Lathrop Brown and FDR: Epilogue

burns

Long before I had ever heard of the FDR Suite, I’d visited an absolutely spectacular spot on California’s coast. Located along Highway 1, just south of Big Sur, the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park boasts some of the most beautiful scenery in the nation. Face westward, and thousand foot cliffs drop off into churning blue seas, while behind you, redwood forests rise pacifically into the mountains. There’s even a waterfall, where a small stream catapults off the rock and onto the beach hundreds of feet below.  It’s a perfect place to hike, picnic, or simply admire nature’s majesty.

The site is also interesting to history buffs. Home to some of the area’s earliest settlers, the land for the park was donated by a family who’d bought and ranched the property, building a series of successively grander houses perched on a point overlooking the ocean starting in the 1920s. The construction effort must have been nothing short of monumental: there was no Highway 1 at the time, nor anchorage in the rocky harbor. All supplies had to come over the mountains on mule train or unpaved track. By my day, the house was no longer extant – it had been bulldozed into the sea in the 60s when the State of California lacked funds to turn it into a museum – but bits and pieces of the gardens still remained, strange exotics poking through native coastal plants. An intrepid visitor can still sit where the grand old terrace once was, and on a clear day watch a vermillion sun sink through a mauve sky into a slate gray pacific. It’s a truly magical spot, majestically mournful, with a very special allure I’ve always felt keenly. Each time I was in the area, I made sure to find a few hours to wander around the park, resolving as I meandered to discover the name of the family who had been so drawn to this spot as to build a house here against such odds.

Of course, then I would return home to Boston, and amid the rush of quotidian living, forget, until next time…

Fast-forward a decade: Day one, minute five, of my involvement with the FDR Suite Renovation Project.

The scene: Judy and Sean Palfrey, Father George and I are sitting in the study of the FDR Suite. I’m looking around, awed:

Michael: Wow, so FDR really lived right here in Westmorly, eh?
Judy: Yes
Michael: Who knew? (We did, the Palfreys and Father George were thinking, but were too polite to say.)
Sean: That’s the problem. It’s a too-well kept secret. We need to get the word out.
Michael: I agree. Did he live alone?
Father George: No, there was a roommate.
Michael: Who was it?
Judy: Someone named Lathrop Brown. Friend of FDR’s, a congressman too, later.
Michael: Any other information?
Sean: That’s about all we know.
Michael: Hmmm. Lathrop Brown. Certainly doesn’t ring a bell. I’ll have to do some research.

So gentle reader: care to guess who donated the land for the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and whose ruined house I had been so curious about all those years?

Dedicatory-plaque

The plaque I'd missed on my travels...

And finally, at year’s end, as we contemplate indecipherables of past and present, a question: what odds might you have given that in eight thousand miles on separate coasts I would become intimately acquainted with two such tiny, but completely interrelated spots, so important to a single man of whom I’d never heard?

Personally, I wouldn’t have taken that bet in a million years.

Lathrop Brown and FDR: Endgame

(This is the fifth and final installment in a continuing series taken from the unpublished notes of filmmaker Pare Lorentz. For the introduction to these articles, click HERE.)

The Lathrop Brown Interviews: Part V – Endgame

Lathrop and Helen, traveling during the 1920s

Lathrop and Helen, traveling during the 1920s. Courtesy Pam and Elmer Grossman

_________________

In the late 20's the Browns lived in Boston in this Bulfinch designed home on the Boston Common, while Lathrop studied monetary policy at the Harvard School of Public Administration. He never completed his degree, withdrawing for reasons of ill-health.

In the late 20's the Browns lived in Boston in this Bulfinch designed home on the Boston Common, while Lathrop studied monetary policy at the Harvard School of Public Administration. He never completed his degree, withdrawing for reasons of ill-health. Courtesy Pam and Elmer Grossman

1921 and Thereafter

After FDR was stricken with polio, LB visited him frequently. He says he was most impressed by FDR’s amazing self-mastery. He had been brought up “soft”; he had always had good food, good beds, good clothes, etc.; he had not been seared by the iron of adversity, other than political defeats.

But polio did something to FDR that LB had never seen happen to anyone else, at least not in the same degree. Men in the war had had comparable experiences, and many of them had been shattered to some extent.

But not FDR. He was not shattered in the least. He came out of it triumphant in spite of his broken body. There was nothing bumptious about his attitude; there was actually a great feeling of humility, yet a strong sense of triumph. He had become the master of himself, and because of this, was ready to be the master of others.

