Presidential Pathways: A Walking Tour of Harvard

TRFDR copyThe Harvard Alumni Association invites you to a collection series:

Presidential Pathways: A Walking Tour of Harvard
Michael Weishan, Author, PBS Host, President of the FDR Suite Foundation.

Saturday, September 25, 2010
11:00 am -1:00 pm (Registration and meeting time 10:45 am) Meeting location: John Harvard Statue, Harvard Yard

This behind-the-scenes walking tour follows the student footsteps of two of America’s greatest presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The tour includes exclusive access to interiors not normally open to the public. View the spectacular set of Edward Penfield murals in the former breakfast room of Randolph Hall, the recently restored 1904 interior of the FDR Suite in Westmorly, and the Theodore Roosevelt room in the Adams House master’s residence.

Light walking; uneven brick pavement, some steps.
The tour lasts approximately one hour; lunch to follow in the newly restored Annenburg dining hall.

Limited enrollment.
Alumni and friends of the Harvard community $20

FDR’s Secret Code

How’s this for an elliptical tale: I was sitting last evening in FDR Suite, attending a small get-together hosted by Claire Mays, ’81, who’s our first guest since the Suite was sufficiently completed to lose its air of camping. There were nine of us, and we were sitting around in an odd allotment of chairs – our comfy Morris chairs, of course, plus the new settee, but also a clustering of small wooden period chairs to accommodate the extra company, It struck me as I looked from smiling face to face that this is very much how the room must have appeared when Lathrop and Frank had a few friends over to sit around the fire sharing a couple of beers. (We on the other hand were sipping a rye-based period cocktail that Claire had discovered somewhere and kindly attempted to resurrect. If the general reaction of my fellow drinkers was any indication, this is one revival that probably won’t gain steam any time soon. No matter; it’s the thought that counts.) But to return to my story: there we were with the gaslights aglow, cozily ensconced against the wind and wet of a rare August Nor-easter, when one of the guests asked me if any of the items in the room actually belonged to FDR. The answer, I replied, was no – while every item in the Suite is either attested from documentation, or presumed from similar period rooms, the sad fact is that we don’t have anything from FDR himself. We come close – personal items from his classmates, publications from the period, etc, but nothing we know that FDR actually possessed. In fact, there’s remarkably little surviving from that period that can be absolutely known to have been in the Suite: letters home certainly, but not much else, except one very interesting book: FDR’s line-a-day diary.

This intriguing item, now at the FDR Presidential Museum in Hyde Park, was kept intermittently by FDR for years. It’s a handy little system, really – you just dotted down a note or two each day in a pocket-sized book, and soon you could look back and see what had been going on in your life that same date, one, two three, four years back. The interesting thing about FDR’s volume is that several of the pages were written in a private code, as you can see for the entry of 1903:


The text reads: “To Groton at 9 & get there just in time for Church. Lunch with Aunt K’s [Aunt Kassie, Mrs Price Collier] party.” Then comes the code, followed by: “Supper with all relatives at Whitney’s. Chapel in the evening” and then another coded sentence. The coded parts were not deciphered until the 1970s, when a researcher at the Archives, Nona Ferndon, first noticed them. It was eventually discovered that the code that FDR used substituted numbers for the first five vowels (1 for a; 2 for e; 3 for i, 4 for o, 5 for u, and distinctive portions of consonant letters for the the letter itself ( ¬ for T, – for H, etc.). The sentences can now be read as: “After lunch I have a never to be forgotten walk with my darling.” & “And I am going to New York next Sunday.”

So why all the mystery? La romance, toujours la romance: this was the day that FDR proposed to Eleanor at Groton,  and surely expecting maternal opposition, our president-resident decided for the moment to keep his thoughts secret. (Does this imply FDR feared Mama reading his diary? We know not, but Sara was not told until the week following, and made her opposition perfectly plain when informed.) The other, earlier coded entries also deal with a love interest; this time though, it was directed at Alice Sohier, who had turned down FDR the year previous, and who in sailing off to Europe, eventually sailed into the arms of another beau as his first lady, albeit of a far less famous kind.

OK Michael, I hear you say, all this cyclic narrative is most engaging, but what’s this got to do with the Suite? How are you so sure that this particular book was there? Well, look at the first entry for 1901. You may think that’s some kind of code as well, but what you’re really seeing is bleed-through from the next page. Flip the paper, and it says: “Sat. November 23 1901. HARVARD 22 – YALE 0. Wonderful game. Wonderful day for Harvard. Wonderful evening.”

