The Franklin Roosevelt Home Comes Alive
(through the eyes of a park guide and her visitors)
© Copyright 2021 by Joyce Benedict
Following eight years
conducting tours at Montgomery Place, a Livingston
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, I applied to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt
National Historic Site in Hyde Park, NY.
Even though I was only in third grade when this great man died, I have always felt a deep connection to both the president and Mrs. Roosevelt. I continued to read about them through the years. Their impact and contribution on and for our country during those disturbing, tumultuous troubled times was unprecedented.
I could admire him even more so, for like FDR, I too, was a victim of polio being affected in the great epidemic in Chicago, Ill. the summer of 1940. I could appreciate more so than most, the herculean efforts he made to conduct the strenuous activities of being president being so disabled and entering public life as no other disabled person before him.
Both of us were swimming the day the dreaded disease struck, both contracted it in August, both came down with high fever, and once impacted, lives were irrevocably changed. Although it was devastating to his family, for a while, Mrs. Roosevelt would declare later that it had been a blessing in disguise for she saw her husband become genuinely more sensitive to the plight of others, understand their suffering. He became more focused, learned great patience, and had developed humility.
How excited I was to be hired to conduct tours at the president’s beloved home, Springwood. I felt an awe and reverence when I first entered the family home. It was when I first saw his bedroom that a deeper emotion arose within me and eyes filled. Here is where the president conducted the affairs of the nation and world when returning home for a much needed rest. Conferences with people from all walks of life were held in this modest bedroom that overlooked his beloved Hudson River. They came to understand that it was easier for him to attend to ‘business’ in bed without dragging 15 pounds of braces around. His loyal dog, Fala with him every second.
Soon I would learn the entire story of FDR, as he became affectionately called, and Mrs. Roosevelt. History lurked in every nook and cranny of his beloved Springwood, the Roosevelt family home that graced the shores of the mighty Hudson River.
Continued reading of the Roosevelt saga was required. No one had to force me to read. I devoured every book I could get my hands on to learn more about this amazing man, his family, his history. Numerous charming stories abound concerning his childhood and the many activities and sports he participated in. He was an only child of James Roosevelt and Sarah Delano.
Sarah Delano was twenty-five years younger than James. It was his second marriage. Both families were strong in their unity and loyalty to one another. Both had prospered through the many generations residing in Manhattan and the Hudson Valley area. Master Franklin, as he was addressed, grew up protected and surrounded by servants, groundskeepers, and farmers who were instrumental in managing the estate.
As with those of privilege, Summers were spent in Europe. By the time Franklin was eighteen he had visited every European country and spoke four languages. His early life reads like a modern day fairy tale. A tight knit, fiercely loyal family fostered continued emotional security. Parties and activities were shared with the children of other privileged families nestled along the Hudson River.
As my studies continued, I became accustomed to conducting larger groups into the home, as many as fifty compared to the twelve allowed at Montgomery Place, another estate I had conducted tours prior the Roosevelt homes. The strengths, greatness, humility of this man, and the famous who visited his home when his political life broadened, began to come alive for me. I could easily imagine the King and Queen of England in his massive living room relaxing as the president made all who visited, whether poor, rich, or famous feel welcomed.
Upstairs a modest bedroom housed his campaign manager, friend, and sole confidant, Louie Howe. His loyalty to the president was unquestionable. It was easy to picture his slight frame, with a gnome like countenance sitting hunched over by the window, lost in thought while overlooking the expansive front lawn of Springwood, smoking like a chimney. All the Roosevelt children complained loudly of his habit that would ultimately cause his death in 1936.
In the room where Winston Churchill slept, it was easy to imagine the Prime Minister and his great girth in bed with nightshirt and sleeping cap slumbering through to late morning enjoying the quiet of Springwood, away from the stresses of the war. Mrs. Roosevelt was miffed that the Prime Minister kept Franklin up into the wee hours of the morning knowing how he liked to retire by 10:30 P.M. A gracious president would never offend his friend by suggesting he had to retire. The five Roosevelt children would later write that their happiest years were those spent at Springwood.
