For this centennial year of the birth of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Smithsonian Institution is offering seven exhibitions exploring the life, times and impact of the 32nd president, the man who led this country out of the Depression and through a great war. He was "the most complicated human being I have ever known," said Frances Perkins, secretary of labor in the FDR cabinet.
The exhibits have FDR artifacts and mementos, evocations and observations of historians and contemporaries. The enigma of FDR will, of course, remain. This patrician president, who never hid his pince-nez, elongated cigarette holder or Groton-Harvard accent, who never donned a cardigan to deliver a fireside chat, spoke with familiarity to millions of Americans in their living rooms and communicated self-assurance during days of despair.
In these seven exhibits, touches of the Roosevelt mystique are interwoven with his unique influence on our national life that lasts even to this day. National Museum of American History
Once again FDR's voice, resonant with strength and confidence, will be heard during "Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Intimate Presidency," the exhibit that opens next Saturday, Roosevelt's birthday, at the National Museum of American History as the centerpiece of the Smithsonian celebration of his centenary.
"Roosevelt developed a remarkable intimacy with the American people," says Art Molella, the historian who served as curator for the NMAH exhibit. "He spoke to them simply and directly in their living rooms. They would go to the movies on Saturday to see newsreels of his fireside chats. They would say, 'Let's go down to the Trans-Lux and see Roosevelt.' "
In this evocative show, FDR reappears, on a newsreel, giving his first fireside chat on March 12, 1933, only eight days after taking office. The one-week "bank holiday" is at an end, he declares, and the nation's banks will reopen.
With original furnishings on loan from the White House, Smithsonian exhibit designers have re-created a section of the diplomatic reception room from which FDR broadcast the fireside chats. On display is the original desk designed to hold the radio microphones along with the original draperies used to muffle the sound.
One thing that you won't see is a fireplace.
"There wasn't a working fireplace in the room until 1941," Molella points out, demolishing the image of FDR before an open fire talking to the American people. "Look at the old newsreels and you will see FDR before a bank of mikes on his desk with draperies in the background. The term 'fireside chat' comes from his desire to speak to the people in their homes by their firesides."
Visitors to the Smithsonian exhibit also can look into one of those living rooms in the re-creation of a workingman's home as it appeared in the mid-1930s. The radio has a prominent place in the room.
"The Intimate Presidency" will continue through the summer. National Portrait Gallery
"Fortunately for us, the Roosevelts were habitual collectors. They saved everything, including FDR's report cards, childhood drawings, letters, photographs," says Frederick Voss, research historian at the National Portrait Gallery and curator of the exhibit, who obviously relished rummaging in the family attic to assemble "FDR: The Early Years."
On display are such items of family memorabilia as a Harvard report card (with a less than impressive C+ for the course in government); a photograph of a teen-age Franklin beside camera and tripod, showing easy elegance and self-assured confidence even in his youth; a drawing of a horse and buggy by a 5- or 6-year-old, and, of course, baby shoes.
Dominating the show is a torso sculpture of a seated, handsome, elegant young man in his late twenties. It was commissioned by FDR's godmother, Nelly Blodgett, in 1911, the year Roosevelt was sworn into office as a state senator in the New York legislature.
"The Early Years" ends with a photograph of Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the navy, standing on a balcony of what is now the Executive Office Building with Josephus Daniels, his boss. They are looking in the direction of the White House.
Voss notes: "Somewhere in his memoirs or diaries, Daniels records that scene and remembers that he turned to Roosevelt and said something like: 'I know what you are thinking.' "
The National Portrait Gallery exhibit opens Thursday and will continue through July 25. Hirshhorn Museum
"The WPA was terrific for all the artists because you got $23.86 a week. In the Depression that was nice money. You could live from it even if you had a wife."
Willem de Kooning, who remembers the hard times of those Depression years, is one of the artists whose recent work is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum's exhibition "Five Distinguished Alumni: The WPA Federal Art Project."
The five are artists who made it. Their names have achieved international recognition: James Brooks, Alice Neel, de Kooning, Ilya Bolotowsky and Ibram Lassaw, the sculptor.
"This is an exhibition that reflects the heritage of the WPA. Virtually a whole generation of artists grew up on the WPA," says Judith Zilczer, the Hirshhorn Museum historian who interviewed the artists in the exhibit. "It was not only the $23.86 that they received. There also was an esprit, a camaraderie among the artists. Until then, American artists had not had a social community like that existing in Paris."