Can’t you just picture our sophomore FDR at his desk in the Suite, penning that little note?

Well, I can assure you it’s certainly much easier now, with the renovations 3/4 completed, sitting around the hearth with a few new friends…

Yes, a wonderful day for Harvard indeed – and a wonderful evening.

All the King’s Horses…

Who said you couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together again? Several day’s worth  of hard work later, the Suite has emerged with its new coat of paper, remarkably transformed, looking for the first time in over a century very nearly like a Victorian room:

The study looking south

The study looking south

Our piano, festooned with period tunes. That's Johnny the bobcat, by the way, our mascot; beneath his sharp claws poor old Eli is down for the count

Our piano, festooned with period tunes. That's Johnny the bobcat, by the way, our mascot; beneath his sharp claws poor old Eli the quail is down for the count

The study looking north; FDR's bedroom on the left, Lathrop's center. You can just glimpse "George" Lathrop's 8 point buck through the door frame

The study looking north; FDR's bedroom on the left, Lathrop's center. You can just glimpse "George," Lathrop's eight-point buck through the door, named by Judith Palfrey, our master, after our Foundation's dear Father George. "The white collar says it all." Amen to that.

FDR slept here...

FDR slept here...

Lest we forgot: the Suite this past February, and this afternoon, August 6, 2010.

Lest we forget: the Suite this past February, and the same view this afternoon, August 6, 2010.

What’s next? Window treatments, and – hopefully – more generous contributions from our friends and supporters, as our coffers are again growing bare…

Boodle & Co.

Dearest Mama,
I have jumped into a den of wild animals on my return, beginning with a dinner at the Club last Saturday, two private performances of the Pudding show & a crowd of 1903 men here for Herbert Burgess’ ushers’ dinner… FDR to Sara,
May 3rd, 1904:

Just so that you don’t think we’re concentrating on Euterpe at the expense of Thalia, I thought you might be interested in seeing one of our recent acquisitions for the Suite:

Boodle Poster corrected1This wonderful image comes to us courtesy of the descendants of Chester Robinson ’04; Chester’s grandson Dave found this fantastic poster among the memorabilia Chester had saved from his Harvard years. Dave was kind enough to have the original scanned for us,  and after a bit of digital restoration work, it once again looks just as it did when FDR first saw it. A copy will hang on the door of FDR’s bedroom.

But what of the production itself? I was curious, especially after I saw other pictures from Chester’s collection showing the merry crew:


A bit more digging, and this article from the Crimson, Saturday, April 02, 1904:

Rehearsals of the Hasty Pudding Club’s comic opera “Boodle and Co.,” have been held regularly for the past four weeks, and the production promises not to fall below the standard set by former Pudding plays. Mr. J. W. Parks and Mr. M. B. Gilbert, who have been connected with past Cadet shows, are coaching the principals and the chorus respectively. The twenty-four musical numbers, by J. H. Densmore ’04, and the book, by H. Otis ’04, are bright and catchy and display considerable versatility.

The prologue introduces Simeon Boodle, an Idaho rancher, who, upon announcing his purpose of becoming rich and influential, promptly falls asleep in front of his ranch-house and dreams the events set forth in the two acts. The scene of these is laid at White Isle, a fashionable summer resort, where Boodle, now an opulent United States senator, takes his family for the summer. Here he gradually loses most of his money, but gains control of his hitherto ruling half, and sees his daughter finally married to the man who really loves her. After many amusing complications and minor love affairs, he wakes up in the epilogue, happy to find that he has only been dreaming.

The cast, in order of appearance, is as follows: Simeon Boodle, rancher, hopeful but tired,  J. P. Bowditch ’05; Mrs. Boodle, Simeon’s better and ruling half,  R. Lane ’04; David Plumb, rancher, with tragic inclinations,  C. A. Shea ’04; Elizabeth Boodle, daughter of Simeon,  G. Lawton ’04; Roger Fairfax, the pride of Bonanza,  S. A. Welldon ’04; Mr. Moppet, proprietor and manager of White Isle Lodge,  G. F. Tyler ’05; Minnie Moppet, his daughter,  W. P. Sanger ’05;  Augustus Grenville of London,  G. O. Winston ’05;  Duchess Marietta Chinolla, of Italy,  M. Tilden ’05; Fritz. David’s unhappy companion,  H. Otis ’04; Captain Trump, of U. S. Cruiser “Alaska.”  A. V. Baird ’04; Cowboy clerks, French school-maids middies on the “Alaska,”  White Isle guests, summer girls, waiters, etc.