Once when Churchill saw the president off at Heathrow Airport, Churchill grabbed the hand of the diplomat with him stating emotionally, ‘My God, I hope nothing happens to that man, he is the truest friend I ever had, he has the farthest vision of anyone I know, he is the greatest man I have ever known.”
After training, conducting tours, meeting people from around the world, and from our country, my perspective of the man, the family, the political scene of the times, deepened greatly. I reflected upon the fact that while touring at Montgomery Place, a home built in memory of Richard Montgomery, first fallen hero of the Revolutionary War by his wife Janet Livingston Montgomery, that I spoke to visitors about people that no one had ever known.
While at the Roosevelt home I heard stories from hundreds of visitors, not only how they loved FDR, but about his voice, his inspiring, positive, fearless messages conveyed by radio, the famous Fireside Chats. With pride they spoke of his leadership and superb statesmanship that had given them courage through those dark days.
I was deeply touched by the deep need they all had to talk about him. The love and admiration reflected in voices warm and thoughtful as they reminisced. It became apparent, after a few years had past, how deeply visitors had a need to share a personal account, an experience of theirs concerning their beloved president, experiences that would ‘live in infamy’ in their memory until they died. I began to announce to my groups to share afterwards anything they wished to. I was hungry to know more.
FDR was the first president to speak to the nation via the radio, I heard often from visitors, especially the men, speak of him like he was a brother, or uncle, or father they didn’t have or never knew. We take so for granted today all the mass communications available, but here was a generation listening to the voice of their president on a regular basis. No wonder deep bonds formed between the people and FDR.
I learned that when FDR spoke on the radio, he lit up a cigarette and spoke to the microphone as if it were a person, making gestures with his hands, eye brows raising on certain points, smiling, lowering his voice and becoming genuinely intimate with his microphone. This intimate relationship and warmth was conveyed through the air waves and touched many. Thousands of letters were written concerning his famous Fireside Chats. One sticks in my mind.
A woman wrote. ‘As I sat there listening to the President, I felt as though he was sitting in my living room. He seemed to speak directly to me, that he understood my problems as no other.”
FDR had great understanding, compassion for all. The general opinion from all who had been in a conference with him was they felt better about themselves then when they entered. He brought out the best in whomever was in his presence.
Numerous accounts were shared. It was these stories that drove home to me the impact of the man on his people and country. Tears spilled from grown men on my tours as they related stories, some choked up waving a hand for they simply couldn’t continue speaking and turned away. With tears in their eyes several came up afterwards from time to time laying a hand on my shoulder stating quietly, sadly, with emotion, “ Oh for him to be with us today, for I fear greatly for our country what this current administration has done.”
One afternoon, a tall, well-dressed, distinguished blond couple with their very blond, tall teen-aged daughter stayed behind as others left through the entrance on the second floor. They were from Denmark. The man took my hands in his and thanked me for the tour, for bringing FDR alive for them, and in closing stated, “ We all loved him so very much.” No dry eyes at the end of that encounter.
An older gentleman, short and dapper with dyed red hair, freckles and a twinkle in his eye, held back after another tour as others had left. He looked very Irish. He said, “ I will tell you something I will never forget until I die. I was on a ship with 2800 Navy men being transported back to the states. The radio broadcasted music and news everywhere. That afternoon of April 12th, the tragic news of president Roosevelt’s death was announced. I will never forget the sound of 2800 men crying. Never.” Neither of us had dry eyes as he abruptly turned to exit the great house.
A young woman, who lived in Virginia, had an uncle living in New York. Her mother, worried about her brother’s health and recent hospitalization realized it had been years since he had seen his favorite niece. She purchased a ticket for her daughter to take the train to New York. She would stay at another relative’s house.
