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(This is the second installment in a continuing series taken from the unpublished notes of filmmaker Pare Lorentz.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.

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

[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.

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.

Lathrop Brown and FDR: The Groton Years

Sometimes, in the glow of presidential personality, it’s easy to forget the fact that there were two residents of the FDR suite: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his Groton chum, Lathrop “Jake” Brown. While almost every part of FDR’s life has been minutely documented, Brown’s story is much murkier, generally surfacing only in reference to his much more famous roommate. This summer, I became very interested in learning more about Brown, not only because we need to track down items for the Suite that accurately reflect the man and his tastes, but also because, beyond a few published facts – successful business man, married, father of two daughters, one-term congressman from Long Island – there is very little information available on Lathrop Brown’s life. Always game for new historical quests, I hit the Harvard Libraries and the Internet – and quickly came up short. Then, through pure luck, I was able to track down Brown’s granddaughter, Pam Canfield Grossman, in California. She and her husband Elmer were delightful, generously sharing a whole host of stories and family photographs that do much to fill in a life in many ways as varied and interesting as FDR’s. Concurrent with these discoveries, I also received a surprise from the FDR Archives at Hyde Park: the notes from extended interviews that Brown gave to Pare Lorentz, the famous Depression era film maker, in 1949. It seems Lorentz had contacted Brown at his ranch at Big Sur, with the idea of doing some advance groundwork for a film about FDR. While the production never took place, the interviews did, and the notes, compiled by Lorentz’ assistant Fanya Carter, provide an invaluable personal look into the times, and the men, who occupied the FDR Suite in Westmorly Hall. Over the next month or so, I’ll be posting in installments extended portions of the Brown interviews, which to my knowledge have not been previously published, along with many of the pictures provided by Pam and Elmer, which flush out not only fascinating details of FDR’s life and times, but also illustrate the 50-year friendship between Brown and the man who would become the 32nd President of the United States.

Notes from the Lathrop Brown Interviews: Part I – The Groton Years

FDR entered Groton at the beginning of of third form when he was 14 or 15. Most students began in the second form at 13, but LB was in third form at 13, due to an earlier altercation with the principal which had resulted in his being “kicked upstairs” ­– hence his being in the same form as FDR, despite difference in ages. Brown shared a dormitory and also parts of summer vacations, with FDR joining LB on Long Island, and LB visiting FDR at Campobello. Actually, students entering later than third form were pretty much out of the running, for school friendships had already established. Hence FDR arrived in time to become one of the boys, although he was never particularly outstanding. The one and only way of achieving distinction at Groton was on the athletic field; everybody tried out for everything, but only those who were outstanding in such competitive sports as baseball and football won the admiration of their classmates. FDR at that time was big-boned and clumsy, giving the general impression of always falling over his feet. He lacked the right kind of coordination (adds LB: he could never play golf worth a damn). Baseball was particularly important at Groton because of a long-standing rivalry with St. Marks. When FDR failed to make the team, he turned to rowing as a second choice. Rowing however was not sufficiently important to justify competition with other schools, so little attention was paid to it.

October 1899, one year before Harvard. Lathrop Brown, the football team manager is at the top of the stair, in tie. FDR is in the white turtle neck in the second row, third from left. The boys in dark jerseys are clearly the squad. Those with letters? Varsity? FDR's shirt is blank...

October 1899, one year before Harvard. Lathrop Brown, the football team manager is at the top of the stair, in tie. FDR is in the white turtle neck in the second row, second from left. The boys in dark jerseys are clearly the squad. Those with letters? Varsity? FDR's shirt is blank... Courtesy: FDR Presidential Library and Museum

LB remembers FDR in this early period as being very shy and having many of the characteristics of an only child. His half-brothers were not of his own generation. FDR had traveled much more than most boys of his own age. He had also turned to a number of pursuits suitable to a rather solitary existence, i.e. he began “collecting” earlier than most boys. He had an inquiring mind, and unlike other boys brought up like a litter of puppies in a kennel, who spent their time cuffing each other, he had plenty of time to spend on individualistic pursuits. Because of this, he was more mature in many respects than his contemporaries. “His eyes opened earlier.”

Groton’s scholastic standard was extremely high, but FDR found his school work very easy. He was inclined to be studious, but not a bookworm. His interests were always diverse and he never studied one subject to the exclusion of others.

FDR's Last Report Card from Groton. Next stop, Harvard!

FDR's Last Report Card from Groton. Next stop, Harvard! Courtesy: FDR Presidential Library and Museum

At the end of the fifth form, FDR and LB, together with some 800 other boys, took their preliminary examinations for Harvard matriculation. Sixteen points (or hours) were required; of the 800 candidates, FDR was highest with 15 points, LB and several other students had 14 points. FDR owed his one point preeminence to the fact he’d had a German governess fairly late; hence he knew advanced German, and the others did not. Result: FDR needed only one one-hour course to matriculate; LB and a few others only one two-hour course. So they spent their sixth form at Groton doing first-year college work and were therefore able to get their degrees at Harvard in three years rather than four.

Aside: Treasure Hunt

LB recalls a treasure hunt at Campobello when he and FDR were about 15. FDR had a 15-foot knockabout. When he and his friends went sailing, they were always accompanied by an experienced sailor. FDR’s mother insisted on this and FDR never objected. Not only would the sailor make himself useful, but the tides in Campobello waters were extremely dangerous, and there were heavy fogs as well. FDR did the skippering, set the course, etc.

Grand Manan Island

Grand Manan Island

One afternoon the two boys decided to hunt for pirate treasure. The bay of Fundy was supposed to have been one of Captain Kidd’s hiding places. They sailed to a small island near Grand Manan, beached the boat and clambered ashore. They looked for and found the cave where Kidd was supposed to have cached some of his treasure. It was dank, cold and dark ­– just the way a pirate’s cave should have been. The boys took turns digging. Suddenly their shovel reverberated with a hollow clanking sound. They had struck a wooden plank. Excitedly they continued digging until they uncovered it completely. Initials were carved on the plank – K.K. FDR and LB jokingly decided Captain Kidd hadn’t gone to Groton and therefore thought Captain was spelled with a K. They continued to dig, but unearthed nothing more. They never knew whether the plank was the real thing or had been put their by a practical joker. But it didn’t much matter; they’d had a fine afternoon and had been able to feel, for a few moments at least, that they were on the verge of discovering real pirate treasure.