80 years ago: environmental protection, income equality, fair labor practices, a strong military, human rights, the United Nations and an informed electorate.

To fulfill our mission we will continue our digitization efforts and make as much material available online as possible. We need support to be able to do that. One example is our partnership with AT&T. Last year they funded our Master Speech File project putting the drafts of all of FDR’s speeches online.

laptop4This year AT&T is helping the FDR Library transfer old film of his Top-Ten speeches to state–of-the-art digital formats (4K Ultra HD) with enhanced imagery and audio. We will share these new resources with teachers and on social media so we can reach a new generation. We hope they use the lessons of the past to help them shape their future.  But with federal budgets tight and getting tighter we need corporate sponsors and individual donors to help us.

If Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were alive today they would want this museum to reach out to people all over the world and engage them about the issues they care most about. In his dedication of the library FDR made his faith in the American people clear:

“It seems to me that the dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith. To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.” June 30, 1941

You can learn more about the history of the FDR Library and Museum here:

I believe strongly that the past must never govern the future, I also believe that we must have the past in mind to help us shape the future.
-Eleanor Roosevelt Sept. 3, 1946 Address to the NY Democratic State Convention

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The Roosevelts and the House of Orange

By Paul Sparrow, Library Director

The relationship between the Roosevelt family and the Dutch royal family, known as the House of Orange, is both charming and historically significant. New York and the Hudson River Valley were both originally settled by Dutch pioneers. And the Netherlands was the first country to recognize the United States. In the mid-20th century the diplomatic connections between the two countries became personal. The roots of that special bond can be traced to a farming community on the Dutch coast.


Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and Tony Roosevelt

On April 20, 2016 a Roosevelt Information Center opened in the tiny village of Oud-Vossemeer in the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands. Princess Beatrix presided over the activities and cut the ribbon to mark the official opening. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Tony Roosevelt, the grandchildren of FDR, also attended the event, giving a personal family touch to the day.

There is no question that the Roosevelts descended from Claes Martensen van Rosenvelt, a Dutch farmer who arrived in New Amsterdam around 1650 (later renamed New York.) Where Claes Martensen came from is not known, although many have tried to discover his ancestral home.

Inside the new visitor center is an old 16th century map of the area around Oud Vosssemeer It shows a parcel of land between Oud-Vossemeer and Poortvliet called “’t Rosevelt.” This may be the original home site of the family.

The Roosevelts themselves seem to have accepted this version of history. Oud-Vossemeer was visited by a nephew of President Theodore Roosevelt during his quest for information about the family history. Eleanor Roosevelt visited the village in 1950. Film of her visit is available for viewing at the Information Center on iPads that contain a wide variety of images and information about the connections between the Roosevelts and Zeeland.


Princess Beatrix, Tony Roosevelt, Anna Roosevelt, and the chair of the board of directors of the Ambachtsheerlijkheid Mr. Heyse

The strong personal ties between the Dutch royal family and the Roosevelts started during the darkest days of World War II. As the German army swept across Europe in 1939, FDR sent a personal note to Queen Wilhelmina offering sanctuary to her and her family.

“I am thinking much of you and the House of Orange in these critical days, and it occurs to me that in the event of the invasion of Holland you may care to have the Crown Princess and the children come to the United States temporarily to be completely safe against airplane raids. It would give Mrs. Roosevelt and me very great happiness to care for them over here as if they were members of our own family and they could come to us either in Washington or at our country place at Hyde Park.”

In May 1940 the German army invaded the Netherlands. Its soldiers fought bravely, but were no match for the Nazi war machine. On May 17th, during the Battle of Zeeland, the city of Middelburg was subjected to a ferocious attack by Germany bombers. More than 600 buildings were destroyed. Queen Wilhelmina escaped to London and set up the Dutch government in exile.

The Queen’s daughter Princess Juliana and her family came to North America, splitting their time between Canada and the United States. Princess Juliana and her children visited Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and they became close friends. FDR especially adored her daughters, Beatrix, (known as Trixie) Irene, and Margriet.

