As It Really Happened
April 12, 1945
It is a little after one PM central war time in Warm Springs at a most beautiful time of the year. The vernal landscape is punctuated by peach blossoms, blazing azalea, pale yellow wisteria and the pungent aromas of magnolia, honeysuckle, dogwood and pine permeate the Georgia air. A mile and a half from the main gate up a primitive winding forest road sit two unpretentious guest houses and the modest clapboard Little White House, with its portico and columns adorned with red roses. The security “jumper gate” and guard houses manned by armed marines and Secret Service agents are testimony to the importance of its resident. The house is situated high enough on the mountain to afford a magnificent view of the countryside from the rear deck that has been designed to resemble the fantail of a ship, yet not at the peak, for its owner's dread of fire would not permit it to be built above where ample water would be readily accessible.
The rustic, comfortable three bedroom structure is decorated with the simple but finely made furniture of Val Kill industries of Hyde Park, New York and the fine ship models, paintings and prints of an astute and dedicated collector of naval memorabilia. A small square card table where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been working and posing for a portrait has been set for lunch and cook Daisy Bonner’s cheese souffle is almost ready to be served. Frail and ashen, the most powerful man on earth is surrounded by the people with whom he is most relaxed: his devoted staff, spinster cousins Margaret Lynch “Daisy” Suckley and the eccentric Laura “Polly” Franklin Delano and, most specially of all, the romantic love of his life, Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd.
Ten years of fighting cancers, heart failure, strokes, seizures, severe anemia, sinus problems, chronic infections and kidney failure have exacted their toll on the valiant warrior. A journey to Iran a mere sixteen months ago marked the beginning of an inexorable physical and mental decline, even more disturbingly accelerated since an arduous seven thousand mile trek to Yalta, in the remote and war ravaged Crimean Peninsula, in January and February.
At the White House Correspondent’s Banquet at the Statler Hotel on March 22nd, his last public appearance in Washington, Roosevelt made only brief and embarrassingly disjointed comments and members of the audience did not recognize the significance of subtle lapses of consciousness as he sat at the dais. The trained eyes of a Baltimore physician planted in the audience by Chicago Tribune reporter Walter Trohan confirmed that the President was not likely to survive much longer. On March 27th, the day prior to his final departure from Hyde Park, the President collapsed into a convulsive fit, by far the most dramatic and violent of the many he had experienced over the previous year.
While there had been no public acknowledgement of any serious medical problems from FDR’S devoted medical voice, Ross McIntire, since his return from the Crimea, everyone around him recognized that his days were numbered but only a very few of the most intimate dared bring it up, and then only in most private moments. Roosevelt’s confidante, law partner and the custodian of his will, Basil “Doc” O’Connor, remained in constant contact with corresponding secretary William Hassett about the state of the president’s health, and had deferring a trip abroad so as not to be overseas when the inevitable transpired. FDR rambled on about future trips to Europe and the Middle East but no one, including himself, ever believed they would come to pass.
In a race against death, the last of the great obsessions that defined Roosevelt’s life was to accomplish what his Democratic predecessor and mentor Woodrow Wilson could never do - establish an effective and enduring world peace organization following a devastating world conflagration. For a year and a half, Roosevelt’s goal of a United Nations had been bolstered by declarations emanating from Moscow in 1943 and Dumbarton Oaks in August 1944. The last of his forty-one restorative pilgrimages to Georgia arose out of a desperate hope to gain the strength for one final triumphant journey to open the inaugural meeting on April 25th in San Francisco. Despite repeated admonitions of his doctors and staff, he was hell-bent to make the two thousand mile rail trip if only to spend less than an hour speaking from his wheelchair.
Since 1933, no one had spent more time with Franklin Roosevelt than his medical aide and masseur, George Adam Fox. Early in Fox’s career, he had spent five years under Presidential physician Cary Grayson attending to the frail and feeble Woodrow Wilson after a devastating stroke in September 1919. He was now playing an eerily similar role in the life of yet a different chief executive under Grayson’s protege. Ross T. McIntire. A hard drinking career pharmacist’s mate, he had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander by a powerful stroke of the presidential pen shortly after coming into Roosevelt’s most intimate inner circle with “Pa” Watson and McIntire, all at Grayson’s recommendation. During the countless hours of massage, application of makeup or medical treatment that Fox provided, the gossipy President enjoyed hearing Fox’s first hand recollections of Wilson’s private moments. The intensity of the disability must have made quite an impression. While watching the biopic “Wilson” while conferring with Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek in Quebec in September 1944, Roosevelt was overheard by Bruenn at the portrayal of Wilson’s disability to emotionally mutter “I will never be like that!” as his blood pressure soared to a perilously high level.