The daughter related that she arrived in the afternoon to hear of the president's death. Nevertheless, as the city was registering the shock, she hurried to the hospital. Upon entering his room, despite the fact it had been years seeing one another, he held up his hand as a sign to stop. ”Honey,”he said, “my best friend has just died. Please come back tomorrow.”
Concluding one tour at the exit on the second floor, an extremely handsome, very well-dressed Chinese couple lingered. They turned to me and bowed. Straightening up the young man explained they were recently married, had completed their studies at a university in New York City. They began thanking me with such sincerity and grace for bringing the president alive for them. The information I had given them, they said, was unlike anything they had read before, that I seemed to know him like a relative. “Had I been?,” they inquired. I replied that I was not related, only that I had come to love deeply and admire the great man; his indomitable courage and will. During this little conversation they kept bowing, I bowed back. They bowed again, I bowed back. I wondered who should stop first? It was one of many, cherished encounters with visitors from around the country and world.
A woman, in the Navy during the war, had just married a Navy man. For their honeymoon had decided to spend the week allotted in Washington, DC. They were there just two days when word came of the President’s death. A few days later they decided to honor his life and memory and fight the crowds to Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the funeral cortege. As they stood on the edge of the street, she said the memory would be with her always. Both were struck by the fact that they stood among over a million people, but the only sound heard was the clip clop of the horse’s hooves pulling the caisson bearing the coffin. No other sound. It continued until the clip clops faded away in the distance.
A tall miner from Virginia related this account. About a hundred men had just come up from their shift in the mines, dirty faces blackened, soot covered clothes, and carrying empty lunch boxes. As the elevators opened, standing before them was the second shift. Another hundred minors waiting for the elevators to clear to descend into the darkness below. Their miner hats on, lunch boxes in hand.
At that moment a convertible came dashing wildly towards them on a dirt road leaving behind a mighty dusty train. A man stood upright in the fast moving car waving a hat shouting loudly, “My God, the president, he’s dead! President Roosevelt is dead!” The miner added at once, as if by signal, all hats came off, and like birds that swarm to the right in unison, all turned towards their cars to go home and mourn. No one spoke a word.
Every square inch of the house whispered to me. Entering the servants quarters I could see the exuberant child as he played Old Maid with the servants, witness his joy shooting his first wren for his famous bird collection, sensing the solemn signing of a stay of execution in the kitchen near midnight as Governor, the flexing of his massive upper torso and arms as he pulled the ropes of the elevator that took him to all the floors of the house as he sat in his own designed version of a wheel chair. His son James would write after his death that “we in the family believed that Pa had to go through what he did (polio) for he was being prepared for the great tasks that lay ahead.”
When I closed the house down evenings I would envision the reporters gathering on election day with ticker tapes rapidly relaying the returns, lighting up cigars and cigarettes in the smoking room off the dining room while FDR and pals poured over maps on the dining room table. Easy to see Mrs. Roosevelt buzzing about serving sandwiches to the many reporters making themselves at home. Closing the shades at night in the parlor, his mother’s room, it was there FDR announced to her that he had fallen in love with his fifth cousin once removed, Eleanor Roosevelt. I could almost hear the conversation.
FDR was the first dignitary ever to address King George as ‘George.’ In fact, the King stated to Canada’s Prime Minister, Mackenzie King who also visited Springwood at the time of the KIng’s visit, “ I only wish my own ministers and advisors spoke to me in the same warm, friendly, fatherly manner as the President.”
I was thanked countless times by visitors for bringing him alive for them, what was for many, their last visit to a man they held in the highest esteem. What a legacy and memory for the people who were impacted by this outstanding human being. I felt honored and privileged to have had this unique experience.
Upon closing, I wish to quote what Winston Churchill stated after FDR’s death. “ Had he not acted as he did, had he not given his country and the world his vision, leadership, and great statesmanship, the United States and the world would have sunk into a despair and malaise that perhaps the country and the world could not have recovered from for well over a century.”
Could it be that now we are near such a turning point again?