Roosevelt died on
April 12, 1945, I
was six years old. I
do not remember the day. World War II in Europe ended less than a month later, and I do remember that because sirens screamed all over San Francisco and everybody came out of their houses to weep, wave and squint into the sun. But when Roosevelt died there were no sirens. And because I never knew he existed, I had no reason to mourn.
Time passed. Roosevelt worked his way into my consciousness the usual watered- down way; he became a back chapter in an American history book, the unsmiling, silver- headed profile on a dime. Eventually there were books, and movies, and TV documentaries that deepened my understanding ... of Eleanor. But her less than ardent husband remained fixed in my mind as the president who had pulled America out of the Depression, a legend I was born too late to know.
Then, in preparation for this magazine's commemoration of FDR's 100th birthday, I spent a day sorting through hundreds of old newspaper photographs of Roosevelt. His entire life-- sometimes so close at hand that I could count the raindrops on his eyeglasses or spy a loose thread on his coat-- flashed before my eyes. And by the end of the day FDR had peeled himself off the dime and become a human being: a large, exuberant human being who smoked too many Camels, wore porkpie hats and radiated what one campaign reporter called "that appalling energy." Thirty-seven years after he had died I sat with a lapful of old photographs and felt genuinely bereaved. I had not known that he was such an endearingly rumpled man.
A black and white photograph can be cruel. Every mole and molecule is exposed, like a landscape briefly shocked into existence by a bolt of lightning before darkness descends once again. Hundreds of black and white photographs wind up being honest. The subject softens with exposure, becomes more than one thing. But with Roosevelt, the opposite phenomenon seemed to take place. As picture piled upon picture, he seemed less like a man than a railroad lantern, who fearlessly swung back and forth across the dark train tracks until, finally, he ran out of fuel.
He stood when he could, the only hint of his paralysis given away in photos by the small glints of steel that hooked in braces beneath his heels. And toward the end of his life, when he sank into his wheelchair more or less continuously, Roosevelt's features are commensurately sharper. The eye is drawn away from his torso toward his face.
Somewhere around 1937, Roosevelt began to wear a large black cape. In retrospect, it seems like a death cape; increasingly it overwhelmed him as the man beneath it shrank. By '41 we were at war. As commander in chief, FDR spent his last years crisscrossing the globe, deep in briefing papers over the Atlantic, being lifted out of army jeeps to review the troops. By 1945, he was so exhausted that the White House stamped some of his last photographs "classified." At Yalta, sitting in that same cape between Stalin and Churchill, FDR looks like a dead man. Eight weeks later he was.
But FDR's clothes do not make him memorable. What struck me with increasing force was his smile. It was his best asset, his most effective weapon, and I simultaneously understood why Lucy Rutherford fell in love with him and why Eleanor, who loved him first, smiled less and less as time went by. Even at the end, when his face is etched with exhaustion, he never quite lost his exuberance, although it had dwindled to a flicker, a last tugging upward of his features that were shockingly winterized. He had become a statesman, one step away from a marble bust.
A lingering question, as I put the photographs back into their envelopes, nagged at me. Did this man who had won my heart so effortlessly in the short space of a few hours send shock tremors through the nation's heart 37 years ago when he said, "I have a terrific headache" and died. I went back to the newspapers to find an answer. In April 1945, the papers were full of war.
"Allies Race for Seacoast to Seal Nazis in Holland." "3rd Army Only 140 Miles from Berlin." I searched the microfilm, grinding the handle slowly, looking for Roosevelt. He was nowhere to be found.
Cranking the microfilm closer toward April 12, there is still no suggestion that America had Roosevelt on its mind. April 10: "Nazis Believed Burning Menaced Cities" is the headline. Deeper into the paper, Shirley Temple (16) got engaged to actor-soldier John Agar (24). "For Whom the Bell Tolls" starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper dominated the movie section and then-- two days later--the bell tolled for FDR.
"ROOSEVELT DEAD AT WARM SPRINGS HOME AFTER SUFFERING CEREBRAL HEMORRHAGE, TRUMAN SWORN IN, PROMISES VICTORY" reads The Washington Post April 13 headline. Eleanor Roosevelt was at a Thrift Club meeting at the Sulgrave Club. In words that carry immeasurably more poignancy now she is quoted as saying "I am more sorry for the people and the country than I am for us."
On April 16, Roosevelt left the front page for good and Harry Truman's mother was sitting for a portrait. I turned off the microfilm machine, knowing from experience what came next.
People who were in their 20s when Roosevelt died say that he was greatly mourned. One woman, now in her 60s, said "I felt as if I had lost my father. I walked the streets and wept."
But it was a Republican from Kansas, William Allen White, editor of The Emporia Gazette, who gave Roosevelt the ultimate accolade, while FDR was still alive. "Biting good Republican nails, we are compelled to say that Franklin Roosevelt is the most unaccountable president the United States has ever seen. Well, darn your smiling old picture, here it is. We who hate your gaudy guts, salute you."u