Opulence

For those of you who enjoy time travel stories, one of the very best is Time and Again (1970) by Jack Finney. I won’t bore you with a detailed synopsis; suffice it to say that the Federal Government discovers it’s possible to travel in time by simply willing yourself back through history. The trick is that to achieve this temporal separation, you truly have to believe yourself back in time – no mechanics are involved, simply a type of self-hypnosis. So the Government sets up several experiments in places that haven’t changed much through history – one in Paris right around Notre Dame for the Middle Ages; one in a now deserted Vermont farming village returned to its 1920s bustle; and one in the Dakota, the famous apartment building in New York City for the 1890s – all in an attempt to steep the participants in the past. The various would-be time travelers experience the life and language of the age; dress the part, eat the food – in essence they do everything in their power to make themselves believe they are inhabitants of another time. I remember reading this book when I was a child, utterly fascinated.  (It’s also an illustrated novel, which helps when a kid.) One of the passages I remember most vividly is when the main character, Simon Morley, visits the Smithsonian to view the costumes of the 1880s. The curators remove one of the ladies’ dresses from the collection, and show it to him. The material is dark brown, slightly frayed, smelling of age; he touches it, the fabric crumbles. Then suddenly, he is presented with a new version of the same dress on a mannikin:   “Martin snapped the covering from the next figure, and there stood – I won’t call it a dress but a gown of bright wine-red velvet, the nap fresh and unworn, the material magnificently draped in thick multiple folds front and back. The bead trim caught the light, glittering a clear deep red, shimmering as though the garment were moving… It was spectacular…

“Can you see an actual breathing woman Si, a girl, wearing this and looking absolutely great?” And I said: “Hell, yes: I can see her dancing!”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’re almost ready to dance ourselves, in the Suite. The last of the draperies arrived today: (You can click any of these photos for a larger, clearer view.)

It’s amazing the impact the fabric has had on the space: where there were formally white walls and bare doors, now riots of color compete and play – surprisingly successfully –  providing a first real sense of the opulence these rooms once possessed. The portieres (the fabric in the door frames) add a lot of character; originally used to close off the rooms for additional warmth, by FDR’s time they were entirely Victorian vestigal bits of decoration. Sara had insisted… and FDR acquiesced, though he often wished they’d been set just a bit taller for his tall frame… Just behind can be glimpsed the new drapes in FDR’s bedroom; a future president can now sleep soundly in richly muffled darkness.

Lathrop’s desk too has come alive, gleaming with brass. Can’t you just see young Lapes, his handsome brow bent over a sheet of heavy cream writing paper, answering one of his many house party invitations, as a dance card on the wall, souvenir of some now forgotten ball at the Somerset, pirouettes slowly at his elbow? The lamp on the table, by the way, originally oil, is one of the famous “Harvard Lamps,” providing “superlative light for scholars” according to an ad from a local newspaper. Lapes never cared much about that, but he has to admit it has come in quite handy for all his social correspondence.

And just behind, FDR’s desk, piled high with the loves of his life: Eleanor at left, as she looks this warm May of 1904. Less pleasant memories are next: dear, dear Alice Sohier, who’d unexspectedly spurned him. (He’d better put that picture away now…) The Half Moon II at full sail, at Campobello,with FDR at the helm, and on the wall, his father, James, shortly before his death, mounted on one of his favorite trotters. And Sara too, as always, is present; the butterfly collection she sent him smiles from the wall; plus,  an unanswered letter awaiting his reply sits tucked in one of the roll-top cubbyholes.

For a moment, here, now, you can almost feel 1904.