In the summer of 1942, Princess Julianna moved to Lee, Massachusetts where she and her young children lived for several months. The estate was close enough for the Roosevelts to drive there from Hyde Park for lunch or tea. The Royals also regularly visited Hyde Park.

Picnic for Princess Juliana of the Netherlands at Val-kill, Hyde Park, New York, October 9, 1943. L-R: Secret Service, Secret Service, Princess Irene, Princess Beatrix, Princess Juliana, Mrs. J.R. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt in background with unidentified man, FDR, children's nurse, Grace Tully, Ethel Roosevelt (Mrs. FDR, Jr.). Photo by Margaret Suckley.

Picnic for Princess Juliana of the Netherlands at Val-kill, Hyde Park, New York, October 9, 1943. L-R: Secret Service, Secret Service, Princess Irene, Princess Beatrix, Princess Juliana, Mrs. J.R. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt in background with unidentified man, FDR, children’s nurse, Grace Tully, Ethel Roosevelt (Mrs. FDR, Jr.). Photo by Margaret Suckley.

During one visit the young princesses were having trouble swimming in the pool at Val-Kill. Always helpful, FDR gave Trixie and Irene a set of water-wings to help them swim.

Trixie and Irene sent a thank-you letter to the President for his gift, for the Roosevelts’ hospitality, and their love for FDR’s dog, Fala. This letter is on display at the Roosevelt Information Center in Oud-Vossemeer.

During a radio broadcast in Nov. 1941, Eleanor described a recent visit with the royal family.

“We had a happy time with the Princess and her tiny daughters, Princess Beatrix and Princess

Irene… I became very fond of them…I’m particularly impressed with Princess Juliana’s simplicity

and with the personal care and attention she pays to them. I think we Americans sometimes feel that a mother who is at the same time a Crown Princess does not have the time to devote to her children that an average American mother gives. In this case this is not so.”

In January 1944 Eleanor and Princess Juliana attended a dinner in Washington, D.C. with the Royal Family of Norway. She wrote in her column that “It is always a great pleasure for me to be with this young princess who is so deeply interested in the good of her country.”

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Royal Family of Norway with Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and Thomas Watson, January 10, 1944

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Royal Family of Norway with Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and Thomas Watson, January 10, 1944

Princess Juliana and her family returned to the Netherlands at the end of the war and she became Queen Juliana in 1948. Eleanor visited her in 1948 and 1950 and they often exchanged letters and telegrams commenting on the events of the world. Princess Beatrix also developed a deep friendship with Eleanor, and visited her at Val-Kill. She was an overnight guest there in September 1959, the day before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to visit.

In her autobiography Eleanor wrote “I have a very special feeling about Queen Juliana because… she came a number of times to stay with us at Hyde Park with her husband and children. Franklin was godfather to their third daughter…. As queen, Juliana has worked vigorously to help develop understanding among Europeans…. The pages of history will record that she was a woman who loved her fellow human beings.”

After reigning for 32 years, Queen Juliana stepped down and Beatrix became the Queen in April 1980. Princess Juliana was awarded the first International Four Freedoms Award in 1982 by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. The Institute also founded the Roosevelt Study Center in Middelburg, Zeeland.

Queen Beatrix abdicated in 2013 and her son Willem-Alexander is now the King. Her attendance at the opening of the Roosevelt Information Center reflects her deep affection for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and all that they stood for.

Anna Roosevelt, Princess Beatrix, Oud-Vossemeer Mayor Mrs. Van der Velde

Anna Roosevelt, Princess Beatrix, Oud-Vossemeer Mayor Mrs. Van der Velde

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The Four Freedom Awards

Paul Sparrow, FDR Library Director

addressOn January 6, 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address. He had just been elected to an unprecedented third term in office, and he decided to use this speech to articulate his vision for the future in the face of a global war between totalitarianism and democracy. He outlined four freedoms that were critical to a peaceful world: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.

