Of Daybeds and Historical Narratives


We have a new arrival in the Suite this week. A wonderful burgundy and gold late 19th-century daybed that looks as if it were made and upholstered for the room. As beautiful as it is though, it almost didn’t make the cut: I had initially passed on the purchase two months ago. We did, after all, have a perfectly fine divan in it’s place, a bit fussy perhaps, but in good shape, and did we really need to be second-guessing furniture choices at this stage? But then two events conspired to make me change my mind. The first was a revelation by one of our antiques suppliers that our initial purchase was in all likelihood the product of the famous cabinet maker John Jelliff, and worth many times the amount paid for it. (You can view this piece in the previous post.) The second motivator was the result of a whole semester’s research: Amanda Guzman, Adams House ’11 and one of our project investigators, had just finished putting together a photo database of all the student room photos in the Harvard archives. (Some of these are already online, HERE.) Once these pictures were assembled into a single group, rather than strung out through dozens of boxes in the Archives, we were able to start analyzing similarities between the various interiors. One thing I noticed immediately was the prevalence of reclining couches, like these two examples seen below:


In this 1880 view from one of the Yard dorms, a student reclines on a couch almost identical to ours, placed directly in front of the fireplace


This 1900 view shows a similar couch, covered in pillows as was the fashion of FDR's day. Yet another quest!

Sometimes objects are the result of research and a bit of creativity; FDR writes to Sara in November 1900 "The butterflies are most ornamental." So where to find a Victorian butterfly collection? Ebay. I bought a loose collection of antique Formosan butterflies; then carefully mounted and framed them. They now hang over FDR's desk.

Sometimes decorative objects are the result of research and a bit of creativity; FDR writes to Sara in November 1900 "The butterflies are most ornamental." Lovely! Where do you find a Victorian butterfly collection? As it turns out, on Ebay -well, sort of. Period collections cost astronomical sums, so I tracked down a loose assortment of antique Formosan butterflies; then carefully mounted them on linen and framed them. They now hang over FDR's desk, and, I think, look "most ornamental."

With so many couches vs. upright settees in the photos, the decision to acquire the daybed and sell the divan became obvious. Which leads to a question many of you have been asking: How are we going about choosing what items to include in the Suite? Well, like any good historical site we’ve created what’s called a narrative, a basic premise or rationalization which defines the moment in time we’re attempting to hold. For the FDR Suite, it’s a weekend in May, 1904. Franklin (Frank to his friends) is away at a house party (he hasn’t had much studying to do, paying only slight attention to the graduate studies in history he’s about to drop.) Lathrop (Jake) is away as well. He’s been in New York since January, having, like Franklin, completed his undergraduate studies in three years. Jake had hung around the College this past fall to manage the Varsity football team, but later decided to return to New York to get his feet wet in his father’s real estate firm. All his possessions are all still here though – no point in being uncomfortable during those week-long graduation ceremonies in some hotel! In a month or so, after Commencement, two large moving wagons will appear at the door of Westmorly Court bearing  staff who’ll pack and disperse the contents of four years of life at Harvard, readying the rooms for their next occupants. But for now – for this one sole weekend in May 1904 – the Suite is available for your asking, an intimate view into the man who would become the 32nd President of the United States. Care to stay awhile? Please do! After all, any friend of Frank and Jake is a friend of ours…

As for how we go about selecting individual decorative items, that’s a bit harder to describe. Except for the two dozen or so items specifically mentioned in FDR’s & Lathrop’s letters, we’re forced to piece together likely scenarios, based on the two mens’ noted likes and habits, guided of course by the wealth of information contained in the 50 or so shots we possess of student rooms in the period. So for Lathrop, his bedroom will have a sports and hunting theme, two well documented passions of LB. Football memorabilia, horse prints, the hunting tapestry we’ve acquired – over the next year we’ll slowly piece together a period collection that reflects a sporting gentleman of the age. For FDR’s room, the theme is travel, the sea, and collecting, all noted passions of the 32nd President. A model of the 1903 sailing yacht Atlantic (just acquired); naval pieces, travel scenes, stamps, stuffed birds. Again, the next year will present a giant treasure hunt tracking down and purchasing suitable period items.