As the President came down the elevator of his private railway car the Ferdinand Magellan on his last visit to Warm Springs on March 29th, a collective sigh of stunned disbelief came from the denizens who had befriend him over the past two decades. This time he would not be driving his specially equipped Ford convertible, nor would their be any jaunty repartee. Secret Service agent Mike Reilly found him uncharacteristically “heavy”, unable or unwilling to assist as he transferred the withered six foot three inch one hundred and forty five pound frame into the open car for the ritual parade past Georgia Hall to the Little White House. Railroad agent Charlie Pless commented that Roosevelt appeared to be “the sickest man I have ever seen that was still alive”.
The president had looked almost as bad, some said even worse, upon arriving on his previous visit in November, after a grueling election campaign followed by a top secret middle-of-the night visit to see his physician, the renowned surgeon Dr. Frank Lahey, in Boston. But then his body still had the energy to “bounce back” to stand for the last time, however briefly and with excruciating pain, at his unprecedented fourth inauguration in late January and to make his last trip overseas in an attempt to put the world in order before he left it forever.
During his last public appearance in Warm Springs at church for Easter services, Roosevelt had been uncharacteristically silent. The ravages to his nervous system from kidney failure and low blood oxygen were such that he could not even not hold a prayer book or his glasses for more than a few minutes without dropping them. As with his last speech before congress on the first of March, the expanding tumor in his brain made the words on the pages unreadable.
On the morning of the 9th, Roosevelt’s spirits improved in anticipation of the arrival of Lucy Rutherford. Just as he had come to meet her for their secret rendezvous excursions through Rock Creek Park in Washington, he would take Daisy and Fala and drive to Macon to meet her car. Ostensibly, the purpose of her trip was to bring Madame Elizabeth Shoumatoff to paint his portrait. Indeed, The President of the United States spent the better part of his day combing the roads of southern Georgia searching for his love. Lucy was also expecting to be met and in mock disappointment told her fellow travelers “nobody loves us, nobody cares for us”. By pure luck they finally crossed paths a mere five miles north of Warm Springs as FDR, Daisy Suckley and the world's most famous pet, his Scotch Terrier, Fala, were surrounded by a crowd outside a general store drinking Coca Cola.
On the evening of the April 11th, his old friend and confidante Henry “the morgue” Morganthau observed how the President confused names and repeated stories as well as the difficulty he had in lighting a cigarette or performing his favorite social ritual of mixing cocktails. On his last day Roosevelt awoke with a mild headache and neck stiffness, a harbinger of the catastrophe that would soon take his life, but his mornings were still blessed with the physical strength and mental clarity that permitted him to sign stacks of official documents in a barely readable hand and to dictate a few letters to his secretary Grace Tully in response to the reports that “Uncle Joe” Stalin was reneging on many of the agreements made less than two months previously in the Crimea. One of his last official acts was a labor of particular interest for the avid philatelist, giving final approval for the design of a stamp that was to be issued in San Francisco in two weeks to commemorate the opening of the United Nations.
At 1:10 PM, FDR suddenly grabbed the back of his head and slumped backwards in his chair. Elizabeth Shoumatoff yelled out for Lucy, loud enough to bring valet Arthur Prettyman from the bedroom and houseboy Irineo “Filipino Joe” Esperancilla from the kitchen. Daisy Suckley heard him softly complain of a “terrific headache” and prevented him from falling. Then she took control of the situation, telling Madame Shoumatoff to go outside and find a secret service agent. Picking up the phone, uncharacteristically identifying herself as “Daisy” she calmly asked that the operator find Doctor Bruenn, the cardiologist who had been with Roosevelt every day since April 1944. While being carried the fifteen feet into the bedroom, his military cape dragging across the polished floor, Roosevelt uttered his last words to Polly Delano in a barely perceptible voice, “be careful”. After being laid in bed, Polly fanned him while Daisy loosened his shirt and tie and held his right hand as a stunned and overwhelmed Lucy Rutherford put camphor to his nose, then tearfully stood in horror with a clenched fist at her mouth. Within two minutes, as the pressure within his skull from the rapidly expanding hemorrhage prevented vital oxygen from reaching his brain, consciousness left him, never to be regained.