FDR had become friends with Al Smith and served as his campaign manager in 1924. He did not let his physical condition hamper his activity at the convention in any way. LB says FDR was there every hour the convention was in session, he attended every meeting, buttonholed all the delegates, etc, etc.

The ballroom of the Lathrop Brown home in Boston.

The ballroom of the Lathrop Brown home in Boston. The Turkish inspired conservatory can be glimpsed through the French doors at the left. Courtesy Pam and Elmer Grossman

His enthusiastic support and loyalty during this convention was one of the reasons Al Smith insisted on FDR’s running for governor of New York in 1928

First Inauguration 1933

LB was extremely interested in Roosevelt’s first inauguration, not only because of their deep personal friendship but because the state of the union was pretty ragged on that occasion. The last bank in the nation had closed that morning and there was a general feeling of panic.

Stocks may have crashed, but evidently not the Brown's; this from December 18, 1930

Stocks may have crashed, but evidently not the Browns'; this from December 18, 1930

But what impressed LB was FDR’s manner at a 5 o’clock meeting that had been arranged in advance, wherein he and several other Harvard classmates planned to present FDR with an inexpensive memento. The party went to the White House somewhat reluctantly, aware that FDR had already reviewed a feeble parade and held his first Cabinet meeting. But they were on the day’s agenda and the meeting took place as scheduled.

FDR received them as if he hadn’t been doing a thing all day. He acted as if he hadn’t a single worry or concern. The group laughed and joked – frivolous silly undergraduate jokes – for fifteen minutes, with FDR setting the pace. And he wasn’t acting; he had the faculty of completely erasing the problems that had beset him before the meeting and would engulf him when it was over.

Late Contacts

LB spent a night or two at the White House during FDR’s second term. It was during Easter vacation and he was taking one of his children to Virginia. While in Washington, he stopped to pay a brief call and was asked to stay over, which he did.

On another occasion (in 1940 or 1941) LB paid another call and FDR suggested that they have a swim n the White House pool. LB thought it was a fine idea and they had an excellent time, laughing and joking as if they were still back in school. LB said FDR had the most magnificently developed torso he had ever seen outside of a wrestling ring, that he charged up and down the pool like a walrus, making huge waves. LB says that he was ready to quit long before FDR showed any signs of stopping and that, when FDR finally decided he’d had enough, LB could hardly crawl out of the pool. Once again it was a case FDR’s apparently not having a care in the world.

Similarly, LB recalls an incident when he found FDR in bed romping with a couple of grandchildren. In the midst of the play, FDR casually remarked that the dollar was being devalued – a detail of worldwide significance – and continued the romp.

__________________________

(Here ends the Pare-Lorentz interviews, but I thought it might be interesting to let Lathrop himself finish the piece. The following extract dates from 1954:

In the early 30's, the Brown's occupied a flat in New York's newest, most stylish cooperative: architect William Bottomley's River House. Amenities included a  club with swimming pool, tennis courts, bar, restaurant and ballroom, as well as a private boat dock on the East River. Courtesy Pam and Elmer Grossman

In the early 30's, the Browns occupied a 13 room flat in New York's newest, most stylish cooperative: architect William Bottomley's River House. Amenities included a club with swimming pool, tennis courts, bar, restaurant and ballroom, as well as a private boat dock on the East River. Above, the 65' long main salon, with a view of Roosevelt Island and the Queensboro Bridge through the windows. Courtesy Pam and Elmer Grossman

From the 50th Report of the Class of 1904

Nihil Nisi Bonum

“I propose to set down some thoughts about Franklin Roosevelt in the hope of lessening a little the bitterness which some of his classmates have felt towards him. His life work was politics. What is politics? It is the transference of ideas or ideals into action, and is probably the most effective way to advance or retard the ethical progress of mankind. The frequent manifestations of politics, which smell under our noses, and which are called Tammany Hall or this machine or that, are but imperfect means to ethical or unethical ends.

Let me describe the situation as I saw it in Washington on Inauguration Day of March, 1933, which was the opening of FDR’s first term in office. Worried by what I had heard, I was up early while the city still slept, to find out what I could. There was nothing startling in the Washington papers, but a Baltimore paper carried the news that all the banks in the country had been closed, and none would open that day or for many days – what was happening piecemeal over the country through runs by frightened depositors had been done in toto through the device of a Bank Holiday, decreed by the governors of the forty-eight states.

The River House as originally built, before the ironically named FDR Drive cut off its river access. The Brown flat is th balconied one to the left, fourth floor.

The River House as originally built, before the ironically named FDR Drive cut off its river access. The Brown flat is the balconied one to the left, fourth floor. In 1940, Lathop's brother built the Browns another spectacular home on Long Island – this time in the international style – which Lathrop and Helene furnished but never occupied.