As a part of the FDR Centennial Celebration, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, January 30, 1982, the International Four Freedom Awards were created to recognize and honor those individuals who personified the freedoms that Pres. Roosevelt articulated so eloquently.

The awards are bestowed by the Roosevelt Institute in New York, and the Roosevelt Foundation in Middelburg, Netherlands. The awards ceremony alternates between the two countries. This year the awards recognize a range of people who reflect the complex world we live in today.

Angela_Merkel_2015_(cropped)Dr. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, has been selected to receive the International Four Freedoms Award in 2016. She was chosen because of her remarkable leadership across a range of crisis including the financial collapse, the Russian takeover of Crimea and the Ukrainian peace talks, and the great immigrant migration currently roiling Europe. It is her moral leadership in the face of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim movement that most reflects the work of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Chancellor Merkel is committed to protecting those fleeing the brutal wars in the Middle East and Africa, despite fierce political opposition.

Previous winners of the Four Freedoms Award include Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, General Kofi Annan and Harry Truman.

256_300_3_91_8_img_7686_bea_ppThe Freedom of Speech Award is being given to Mazen Darwish, the director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and the founder of, he had been an outspoken champion for independent reporting in the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. His efforts to promote human rights, and to report on torture, arbitrary arrests and human rights violations by the Syrian regime shows true courage.

The award for Freedom of Religion is being presented to three members of the clergy from the Central African Republic. Dieudonné Nzapalainga, Omar Kobine Layama and Nicolas Guérékoyame-Gbangou have worked tireless in the cause of peace and reconciliation in a country that has been wracked with civil war and violence. They champion an an interfaith dialogue that brings together those who might otherwise find themselves on the opposite of the conflict. They have created an organization, the Interfaith Peace Platform, that brings together Muslims, Catholics and Protestants in a quest for peace.

Dieudonné_Nzapalainga,_Nicolas_Guérékoyame_Gbangou_et_Omar_Kobine_LayamaDr. Denis Mukwege was selected to receive the Freedom from Want Award for his efforts to help survivors of the horrific sexual violence taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was the founder of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a center for the treatment of both the physical and psychological wounds of weaponized rape. It also provides legal and counseling services to help the victims reenter a society that shuns victims of abuse. Dr. Mukwege also fights to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice, despite the extreme danger those efforts put him in personally.

Denis_Mukwege_par_Claude_Truong-Ngoc_novembre_2014In a world filled with angst about terrorism, climate change and poverty, this year’s Freedom from Fear Award will go to an organization rather than an individual. Human Rights Watch truly fights for the ideals expressed by Eleanor Roosevelt in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their efforts around the globe document abuses and bring those atrocities to the attention of the world. They shine a bright spotlight on human rights violations, gender discrimination, torture, corruption and the grossly immoral use of children as soldiers and sexual slaves.

Human Rights WatchThis year’s winners stand on the shoulders of a generation of great leaders who have been honored with the Four Freedom Awards. They include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Malala Yousafzai, Daw Aung Sam Suu Kyi, Bill Moyers, Mike Wallace, Rep. John Lewis and the first winner in 1982, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is proud to be associated with this important Award that promotes the legacy of FDR’s vision for a peaceful world.

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The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories

By Paul Sparrow, Director

Art is the window to man’s soul. Without it, he would never be able to see beyond his immediate world; nor could the world see the man within. – Lady Bird Johnson

“The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories” is a special exhibit running from April 1 until April 30th in the William vanden Heuvel Gallery at the FDR Library. It will feature 22 rarely seen works from the Roosevelt’s personal collection and invite visitors to examine their lives through the lens of art.

The colorful scene of a bridge over a Venetian canal by Charles Stuart Forbes is not remarkable. Certainly not a masterpiece. But when you learn that it was a wedding gift from the artist, and that Franklin and Eleanor visited Venice on their honeymoon it becomes more interesting. When you see the photograph that Franklin took of Eleanor on the last day of their honeymoon that echoes the painting you ask yourself, what does that mean?