Do you think, perhaps, if I just concentrated hard enough…

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The Widow

“Having a good time was of major importance in those days at Harvard. Customary procedure was to study for ten days with a tutor before an examination and never open a book for the rest of the time.”          Lathrop Brown to Pare Lorentz, 1949

Over the last few weeks, as time and funds permit, I’ve been slowly framing a series of 16 prints we acquired last year, from a charming but extremely tattered 1903 volume entitled Harvard Celebrities. Written and illustrated by a classmate of FDR’s, this 30 page book parodies in picture and verse Harvard characters of the day. While some are still easily recognizable – Nathaniel Shaler, the famous naturalist, for example – others are far less so. Here’s one that I found intriguing:

Now from the text, and from Lathrop’s chance comment above, I had a general idea of who this might be, but imagine my delight when I discovered the following article from the October 1917 Independent, telling me not only who this was, but revealing a portrait of a Harvard long gone:

An Unofficial University Just Outside Harvard’s Gates

THEY call him “The Widow,” no one knows why. Whatever he is called he is, in his own single person, Harvard’s chief competitor. In moments of indiscreet candor members of the Harvard Faculty have confest that the college has tried, and tried in vain, every possible means of dislodging him—even to flattering him out of the way with the offer of a chair in the college. But he never could afford the honor. The highest paid professors in Harvard get a meagre $5000 a year. “The Widow” is reputed to enjoy an income of $20,000 a year—perhaps more. Nobody knows. [Editor’s Note: For comparison, Harvard Tuition in 1903 was $150 per year.]

So he remains what he is—president of himself. For he is in his own university, with his own staff of fifteen professors, and his own dormitories, conveniently stationed just outside the famous Harvard “Yard.” The one concession he makes to Harvard is to permit his students the use of all of Harvard’s facilities—the Bursar, the Yard, the Gym, Soldiers Field, even the classrooms if they please. Even Harvard’s degrees. All “The Widow” pretends to supply is the best known substitute for a Harvard education.

If you find that it would be pleasant to be a Bachelor of Arts but for certain annoying obstacles in the way; if you find your studies interfering with the pleasures of the theater or the athletic field; if the exams are approaching and certain to find you embarrassed how to meet them; if you are the son of a rich man, a little spoiled and unaccustomed to work—what do you do?

You visit the Widow Nolen.

AND straightway you come under the eye of a remarkable man. Two generations of Harvard men know him, by reputation if not by personal experience of his bewildering fund of knowledge and his even more bewildering gift of handing it out to you in one exquisite, highly concentrated pill of information. In the Harvard records he is William Whiting Nolen, A.B. ’84. During five more years in the Graduate School he drew down an A.M. in ’86. Then to make a thoro job of it, he put himself thru the Law School besides. No one has discovered why he slighted the Medical School, the Dental School, the Veterinary School, and the Bussey Institute of Agriculture. Except for these trifling omissions, his education is fairly complete.

But in Harvard he learned much more than Harvard teaches deliberately. He learned, besides, the peculiar psychology of the Harvard professor. He learned how the Harvard professor teaches. Most important of all, to himself at least, he learned to gage, and with an accuracy that is uncanny, precisely what questions any given Harvard professor is most apt to ask.

Suppose an exam catches you a trifle innocent of history or literature. Suppose you have never dipped into some obscure book like “Vanity Fair.” To repair this natural oversight you join one of the Widow’s famous “seminars.” It is chiefly by these seminars that the Widow’s fame and fortune live.

These meetings are organized with wonderful psychological cleverness. Fifty students will be admitted to a room in the Widow’s establishment. The room is stark naked. Not a picture is on the walls to distract your eye. Not a sound is heard, except the Widow’s voice, to break your attention. You sit in silence with a pad of paper on your knee. Naturally every man jack in the room is frightened to death for fear of flunking, and the Widow begins with that advantage to himself.

HE needs no other advantage. No one sleeps when the Widow is speaking. One reason why his patients nearly always pass the desired exam is because the Widow has a marvelous faculty for making his talks interesting. Any professor might learn from him there. In an hour he will range over an entire history course. All he pretends to do is spot in the high lights, the main events, the leading figures. But it is all a wonderfully clear and compact digest of the course to be covered. Easy as this may be to remember, and remember even beyond the day of the examination, the Widow will finish by retracing his talk in a still more wonderfully clear and condensed conclusion.