Most of you were at home when this happened; your credit was long established and you could get along without cash, but to the visitors at Washington it was a bolt from the blue. And do you remember how discouraged you were, how sick the country was at this time?

Suddenly from the White House came a clarion call of hope and faith. In a few weeks the nation was lifted from the pit of despair to the high ground of confidence. It was no small thing that within one man could be contained enough of faith to restore the lost morale of a great nation. All over the world were the stirrings of the lesser people of the world. England, France, Italy, Germany and Spain fell prey to totalitarianism, socialism, fascism, or chaos. Under Franklin there was no revolution. The value of the dollar fell, but the value of the ‘forgotten man’ rose to is full measure of dignity and decency and a higher standard of living, topped by Social Security. Franklin’s ethics, learned at home, at school, at college and in his church at Hyde Park, gave him a sure sense of direction; and gave him enough of faith to lead the nation.

In the war was one factor about which there was no dispute. Without the help of Russia, Germany could not have been beaten. At Yalta and Teheran, Russia obtained little from us – it was the Chinese, going further than we thought wise, who made their own arrangements with the Russians about Manchuria.

algiers

The Algiers, entering its final home on Santibel Island, Florida. Courtesy Pam and Elmer Grossman

To conclude, I hope that our successors will give much thought to the broad concept of ‘peace’ and what makes it, and of ‘armed force’ and the good use of it, so that we may outgrow, as George F. Kennan puts it (in American Diplomacy, page 88), ‘the sweeping moral rejection of international violence which bedevils so many Americans in time of peace, and the helpless abandonment to its compulsions and its inner momentum which characterizes so many of us in times of war.”

(Lathrop Brown died four years after he wrote this, in 1959. Energetic to the end, he and Helen were in the middle of yet another amazing house project – the renovation of the paddle steamer Algiers into a winter home at Sanibel Island Florida – when he was stricken with a ruptured gall bladder and died. Helen, or Hélène as she preferred to be known, traveled extensively after Lathrop’s death, living in Bermuda, Tahiti and Hawaii. She became a recluse in her later years and  died in 1978.)

Lathrop Brown, Political Dilettante

In this the third in a series of articles on FDR’s longtime friend and Harvard roommate, Lathrop Brown, we take a break from the Pare Lorentz interviews to focus a bit on Brown’s own political career. While FDR battled his way into the New York State Assembly, LB also (coincidentally?) became interested in politics, as the following article, taken from the New York Press, Sunday November 10, 1912, amply describes. An original copy of this piece was donated to Foundation by Pam and Elmer Grossman, LB’s grandaughter and grandson-in-law. The text is so rich, and so much of the period, that I’ve quoted it here in toto, illustrating the article with photos from various sources including the private collection that the Grossman’s have generously shared with the FDR Foundation.

LATHROP BROWN POLITICAL DILETTANTE

He Wanted Diversion, Being Bored by His Millions and His Sport, so He Has Become Member of Congress-Elect, Incidentally Trampling on the Manly Forms of Charles F. Murphy and W. Bourke Cockran in Getting There

“Woodrow Wilson Wants Me,” This Young Man Announced to the Agriculturalists of Long Island. And I am a Man of Independent Means,” He Added Significantly. That Got Them

The fervid desire of Mr. Lathrop Brown of New York, Harvard and St. James to do something that he had never done before has resulted in tumbling him into the next Congress.

Mr. Brown didn’t really want to go into the next Congress, at least not so soon. He wanted only to be a politician instead of a society man and he finds himself a statesman-elect, the choice of the farmers of the First Congressional District of the State of New York – the farmers who inhabit Long Island between the 34th Street Ferry landing and Montauk Point, and raise potatoes, cabbages, and other flowers.

The original article donated by Pam and Elmer Grossman. This copy will be preserved in the Harvard University Archives

The original article donated by Pam and Elmer Grossman. This copy will be preserved in the Harvard University Archives

Incidentally he played Ivanhoe to the Bois-Guilbert of Charlie Murphy and drove that dread knight shrieking from the plains of Suffolk. Also incidentally, if Colonel Roosevelt wants any Government cabbage seeds for his Oyster Bay garden next year and goes about getting them in the routine way, he will have to address his humble plea to the Hon. Lathrop Brown, House of Representatives, Washington D.C. as the Colonel’s home is in Mr. Brown’s Congressional District. Colonel Roosevelt may think he has a pull with the Congressman-elect, for the reason that the Colonel’s brother-in-law, Douglas Robinson, is the business partner of Charles S. Brown, who is the happy father to the Hon. Lathrop Brown.

