Democracy Dies in Darkness

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Private world of Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled in newly found film footage

August 1, 2018 at 12:01 AM

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The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library released on Aug. 1 several films showing scenes from the 32nd president’s private life. (Michael Ruane, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

As the silent film rolls, the president sits by his wife at an outdoor gathering. A beer mug rests on his table, and dozens of people lounge on the grass while he holds court.

His shirt sleeves are rolled up. He is wearing his pince-nez glasses and reading aloud from a book. At one passage he chuckles, reaches for his cigarette in its long-stem holder and flashes his famous smile.

His thin legs, damaged by polio, are barely visible under the table.

It’s President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Labor Day 1934. And although there is no sound, the clip offers a tantalizing new glimpse into the private world of one of the  most illustrious and enigmatic men to occupy the White House.

The segment comes from a trove of historic film, mostly home movies, being made available Wednesday by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y.

The films were donated last year by the family of Marguerite A. “Missy” LeHand, a largely forgotten figure who was FDR’s longtime aide, rumored lover and the woman behind the camera in many of the shots.

Not all of them were taken by LeHand. Some may have been given to her, the library said.

The 11 reels had been stored in boxes for years in the basement of LeHand’s grandniece, Barbara Jacques, of Stephenson, Va., near Winchester. They predate the United States’ involvement in World War II.

Most have never been seen publicly and should be a feast for historians, Roosevelt buffs and students of 1930s fashion.

A few were previewed by the library on the Internet earlier this spring and summer. A few may be duplicated elsewhere, the library said. The films total about 90 minutes.

As a whole, they capture Roosevelt’s inner circle in unguarded moments, and they include rare images of the president at poolside, unconcerned that his emaciated legs are clearly visible.

There are striking clips of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her friends — ice skating in one sequence. In the Labor Day segment, she stands with Nancy Cook, the suffragist and social activist, who is holding a hot dog.

There are shots of businessman Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., the patriarch of the Kennedy clan and the father of President John F. Kennedy, clowning for the camera as FDR aide Grace Tully climbs into his lap.

There are sequences with Harry Hopkins — presidential confidant, a key architect of Roosevelt’s New Deal and global emissary during World War II.

In one clip, he drinks from a beer mug as he stands at the Labor Day picnic with the first lady. Another segment shows the president’s longtime political adviser, Louis Howe, puffing on a cigarette.

Everyone seems to be smoking in the footage. LeHand smoked three packs a day. And others besides FDR used long cigarette holders.

“I just can’t imagine what the White House must have smelled like,” LeHand biographer Kathryn Smith said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “FDR just chain-smoked. The secretaries all smoked.”

LeHand at the White House in 1938. (Library of Congress)

The shots are fleeting of LeHand, the film buff who caught much of the action, and who was such a behind-the-scenes power in the White House that she made the cover of Time magazine in 1934.

But she pops up often enough.

“I got to see how she moved about, and how she interacted with others, and got a sense of her liveliness and humor,” Smith said. “She was a working-class girl, but she figured out how to fit in.”

“Just to think that a young woman of her background would have risen that high and done so well,” she said.

It was LeHand who got the call at the White House on Sept. 1, 1939, with news that the Germans had invaded Poland, starting World War II. She hurried to FDR’s bedroom and watched as he was informed at 2:50 a.m.

LeHand came from an Irish American family in Somerville, Mass., and idolized Roosevelt, whom she referred to as “F.D.” She started working for him in 1920 and became his indispensable assistant, go-between and White House “gatekeeper,” biographer Smith noted.

“In everything but name she was FDR’s chief of staff,” Smith wrote.

LeHand lived in a third-floor suite in the White House. She traveled with the president almost everywhere; especially in the days before his presidency, they were frequently alone together.

Roosevelt’s second son, Elliott, believed their relationship included sex, according to Smith. But other members of the family reject that. And Smith points out that there is no hard evidence that Missy was FDR’s mistress.

But she was devoted to him, and her camera, and those of others, were often focused on the boss.

FDR with his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt.

FDR with his dogs.

FDR with his stamp collection.

FDR, left, Frances de Rham and LeHand aboard the Larooco in Florida in 1924. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

The president in a rain slicker at the helm of a sailboat, presiding over antics at a picnic, sitting with the first lady outside Springwood, the Hudson River mansion that was the Roosevelt homestead.

At Warm Springs, Ga., where he had established a clinic for polio victims, the camera captures him sitting by the pool after a swim, with one withered leg crossed over the other. There is so little strength in his right leg that he has to use his hand to uncross it.

Roosevelt was sensitive about his disability.

In June, the library released a newly discovered snippet of film showing FDR “walking” at the White House with braces and the help of an aide.

News cameramen were discouraged from filming anything that showed the president’s awkward gait. But this shot was taken by a tourist.

In the pool footage, the president’s guard was down because he was surrounded by friends, Paul Sparrow, the library’s director, said in a telephone interview Monday. “If there had been press there, he would have been more self-conscious,” he said.

Another sequence at Warm Springs shows FDR sitting by a tree at a crowded picnic in the woods. He’s with, among others, the first lady, aides Tully and Marvin McIntyre, and Cook, who has a movie camera.

As the sequence runs, LeHand briefly appears, wearing a headscarf and sunglasses, which she takes off, and licks food from her fingers as the clip ends.

She is seen a few more times in the films, a smiling, animated figure at ease among the powerful.

LeHand in 1936. Her home movies capture the president in some of his most private moments ever seen by the public. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

LeHand had rheumatic fever as a youngster and had heart trouble all her life. She never married and died in 1944 at 47 after several strokes.

Her movies and other memorabilia were passed down to her two beloved nieces, who passed them down to their daughters, Barbara Jacques and Jane Scarbrough.

The films ended up in Jacques’s basement in Virginia.

“I’ve had the films for years and years and years,” Jacques, 73, said in a telephone interview Monday.

She said she and her husband watched the original 16mm footage years ago in their rec room with a rented projector and screen.

Despite the poor quality, they realized the importance of the film, and last year or the year before had it transferred to DVD.

“It’s just amazing what we saw,” she said. “We finally got to really see Missy.”

Then, they had to decide what to do with the film.

“People were telling me how much money I could get . . . if I sold it,” she said. “And I thought, ‘You know what? That’s not where Missy would want it. Missy would want it at the library.’ She loved the Roosevelts.”

“I thought, ‘This is for the public,’ ” she said. “Other people will be able to enjoy them and maybe get to know a little more about what Missy is.”

Jacques had shown the DVDs to the library and knew the facility would love to have the originals.

On Aug. 13, by arrangement, she and her husband drove to the library in their Subaru Forester with the film in a box in the back and handed it over.

Sparrow, the director, was delighted, but had one lament:

“We wish it had audio.”

FDR, LeHand, center, and Grace Tully in 1938 at the president’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

Michael E. Ruane is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics. He has been a general assignment reporter at the Philadelphia Bulletin, an urban affairs and state feature writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a Pentagon correspondent at Knight Ridder newspapers.

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