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(This is the second installment in a continuing series taken from the unpublished notes of filmmaker Pare Lorentz.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

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.

110 Years Later: Harvard Changed? Yes, and No…

This week, one of our student researchers, Nina Ranalli of Eliot House, has the guest columnist slot. Having myself spent a large part of the last two years sifting through a Victorian twilight of  stuffed daybeds, dances at the Somerset, shooting parties in Sudbury, and Brahmin prides and prejudice, I note that I’ve become somewhat accustomed to the gas-lit feel of the age. Nina however, has the fresh perspective of the class of 2010, and I think you’ll find, as I did, that her impressions are quite revealing – both of our times, and FDR’s.     MDW

As a student researcher, I’ve been having great fun perusing student diaries from the month of March, 1900, collected in the Chest of 1900 project. I’m reading them to find the interesting, amusing, and enlightening aspects of student life in 1900. Here are a few of the tidbits I’ve found that show how much the undergraduate experience has changed since then.

The funniest bit so far is from Richard Derby’s (’03) diary. He describes a bit of a food fight at dinner:

NR1

The idea of playfully launching bits of food at our friends wouldn’t be unimaginable to students today– it’s the presence of a tablecloth that seems almost inconceivable!

And continuing on the subject of undergraduate life, I find the last sentence from Harrie Chamberlin’s (’01) dairy entry on March 2th, 1900 more than a little startling:

NR2

Fire? Build? Heat?

I have a fireplace in my room, too, but I take for granted that it’s inoperable, long-since sealed over due to safety or energy concerns. In fact, I imagine most undergrads wouldn’t tolerate the hassle involved with maintaining a fire for warmth! We get up in arms enough about the heating systems in the houses laying dormant when we’re a bit chilly. In this case, it’s the stark difference between daily life in 1900 and in 2009 that shocks us.

Not just structural, but social changes have of course occurred as well.  Mr. Lane, the College Librarian who requested all the diaries, kept a journal himself when a group of Cubans visited Cambridge in the summer of 1900. The anti-Catholic attitude of some people at Harvard becomes apparent from his notes. He says:

“Mrs. Gulick is very much annoyed over the fact (as she states it) that the Catholics are taking to themselves the whole credit of the Cuban summer school and have told people that the President is a Roman Catholic and have spread the impression that the College is practically a Catholic institution… Certain Catholic societies to keep open and provide for a waiting room in Harvard for men and in Phillips Brooks House for women and they have called these places salas catolicas. It has been a mistake, it seems to me, to allow this name to be used, but it can hardly be changed now.”

The obvious tension between Catholics and non-Catholics would seem out of place on today’s campus– student groups and organizations disagree all the time, but generally avoid the adversarial attitude implicit in this quote.

Despite the clear changes in undergraduate life, in another entry Harrie Chamberlin manages to convince me that students in 1900 weren’t so different from us after all. Take a look at a paragraph from his March 9th entry.

NR 3

He says, “I find difficultly in deciding whether I am exceedingly busy or only moderately busy and lazy.”

In this case, the similarity between 1900 and 2009 is shocking. I can imagine this very sentence coming from practically any of my friends or roommates. I might even venture to say that packed schedules, deluges of homework, and excessive procrastination are defining characteristics of the undergraduate experience. Furthermore, we love to talk about this busy/lazy dilemma amongst ourselves– how much homework one has and how little homework one has done are probably the most popular conversations on campus.  As much as our day-to-day experiences of College life have changed since 1900, then, perhaps our attitudes haven’t!

Wallpaper Redux

So, long story short… Before we committed ourselves to a final decision on the study wallpaper, I thought it advisable to check one more time behind the massive radiator where I discovered the initial fragments. This time though, rather than just investigating with camera and flashlight, thanks to the kind offices of our superintendent, Jorge Teixeira, we actually removed the 400 pound beast – with the help of three men! And this is what I found:

wallpaper1

Uh oh… See that little leaved bit in the upper left-hand corner? Another fragment of the pattern had come to light.