And speaking of purchases, for those of you who haven’t donated to our cause yet, or are due for renewal, we could use your support now. We’re about to begin acquiring the textiles for the suite (draperies, rugs, etc) and need to raise about 10K to finish. Any amount you can spare will be most welcome. The form to donate is found HERE.

Until next time!

Bloody Monday

Those of us fond of history (and I included myself in this group) often have a tendency to romanticize the past, or at least think that life today presents a certain level of crudity and barbarism lacking in more cultured times. Every now and then however, I am reminded that things weren’t always how I prefer to think they were. In my now daily quest of scanning the Internet for period Harvard memorabilia to decorate the Suite, I came across this piece, dated about 1900:


Intrigued (or perhaps appalled would be a better word)  I did a bit of research, and discovered this article in the New York Times from 1903.

bloody monday

Wow. All this in a supposedly dry town! Franklin and Lathrop would have both been present to see the “rough housing” described above.

1903 was a very different world indeed.

Tree Exercises, and Odd Historical Paths Taken

One of the most interesting things about the FDR Restoration Project is that I never know down which fascinating historical path I’ll be drawn next. Take yesterday for instance: Dave Robinson, grandson of Chester Robinson ’04 arrived in Cambridge from Maine bearing a whole host of original materials he and his family are sharing with the Restoration. It’s a real treasure trove, and one that I’ll be detailing over numerous posts during the next year. But of immediate note was a volume he showed me that I hadn’t ever seen before: the Harvard Yearbook of 1904.

“Ah ha! What’s this?” I cried, eagerly clasping the thick volume. “Nothing less than a complete catalog of  the state of the College in FDR’s last year, with pictures! Ho! HO!”

Dave kindly consented to a loan, and later that evening I came across the following notice:


(Now, this could be interesting, I thought; after all FDR was on the Class Day committee, his first elected office in fact… What do we have here?)

flower rush

“When in 1897 the College authorities first objected to the Tree Exercises, there was raised in the undergraduates’ mind a problem, which, it is hoped, has been finally settled this year. In 1897 the undergraduates, finding themselves in danger of losing a custom descended to succeeding classes from time almost immemorial, promised to lessen the fight around the tree by lowering the height of the flowers from the ground. They were allowed to hold the exercise in this modified form, which however achieved only a moderate success. These modifications proved so distasteful to the next class, that after considerable discussion, they decided to give up the old exercises, and start somewhat different ones around the John Harvard statue in the Delta. As the fighting for flowers had become objectionable to many, it was omitted, or rather, left in such a modified form as to be almost unrecognizable; and instead cheering and singing were introduced. In this form the exercises have been held for six years, but they have never been considered highly entertaining, or altogether successful. In addition, the feeling has gradually grown that the wooden grand stands erected for the occasion were dangerous on account of fire, but as there seemed to be no substitute which would obviate this difficulty, nothing was done about it. This year, however, after the class of ’79 had given the magnificent stadium to the University, this naturally suggested itself as a suitable place to hold the troublesome exercises… and to give a more substantial tone to the whole… by moving the Ivy Oration from the morning…

OK. Sounds reasonable. But tree exercises? What ever do they mean, “tree exercises”? And what’s this mention of fighting? And which tree? On Class Day? Whatever for?

Then, leafing (pardon the pun) through the volume, I discovered a small picture:

class tree

So, that’s one piece of the puzzle solved: there’s the tree, and that’s clearly Holden Chapel, with the Cambridge Common visible beyond, before iron fencing and Lionel Hall closed off this side of the yard.  But still no explanation of what these strange exercises were about.