"The Five Distinguished Alumni" exhibit is a showcase of recent work by artists nurtured during the New Deal days and still painting and sculpting with vitality and innovation. Tragically, Bolotowsky, who is represented in the show by three paintings, including "Abstraction in Three Reds" (1980), was killed in late November in an elevator accident in the building housing his Bowery loft studio in New York City.
Only a few days earlier Bolotowsky had told Zilczer:
"Not many people realize that most of the now famous artists of my generation were on the WPA . . . And we still remember that Pericles was criticized for wasting Athenian wealth on the Acropolis project -- a very early version of our WPA."
The Hirshhorn show, which opened Thursday, will continue through Feb. 22. On Wednesday, at 8 p.m., there will be a dialogue discussion between Hirshhorn director Abram Lerner and art historian Milton Brown on topics inspired by the exhibit. National Museum of American Art
At the National Museum of American Art, paintings produced by WPA artists in the 1930s offer a counterpoint to the Hirshhorn display of recent work by alumni of the project.
In the 32 New Deal paintings assembled to show "Roosevelt's America" during the Great Depression are scenes from rural and urban life of the era: Jacob Getlar Smith's "Snow Shovellers" (1934), with its dark figures of men going to work on a wintry morn; Clarice George's "Back Yard" (1934), with a housewife hanging clothes on a line strung between trees; William Gropper's "Automotive Industry" (1940-41), a study for a postal station in Detroit.
Along with these scenes of daily life are paintings that carry social and political messages and take experimental stabs at abstraction.
"There was a high level of creative freedom for artists, although none of the projects was without controversy," said Virginia Mecklenburg, NMAA's associate curator of 20th-century painting and sculpture.
A second show at the NMAA shows the fruits of still another WPA arts project. "Perkins Harnly: From the Index of American Design" brings together 29 watercolors of Victorian interiors, including a rural sitting room of about 1900 and the stairway-hall of the Hotel Coronado as it appeared in 1888.
The Index of American Design, which was initiated in 1935, was charged with making a comprehensive survey of American design from colonial times to the turn of this century.
Harnly was one of the most imaginative artists who worked for the Index. Now 80, he remains an active painter in Culver City, Calif.
"The project was part of America's facelift," he said recently. "It's a living history of our thinking and doing from the Pilgrims to World War I . . . a reflection of a way of life."
Both "Roosevelt's America" and the Harnly watercolors are now on view. The New Deal paintings will be on display indefinitely; the Harnley exhibit ends Feb. 15. Anacostia Neighborhood Museum
Often they met in the kitchen at the home of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. This black educator and clubwoman was the dominant force in bringing together a group of black intellectuals working in the federal government to advise the Roosevelt White House and channel communication between the black community and the administration.
"Mary McLeod Bethune and Roosevelt's 'Black Cabinet,' " an exhibit that opens tomorrow in the lobby of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, focuses on Bethune's role in assembling the black professionals to form an unofficial "black cabinet" (also known familiarly as the "kitchen cabinet" from the meeting place in Bethune's house).
Among the members recruited by Bethune were Robert C. Weaver, later to become secretary of housing and urban development and the first black appointed to an official Cabinet post, and William H. Hastie, the first black federal judge and governor of the Virgin Islands.
Bethune, the only woman in the group, was a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. After FDR's death, Mrs. Roosevelt gave Bethune a cane given to the president as a gift from Theodore Roosevelt.
That cane is among the artifacts that will be shown at the Anacostia exhibit, which also includes a diary kept by Bethune. It is, however, largely a show of photographs of Bethune and the members of the "black cabinet."
The Bethune exhibit opens at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the museum, located at 2405 Martin Luther King Ave. SE. It is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. Air and Space Museum -
FDR was the first presidential candidate to fly, the first president to fly while in office and the first president to have an airplane assigned to him.
So, of course, there is an exhibit featuring "The Flying Roosevelts" at the National Air and Space Museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of FDR's birth.
This photographic exhibition traces Roosevelt's flying record from 1911, when he came to Washington as assistant secretary of the navy in the days when the airplane was little more than a curiosity. During World War I, Roosevelt flew to inspect U.S. air units in France in 1918.
In 1932, the Roosevelt family boarded a Ford Tri-Motor to fly to Chicago, where FDR accepted the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Then early in 1943, a modified C-87A transport became the first full-time presidential plane -- dubbed the "Guess Where II." Later that year, a Douglas C-54C was outfitted with a battery-operated elevator for the president's wheelchair. It was this "Sacred Cow," as it came to be known, that took Roosevelt to the historic Yalta meeting in February 1945.
"The Flying Roosevelts" will open Monday on the first floor of the Air and Space Museum and will be on display through June.