To mark the debut of the Ken Burns PBS series on the Roosevelts this Sunday, Harvard Magazine has reprinted Geoffrey Ward’s remarks at the Sixth Annual FDR Memorial Lecture this past May. For those of you who were unable to attend, here’s your chance. Take a look HERE.
If you google the term “gentleman’s C,” chances are you’ll come up with some version of: “a grade given by certain schools (often Ivy League) to the children of wealthy or influential families in lieu of a failing grade” — that’s certainly what I always thought the term meant. But in FDR’s day, the meaning of a “gentleman’s C” was entirely different. A “C” was the grade a gentleman aspired to, so as not to seem too interested in studies and be considered a “grind.”
A 1909 verse by Robert Grant, ’73, LL.B. 1879, explains this neatly:
The able-bodied C man! He sails swimmingly along.
His philosophy is rosy as a skylark’s matin song.
The light of his ambition is respectably to pass,
And to hold a firm position in the middle of his class.
Should you try to hard, you became the stuff of parody, as the “The Grind’s Song” from the 1902 Hasty Pudding Show HI.KA.YA reveals:
I’m a typical College grind,
I look it, you’ll admit, you’ll admit, you’ll admit
You’ve heard it’s a grind to be a grind
Not a bit, not a bit, not a bit! Just the opposite!
Don’t let my words belie my looks
My happiness is in my books
I love to work, I hate to play
For me life’s simply the other way
Don’t enlist your sympathy, I’m as happy as can be,
For to read my Latin Grammar is life in Arcadie!
To document how much things have changed, I thought you might be interested in seeing the study cards of FDR and Lathrop, president and congressman of the United States, respectively. We’ve recently received copies from the Archives, and will reproduce them for viewing in the Suite. The upper right hand corner reveals their entrance examination results, and year by year grades proceed from left to right across the bottom.
Click on each to view them full scale.
As you can see, both FDR and Lathrop (especially Lathrop!) eschewed any possibility of being viewed as a grind! I find this fascinating, not only because it reveals a student ethos so foreign to the current one, but also because it shows the level of grade inflation since the Vietnam War when most universities across the country, including Harvard, felt the pressure of keeping students from falling below a B average and thereby opening them up to the draft. The result was a rapid escalation of grades, to the point where the average grade at Harvard is now -A. (One of our undergraduates recently made the suggestion during a Suite tour that there hadn’t been grade inflation at all, rather that the current students were just smarter, which left me and several of my peers a moment to wonder at the folly of youth.)
On an entirely different subject, today is the last day of the fiscal year, and our coffers are looking uncomfortably bare, given the roster of programming we have planned for the next academic year. I’d like to urge any of you who have been thinking about making a contribution to the numerous activities of the Foundation, that now is time to so! It’s quick, secure and takes only a few seconds online.
A while back one of our Adams alums, Rick Porteus ’78, who also happens to be the Vice President of the Fly Club Board of Directors, had written to me kindly noting that perhaps it was time to pay a little more attention to the club FDR actually joined, rather than the club he didn’t. Fair enough. And to back up that sentiment, Rick invited a number of us to dinner the night before historian Geoffrey Ward’s lecture. It was a grand affair, made all the more pleasant by the company of Geoff, who sat fireside where FDR surely had, regaling us with fascinating bit of Roosevelt legend and lore. The Club also presented the Foundation with a lovely framed photo of FDR and his Fly Brothers from 1904. This visit got me thinking more and more about FDR and the Fly, and our quest to acquire a Fly Club medal, which coincided nicely with renewed interest at the Fly in its own history. FDR had played a prominent role there: he was club librarian, and eventually sent three sons to the Fly as well.
Meanwhile, you may remember that recently—after a great search—we found a Porcellian Club medal for Lathrop. Now precisely why we ever thought that Lathrop was a member of the Porcellian is entirely murky. Lathrop’s descendants certainly thought so, having remembered reading it somewhere. I did, too—the part about one roommate getting into the Porcellian and the other getting his dreams crushed (FDR was still smarting 20 years later) has become a potent element of our narrative concerning these two men. How wonderful of them, I always thought, to have overcome what might have proved to be a large obstacle to their continuing friendship.
So, sparked by our visit, we renewed our efforts to find a Fly Club medal for poor old FDR. We’d been looking for a while, but this hunt was complicated. The Fly was originally part of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, which was founded at Hamilton College in 1832. Long story short: the Fly seceded not once, but twice from the national chapter, and was in the process of wrapping up this divorce just when FDR was active in the club. These days the Fly sports a leopard rampant on its crest, but previously it had been the star and crescent of the Alpha Delta Phi, which is what FDR would have possessed.