Continuing backward down the historical path, I next found this, from an 1897 article in the New York Times:

scrimmage doomed

Holy smokes, the Corporation’s now involved, ladies are being insulted, Harvard men are wearing “dirty football gear” to Class Day, and the news is considered important enough to have made the Times! You’ve got to be kidding. What exactly could be the nature of this “struggle for flowers”?!!  Now I really was intrigued, but while I discovered a fair number of references to the mysterious ceremony, I could find no explanation of why a group of grown men would wrestle each other for flowers tied to a tree…

Further into the past…

Then finally, from the 1880 Harvard Register, a suitably flowery article chronicling yet another President’s graduation ceremony, this time Theodore Roosevelt.

Around the old Class Elm, in the square formed by Holden Chapel, Hollis and Harvard Halls, and the fence on Harvard Square, tiers of seats in circus style were built. Shortly after five o’clock all of the thousand seats were occupied, chiefly by ladies, dressed in light and beautiful costumes, giving the whole the appearance of a gay parterre. Then enter at the gate between Hollis and Holden the juniors (1881) who seat themselves on the ground within the circle. Next come the sophomores (1882) followed by the freshman (1883). After these have taken their places, a group of graduates, many from the recent classes, file in, and seat themselves on the ground, facing the juniors.

Suddenly the rustling of the fans, the low hum of conversation is no longer heard. The music of the band and the cheering of the buildings announce by increased loudness that the seniors are approaching. As they enter, not in their full-dress suits as regulations of Class Day require, but in the oldest clothes they own, the juniors, sophomores, freshmen and graduates rise, and, in turn, greet them with a hearty “Rah! Rah! Rah!” each class attempting to excel in volume of tone and perfection of time. Then ’80 returns the compliment to ’81, ’82, ’83 and the graduates; and then cheer, with their utmost zeal and power, almost every object of college affection, beginning with “President Eliot” and closing with “the ladies.” When the class have exhausted their voices, they sing, as well as can be expected under the circumstances, the Class Song… The song over, hands are joined, each class forming a living chain, of which every link is resolved not to prove the weakest part. Now the word is given: round and round they go, the whirl grows furious, maddening. Fond parents looking from their seats tremble for the safety of sons who may chance to fall and be trampled by that writhing, seething mass, and sigh with relief when they see the rings broken, and attention drawn to the seniors alone, as they, at a given signal from the marshal, strive to grasp a blossom from the bouquets forming the wreathes which at a height of ten feet encircle the dear old tree. Pushed up against the tree beyond hope of release, those who were foremost served as stepping stones for the others. Up struggled an adventurous youth upon the heaving shoulders: he grasped at the tantalizing blossoms, and some of them came away with his touch, but he left the cuticle of his knuckles behind. Nor did he make off with his prize; for he took a plunge backward among those beneath him, lost his grasp upon his trophy, and it was borne away to deck the dress of some one other than she for whom he intended it. Another and another followed his example, some to meet with his fate, others to be more fortunate. More eager grew the struggle as the girdle was broken and torn away. The last flower is gone: there is nothing more to be striven for; and so, the most pleasant and unique rite of Class Day over, the seniors pass out to prepare for the softer and perhaps more entrancing pleasures of the evening.

There it was, at last. So simple, yet so unpredicted. And what an interesting sea change in attitudes between Teddy’s and FDR’s terms at Harvard! Only one question still troubled me: what was the origin of this bizarre custom? The 1904 Yearbook mentioned that the practice dated from “almost time immemorial,” but how long had this been going on?

Next, a hint in Thayer’s Historical Sketch of Harvard University (1890):

“Among the famous ‘rebellions’ I have already mentioned that of 1768, when, says Governor Hutchinson, “the scholars met in body under and about a great tree, to which they have given the name of the ‘Tree of Liberty’.’ Some years after, this tree was either blown or cut down, and the name was given to the present Liberty Tree, which stand between Holden Chapel and Harvard Hall, and is now hung with flowers for the seniors to scramble for on Class Day.