But the Colonel may find Representative Brown a stern man. His campaign posters have committed his fealty to Princeton. They announced flatly: WOODROW WILSON WANTS LATHROP BROWN IN CONGRESS. It stuck out in big type on three sheets scattered from Miller’s saloon in Long Island City to the Montauk Lighthouse, and from Long Beach to the Wheatley Hills. It impressed the Long Island voter. It told him as plainly as type can tell that that must be a great yearning with Woodrow Wilson. It seemed to say for the Princeton professor that, although he might be elected to the Presidency, he never would be happy unless he knew that Lathrop Brown was at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, watchdogging he Treasury or using a neat nickel-plated reviser on the tariff.

So now Woodrow Wilson must be happy.

Among those who are left unhappy are Fred Hicks, who ran against Lathrop Brown on the Republican ticket, and W. Bourke Cockran who ran on the Progressive ticket. And it all happened because Mr. Brown was bored. Fed full and surfeited with all the joys that money and good looks can bring to a young man, he bounded into politics because it was the only field left unconquered.

Helen Hooper Brown, aged 16. At 17, she became a rich orphan, and promptly hired herself a governess and set off to Europe to complete here education – the first of many signs of an extremely independent nature

Helen Hooper Brown, aged 16. At 15, she became a millionairess orphan, and promptly hired herself a governess, setting off to Europe to complete her education – the first of many signs of an extremely independent nature. Courtesy Pam and Elmer Grossman

It is a terrible thing to discover, at age 30, that life has no new sensations to offer. Mr. Brown found himself almost in this predicament. He had his career at Harvard, with wonderful success in Greek and the germans. He indulged in athletics to the extent necessary to keep him in perfect trim. After the college years he had so much social life in New York that it palled on him. Sport always appealed to him, and he was well known wherever good horses were to be seen, whether on the racetracks or in the hunting field. He owned several good jumpers and raced them with success.

Two years ago Mr. Brown married Helen Hooper of Cambridge Massachusetts, an heiress to the great Ames estate to the extent of $10,000,000. She too is fond of horses, for her father formerly owned, under the racing name of ‘Mr. Chamblet,’ one of the greatest stables of jumping horses the American turf has seen.

So Mr. Brown and his bride decided to settle down in a country where good horses could be enjoyed. They bought an estate of 100 acres on St. James Harbor, not far from the home of Mayor Gaynor.

His Start In Politics

A millionaire in search of pleasure of the good healthy sort can find it in infinite variety in that section. He has the Sound for the racing of his motorboats, a fine beach for swimming, the bay and the Nissequoque River for fishing. In the fall he can shoot ducks in the Smithtown Bay until his gun barrels get red hot. On his own acres he can shoot partridge, quail, and the fat English pheasants they bred in that region. There is a fine field for polo and horse racing. His motor cars can skim over roads that are perfect. His eye rests on scenery as beautiful as the North Woods can boast of.

The Brown Home, "Field of Clover" at St James Long Island. This Colonial Revival structure was designed by Lathrop's brother Archibald, a noted architect.

The Brown Home, 'Land of Clover' at St James, Long Island. This Colonial Revival structure was designed by Lathrop's brother Archibald Brown '02, a noted architect. The estate's unique circular stable, based on classical precedents, housed 22 horses. 'Land of Clover' was the first in a long series of spectacular homes built – but sometimes not occupied, like this one – by the Brown family. The house and stables are still extant, known today as the Knox School, which not unexpectedly, is popular for its equine program.

Lathrop Brown enjoyed every one of these things, but, somehow, they did not seem to fill his soul. Perhaps he sight of his neighbor, Mayor Gaynor, rushing away from Deepwells to his work in the city suggested a new pleasure – politics and the activity thereof.

One night Mr. Brown dropped in on the village storekeeper, who was the local Democratic committeeman.

“How,” he asked, “do you get voters out in a Presidential year?”

“Why,” said the committeeman, “they just come out. And if they don’t come out, it’s their own fault.”

“Why doesn’t your state committeeman make them come out?” asked Mr. Brown.

“I guess you’ll have to ask Charley Murphy about that,” was the reply. “He bosses the state committeemen.”

Mr. Brown grew more interested. He knew that Mr. Murphy’s address was 14th street, Borough of Manhattan. What could he have to do with the wilds of Suffolk? He inquired about it.

“Why,” he was told, “Murphy has a summer home out at Good Ground and he thinks that gives him the right to own our State committeeman.

Lathrop Brown made his decision at once. He would have a new sensation. He would battle with Charles Francis Murphy for the supremacy of the Long Island wilderness and he would come back with his shield, or on it.