In a literature course he will outline the periods and give the substance of every book required in the course. He will give you the message, the philosophy, the teachings of every author. And all this in the space of one hour! “Around the World in Eighty Days” reduced to sixty minutes! And yet the Widow has been known to lecture for five hours on end without a break.

In a complicated course he may supply a few “keys” for the memory, for he has invented a complete system of mnemonics. With almost hypnotic effect he will hang up a chart laying bare, say, the whole secret of a course in trigonometry. Or he may make the Word “Nawb” serve as a symbol for a whole period in history. A fool word in itself, it sticks in the memory by reason of that very fact, and faithfully bobs up in the mind during the exam, to stand for the names of Napoleon, Wellington and Bluecher, and their influence on the nineteenth century.

Or suppose a student on the eve of a German exam finds that he has opened nary a one of the books required for outside reading in the course. The Widow will welcome him to a cubicle in his establishment where he will be made comfortable with cigars or cigarets. The chair is restful. Everything is provided to leave the student’s mind open to treatment. Then in comes one of the Widow’s faculty of assistants. In the course of a single evening, while the student has nothing to do but sit back and drink it in and try to remember it all, this assistant will go thru that list of books and give a nutshell account of the contents of each one.

It is a college education in capsule form.

The one fault to be laid against a Nolen degree is that this mass of information is not guaranteed to stick in the mind for longer than the three hours of the examination. It is apt to be written on the mind in vanishing ink. Still, there is nothing to prevent a student from remembering it all if he can. The Widow charges his price and offers his commodity, to be taken how you please.

His income is his own business, but he certainly drives a thriving trade. If you want a whole evening with one of his assistants he will charge you $5 for the-services rendered. To join one of his hour-long seminars costs each man of the fifty present $2.50. And during the exam period the Widow and his faculty are busy day and night. Another of his rush seasons opens when the boys from the prep schools begin to congregate for the entrance exams. For these the Widow even maintains a dormitory, a nursery, for the fatherly care of the backward. It is a prep school in itself, with a course reduced to three or four weeks. For such services the Widow charges accordingly, with his prices based on the backwardness of the case. Since his patrons come mostly from the rich, his charges are probably in proportion.

Toward his assistants, however, he is reputed to be generous enough. He picks the brightest men he can get, and pays them well. You are taxed $2.50 for an hour with one of them, and of that $2.50 the Widow collects fifty cents. The $2 goes to the assistants.

OUTSIDE his crowded hours of tutoring Mr. Nolen finds time to indulge a nice taste in old furniture and objects of art—and his rooms are thickly strewn with superb specimens. And often, out of an income ample beyond his own simple needs, he exerts himself in behalf of the poor student. More than one man has had from Mr. Nolen other aids to a Harvard degree than great gobs of information only.

Such is the familiar figure of many jibes and of more caricatures than have been aimed at any other college celebrity

“Dead or dying, drunk or sleeping,

Nolen puts you thru; But gratitude takes early wings when Nolen’s bill is due.”

So runs a famous lyric lampooning the high tax that Nolen levies on laziness. And so he daily and serenely takes his stroll along the Charles, comfortable and corpulent, carelessly drest, with the never-absent Boston terrier that is almost as familiar a figure as he.

As a final aside,  perhaps the aspect of all this I find most remarkable is that such levels of discovery are even possible. Ten years ago, before the age of the Internet search, only extreme good luck would have directed me to an Independent article a decade and a half after the fact, one citing the very book I held in my hands. But now, if you know how to frame the right question, a few staccato taps and clicks often yield the most astounding answers, from half a continent or more away.

Suddenly, the term “world-wide web” has true meaning.

I wonder what the old Widow would have thought about that…

A Missing Place…Revisited

Wow! Of all the topics we’ve covered recently, my previous post certainly caught everyone’s attention, and rightly so. Thanks to so many of you who commented below or wrote me directly. It’s always wonderful to have that level of response.