Then enter Elisha Lee ’80, who had come across my postings online, and who as a former collector of Harvard medals—exonumia for those in the know—pointed out to me several facts I had not been aware of, namely that the club medals were generally worn with their club color ribbons, not their class colors as we were showing in the Suite, and suggested several possible venues where I might locate a Fly Club medal. But which medal?
Thus one afternoon while I was stuck on the phone on what seemed an interminable hold, I dashed off a note to Bob Clark at the FDR Presidential Library asking him if perchance they had any Fly Club or Alpha Delta Phi medals in the Museum collection. It was a small chance, but I was banking on two well known facts: FDR almost never threw anything away; and that FDR had maintained an active relationship with the Fly for the rest of his life, even returning to Cambridge as president for Fly events. And sure enough, the Museum did indeed have an Alpha Delta Phi “medal,” inscribed with FDR’s name and class year, sill perfectly preserved in its leather box. Within seconds I was on eBay, looking; and miraculously, there was a vendor with a 1904 “medal” for sale.
Hurrah! But wait: after triumphantly announcing my news, Elisha wrote back to me pointing out that this was the Fly pin, not the medal—a fact that became totally obvious when this tiny, tiny, tiny little box arrived in the mail to reveal a pin the size of my small fingernail. In all fairness, the picture at left was the one I viewed online, never reading the measurements. Caveat emptor! So foiled again! Well, partially: the pin is quite nice, enamel and gold, but oh, ever so small and expensive at $230! (Broad hint for a donor.) But FDR did have one, so it’s absolutely correct.
Ah, but the story gets even better! Elisha also produced the 1907 Fly Club member rolls, and who’s name should appear but Lathrop Brown’s? Uh-oh… A quick search of the FDR bios on hand reveal no mention of our remembered Porcellian association. Uh-ho, Uh-ho. Then a check of the Porcellian records reveals no Lathrop. Big uh-oh. Finally, Rick Porteus chimes in to say they have just received back from the book binder the club minutes from that precise period, and sure enough, Lathrop was not only a member, but also secretary and briefly president! His brother Archie (elder by a year) was also a member, as would be his younger brother Charles in a few years. In fact, Lathrop was a member before FDR, and he and Archie would have voted on FDR’s election.
Fly 2; Porcellian 0.
All this to say that we have been barking up the wrong tree. Howling might be more apt, and it goes to show what happens in history when facts aren’t thoroughly checked: if you repeat a lie often enough, Goebbels once said, it becomes the truth, or in this case, the accepted truth, however erroneous.
There is still one missing piece to this whole Porcellian-Fly Club biz, which Rick Porteus has promised to check on. Originally, there were only two “final” clubs, the A.D and the Porc, so called because they were the terminal points of the club system. You could only join one. All the others were “waiting” clubs, the Edwardian equivalent of circling the airport, waiting to land. One by one, however, these waiting clubs voted themselves final during this period. Precisely when this occurred at the Fly is still being researched. The only reason this matters is that it rewrites the narrative in a rather potent way: instead of some variant of the oft-used phrase “FDR was forced to settle for the less prestigious Fly,” which occurs in almost every FDR bio, the tale should possibly read “FDR chose the Fly with his Groton chum and roommate Lathrop Brown, but was foiled in his attempt to advance to the Porcellian.” Or, “FDR failed to get into the Porcellian and at the urging of his roommate Lathrop Brown, decided to join the Fly.”
We’ll see how this falls out. Either way it’s not quite the listless casting about portrayed in the history books; it makes great sense that these two life-long friends would have gone to the same club.
These revelations, however, put us in a real bind, because now we need not one but TWO very rare silver medals that look like the one above. If seen, please contact immediately! In the meantime, nostra culpa.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We still have a 10 or so tickets left for the 6th Annual FDR Memorial Lecture, Saturday April 5th, 4 PM with historian Geoffrey Ward. His talk, the Roosevelts at Harvard will be followed by a cocktail reception in the conservatory, featuring our now famous Roosevelt Raw Bar. Tickets may be purchased below. If you are unable to attend, won’t you consider sponsoring a student or tutor? We run our educational programs as a service, not a profit center, and we can always use your support.