He unlimbered his snickersnee and put ten gallons of gasoline in the sixty-horse power car he drives himself. He filled his pockets with cigars such as Suffolk county never had smelled before. He kissed his wife and child farewell and fared forth.

He took the old Democrats of Suffolk County by the ends of their beards and led them from their inglenooks out into the sunlight. “We’ve got a Presidential election coming on,” he cried. “What are you going to do about it?”

They hadn’t thought anything about it, he discovered.

“Get busy!” he cried, and proceeded to set an example. He gave diners for the older men of the party and organized clubs for the younger set. In a month he had them properly aroused, and then he confided to them that he was going to whale C. Murphy, just as the preliminary gallop before the Presidential race.

Later, the Browns would buy another Long Island property "Windmill" on Montauk Point. The house was so named for the colonial era windmill Latrhop had disassebled and shipped over to his property from nearby Shelter Island.

Later, the Browns would buy another Long Island property 'The Windmill' on Montauk Point. The house was so named for the 1813 windmill Lathrop had moved from Southhampton and re-erected on his property, using the structure as a guest house. When the site was taken over by the Army during WWII, the windmill was moved again to Wainscott, where it still exists.

Bailey was the State committeeman for the district, and he was Murphy’s man. Mr. Brown couldn’t [waltz] into Fourteenth Street and tap Mr. Murphy on the skull with a blackjack; that isn’t proper political procedure – but he could make open war on Bailey.

And he did. He picked up Harry Keith for his candidate. Keith is a Democrat who frequently had opposed Bailey, but always got trimmed when he came before the Committee on Credentials. That’s old Tammany stuff. The late Senator Grady said that “the dirtiest day’s work of his life” was done as the chairman of a Committee on Credentials.

Mr. Bailey ran to Mr. Murphy and told him that his job as Street committeeman was in peril. Mr. Murphy loves to own State committeemen and he felt that he could ill afford to spare one. He learned that Mr. Keith held a State job. Mr. Keith lost his State job the next day. He laughed, because Lathrop Brown laughed.

“Coarse work” said Mr. Brown. “That will win us a lot of votes in the primaries.”

It did. Keith won the primaries. Bailey made the customary bluff at a contest. For every lawyer that turned up in his interest, Mr. Brown turned up with three. For every dollar Bailey had to spend to make a contest, Keith turned up with five.

The Lathrop Brown windmill, now in Wainscott, Long Island.

The Lathrop Brown windmill, now in Wainscott, Long Island.

Some kind friend took Mr. Murphy aside and told him that Brown was ready to play politics as Commodore Vanderbilt played poker.

“Let that fellow alone,” said the counselor. “Brown has more millions than you will ever have. And he stands all raises and calls all bets.”

Keith is the committeeman.

Lathrop Brown now turned to the job of electing Wilson. He visited the editor of almost every Democratic newspaper in Suffolk and Nassau counties and talked Presidential triumph to him until the editor felt as important as Henry Watterson. He bought an interest in a newspaper in Port Jefferson and wrote its political editorials. He boomed Wilson for the nomination and screamed at the Democrats of the Island to wake up and get together.

So far as the political slates were concerned, Mr. Brown had everything his own way after Keith beat Bailey. But the wise young man let the conventions make their own choices. It so happened that these were usually his choices.

His the Laurel Wreath

It came time to nominate for Congress and some of the Brown enthusiasts suggested that he grab the nomination himself. Mr. Brown replied that grabbing was no fun for him. He was having the time of his life and he liked it. He wanted to be just a politician.

A lot of the Bailey-Murphy crowd wanted to see Brown nominated for Congress. When he ran Keith against Bailey they said Brown was a joke and they kept on saying it until the State Committee was forced to take Keith to its bosom. Now, if they could get Brown to take the Congress nomination, they could say that that was a joke. They didn’t think that Brown or any other Democrat could win.

Two years ago the district upset all political traditions by electing a Democrat, Martin W. Littleton, over William W. Cocks, who had been the Republican Representative for some years. Littleton, who didn’t live in the district at all, went into the fight mostly to help out the State ticket. His wife “Peggy O’Brien” helped him, and between them they turned the hard shell old district on its back.

All the wiseacres said it could never happen again; that Littleton, if he ran this year, would be beaten. The district is made up of part of the County of Queens and all of Nassau and Suffolk. It runs from Long Island City to Montauk point, and contains farming district that is normally strongly Republican. Mr. Littleton told his friends that he wouldn’t run again unless he was sure of being beaten, for the reason that going to Congress put a large crimp in his law practice.