Performances will be given as follows: graduates’ night, April 30: undergraduates night; May 2: public performances May 8: Boston performances in Potter Hall. New Century Building. Huntington avenue, May 5, 6, and 7, matinee May 6.

It seems the production was quite well received. Who knows, perhaps it’s time for a revival…

Time Machine

Our latest find

Our latest find

One of the things that amazes me most about this project is that every now and then, a piece of the puzzle drops mysteriously from the sky, as if by preordained writ. I noted in a previous post how a strange and unlikely attraction to a tiny spot in Big Sur led me to Lathrop Brown’s descendants in the persons of Pam and Elmer Grossman, and how since then, so many aspects of Lathrop’s life, previously almost a perfect void, have now come together, including the wonderful family photo archives Dan L’Engle Davis shared with us last month. Thanks to these folks, Lathrop’s room will be as replete with personal memorabilia as Franklin’s (there thanks to the FDR Library), just as if ol’ “Lapes” had left the Suite moments before.

Last week another fascinating bit of FDR history descended from the heavens, this time from a far more prosaic source: EBay. As is my occasional wont, I was scanning one day for period Harvard memorabilia, and I noticed a little tome entitled Harvard University Songs. It had a delightful cover, and I was intrigued. There was very little detail supplied, except that it was an illustrated songbook, and that the publication date was 1902 – right in our range. So without giving it much thought, I bid on the item, maximum price, $20, thinking it might make an interesting addition to the period music already in our collection. It was mine later that day for a grand total of $18.12, including shipping.

The book arrived today, and turned out to be a small treasure.

True to description, it was a charmingly illustrated volume, much akin to the caricature book of Harvard Personalities I discovered earlier this year (also on EBay, and the subject of a future post). Even more appropriately, the drawings were done by FDR classmate (and fellow Newell Junior Crew Member freshman year) S.A. Welldon ’04, and dedicated, interestingly, to the Harvard Union. (The Union’s appeal is hard for us to appreciate today, but in 1902, it was hugely important in Harvard student life.)  All very intriguing. But what really got me going was the short introduction:

The compiler has tried to make a collection of the songs that are actually sung at Harvard, by the Glee Club, by the crowds at football games, and by the undergraduates and graduates. Many of the songs and versions of songs have been passed down to the present classes by ear alone, and are printed here for the first time.


Think about it: what sits beside me on my desk as I write is a veritable miniature window back in time, capturing from that pre-recording age, the actual songs, and versions of songs, that FDR knew and sang at Harvard, exactly as he sang them. (And sang our president-resident did: the reason we have a piano in the Suite is that FDR and Lathrop both belonged to the Freshman Glee Club.) And these songs were sung not only by the class of 1904, but by generations of Harvardians before them. You can tell by just reading the melody and lyrics that some of these songs are truly old:


Now I can’t claim this volume as a first-ever discovery; once I had this dear little book in my hands and realized what exactly it was, I soon able to backtrack and find another copy buried away in the Harvard University archives, and later, was even able to track down a scanned version of the entire book (at UCLA Berkeley, of all places. You can, and should, view it here). But what fascinates me, and what I hope fascinates you, is the FDR Project’s unique ability to pluck otherwise dead and dry material like this thin neglected volume and place it once again in a living, breathing historical context of immense interest to scholars and historians worldwide, so that you and I and they,  – and eventually, hopefully, everyone with a computer through the virtual museum we’re planning – can hop-skip an entire century, and for a brief instant, experience what it was like to be alive at Harvard with FDR in his sophomore year. It’s one thing for me to simply tell you that FDR and Lathrop sat in Morris chairs and sang some ditty called “The Winter Song” over a glass of Piper with chums by the fire: it’s entirely another for me to give you the opportunity to sink into the soft cushions of those very same chairs, feel the heat of that same crackling fire, hand you a glass of sibilant bubbly, and teach you to sing this almost forgotten song in precisely the manner,  in precisely the same spot, on precisely the same instrument as FDR heard it eleven decades ago.

Time travel is what this is, really – rudimentary perhaps, but time travel none-the-less, and frankly, it’s enthralling.