Ho! Ho! So now we are really stepping back…  Our 1904 “Class Tree” was originally “The Liberty Tree,” a meeting place during “rebellions.” Political Rebellions? It was just before the Revolution War, after all. But no. Turns out that wasn’t it at all: Here’s Brian Deming, from his Student Discontent at Harvard Before the Revolution:

Called the Turkish Tyranny, as students likened Harvard authorities to Turkish despots, the 1768 student revolt came about “after the college changed its rules about how students could respond when asked in class to recite. The rule had been that students could simply say “nolo,” meaning “I don’t want to” and be excused. Under the new policy, which applied to all students except the seniors, students couldn’t excuse themselves so easily. Students had to get permission from tutors before class to be excused from reciting. As a consequence many students promptly asked tutors to be excused. Some tutors, such as Thomas “Horsehead” Danforth, turned down all requests. He subsequently had manure smeared on his door. Another tutor, Joseph Willard, had his room ransacked, and several had their chamber windows broken. Then rumors circulated that Willard his efforts to find the identities of the students who ransacked his room, had locked up a freshman “without Victuals, Fire or Drink.” A mob of students soon appeared at Willard’s quarters and broke the windows.”

In the following days, many students met to plan protests at a large elm tree, which they called their Liberty Tree, the same name given to an elm in Boston where Sons of Liberty gathered to protest the Stamp Act… Seniors, who had been aloof from the whole controversy, finally became involved and asked the faculty to properly look into recent events.When the faculty ignored the request, the seniors went to the College president to request a transfer to Yale.”

The entire senior class moved to Yale! Now that would have been something! Fortunately for Harvard (or for Yale), calmer heads soon prevailed, and when the freshman who had supposedly been imprisoned admitted that he hadn’t been restrained in any way, this particular revolt collapsed, but not before the custom of meeting beneath the Liberty Elm in times of crisis, or eventually, celebration, had been implanted in minds of future Harvard generations.

So here then, gentle reader, is the complete historical chain we’ve just followed backwards, in case you’ve forgotten or lost your way in all the twists and turns: In 1768, pre-Revolutionary student discontent at the cruelty of Harvard tutors leads to a rebellious series of gatherings which just happened to meet under a large elm which subsequently became immortalized as the symbol of Revolutionary activism which was commemorated each year by the placing of a wreath which subsequently morphed into series of wreathes and then a girdle of flowers, which one day, perhaps, a graduating senior attempted to carry off to his sweetheart, thereby inciting his fellow classmates to attempt rival feats of gallantry, which, due to the amusement and gaiety hereby invoked, initiated a friendly competition each June wherein the the most agile members of the class would vie for floral tokens much like medieval knights in a jousting match, a Class Day tradition which over the decades grew and became beloved by generations of Harvard men including Theodore Roosevelt until, as matters often do, things got out of hand and the Administration stepped in to prevent what it considered unnecessary rowdiness and uncouth behavior (not to mention, undoubtedly, undue risk of litigation), convincing the student body over threat of cancellation of this time-worn custom to adopt a series of modifications and changes which were neither liked nor well received, and which eventually resulted in such a diminution and devaluation of the practice that by FDR’s time, the Class Committee (of which FDR was a member)  had no real objections to letting the Tree Exercises fall into abeyance, despite the heated protests of previous generations of alumni, who thoroughly missed the old ritual and predicted that this was just another symbol of the decadence and softness of present day youth, a chorus which was only finally stilled with the gradual disappearance of anyone who remembered what the Tree Exercises had ever been about in the first place.

Whew! Got that?

Regrettably for us, the Class Tree, too, is now long gone, carried off in the first great Elm blight that denuded the Yard just before the First World War. But perhaps, given such a grand history, it’s time to think about planting a replacement. There are several recently released Elm hybrids that are supposedly immune to Dutch Elm disease, and now that President Faust has declared that “Green is the New Crimson” a new Class Tree would seem an appropriately environmental gesture to link today’s classes with those hundreds past. And who knows, perhaps, if we’re lucky, on some warm June eve years hence, we might even catch glimpse of a grateful collegiate spirit or two, or three, once again singing, cheering and toasting our health beneath the graceful spread of arching branches.