So, a few updates: Several of you eagle-eyed folks tracked down two more African American faces in the crowd, and Renny Little pointed out quite a number of missing places if you look closely enough – however, only our lone black man sits by himself. At the request of several of you, I did a little poking around the Archives last week, and I believe I can now tell you who our man is. May I introduce James Graham Wolff, ’04:

Born Cambridge MA 1881; prepared Boston Latin school; AB 1904 LLB (Boston YMCA Law School 1911)

From the 25th Class report: Wolf graduated from the Boston Normal School [a teacher’s college, Ed.] in 1907, and received a certificate to teach in the Boston public schools. The following September he accepted the position of clerk in the office of District Attorney John B Moran, at the same time studying for his LLB.     He writes: “For sixteen years I was attached to the District Attorney’s office, Boston, and since resigning I have engaged in independent practice with a special attention to conveyancing. During the war I was recommend for the Training School for Infantry at Camp Pike, Arkansas, but the Armistice was declared before I was called. Meanwhile, I served on the Boston Committee for Public Safety, including the subcommittee on recruiting. I have always been interested in public affairs, and have been active in many political campaigns  sometimes openly, sometime behind the scenes. Otherwise I have lived very conservatively all my life within five miles of the University, and for many years but one mile from Harvard Square.”

From 50th Class Report: “Last January I retired after four years as Assistant Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and on retirement was one of the five assistants who were presented with gold cuff links for outstanding service to the District Attorney’s office. My father, who came down from Dartmouth to the Harvard Law School and was a practicing attorney at Boston for many years, was an outstanding officer of the Grand Army of the Republic, rising to be Department Commander of Massachusetts and Judge Advocate General of the national body. My library, which has accumulated for three generations, has now been greatly depleted by the donation of a large number of volumes to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.”

Wolff married twice, once in 1915 (widowed) and again in 1948. No children are recorded.

All in all, quite a testament to courage in that day and age.

And on one final note, while I was poking around, I found Lathrop Brown!

FDR, however, is still at large!

A Missing Place

One of the most delightful aspects of my “job” with the FDR Suite Foundation has been the interaction I’ve had with our students over the last four years. They are an incredible group of young adults at that wonderful point in life where nothing seems impossible and all roads remain open – their energy and enthusiasm are palpable, and provide a tonic for older, wearier bones. Our students are also incredibly, incredibly diverse, in a way that many of you who still remember the tie-and-jacket-clad all male Harvard of old might find almost unfathomable. Even I, who lived in Adams during the fast and free – and now almost legendary – 1980s am impressed. Looking out over the dining hall, the sea of faces is almost kaleidoscopic: Asian, African, Caucasian, Indo-European, European, Native American, of every kind and creed imaginable. There is no one of anything. And the interesting point is, our students take this state of affairs entirely for granted, as if Harvard had always been that way. Of course, if asked, they’ll certainly acknowledge that history must have been far different. But I don’t think they comprehend how different, and sometimes that bothers me; for to measure the worth of such intangibles, don’t you need some personal understanding of the opposite? Can you truly appreciate heat without knowing cold? Sweet without sour? Light without dark? Life without death?

No, I don’t believe so. Not fully. Nor do I think you are fully able to appreciate the expansive man Franklin Delano Roosevelt became as President unless you understand the much more narrow ‘Frank’ Roosevelt at Harvard, along with his highly restricted and closed off college world.

So… long story short, when I give tours of the Suite, I’m always looking for poignant illustrations of how rarefied life in Westmorly Court was, and how different the Harvard College of 1904 is from today’s Harvard University – The Gold Coast with its maid service, private clubs, breakfast in bed, bootblacks and doormen;  the $50 Harvard tuition; the $500 Westmorly rent (the equivalent of some 35K); the gaslit rooms with flickering hearths; the neighing four-in-hand at each street corner; the 10 days it took to reach Europe by steamer,  or the 6 days to the West Coast by steam engine (if you were lucky)….  Remarkable changes all, but still only charming facts and figures to the young.