With Littleton out of the field Mr. Cocks wanted to try his hand again, but the Republican convention turned him down and nominated his brother Fred Hicks. This may sound queer, but it’s true. When Fred Cocks was very young he was adopted by a rich Long Islander, Mr. Hicks, and became his heir. The Progressives nominated former Representative Bourke Cockran.

Lathrop Brown as Congressman. Brown ran again in 1914, but was defeated by handfull of votes. The election was contested all the way to the New York Supreme Court, and his opponent, Frederick Hicks, was not seated until late in his term.

Lathrop Brown as Congressman. Brown ran again in 1914, but was defeated by handful of votes. The election was contested all the way to the New York Supreme Court, and his opponent, Frederick Hicks, was not seated until late in his term.

The Democratic situation was very much up to Lathrop Brown. His friends urged that, with the Republicans split, he might win. Brown had intended to ascend the political ladder by easier stages; possibly with a term or two in the Assembly of the State Senate. He had heard that there was plenty of action to be had in Albany. In the end his partisans seized him and bound the laurel wreath of nomination to his brow. He took it.

Brown’s campaign circulars provided welcome reading for the Democrats of Long Island. No one could mistake wording like this: “Mr. Brown is a man of independent thought, independent action, and independent means.”

They had read circulars before from office seekers who boasted of independent thought and action, but that INDEPENDENT MEANS stuck right out and meant something new. It meant even more than WOODROW WILSON WANTS HIM.

And Brown was elected.

Lathrop Brown is a tall, lithe young man, with a small brown mustache, a ready smile and a pleasant address. He doesn’t dress too well, which helps some in politics in the country. Although very affable, he is also a very positive young man. He wants what he wants when he wants it, and he lets you know it. So far he has accomplished the most rapid political ascension that Long Island has ever observed, and performed the feat principally by stamping on the manly forms of Charles F. Murphy and the mellifluous Cockran.

For a political debutante, he is a wonder.

Lathrop Brown and FDR: The Harvard Years

(This is the second installment in a continuing series taken from the unpublished notes of filmmaker Pare Lorentz. For the introduction to these articles, click HERE.)

The Lathrop Brown Interviews: Part II – The Harvard Years

 

Lathrop Brown at Harvard

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. FDR and LB were both loyal to this tradition and quickly found activities to fill their time. FDR went to work on the Harvard Crimson, spending one year trying out, the next as an editor, and the third as editor-in-chief.

Many students carefully arranged their schedules so as to have no Saturday or afternoon classes. FDR was not as trivial about this as some of his classmates. He took the usual courses and achieved no scholastic honors, but he was extremely interested in his newspaper work and in the people he met. L.B. remembers that he was always agitating for something, but does not recall any specific matters.

FDR’s paramount interest was people, hence his liking for reporting. He met a great many more students and professors because of his work on the Crimson than he would have without it. LB cites an instance when he and FDR amused themselves one evening checking off their class list (about 600) to see who knew more of them. FDR won; he knew (had spoken with them, that is) perhaps half of the 600; LB isn’t sure but thinks this incident may have occurred late in their sophomore year.

LB and FDR's first Harvard Yale Game. Certainly they were there, though the stadium wasn't: it was still three years away. These tickets incidentally, have convenient match strikers on the back: so much easier to light your pipe!

LB and FDR’s first Harvard Yale Game. Certainly the two were there, though the stadium wasn’t: it was still three years away. These tickets, incidentally, have convenient match strikers on the back: so much easier to light your pipe! Courtesy: Harvard University Archives

FDR came to Harvard as just another inconspicuous freshman. Once again, he was not outstanding in athletics. He continued rowing for exercise, but did not participate in interscholastic contests. He did not become a campus hero, but was well liked by all who knew him. He liked to go to parties every so often; he liked making noise and having a good time, but he was definitely not interested in dissipation. He would take a drink with his pals and get as much pleasure out of it as another would get out of a dozen drinks. He bubbled over easily.

A gentleman's dance card of the period. Courtesy Harvard University Archives.

A gentleman’s dance card of the period. Courtesy: Harvard University Archives.

FDR enjoyed social activity. He dined out frequently with relatives and friends in Boston. Boston families, LB notes, were extremely hospitable toward Harvard students, especially if they had debutante or pre-deb daughters. FDR and LB were invited to the “Friday Evenings” – dances attended by the younger girls who had just put up their hair, lengthened their skirts, etc. The more sophisticated Harvard lads refused to attend, but FDR and LB, dutiful and proper, went regularly and enjoyed themselves…..