The artist found Secret Service agent-in-charge, Jim Beary, at his post just outside the doorway.
“The President is sick. Please call a doctor.”
After the short moment it took Beary to comprehend the urgency of the moment, he ran into the kitchen and got on the phone to Secret Service headquarters at nearby Carver Cottage. Agent Guy Spaman answered and with the news sprinted to his car for the short drive to the pool where he knew chief agent Mike Reilly and Howard Bruenn were swimming.
Inside the Little White House, a remarkably composed Daisy Suckley picked up the telephone, calmly asking Warm Springs operator to find Doctor Bruenn. Just a few minutes later, Louise “Hacky” Hachmeister, the brown-eyed, ebullient White House operator who had traveled to Georgia with the Presidential party, checked her switchboard after coming back from the pool for lunch and the operator told her in a non-urgent tone that a minute ago that “Daisy” called to say Doctor Bruenn was wanted at the Little White House. Presuming that the Daisy who called was the cook, she called back.
“Does the Boss want Doctor Bruenn to come for lunch?”
With terror in her voice, Daisy Bonner retorted, “No, Miss Hacky”, he’s sick, the President is very sick!” Hacky quickly called the poolside phone and alerted Bruenn back at the pool, who, thinking quickly, told her to find George Fox and tell him to bring his medical bag. Bruenn was dressed and waiting as Spaman pulled up for a frantic two mile race up the hill to The Little White House. By pure luck, Fox was soon passing by Hacky’s switchboard on the way back from the dining room at Georgia Hall and she passed along Bruenn’s instructions.
Back at the Little White House, Daisy Suckley took charge, focused on what her beloved Franklin would want her to do. No one on earth knew better. During their intimate conversations over the years, especially since the near death experience in 1941, they had often discussed FDR’s thoughts about how he wished to be remembered. Her unqualified devotion to her beloved would not diminish in the forty-five years she survived him.
“Lucy dear, there’s going to be quite a lot of commotion and the family will probably be coming down, it would be best for Franklin if you weren’t here when people want to know what happened. There’s nothing else we can do for him any more. Please hurry!”
Lucy hurriedly planted a final tearful kiss on the forehead of the only man she ever loved (and vice versa) and with the artist Shoumatoff was spirited across the road to the guest house by the Secret Service to pack, assisted by the sobbing housekeeper Lizzie McDuffie. The third member of her party, photographer Nicholas Robbins, a stout, sixtyish balding Russian immigrant, was staying in town at the Warm Springs Hotel. As one of his important duties for years was Presidential travel agent, Mike Reilly had the presence of mind to assure that there would be enough fuel for the two-hundred mile trip to Aiken in Madame Shoumatoff’s gas-guzzling white Cadillac convertible in the face of strict gas rationing.
“Cuz (Shoumatoff’s nickname for Robbins) we have to head back home right away. The Secret Service is sending a car to pick you up.”
Within half an hour, just as Daisy Suckley had come to the guest house to offer Shoumatoff and Lucy a tearful farewell embrace, Spaman pulled up with Robbins. The photographic paraphernalia and the hastily packed suitcases were loaded and by 2:30 the threesome, with the artist at the wheel, were on the road for the five hour trip to Aiken.
At 1: 25, Bruenn had run through the front door of the Little White House, yelling, to no one in particular “get me Admiral McIntire and hold him on the line”. George Fox arrived, with medical bag in hand, just as Daisy Suckley was asking the operator to reach the White House to get McIntire. Bruenn found his patient laying in bed, still clothed, completely unresponsive in a deep coma. As Prettyman undressed him and put on his pajamas, the President momentarily stopped breathing as his tongue was blocking his airway. The problem was soon relieved by anchoring it to the bottom of the mouth with strip of gauze. As he examined FDR and took his blood pressure, greater than 300 over 190, the brilliant cardiologist immediately realized that this was no transient event but rather the irrevocable final chapter in his two year odyssey, something he and Ross McIntire both knew was coming but hadn’t expected would happen quite so acutely or dramatically.