I’ve always been particularly fond of the film “Holiday Inn” with Bing Crosby. You know the one, I’m sure: it introduced Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to the world. The gist of the movie is that Bing gives up New York showbiz (and partner Fred Astaire) to retire quietly to Connecticut where he can lie around “doing time, being laaaaazy.” He converts a massive old house he bought into an inn, which will only open on holidays. That’s where the fun starts. Needless to say things don’t go as planned, and by Thanksgiving der Bingle is sitting alone, crooning the ironic “I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For,” with his girl in the arms of his old partner and the concept for the inn sold to a movie production company. This being 1941, each holiday is introduced by a little animation: the one for Thanksgiving pictures a turkey, obviously confused, running back and forth on a calendar from the last Thursday of the month to the second to last and back again. What’s going on here? It’s an inside joke, surely, but of what?
Well, the answer lies in what some took to derisively calling “Franksgiving.” In 1939 the general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association wrote to Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins warning that the late calendar date of Thanksgiving that year (November 30) would adversely effect retail sales.
Remember this was still the day when it was considered bad form for retailers to display Christmas decorations or have “Christmas” sales before Thanksgiving. With the economy still in a slump, FDR issued a proclamation moving Thanksgiving up a week, to the 23rd.
The plan encountered immediate opposition, especially from Republicans, which was surprising given their pro-business stance. Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s challenger in the 1936 election, called this “another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt’s] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” Athletic associations weren’t pleased either: it wreaked havoc with their football lineups. Cities, towns, schools and universities had to alter schedules as well. Overall 62% of Americans opposed the change with 79% of Republicans in the no column. Some began to call it “Franksgiving.”
As FDR’s declaration was based on the “moral authority” of the president, it was up to the states to decide whether or not to implement it. Twenty-three states’ governments and the District of Columbia recognized the non-traditional date, twenty-two states preserved the traditional date on November 30, and the remaining three – Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas – celebrated both dates.
The proposal fared a little better in 1940 & 41, but Congress soon had enough of the confusion. By joint resolution, Congress fixed the date on the fourth Thursday, where it remains.
This little tale has been in preparation for a slight Thanksgiving shift of our own. Last year, as I sat beside my table groaning with goodies, it occurred to me that this would be a good time for the Foundation give back something to our students. About a tenth of the College doesn’t leave campus for Thanksgiving: most of our international students, for example; and those on the West Coast, as well as some who just can’t afford the travel. Suddenly, the College is a rather lonely place for those without somewhere to go. So this year, I decided that we (the Foundation via the new FDR Global Fellowship) were going to spread the Harvard hand of cheer and give an All American Thanksgiving Eve Supper in the Suite. We’ll be moving out the Morris chairs and day bed in a few hours, and 35 students from five continents, five Houses and the Yard, will be joining us for a state-themed menu served buffet style:
• Maryland Jumbo Lump Crabcakes with Chipotle Aioli
• Louisiana Style Mini Pulled Pork Sandwiches
• Hawaiian Coconut Crusted Shrimp with Sweet Chili Sauce
• Missouri Fried Cheese Ravioli with Marinara Sauce
California Big Sur Avocado Salad
• Maine Clam Chowder with Oyster Crackers
•Mini Alabama Pecan Pie
• Mini Florida Key Lime Pie
• New York State Apple Cider & Assorted Beverages
(Those wondering about the logistics of serving so much to so many in such a small space, fear not: we’ve actually expanded down the wide and capacious hallway outside the Suite, the site of our new FDR timeline. With luck this will all be wrapped up tonight around nine, with just enough time for me to run home and get my own preparations underway.) The moral here is simple: while we take the historic preservation aspect of our role very seriously, we’re not slaves to a particular partisan view of the past, and happy, as FDR was, to laugh at past mistakes. Franksgiving was a failure, but the spirit that informed and motivated it was not. “The only way to have a friend is to be one,” FDR once famously said, and hopefully we’ll have 35 new friends tomorrow.
(Oh, and by the way: this supper is financed entirely by the Foundation, meaning by folks like you. If any of you would like to extend the generosity of your table to ours, just click the button below.)
Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!
The answer, as it turns out, far more mundane and consists of a mere two letters: TR.
Although FDR’s father had traditionally voted Democratic (one of the few wealthy families in his district to do so), blood bonds proved stronger than political ones, and Father James, along with his son, loyally threw their support to the man FDR had idolized since a boy when he ran with McKinley in 1900.