Interior Design, and Redesign, Harvard 1900

Shortly after last year’s FDR dinner, I received an email from a certain Mr. Dave Robinson in Maine, inquiring as to whether or not we’d be interested in taking a look at some of the Harvard photos and ephemera he’d inherited from his grandfather, Chester Robinson, ’04, a friend and a classmate of FDR’s. I said certainly. Well, one thing led to another, I got busy, Dave got busy, then we made arrangements to get the materials scanned, then there was further delay, then mysteriously the ISB drive Dave sent me arrived empty: you get the general idea. Almost a year passed, and I still really hadn’t had a chance to see the extent of the collection.

The files arrived last week, and I opened them today.

Are we in for a treat!

Over the next few weeks I’ll be showing you more of the incredible treasure trove of material that the Robinson family has been kind enough to share with us, but let’s just say we’ve taken a major step forward in locating specific items to purchase or replicate. For now, I wanted to share with you these six photos, of Chester (Chet) Robinson’s rooms. They show Robinson and his roommate Goodhue’s bay-windowed corner suite in the old Russel Hall, a Claverly like building that stood where today’s Russell (C-Entry) now stands. What’s fantastic about these photos, (and to my knowledge unique in the Harvard collection) is that they show the same room from three views, with two different decorative schemes. Somewhere during their four years, the pair decided to redecorate, in keeping with the shift in taste that was occurring right around the turn of the century. Ornate Victorian styling was moving out, and what would become Arts and Crafts, and eventually, neo-Colonial, was beginning to take hold. What’s critical about finding these pictures, just as we are about to paper the FDR suite, is what it reveals about the wallpaper: we’ve been wondering whether or not our selection of solid silk papers for the bedrooms, as we had seen in the Vanderbilt Suite, was typical of the time, or merely the product of Vanderbilt’s elevated design aesthetic. No longer:


Here’s the window seat before. Note the rather frilly drapes, and the striped wall paper. Two Morris chairs, similar to those coming to the FDR suite, and again, all those Harvard pillows we see in many of the photos. Heaven knows where we will find or recreate those! And how’s this for bizarre coincidence: the view out the windows reveals Westmorly, and the windows of the FDR suite!


Now look at this: a much more distinguished arrangement, with a solid, silk like material on the walls, almost identical to what we were guessing for the FDR Suite bedrooms. YES! The name placards, by the way, are another typical element of Harvard student rooms of the period, though generally they are located over the individual’s bedroom door.

hearth before

A view of the hearth before. Note the Meerschaum pipes (present in almost every room photo) and the beer mugs (another ubiquitous student item.)


Here’s the hearth view after: you can tell it’s years later from the medals now hanging from the pictures: these are club and sports member medallions, and Dave’s family still has many of them, as well as the picture of dear old John the Orangeman, just visible on the mantle behind the mugs to right.


The doors to the bedrooms before: the curtains over the doorways appear in many of the room pictures of the period, and seem very odd to modern eyes. Most bookcases had curtains as well, as shown in the picture two above this one – to keep out coal and wood dust from the fires.


The door view after: a much more civilized arrangement than the ad hoc day bed previously. Note the Crimsons hanging from a hook on the wall. In general, it’s surprising how much the decor has matured over the interval. One (or both) of these gentlemen had a very good eye!

All in all, these six pictures provide a wealth of invaluable leads as to what kind of items we’ll need to acquire for the Suite, and as well as confirming both our reproduction of the printed study paper, and use of solid silks elsewhere. They also remind us what we often forget: the past is not static, locked at a single point and place the way we tend to view it from photos. It changed and moved, just like the present. Something to keep in mind when re-creaeting a set of rooms occupied for four years by two men of maturing times and taste…

We are all hugely grateful to Dave Robinson and his family for sharing this amazing time capsule with us, and I look forward to sharing more of it with you, our readers, over the next month.

