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What was for FDR's eyes only is now for yours

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The National Archives unveils a sample of a 5,000-document trove of letters, notes, and drafts related to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt that experts say has never been seen by the general public or historians.

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010

The letter is marked "personal and private" and is addressed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary, Grace Tully, who was with the ailing chief executive in Warm Springs, Ga., that Thursday in 1945.

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The writer was Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, who decades before had been FDR's mistress and who now was making arrangements for what would be their last fateful meeting at the president's rural retreat.

Elegantly handwritten, the letter never mentions Roosevelt by name -- her love letters to him had been their undoing a quarter-century earlier. He is just "the subject," or "the 'B,' " for boss. But the arrangements worked out, and a week later the two former lovers were together again on the day he died.

The letter is part of a newly acquired trove of 5,000 pages of Roosevelt documents that the National Archives said Wednesday should be a feast for historians of the president who led the nation through the Depression and most of World War II. A YouTube video by the National Archives details some of the letters and the story behind the acquisition of the trove.

The 12 boxes of material had been in private hands and never available to scholars or the general public, said Bob Clark, supervisory archivist at the National Archives' Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y.

They were saved from the auction block by special federal legislation this year that cleared the way for their donation to the National Archives, according to Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, the New York Democrats who co-sponsored the measure.

Archivists hope to have the collection publicly available by November and online by January.

"Wow," said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of "No Ordinary Time," a chronicle of the Roosevelts during the war. "This stuff sounds like it's going to be very exciting. You very rarely get a whole new trove of material. . . . It's pretty great."

The documents come from FDR's intimate professional inner circle: his two chief secretaries, Marguerite "Missy" LeHand and her successor, Grace Tully. Both women were virtually part of his family, Goodwin said.

And judging by the sample of nine documents unveiled at the National Archives on Wednesday, the material has a smoky, behind-the-scenes feel as if fresh from the president's desk.

Clark said they include the private papers of Tully and LeHand as well as many of Roosevelt's papers, which Tully took with her when she left the White House after FDR suffered a massive stroke in Warm Springs and died April 12, 1945.

LeHand, who historians think may have been secretly in love with FDR, worked for Roosevelt from 1920 until 1941.

Tully took the president's dictation for his famous Pearl Harbor speech. "Miss Tully had been with Roosevelt since his days as governor of New York," said David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States. "And many of his most sensitive letters, instructions, notes and even scribblings passed through her hands."

"Roosevelt did not keep a diary, did not sit for extensive interviews with historians, and did not live to write his memoirs," Ferriero added.

Much of his story is revealed in the kind of day-to-day interactions recorded in the papers of Tully and LeHand -- a chatty letter to Tully in Roosevelt's handwriting from a wartime conference in Cairo; a memo urging the promotion of then-Army Col. George C. Marshall to general; a cordial, handwritten note in English from the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Among the most interesting items is the April 5, 1945, letter by Rutherfurd. She and Roosevelt had a brief affair after she was hired as his wife's social secretary in 1914, scholars think. The affair was discovered in 1918 when Eleanor Roosevelt found a bundle of Rutherfurd's love letters in her husband's steamer trunk.

The relationship ended. Rutherfurd married, and she and the president seldom saw each other over the next 25 years, scholars say. But by the 1940s, the affair had secretly been rekindled. Rutherfurd apparently began visiting the White House, under the code name Mrs. Paul Johnson, Goodwin has written.

In April 1945, Rutherfurd arranged for herself and an artist friend to visit FDR in Warm Springs, where the artist would paint the president's portrait. In the letter to Tully, Rutherfurd explains the details, asking, "will you ask the 'B' if that meets with his approval?"

"If you change your mind and think it would be better for me not to come -- call me up," Rutherfurd wrote. "I really am terribly worried -- as I imagine you all are."

Roosevelt, though only 63, was in extremely poor health, appearing gaunt and exhausted in photographs at the time.

Rutherfurd's concern was not misplaced. Seven days later, as the president chatted with her and the artist worked on his portrait, he collapsed. Rutherfurd quickly departed. FDR died about three hours later. And the story of their romance stayed largely a secret until a former aide's memoir in 1966.

The letter sheds another bit of light on the episode, Ferriero said.

"What we're really excited about is being able to open these materials to historians for the first time since they were created 75 years ago or more," said Clark, of the Roosevelt library. "And allow them to . . . see whether or not it impacts the modern view of FDR and his presidency."


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