FDR to Sara, October 31 1900
Last night there was a grand torch-light Republican Parade of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We wore red caps and gowns and marched by classes into Boston and through all the principal streets, about 8 miles in all. The crowds to see it were huge all along the route and we were dead tired at the end!
This fascinating little bit of ephemera – most likely dating from FDR’s freshman year – came to me via author Geoffrey Ward, who’s preparing the companion volume to the new Ken Burns film on the Roosevelts, and who’ll be our speaker next April. Geoff had written to inquire whether or not I knew anything about the mysterious “shingle” referred to on the card. I could certainly guess the context: the term “hang out one’s shingle” still has some meaning today, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it referred to in this context. Then by chance, we acquired a new book, Harvard College by an Oxonian, published in 1894. It contains the most interesting passage:
“The rooms we visited in Hastings were on the top floor. They were pleasant and comfortable — very like the rooms in one of our Colleges, only the bedchamber was far better. There was the wide window-seat with its red cushions and out-look over the tops of the graceful American elms. Above the two doors of the sitting-room were hanging one or two printed notices, which had been appropriated or misappropriated by some means or other. It is the pride of a Freshman to have his walls adorned with signs and ” shingles ” which he has ” ragged.” [stolen] An oblong piece of wood called a shingle takes the place in America of the brass plate on the outside door. It is not fastened to the door, but is hung near it on the wall. These shingles, and in fact all kinds of announcements and notices, the adventurous Freshman delights to carry off, surveying his room with just pride, when he sees on the walls such inscriptions as : ” Jones & Co., Civil, Sanitary, and Landscape Engineers”; “Thomas Smith, M.D., Office Hours 2-4; 7-9 ” ; ” Hair-dressing and Complexion Parlors ” ; ” Under- takers. Locker’s Casket Warehouse ” ; ” The College Dining Rooms and Ice Cream Parlors.” These trophies correspond to the door-knockers which have been known to adorn the rooms of a Christ Church undergraduate. One kind of shingles is won by easier, but, perhaps, no less glorious means, ” Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war.” Harvard abounds in clubs, and each club has its own shingle.
Ah ha! Mystery solved! Or, at least, the bit about the shingle. But what of the larger question: how did FDR go from Democrat to Republican and back to Democrat again? According to Ward in his monumental A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the move had little to do with political convictions: “… as early as his sophomore year at Harvard, Franklin had evidently decided to become a Democrat. His reasoning was crisp and pragmatic. The Republican Party was filled with young members of the family whose claims to the President’s mantle were more plausible than his. Only as Democrat could a Roosevelt from outside Sagamore Hill hope to rise very high – and Franklin Roosevelt would never willingly settle for less.”
Simply put: there were already too many Roosevelts on the other side (TR alone had four sons), and FDR wanted to be the biggest fish in the smaller pond.
No burning passion (except perhaps that of self-advancement), no huge sense of mission. Just cold pragmatic calculation: where best can I shine?
Some of FDR’s more altruistic friends were appalled…
Interesting to ponder the alternate history if FDR hadn‘t decided to switch back…. Just another Republican Roosevelt among the pack. Some more progressive, some less, but no standouts. A term of two in Congress perhaps. Certainly no hardened politician to propose the New Deal. No wise, steady hand at the helm during WWII. Almost as fascinating to contemplate as another little-known historical what-if: Hoover, who in 1920 had yet to declare a party affiliation after his lauded service in WWI, seriously considered running as the Democratic candidate with FDR as his running mate. Hugely popular after his successes in Europe clothing and housing refugees, Hoover might very well have won. Imagine: without the laissez-faire economics of Coolidge and Harding, there’s no run-up to the stock market crash; no crash at all in fact, just a regular recession, which FDR, now president after Hoover’s two terms, inherits. His unpopularity soars, and the Big-stick Republicans return to power in 1932, their bellicose worldview matched by the rise of fascism. We enter WWII in 1939, before we were truly prepared to fight, with disastrous results. Germany dominates Europe, England and Russia are reduced to smoldering ashes – it’s Churchill not Hitler who dies in his bunker – and Imperial Japan dominates a newly formed Empire in the East. The US, hounded on all sides, beaten and bankrupt, surrenders, loses Alaska and Hawaii as well as all its overseas territories, and is reduced to a third-rate power…
Hmmm… all that from a tiny switch in party affiliation… Remarkable how seemingly mundane actions create a nexus in time that alters everything that comes after!
Ah well, no more time to ponder alternate histories: I must track down one of these shingles for the Suite!