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.


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 and FDR: 1905-1920

(This is the fourth 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 IV – 1905 -1920

Eleanor and Franklin in Newburgh, New York, 1905

Eleanor and Franklin in Newburgh, New York, 1905

On Eleanor

LB doesn’t know when ER first became important to FDR. Nor does he know what qualities in her first attracted FDR. ER was not a belle-of-the-ball type, but LB remembers her as the sort of person who would never let anybody down. He himself was impressed by her philosophy, her standards of conduct, speech, behavior, manners etc. plus her great personal integrity.

Years later LB asked ER how she had developed her own particular philosophy and to what did it lead? He was surprised when she said she didn’t know she had one, that she was always motivated by something that needed doing at a particular moment.

LB learned of the engagement when FDR sent him a note saying he was engaged to his seventh cousin and was very thrilled about it. LB and FDR lived only two blocks apart at the time and saw each other frequently, but writing letters – particularly about important things – was much more customary in those days than it is now. LB remembers being very pleased and telling FDR so.

On the Caribbean Cruise

LB remembers the Caribbean cruise as a superb experience, but he did not know that it was Mrs. Roosevelt’s attempt to separate FDR and ER. Nor does he think that FDR knew it, either. LB feels that FDR would have discussed the situation with him if there had been any sort of family row about it.

LB says both he and FDR had a fine time on the cruise. They were young, they had no responsibilities, life was all ahead of them and it was all good. They went from island to island, enjoying the shore excursions, and spent many evening playing cards in the smoking room instead of politely sitting with Mrs. Roosevelt on deck or in the salon. FDR was enthusiastic about everything he did, including playing poker. He over bet his hands at first, but usually slowed down.

The trip finished off with a visit to Cuba. LB remembers that the day was very hot and he spent it driving around with Mrs. Roosevelt, but FDR wanted to see San Juan Hill and did. He was interested in seeing where the battle had been fought and so, mostly likely with other shipboard acquaintances, he hired a horse and went to see for himself.

On Theodore Roosevelt

A TR campaign button from the Harvard University Archives

A TR campaign button from the Harvard University Archives

LB remembers Teddy came to visit Groton perhaps twice when he and FDR were there. He usually gave an informal talk on hunting or some such topic. The Spanish-American war had made him into a hero and he was the sort of man who would have appealed to any boy, what with his hat and spurs and boots.

LB feels sure Teddy had a very real influence on FDR – not in the technical sense of political legislation, but as an inspiration to take part in what was going on and to see that the decent thing was done. His was a philosophy of action – get in there and do something – and this had an effect on FDR.

When FDR was at Harvard, TR was president. Presumably the state of the union was good, everything was going on all right and there was little identification in college with national and political affairs. There was no need, says LB, for a kid in college to take sides.

LB feels FDR never lost his respect for TR. When FDR grew up politically, he disagreed with some of the things TR did and his way of doing them, but it did not affect his feeling for TR as a man.

TR gave Eleanor away at the wedding. It’s true TR, FDR and LB were chatting away in the vestry room, but LB doubts that they were talking about Groton. Usually, it was TR who picked the subject and did the talking, but he never had any trouble holding his audience.

Eleanor on her wedding day, 1905

Eleanor on her wedding day, 1905

As for TR’s monopolizing the wedding reception, LB doesn’t recall that it was that pronounced. He points out that most of the guests were of an older generation than the bride and groom, that once the ceremony had taken place, they had every reason to congregate around TR, who was then extremely popular with his own people. This was before they began to hate him. And certainly FDR and Eleanor, like every other bride and groom, were perfectly willing to stop being the center of attention.

Regarding FDR’s reaction to TR’s attempt to go overseas during World War I, LB says they never discussed it.