And then one day a few weeks back, I came across this, or more precisely, I came across this once again, for I personally hung the full size version of this picture in the Suite last fall. (Click on the image to expand the photo.)

Now, I’ve looked at this picture a hundred times at least, in a fruitless search to find FDR and Lathrop in the sea of faces. (FDR, almost assuredly, is there somewhere. The man never missed a photo-op in his life.) But what struck me as I passed the other day was how uniform those faces were. Surely, there must be someone of color somewhere? Seemingly not… But then, wait, up there on the very last row, far to the left…


Sure enough. One proud black face, and next to him… a missing place. And then I noticed something else I had never seen before. A man standing – the only man standing – in the top row, behind the seated figures.

While we can’t be sure, does this seem a likely coincidence to you, that the only face of color in a sea of white is the only one with no one sitting next to him, and that the sole standing man has somehow missed the one remaining seat a few spots down to his right?

Hmmm…

I must admit that this discovery – perceived though it may be – has removed some of the pleasure this picture once held for me. Rather than playfully searching for Frank and Lapes as before, my gaze now inevitably wanders to that sole black face, sitting all alone, and I think to myself: what a courageous and remarkable person you must have been to attend a College where people chose not to sit next to you merely because of the color of your skin!

Still, as with most things, there’s a silver lining, I suppose. That perfect example I sought of how much life at Harvard has changed? It’s now just a mouse click away.

Restoring FDR’s Harvard, One Pixel at a Time

A number of our readers have been curious as to how we’ve found all the framed art that hangs on our walls. Well, let me tell you –  it’s been quite a process. First of all, we’ve been extremely lucky: discovering Lathrop’s descendants and their generous sharing of the Brown family archives; acquiring rare finds from the internet such as the Hertzog scrapbook I wrote about last week; benefiting from wonderful scholarship and support from the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. But even with all this, sometimes it’s not enough to fulfill our mission. You see, unlike a house museum where the present is held in stasis, our goal is to create a living environment that actually transports you to 1904. If all the materials look old and faded, the illusion is compromised. Think about it: In 1904, everything would be new, or newish; colors bright, fabrics fresh, pages crisp. Which is why, for instance, we had craftsman Lary Shaffer create two “new-old” Morris chairs, and why we’ve sent “FDR’s desk” out for a complete renovation. Unlike the folks on the Antiques Roadshow, we don’t want too much patina of age.

This is especially true of paper goods. Take for instance this fascinating piece which came as part of the EBay find last week:

Now while it doesn’t look like much in its current state, this is really something special. It’s a 13″ x 19″ map of Harvard, drawn by the Harvard School of Engineering, centered on University Hall, and showing the extent of the College in 1901-1902, FDR’s sophomore year. Not only does the key list principle buildings of the University along with dates of construction, but it also shows the addresses of most of the principal professors at the College. (Can you imagine that in this day and age!) Unfortunately for us, the condition is pretty bleak: besides having a huge bite out of the right hand margin, the map had been folded and left in a very acidic scrapbook for almost a century – you can see the acid marks clearly. Now as an antique, this piece could conceivably be mounted and hung in the Suite, and we could call it a day. But its very condition reminds us all too readily that 110 years have passed. It’s 2010, not 1904, looking at this map. How much better would be a fresh copy, say, like this…

And in fact, we now have just that, ready for framing. This minor miracle is achieved using a program called Photoshop, which allows an operator to manipulate digital images. The process goes like this: the original document is first scanned into the computer, and then, in a series of steps, the effects of aging are removed one by one. This is possible because the computer sees the image not as a picture, but as millions of tiny dots called pixels, each with an assigned range of characteristics. I can ask the computer to group and isolate these pixels in a variety of ways – taking say, all the pixels of a certain color tone (such as faded tan) and changing them to white. I can have the computer sharpen lines by telling it to group all pixels within a certain color range more tightly and eliminate outliers. I can also remove or reinforce any element, eliminating a tear here, or darkening a capital there. (In actual period photographs, the process is much more dynamic and difficult, but the result is the same. We can often return a damaged century-old photo to brand-new condition.) The correction process is very much trial and error, and relies entirely on the skill level of the operator. Fortunately, after ten years in the media biz, I’ve gotten to be an old hand at such digital manipulation. (Need to lose 10 pounds and those wrinkles on your published photo, give me a buzz! lol) Still, it takes a tremendous amount of time. The map above required a good three hours to fix, but I think you’ll agree the result is fairly spectacular. Below’s a larger version. Just click on it to maximize your view. (It’s a very large file, so depending on your download speed, it may take a bit of time. Then, once you see the map appear, you may enlarge the image further through your browser and poke around the Cambridge of 1901.)