After FDR died, Eleanor took the painting from Springwood, the family home that was soon to be a National Park, for what she described as “sentimental reasons.” It hung in the living room of her apartment in New York for the rest of her life. The artist, Charles Forbes was a cousin of Franklin’s mother Sara. They had a total of five of his works, all showing bridges or water scenes. So what does that watercolor tell us about the Roosevelts? The beauty of art is that everyone can draw their own meaning, but it certainly provides evidence of an enduring affection between Eleanor and Franklin that survived the many challenges to their relationship.

Some of the pieces in the exhibit are deeply personal. A delicate painting of Eleanor by Otto Schmidt, commissioned by her son Elliott and given to FDR as a birthday present in 1933, hung in the Oval Study until FDR’s death in 1945. When Eleanor first saw it she started crying, demurring that “she wasn’t that pretty.” This was Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite portrait of her.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Otto Schmidt, 1933.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Otto Schmidt, 1933.

FDR’s lifelong interest in maritime art is well known. “Surrender of the German Fleet” is a work by Bernard Finegan Gribble that FDR commissioned while he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1919. A large version of it originally hung in his office at the Navy Department and is now on display at the Naval Academy. He had a smaller version made for his personal collection, and in 1933 it was prominently displayed in the family residence at the White House. It is clearly visible in a portrait of the Roosevelt family painted in 1934 by John C. Johansen.

There are very few paintings that show multiple members of the Roosevelt family. It took months to schedule a time for the whole family to come together to sit for the artist. When the day finally arrived, only two of the five children were able to make it.

FDR, Eleanor, their daughter Anna and son Elliott are pictured in the Oval Study at the White House.

This painting was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in 1936. The other painting visible on the wall now hangs in FDR’s office at the Library.

One of Franklin Roosevelt’s abiding passions was the Hudson River Valley, and he collected books, drawings, prints and paintings of his beloved Dutchess County throughout his life.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Mitchell Jamieson, 1940.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Mitchell Jamieson, 1940.

The painting “View of Top Cottage” by Mitchell Jamieson captures a quiet idyll in the woods. Unseen is its role as an escape from the stresses of global war. It is just one of 27 watercolors of landscapes in and around Hyde Park commissioned for FDR by Treasury Secretary, and close friend, Henry Morgenthau. A simple watercolor of a small stone cottage gains in significance when it is revealed that FDR designed the building himself and that it was one of the first fully wheelchair accessible homes ever built. It becomes even more interesting when you learn he entertained the King and Queen of England on the front porch, and planned to live there when he left office.

Two paintings reflect the remarkable friendship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. The two first met as world leaders in August of 1940 at a secret meeting held aboard warships in the North Atlantic. The result was one of the most seminal documents of the 20th Century, the Atlantic Charter. A photographer captured an image of the two men sitting on the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Raymond Perry Rodgers Neilson, 1942.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Raymond Perry Rodgers Neilson, 1942.

Thomas Watson, the CEO of IBM and a friend and powerful supporter of the President, commissioned Raymond Rogers Neilson to create an oil painting to immortalize what he described as “the most important world event that has ever taken place between the leaders of two great nations.” Watson gave it to the President in 1942, and later sent a copy to Churchill.

In 1943 they met again in Morocco for a wartime strategy meeting at a critical turning point in the war. After completing the Casablanca Conference the two drove across the desert to Marrakesh, and passed by the gate to the famous Bab El Khemis market. The French impressionist painter Marius Hubert-Robert painted the gate and gave it to FDR as a token of his admiration and respect.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Marius Hubert-Robert, 1943.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Marius Hubert-Robert, 1943.

The short excursion to Marrakesh had special meaning for both men. It represented a moment of escape, and possibly a view to a more peaceful future. The two of them enjoyed the glory of a stunning sunset from the tower at the Majorelle Gardens, captured in a famous photograph.

51-115 121What do these paintings reveal about Franklin Roosevelt? They are tokens of the deep bonds that Franklin forged with his closest friends. Bonds that in this case helped the Allies save the world from Fascism.