From 1905-1910, FDR was busy studying law at Columbia, being a law clerk and raising a family. He was still feeling his way around as far as his profession was concerned. The kind of law practices by the firm with which he was associated (Carter, Kilburn, etc.) was not the kind of thing that would interest him for long; it didn’t concern itself sufficiently with people. True, he was learning what made the wheels go round, but it was from the corporate angle – not from the point of view of the lady garment worker or the resident of one of New York’s firetraps.

His election to the State Senate in 1910 provided him with more human problems. He was kept busy in Albany and Hyde Park looking after his political fences. LB recalled one scrappy fight, wherein Tammany’s undisputed control of the State Legislature was broken up – with FDR on the winning side.

Washington During the Wilson Administration

LB was in Washington as Representative when FDR was there as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. LB as representative outranked FDR. On one occasion when Josephus Daniels was out of town and FDR was Acting Secretary of the Navy, FDR joshingly expected his new status to be recognized. There was to be a White House dinner and FDR was sure his temporary cabinet rank would result in his being seated next to an Ambassadress, at least.

LB and FDR aboard a destroyer, watching a sail boat race in Long Island Sound, about 1914. This photograph, discovered among the family papers of Pam and Elmer Grossman, was previously unknown; a copy will be deposited with the FDR Library.

LB and FDR aboard a destroyer, watching a sail boat race in Long Island Sound, about 1914. This photograph, discovered among the family papers of Pam and Elmer Grossman, was previously unknown; a copy will be deposited with the FDR Library.

Instead, he found Mrs. Brown next to him at table. She thought it was very funny and told him so. He evened up the score by insisting that what they were being served was not terrapin, but rat. It amused him to select those bones that were most rat-like in structure and point out the similarities to Mrs. Brown. He did such a good job that she was unable to eat her dinner.

The point should be made that FDR was sufficiently human, boyish and buoyant to want to be at the top of things, but that is was essentially a humorous situation and FDR enjoyed it as such.

FDR, Eleanor and family in Washington D.C,. June 12, 1919.

FDR, Eleanor and family in Washington D.C,. June 12, 1919.

FDR had and immense interest in political organization. He did not make a study of political philosophies from their beginnings, but he read a great deal on political economy. Because of his interest in political organization as such, during this Washington period he arranged to get proxies from national committeemen unable to attend meetings being held in Washington and to attend in their place. He liked to see and know what was going on and think out in his own mind how the situation could be bettered.

FDR and LB were very social during this Washington period, entertaining and being entertained constantly. They seemed to feel it was necessary to se as many people as they could. Their social circle centered on the Navy Department, but spread out to include other aspects of Washington social and political life.

Again, regarding FDR’s social consciousness, LB points out this was a period of change in emphasis in the United States. The Republicans had been having their innings for a long time and the people were tired of their methods and philosophies. Almost every in Wilson’s Cabinet had a sense of change and was in sympathy with it, Roosevelt among them.

In the Baltimore democratic convention of 1912, FDR didn’t amount to much. He was still pretty young in politics at the time. The convention of 1916 was not important, but the San Francisco convention in 1920 was a rip-roaring contest between William McAdoo and James Cox

cox rooseveltLB recalls a situation wherein FDR, then being mentioned as a possible candidate for the vice-presidential nomination, asked LB’s support and assistance. Prior commitments prevented LB’s working for FDR’s candidacy at that point of the convention. FDR demonstrated his usual good sportsmanship. If LB had given his word, that was that.

FDR received the vice-presidential nomination, of course. He was 38 at the time. He and LB had traveled west together and had shared a hotel room in San Francisco. On the way east, FDR, as vice-presidential candidate, now rated the lower berth.

The campaign tour developed FDR into a nation figure. He had undoubtedly been West before as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but now his role was different. He came in contact with all kinds of people and all kinds of problems on a national scale. He enjoyed campaigning and it was another experience which broadened him.