Here’s an expanded view:wallpaper2

So now, what to make of the pattern? It turns out we were only partially correct on our first version, but fortunately, thanks to the little dot at the 0-inch mark at the lower left hand corner of the first view, we were finally able to determine the repeat with accuracy by flipping and overlaying the detached pieces I found with those still on the wall. That little section really was a lifesaver, because if it hadn’t been for this single bit in situ, there would have been no way to determine the repetition.

Here’s what the pattern looks like, matching extant bits on the wall with recovered fragments:

wallpaper3

And voila! Our interpretation:

wallpaper4

Note that I say “interpretation.” Given the the poor condition of existing fragments, there’s no way (within our budget, at least) to really determine the original color palette of the paper with absolute accuracy. Though the fragments read mostly red now, they are heavily faded, covered with paint and mastic, and have been subjected to 110 years of heat and light. Originally, the various bands were most likely some other complementary color such as olive green, brown or dark burgundy.  Kari Pei, the Director of Design at Wolf-Gordon, whose company is donating the paper for the Suite, sifted through a large number of Victorian paper samples, and proposed several probable color schemes based on patterns of the period. Like so many other things in a project lacking direct photographic evidence, we simply have to make a best guess in keeping with our mission to invoke the period. Of the various options, the one above proved the favorite. The paper’s exact hues by the way, are not yet set. (And how you see them will vary greatly depending on your computer monitor.) The overall final effect should be burgundy/olive green, and we’ll be working with interior designer Kai Chao to coordinate the final shades of the bands with the fabric for draperies, the Morris chairs, as well as the paper for the bedrooms and hall.

And speaking of Kari, she deserves a special word of thanks. Not only is her firm making a substantial donation to our efforts, but she herself put in dozens of hours, handcrafting the design you see above. In fact, she produced over 20 different versions of the FDR paper, each time tweaking and adjusting the pattern as new information came to light. I’m particularly pleased with the way she was able to recreate the loose informality of the original fragments. Her careful eye noticed that the loops in the fleurs de lys, as well as the leaves, varied in sequence, and if you scroll quickly over the design above, you’ll see she was able to replicate that hand-drawn appearance. Quite a feat to replicate on computer!

And one final note: thanks to your generosity – several of you at the Trustee level, bravo! – we’ve acquired the piano! A very special round of applause goes out to Michael Silver, Dean LeBaron, Richard Mayer, Gilbert O’Connell and Pam & Elmer Grossman. Pam, by the way, is the granddaughter of FDR’s roommate and life-long friend, Lathrop Brown. During their visit here in September, she and Elmer provided us with a wealth of fascinating material which I’ll be sharing with you over the next few weeks.

Additional Views of the Union

Many of you asked to see a bit more of the Union as FDR knew it, so here are some additional shots I was able to dig up in the Harvard Archives.

First, the basement plan I showed you before, though  this time with the complete rotunda area. FDR would have been quite familiar with this space, as not only were his Crimson offices next door, but the rotunda housed the ticket office for the Athletics office, the starting point for those all important football games.

unionbasement

Below, the first floor plan. Several interesting things here. Notice first of all, the separate entrance for ladies. (This by the way, has presented me with a bit of an historical puzzle, because if you go look at the old Union, it appears as if the door was on the other side. Of course I could be looking at it wrong. The facade has been altered several times.)

unionfirst

Where many of us will remember the kitchens and serving area, originally there was a restaurant dining room open to guests and alums, as well as an “athlete’s training table” where specially tailored meals were served for those in the rigor of sport pursuits. (What precisely they ate, given the nutritional mores of the time, I can but imagine: steak and eggs with cod liver oil?) Below, the dining room. The brochure advertising the Union (from which these pictures come) promises “excellent restaurant style fare and service” something “not always easily found in Cambridge.”

diningroom

Next, a view of the “living room” (McKim’s own term, and an interesting early usage) looking east. The dining room above is on the other side of the wall behind the fireplace at far end. In my day, a large door had been cut through linking the two rooms. Notice the TR chandeliers, as well as the elaborately molded ceiling. I’m trying to remember back, and I seem to recall that the medallions featured a design of interlocked “H’s”  and “U’s” This ceiling was completely destroyed when the room was carved up in the late 1990’s – a tremendous architectural loss.