“The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories” asks a simple question: Can art truly tell us something about a person we already know so much about? One of the missions of the National Archives and the Presidential Libraries is to “Make Access Happen.”

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Museum and Library holds more than 10,000 pieces of art in its collection, covering a wide range of time periods and styles. Most of it is kept in secure storerooms, rarely if ever exhibited for the public to see. The pieces personally collected by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are indeed windows into their lives. “The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories” strives to provide a new perspective on perhaps the most important political couple in American history. The pieces were selected not for their value, but for the stories they tell.

This exhibit offers a rare and brief opportunity to explore the personal collection of the Roosevelts and get a glimpse into their complex and remarkable lives. Three new pieces by their great-granddaughter Laura Roosevelt will also be on display.

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The President on Broadway: FDR, George M. Cohan, and “I’d Rather Be Right”

by William A. Harris, FDR Library Deputy Director

Billy Rose Theater Collection, Photograph File, New York Public Library

Billy Rose Theater Collection, Photograph File, New York Public Library

Lambasting the President through low comedy or high satire shocks no one these days, especially during an election year. With the exception of editorial cartoons, before the 1960s, that wasn’t always the case. Motion pictures and the legitimate theater traditionally offered reverent presentations of the Presidents. FDR received this treatment in the Tony-award winning play, Sunrise at Campobello, which premiered thirteen years after his death. Incumbent Presidents were rarely portrayed at all.

Like running for a third or fourth term, FDR proves the exception. One almost forgotten show, I’d Rather Be Right, takes on Roosevelt, the incumbent President, using comedy and satire. The 1937 production also has the distinction of being the first Broadway musical, perhaps the first Broadway show ever, to feature the sitting President as the main character. As for reverence, forget about it. Almost everything was up for grabs, a daring approach at the time.

By any measure, 1937 was a tough one for FDR, from the so-called “Roosevelt recession” to accusations of court-packing. Commentators wondered if the President had lost his broad-based support and deft political touch. The climate was ripe for taking swipes on stage, and the President’s larger-than-life personality and often controversial policies offered plenty of material. Why let the editorial pages have all the fun, producer Sam Harris figured, when FDR enjoyed the limelight.

Writers Moss Hart and Pulitzer Prize winner George S. Kaufman eagerly embraced the project, and Harris teamed them with successful songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart whose numbers had graced several smash hits. Broadway buzzed as critics and theatre goers alike braced for knives honed to cut apart Roosevelt and the New Deal. The show was sure to be entertaining, but when legendary song-and-dance-man George M. Cohan signed on to play FDR, it promised to be the hit of the season.

Cohan, Broadway Program

Music Division, The New York Public Library. “The Yankee Doodle boy” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1904.

The epitome of scrappy, American patriotism, Cohan had endeared himself to the public with songs such as A Grand Old Flag and Give My Regards to Broadway over a forty-year career. It was a brilliant piece of casting, somewhat blunting criticism about the musical’s controversial content and undoubtedly ensuring a healthy box office. Neither Cohan, nor Kaufman were Roosevelt fans. Kaufman, however, appreciated the satirical possibilities, and all politics aside, Cohan recognized a star turn.

Known among the theater set for his arrogance as much as his patriotism, Cohan proved difficult from the start. Upon first hearing the score at his Fifth Avenue apartment, he walked out. He considered Rodgers and Hart “upstarts” and their material subpar. Rodgers remembered the experience as “at all times disagreeable.” But with the aggravations came financial rewards. Cohan’s name on the marquee resulted in $247,000 in advance ticket sales, second only to the blockbuster Show Boat at the time.

George M. Cohan as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library

George M. Cohan as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library

The show went into previews before a packed house at the Colonial Theater in Boston on October 11, 1937. The reviews were positive, if not enthusiastic. “The spoofing is more good natured than biting,” noted a critic. The plot is as flimsy as a tar paper shack. A young couple can’t marry. Why? The economy, of course. But along comes a dapper FDR. He’s convivial and oh so helpful, enlisting his cabinet to balance the budget for the sake of young love. That’s Presidential leadership!