Just for fun, I’ve added three red numerals to this version of map, to point out to you how valuable pieces like this are to understanding FDR’s Harvard. At 1, you’ll see Soldiers’ Field as FDR first knew it, with wooden football bleachers and no Harvard Stadium. No Biz school either; that’s another 25 years off.

In FDR’s time, athletics were still grouped north of the yard, near numeral 2, which explains the odd location of the College’s Hemenway Gymnasium. (It’s also where the first football game was played, from my previous post.) This area was rapidly becoming built up though, and soon (1903) the Stadium would rise and athletics would move permanently across the River.

And finally, take a look at 3, the area south of Mt. Auburn:

Notice how the Charles still has watery fingers pushing towards the Square (remnants of now long-contained streams running from the north) and how the area along the still-tidal banks is almost industrial. (You can clearly see the College coal wharf.) No Memorial Drive for another few years, and no Harvard Houses either. Where Eliot sits there is a coal-tar plant, Leverett and Winthrop are swamps, and Mather’s site is occupied by a long-vanished boat house. And see the grouping of buildings along Mt. Auburn, including  our beloved Westmorly (or half of it, with A-Entry yet to be built), and how there’s almost nothing to the south worth mentioning? At last, the term “Gold Coast” begins to have some meaning… Oh, and how about that! Something I never noticed before: a Catholic church on Mt. Auburn, too, just west of Claverly where Holyoke Center now stands. Perhaps the predecessor to the later St. Paul’s we now know so well?

All in all a very different Harvard, this, and one we’re able to restore – one pixel at a time – thanks to support from people like you.

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create a  living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and rely on your help to continue our efforts!

EBay, FDR and the Fall River Line

I have another circular tale for your consideration:

During our recent open house over the Harvard-Yale weekend, many of you wanted to know how we found period items for the Suite.

Well, basically it works like this: Three years ago, during our early research, we created a list of objects – furniture, textiles, art, memorabilia, etc. – that were documented from FDR’s letters & other historical records as having been in the Suite, or were presumed from similar rooms pictured in the Harvard Archives.  After that, the process essentially became one large treasure hunt, played across three continents. Whenever my day job permits a bit of down time, I don my Restoration cap, and go out hunting. Sometimes the trips are physical – days spent at antique fairs, or journeys to out-of-the-way dealers – but more often than not, I close the door to my office, and disappear into the Internet. I’ve become a modern day FDR sleuth in my spare time, tracking down bits of early 20th century Harvard from all over the globe. This is especially true when it comes to all the ephemera that once filled the FDR Suite, and which one day, Deo volente, will again. Unfortunately, acquiring this material is not at all straightforward. What was a matter of simple retention for Lathrop and Franklin – a saved theater program here, a football ticket there – becomes hugely involved a hundred years later. Most of the time, when these kinds of items appear, they are offered singly, from single sources, and at great cost.

But not always…

An example: I was delighted to receive a notification last week that a collection of Harvard memorabilia from the estate of Walter S. Hertzog ’05 was going to be sold on Ebay. (For those of you wondering how I learned this, you can program the EBay site to notify you when objects within a certain parameter appear for auction.) While the years weren’t quite what we normally look for, (FDR and Lathrop were ’04), the match was close enough to interest me if the price were right.