livingroom

The second floor featured several interesting features: a ladies dining room, another billiard room, and the library and smoking room.

union2nd

Here’s the library, brand new and only half filled with books, just as FDR would have known it. (He served on the library committee and bought books for the collection.) Notice the statues of Victorian worthies, just visible on the top of each shelf. Later views show that this room had become almost a reliquary of white marble sculpture. It was from here, incidentally,  just a few years later, that T.S. Eliot borrowed a volume, Arthur Symons’s, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, which shaped his entire literary career.

libraryThe top floor featured guest rooms for visitors (sans private bath, as was the custom of the day) plus the relatively modest homes of the Harvard Monthly and Harvard Advocate.

union3rd

The Chest of 1900

February 22, 1900

At the last meeting of the University Council it was suggested that an attempt be made to bring together for the benefit of our successors at the close of the twentieth century, as complete a record as possible of the present daily life of the University….

Let each one during the month of March 1900 keep a careful journal of his daily doings, recording faithfully, and in as much details as he can, all that goes on from day to day, including his college work, his professional interests, his family relations, his amusements, in fact, all the elements of his life… Let him imagine that he is writing without reserve to some friend at a distance…in detail as vividly as possible, a picture of what is taking place…

It is proposed to add to the written narratives a comprehensive collection of photographs of places, buildings and rooms, and everyone is asked to contribute what photographs he can, particularly pictures of his home, both interior and exterior views…

These will deposited in a zinc-lined chest or chest, soldered up securely, locked by two different keys… to remain absolutely closed until 1925… with no general use of the records…earlier than 1960.

William Lane, College Librarian.

And so began the letter that saved the FDR Suite Restoration Project; for without this turn-of-the-last-century effort to compile a time capsule by the University, today we would have almost no knowledge of student rooms or student life of 1900. Fortunately for us, Lane’s call to arms, dubbed the Chest of 1900, was generally well received by staff and students: In response to this plea, Julian Burroughs, ’01, an avid member of the Camera Club, set off to photograph interior and exterior scenes of Harvard. These shots have provided most of the information on period furnishings and decor you’ve seen on the fdrsuite.org site, and form the base guide for our Restoration in absence of actual period photos of the FDR suite. In addition to this trove of pictures, the Chest also contains many volumes of journals, letters, diaries and other ephemera, which Nina Ranalli, one of our student researchers, is now sifting through to give us a more thorough picture of undergraduate life during FDR’s time at Harvard.

In looking through this invaluable collection, and realizing how completely we rely in it for information, two things immediately come to mind. The first is a prayer of thanks that responses like this one – also found in the chest – weren’t general:

no letter

Very truly? Hardly.

I’m afraid Mr. J Winthrop Platner, despite his grand signature (which is really swell!) loses that round to history.

Of course hindsight is 20-20.

But what of futuresight?

What’s truly scary is the realization that future generation of scholars won’t have the benefit of William Lane’s forethought. The University’s record of student rooms, for instance, is paltry for the period before 1900; occasional at best for the teens and 20s; a bit more flush from the 30s with the construction of the Houses; then it tapers off dramatically. The 70s and 80s are almost entirely blank.

The University too, is alarmed, and is actively trying to fill in the gaps (see below) though with what success I don’t know. With the FDR Suite, we’ve relied on the Victorians’ collecting mania, especially their fondness for scrapbooks. Without the various Harvard student scrapbooks stuffed full of theater programs, notices for athletic events, photos, ticket stubs, etc., we would very much out of luck.

What then is the permanent ephemera (if I may be pardoned that oxymoron) of today’s email age?

archives

I don’t know about you, but I’ve decided it’s high time to go through my files and dig out those old photos, letters and other bits and pieces from my student days, and send them off to the Archives. No one will see them for a while (the records remain sealed for your lifetime) but that’s just fine by me. If some future historian owes me the tiniest fraction of what I owe William Lane and his Chest of 1900, I will feel well recompensed indeed.

The FDR Suite Restoration at Adams is a self-supporting project, and advanced only through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation. Please consider giving generously to support our efforts.