George M. Cohan with the Supreme Court, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library

George M. Cohan with the Supreme Court, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library

The fantasy presents a parade of the day’s leading political personalities. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau sings a solo about bonds and Supreme Court justices pop out of bushes to warn the President against new laws. Postmaster General James Farley suggests selling off Baltimore. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins proposes taxing post offices. In the end, the budget can’t be balanced, but FDR generously offers to stay in office for ten more years to get the job done! A third term is essential.

Few escape the ribbing, even the President’s mother, whose butler is the 1936 Republican nominee Alf Landon. Eleanor Roosevelt, though, is noticeably absent. Unsurprisingly, FDR’s paralysis also goes unmentioned. In fact, Cohan’s showstopper, Off the Record, has the President cavorting before the audience in a patriotic fervor. In the end, everything turns out to be a dream, and Cohan’s FDR gives an inspirational closing speech about the future of America—not exactly a cutting edge conclusion.

The President kept his counsel about the show. A man of good humor and high self-regard, he probably didn’t mind the attention. When the production previewed in Baltimore in late October, the White House requested six seats for “Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary and Col. E. W. Starling of the Secret Service.” A small item on the front page of The Washington Post notes Starling’s attendance, as well as that of Presidential advisor Bernard Baruch. Presumably they reported back to the White House.

Scant correspondence about the hoopla exists in Roosevelt’s papers. A couple of letters by loyal supporters document concern about the show’s impact on American institutions. The National Democratic Council drafted a resolution denouncing the production as a “burlesque which directly reflects on the prestige of these United States.” Presidential secretary Marvin McIntyre directed a staffer to telephone the council’s vice president. The message—leave us out of this.

The show finally opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on November 2, 1937. As for the hype, writing for The New York Times, critic Brooks Atkinson observed that “I’d Rather Be Right has arrived in town. The town is still intact.” He reserved praise for Cohan. “The sensational moment…is not when the President tries to balance the budget,” Atkinson explains, “but when George M. Cohan pulls his top hat tight on his head, breaks into a skittish, waggling dance and whirls around the stage.”

A smash hit, I’d Rather Be Right ran for 290 performances. The success probably had as much to do with Cohan as the subject matter. It’s doubtful the President cared. When presenting Cohan with a Congressionally-authorized gold medal in 1940, FDR referred to him as his “double.” A news photo shows the star looking down on the President, who, all smiles, beams back confidently. Cohan may have been Mr. Broadway, a good mimic and outstanding showman, but there’s no mistaking who’s President.

I’d Rather Be Right is a relic of another era, too dated for a full-fledged revival today, many of its punchlines lost on modern audiences. In 1937, the very idea of this musical raised eyebrows. After its premier, they were quickly lowered. Even in satire, the President is a humorous, engaging figure. With his programs and policies so groundbreaking and far-reaching, his image and voice so pervasive and familiar, almost everyone could appreciate the jokes—most likely even Roosevelt.

For those familiar with FDR, his Administration, and the 1930s, the humor holds up fairly well, though it’s pretty tame stuff. The Wagner Act as a vaudeville troop and high taxes replaced by a national pick pocket aren’t bad. They were certainly good enough for record profits. As for the President himself, with his grand and engaging manner, his confidence and ebullience, he could take a joke without question and laugh all the way to a third term.

George M. Cohan as FDR with the full ensemble, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library.

A few “FDR” lyrics from the score:

On his beloved Hudson Valley hometown—

“When I go up to Hyde Park/
It’s not just to ride there/
It’s not that I love Hyde Park/
But I love to park and hide there.”

On Wall Street—

“I’m really quite the hero/
I only have to say, ‘My friends…’/
And stocks go down to zero.”

On his future—

“If I’m not re-elected/
I’ll never fear for hunger/
I’ll never fear for thirst/
I’ve one son with du Pont/
And another one with Hearst.”

On a third term—

“When I was courting Eleanor/
I told her Uncle Teddy/
I wouldn’t run for President/
Unless the job was steady.”

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