Harvard students who lived in Boston frequently invited out-of-town classmates, such as FDR and LB, to spend the weekends with them… FDR and LB roomed together throughout their Harvard years, but their interests were not always the same. FDR was concentrating on the Crimson, LB on football. [Editor’s note: LB managed the freshman team his first year, and the Varsity his last.]

LB notes that FDR was like a racehorse that makes a slow beginning and then comes up from behind. During senior year, it was the custom to elect several students for such prominent roles as First Marshal of the Class, Chairman of Class Day, etc. There were three marshals, and usually the captains of the baseball, football and rowing teams were elected. The chairmanship of Class Day usually went to some busy fellow who liked to run things. All four were invariably campus celebrities – “front runners”  – who, after their brief spurt of glory, faded into oblivion.

FDR was elected to none of these posts. [He ran, and lost – his first taste of electoral defeat.] Instead he was chosen as class chairman, his job being to keep in touch with members of the class after graduation.

LB recalls a rip-roaring fight which FDR spark-plugged at the class reunion three years after graduation. It was customary for the class’s executive committee to be composed of graduates who lived in the Boston-New York-Philadelphia area and this committee had a tendency to become self-perpetuating, giving the rest of the class no opportunity to kick out those they didn’t like. LB feels fairly certain FDR was fighting from within; i.e. he was one of the committee anyway, but that he resented the injustice of the set-up. FDR started a big fight about it and managed to get everything changed.

misc room

For years, we’ve wondered what the medals are that we so often see hanging from pictures in period Harvard student rooms like the one above. (Check out the picture at the far right) Thanks to LB’s comment about the Institute, and a bit of detective work, now we know….

FDR belonged to the usual number of clubs. He was a member of the Hasty Pudding, also of the Institute of 1770 (named after the year of its inception). The institute may have started with high purpose, as a literary society perhaps, but it wasn’t that in FDR’s and LB’s day.

In answer to the question about social consciousness: LB feels FDR definitely demonstrated this during his years at Harvard. It was plain enough, says L.B., that FDR’s attitude was not that of a reactionary Republican. Many a Harvard student, with similar background and upbringing spent his college years sitting in a club, looking out of the window and criticizing everyone who went by.

[The Porcellian, the most exclusive of Harvard’s final clubs, was famous for this, having installed a mirror that scanned the Mass Ave, obviating the need for members to present themselves at the window. FDR tried, and failed to be admitted. FDR had no inclination for this kind of activity. Instead of sitting around with his pals, he was out working for the Crimson, getting to know as many people as he could, talking with students and professors. He was constantly reaching out and broadening his interests.

An Institute of 1770 metal, given to candidates upons successful completion of their initiation. The latin motto reads: "These studies nourish youth." Indeed!

LB recalls FDR sang first bass in the Freshman Glee Club [LB sang second]. LB also recalls his and FDR’s initiation into ‘the Dickie,’ [The  DKE, the next step after the Institute of 1770, and required of social climbers interested in joining a final club] which he described as a rough, beer-drinking organization. The freshman (chosen in “10’s”, to a maximum of 70 or 80) went through a week’s hazing, which called for their looking, and acting, like tramps. Unshaven, dirty, they had to do everybody’s errands. Everything had to be done on the run. No walking permitted. This week was a real test – no holds barred – and ended up with a wonderful party that called for a considerable amount of physical endurance. FDR had a fine time.

LB does not think FDR was particularly influenced by any of his professors at Harvard. As for his eligibility, LB says they never gave it a thought. Some of the Boston mothers may have, but not the lads and lassies themselves.

Third Annual FDR Memorial Lecture and Gala Dinner Plans Finalized

Below you’ll find the official press release for the FDR dinner in February, with details for ordering tickets and securing accommodation. Just one important note for those of you who have become members over the last year: you need to apply to me (Michael) at mweishan at fas dot harvard dot edu, not the Harvard Box Office to receive your discounted, or in some cases, free tickets. (You know who you are!) Unfortunately the box office isn’t equipped to handle such a complicated system, so just drop me a line, and I’ll make your arrangements personally. And for those of you who haven’t joined, please consider doing so before year’s end. It pays to be a member!

The Third Annual FDR Memorial Lecture and Gala Dinner

Saturday, February 27 | 4:30-11 PM

Location: Adams House

Return to Cambridge this February for a once-in-a-lifetime evening celebrating America’s 32nd President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This black-tie event begins at 4:30 with Curtis Roosevelt, FDR’s oldest grandson, discussing the political dynamics of FDR’s and Obama’s first years, followed by a cocktail reception and signings of Mr. Roosevelt’s new book, Too Close to the Sun, in the Gold Room at Adams House. Then festivities really swing into gear with the Bo Winiker Big Band as we sit down to a candle-lit dinner in the elegant Adams Dining Hall, musically counting up the years of FDR’s presidency. Dessert and dancing complete the gala evening.