What’s next from the heavens? I know not, but surely something. For the moment, we’ll just take our cue from another FDR contemporary, and head towards “the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning…”

Thanks to all you who’ve made this incredible journey possible. We continue to welcome, and need, your support.

Project Lathrop Brown

I was sitting in the Suite a few weeks ago, looking around, and I must admit to being quite impressed. With furniture mostly in place, pictures on the walls, mementos scattered everywhere, the place is really starting to become a real Victorian room with personality. This last is truly the key, because our quest is not so much to create a period interior (although that’s interesting in itself) but rather to create a period interior that reflects two very specific men: FDR and Lathrop Brown. Fortunately for FDR’s posterity, our president’s past is extremely well documented. The FDR Library and Museum at Hyde Park in the person of Bob Clark, chief archivist, has been extremely helpful in providing us with images that make FDR’s personal space come alive: pictures of the family at play, views of Springwood, images of the Half Moon at full sail. Not so for Lathrop Brown – his early life was mostly a blank to us beyond the wonderful later-life pics Pam Grossman, Lathrop’s granddaughter, and her husband Elmer dug up for us  – at least until last month. Exactly as I was lamenting the lack of detailed information and photos of Lathrop’s family, I received an email from Teresa Izzo, friend and fellow history detective to Dan L’Engle Davis, who turned out to be Lathrop’s sister Lucy’s grandson. (Got that?) Teresa had found us through the website, and wanted to let me know that Dan had “quite a collection” of Brown family memorabilia.

Was I interested?

Is the Pope Catholic? How soon can you get here?!!

“Quite a collection” turned out to be a tremendous understatement: an unbelievable collection of numerous photo albums, stuffed with over a century of Brown family history from the 1860’s to about 1910. Here at last were the insights into Lathrop and his family we had lacked: their travels, their childhood pictures, their homes, all in a remarkable state of preservation. Some examples:


Lathrop’s mother, the former Lucy Nevins Barnes, about 1878, just before she married Charles Stelle Brown, who was then in the process of building a real estate empire in New York City. (Brown’s firm sold the land to build the Brooklyn Bridge, as just one example.) Later in life, Lucy Barnes Brown would go on to become the first ever woman’s amateur golf champion.

Here she is, ready for the links in 1895:

lucy barnes brown

Lathrop’s Father, Charles Stelle Brown: (this pic courtesy the Grossman’s)

Charles Stelle Brown

And the children:


Lathrop’s siblings in 1893. From left to right: Charles S Brown Jr, ’08, Lathrop Brown ’04, Lucy Brown, and Archibald Manning Brown ’03. Charlie, as he was known, went on to head the family’s real estate firm in Manhattan, which still exists today,  by the way – Brown, Harris Stevens; Lathrop (Lapes, (or Lapie) to his family, as we now know thanks to the albums, would soon be congressman and presidential confidante); Lucy, who married artist William L’Engle, became a famous painter; and Archie, who became a well known architect.

The pictures run the gamut from formal portraits to Brownie shots. Below is Lathrop and Miss Lydia Jones, Long Island Sound, summer, 1903. (Lathrop, already with sufficient credits to graduate, would return to Cambridge that fall, his only duty to manage the Varsity Football Squad. FDR, also unofficially matriculated, would occupy himself with his two loves, one old – The Crimson, and one new – Eleanor.) The two hand-held Brownie shots, here restored, are humorously labeled “Before the Sail”:

before the sail

and “After the Sail.”

after the sail

I could go on and on, but you get the general idea: from the clear blue sky has dropped an invaluable collection of close to 1000 pictures that documents the lives of not one, but three distinguished Harvard alums, and that allows us to fill out the Lathrop Brown side of the FDR Suite equation in a way we never thought possible.(Not to mention fulfilling the Foundation’s charter “to preserve and document Harvard student life at the turn of the 20th century.”)

So, short story: we’ve launched Project Lathrop Brown. With the help of our summer intern Justin Roshak, and while we have the kind loan of this material from Dan and Teresa for the summer, it’s our intention to scan and catalog a large percentage of these photos, both for our own eventual use in the Suite, as well to share with the Harvard University Archives and FDR Presidential Library.

And that’s where you come in: after some heady months of donations earlier this year, funding has slowed to a trickle, and we could use your help! Project Lathrop Brown will cost about $2500, mostly in new digital equipment suitable for this kind of intensive photographic preservation and reproduction; in addition, we’re still about 30K out from finishing the Suite. If you haven’t donated before, or if you can find your way to helping us again, now’s the hour!