Here’s what the collection looked like when I first saw it online. (This is but one view of the original eight.)

hertzog1

“Good lord!” you may be thinking to yourself. “What IS all that stuff? Looks like old scrap paper!” Well, to some extent it is, and before I started researching the FDR project, I might have expressed the same, but now, having seen an odd dozen of these Victorian student collections in the Harvard Archives, certain elements jump right out. For example, that little piece with the string?  It’s is a dance card, worn about the wrist; one lovely lady per dance, still signed up a century later. The postcards with stamps? Those are grade or class notifications: the penny post was the email of the day, and a letter mailed from the College in the morning had a very good chance of arriving that afternoon, in one of the three daily-mail services. You see these cards all over the period photos, if you look closely, tucked into pictures here, there and everywhere. For example, this is the desk I showed you in the last posting:

26-russell-2

Now if you look very, very carefully, in the hunting scene above the desk, you’ll see the postcards tucked into the frame. This appears again and again in the period room views we possess, and now, at last, we’ll have some of these exact cards for the Suite:

postcards

Then too, on closer inspection, in the cubbyholes of the desk you can make out class exams, grade sheets, tuition bills, all the flotsom and jetsom of student life in 1900 Harvard. This is exactly mirrored in the EBay collection. While some of this material, especially the programs for the 1905 Class Exercises won’t be of use to us, much will, added to the Suite to fill out the picture of everyday living in 1904.  But amongst all this, here are two items I found particularly interesting:

hertzog2

Now the Fall River Line may not ring any bells to you, having disappeared in 1937, but if you were a wealthy New Yorker in Boston at the turn of the century, you would most certainly recognize the name, as the Line, which ran a train service from Boston to Fall River, and then a steamship service to New York, was one of the easiest and most luxurious ways to travel to and from New England in 1900.

fallriversteamer

You see, before the days of direct express service, you generally needed to transfer trains multiple  times from Boston to New York, and depending on what Road you used, you might even need to disembark in New Jersey and take a ferry into Manhattan at the end of your journey. (No tunnels at that time!) So instead of this tiresome rail trek, many people in-the-know took the luxurious steamers of the Fall River Line, like the Commonwealth, to New York. commonwealth-hallNow this was no run-of-the-mill boat: first class passengers had their own cabins for the eight hour voyage, and the public spaces, as you can see from the picture to the left, were highly luxurious, featuring a library, smoking room, and a dining room that served a full dinner service, hence the menus we found on EBay.

So what you may ask, has this to do with our hero, FDR?

Here’s a bit from his letter to Sara dated October 8, 1902

Today Alice Sohier left for Europe, and I saw her off on the “Commonwealth.”

Alice Sohier, for those of you wondering, was a strikingly beautiful Boston debutante who had infatuated FDR. As the story goes, he proposed,  she declined, and went off to Europe, departing, as the first stage of her trip, on the Commonwealth to New York. So, do you suppose the couple had one last meal together from this exact menu before the steamer departed, and did FDR once more plead his case? And, had Alice accepted, would young Frank ever become the FDR we now know? We’ll never be sure.

A year later, Franklin proposed to Eleanor, and the rest, as they say, is history.

For our purposes, however, the EBay find presents a wonderful chance to expand and amply the Suite’s narrative, so we’re going to add these menus to the period wire hanger above FDR’s desk, along with an elaborately framed photo of Alice destined for the desk top, as an almost forgotten memento of a farewell lunch that might – given a different response – have changed American history.

All well and good you say. All well and good. But did you finally acquire the items, and at what cost? It must be stupendous!

Nope. A total of $137.50, all brought about by supporters like you.

Oh, and a final postscript: In an ever so appropriate twist, Dr. Walter S. Hertzog ’05 would later become, of all things,  the Director of American Historical Research for the Los Angeles City School Department. The items he so carefully preserved will finally return to Harvard next week, after a century of almost unimaginable journeys.  Those pieces not used in the Suite will be donated to the Harvard Archives.

You see, as I promised: a circular tale, indeed.

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create a  living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and rely on your help to continue our efforts!