Proceeds of the event will support the FDR Suite Project at Adams, an all-volunteer effort to restore Roosevelt’s student rooms in Wesmorly to their 1904 appearance as the only memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Harvard.

Ticket Information:

Lecture $20

Lecture and cocktail/ hors d’oeuvres reception $45

Full board with dinner and dancing $175  (limited to 180)

Full board seated at the Roosevelt table $375 (limited to 8 )

Tickets available beginning 4 January 2010 through the Harvard University Box Office: (http://ofa.fas.harvard.edu/boxoffice); or by calling: 617.496.2222 | TTY: 617.495.1642. Special one and two night accommodation packages are available at both the Boston Mandarin Oriental and the Charles Hotel in Cambridge.

George Washington Lewis

porcelliangateI’ve been doing a bit of research on the Porcellian Club, in advance of the architectural walking tour I’m leading this November for the Harvard Alumni Association entitled Presidential Pathways: Tracing TR and FDR at Harvard (More on that later.) My interest springs, of course, from the fact that TR was a Porcellian member, counting his admission among his proudest achievements, and that FDR tried and was blackballed, counting this among his life’s greatest failures  – a memory made even more galling by the success of TR’s sons a few years later. It’s hard today to understand precisely what all the fuss was about; it is, after all, just a club, with pleasant, though unremarkable facilities. (The rooms were published a number of years ago by the Crimson, for those of you wishing to take a look.) The appeal of the Porcellian however, was never the building: exclusivity was the lure, that and the fact that once admitted, you gained a dedicated group of friends for life. Apocryphal tales  of Porcellian loyalty abound: the old line that “any member who failed to earn a million by age 30 was simply given one by his fellows” is typical.  But there are many real life glimpses of the Porcellian’s reach that are quite telling: for instance, when H.H. Richardson, at the start of what would become a meteoric architectural career, submitted plans to build Trinity Church in Boston, the untested architect was given the commission over many more experienced competitors. The reason? We’ll never know for sure, but the fact that five of the eleven members of the deciding committee (not to mention the rector, Phillip Brooks) were fellow Porcellian alums certainly didn’t hurt. Membership in the Porcellian was the passport to many coveted things once you left the ivy-covered halls of Harvard, and you can begin to see why a forward-looking (and status conscious) young man like FDR was so disappointed at not getting in. Within the University of course, there was no question of the club’s official stature: you immediately appreciate the position the Porcellian held in that gilded age when you realize that it’s the only institution at Harvard to have its own entrance to the Yard. Donated by the club in 1901, and accepted without a moment’s hesitation by the College, the elaborate brick portal is technically dedicated to Professor Joseph McKean, who founded the Porcellian in 1794.  The large boar snout keystones on either side of the gate, however, proclaim otherwise:  this is a thinly veiled memorial to the power of wealth and privilege at 19th century Harvard, made all the more ironic by the democratic nature of the gate itself. Unlike the locked clubhouse door across the street – also marked by the sign of the pig – this gate is the only porcine threshold that the vast majority of Harvard students were ever allowed to pass.

May I hazard to guess that FDR regularly took an alternate route?

The Steward (Lewis of the Porcellian) Joseph DeCamp 1919

The Steward (Lewis of the Porcellian) Joseph DeCamp 1919

The Porcellian does contain one treasure though, amongst its collection of usual clubhouse bric-a-brac: the portrait of George Washington Lewis, painted by Joseph Rodefer DeCamp in 1919. This masterpiece of the Boston school celebrates the club’s most famous employee, whose 45 year tenure at the Porcellian spanned both TR’s and FDR’s time at Harvard.  Mr. Lewis appears to have been a highly unusual character for his day, a gentleman’s gentleman who very early on learned the art of the polite smack-down to keep his uppity charges in place, as Reverend Gomes once related in a 1996 New Yorker interview:

“It seems that when Elliot Perkins, the great-grandson of John Quincy Adams, was an undergraduate at Harvard, he decided to become better acquainted with George Washington Lewis, the formidable black steward of the Porcellian Club. So one day Elliot began to make conversation and asked, ‘Mr. Lewis, when did your people come up North?’ To which Lewis replied, ‘Mr., Perkins, my great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Bennington, which is in Vermont, as you may know.'”

Ouch. Game, set, and match to Mr. Lewis.

One can but wonder, if only he’d been allowed in, how FDR might have fared….