In a few minutes Roosevelt’s right pupil suddenly enlarged, an ominous sign of a rapidly expanding mass in the brain. After about ten minutes of administering various medications to dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure, Bruenn finally had a moment to report to McIntire, who had been patiently standing by.
“He was quite well when I left this morning. He complained of a slight pain in the neck but now something very acute and severe has happened. It looks to me like a massive brain hemorrhage. At this moment he’s stable but there’s very little else we can do. I’m afraid we might be in for a long siege.”
McIntire quickly retorted, as he had often thought about what he would do in such a circumstance and now had had ten minutes to think it out. Despite the presence of a fully equipped hospital nearby on the grounds of the foundation or the secure medical facilities of nearby Fort Benning, he elected to let FDR spend his last moments in the medically spartan solitude of the Little White House. As his star patient lay dying, a strange sense of relief came upon him since he had dreaded the prospect of being put onto the same situation his mentor Cary Grayson had been confronted with Woodrow Wilson in 1919. Through George Fox, McIntire was also well aware of the difficulties during the last year and a half of Wilson’s second term, and the last few months of FDR’s accelerated decline had raised the very real and disturbing prospect of having history repeat itself. At least, he had surmised, Grayson had a co-conspirator in the first lady, Edith. No such ally would be found in Eleanor.
“Keep him right there. I’ll call Paullin and get him down there. I’ll see if he can find a neurosurgeon.” McIntire urgently called Atlanta cardiologist James Paullin, who had first examined the President a year previously with a team of physicians.
“Jim, the President has had what appears to be a severe brain hemorrhage. Could you possibly find a Neurosurgeon we can trust and get down there to give Bruenn a hand?”.
“I’ll get right on it Mac.”
As McIntire was leaving the White House medical office, he found an anxious Anna Boettinger coming off the elevator, hurriedly on the way to Bethesda Naval Hospital to be with her son Johnny, who was about to get an infusion of penicillIn for a severe upper respiratory infection.
“What is it?” the tall, handsome woman asked impatiently.
“Your father has had some sort of seizure, he’s unconscious.”
Anna had mixed feelings about the Presidential physician. She had been kept in the dark from all the heroic measures that had been taken for years to keep her father alive and had mistakenly felt that McIntire had often been derelict in his duty.
“What kind of a seizure?”
Being purposely vague, he replied “Howard Bruenn has been calling from Warm Springs. Whatever it is we don’t think it will affect his brain.”
Just then, Bruenn called from Warm Springs and Anna asked to speak with him.
“This thing, will it mean any further paralysis for my father?”
Bruenn had learned the lessons of deception well over the previous two years from his mentor. Being put on the spot, he performed admirably:
“If that were so, it would not be paralysis which would affect his brain!”
Anna had developed a kinship with Bruenn during their time together in Yalta after he had confided the seriousness of her father’s “ticker” problems to her.
Satisfied for the moment, she handed the phone back to McIntire and rushed off to Bethesda.
“I have to go. Please keep in touch with me”.
McIntire anxiously got back on the line.
“What did you tell her?”
“Good Job, Howard! I spoke to Paullin, he’s on his way down. I asked him to find a Neurosurgeon.”
“Thanks Admiral. I’ll keep in touch and let you know if anything changes, though I don’t expect anything good.”
Upstairs in her study, Eleanor was meeting with Charles Taussig, who had been designated as an adviser to the United Nations conference in San Francisco, when the phone rang. It was Polly Delano.
“We are worried about Franklin. He has had a fainting spell. The doctor will call you back.”
Eleanor was used to bad medical news about her husband. There had been a steady stream of problems, most recently his convulsion at Hyde Park, so while there was concern, there was no reason to believe that this event was any more serious than the others.
After Polly tersely hung up, a few minutes later the phone soon rang again. It was Ross McIntire.
“Doctor McIntire, Polly Delano called me from Georgia to tell me that Franklin has fainted. What do you know about it?”
Since Bruenn had made him aware of the dire nature of the President’s condition, McIntire knew a lot more than he was willing to share since he hadn’t yet been able to strategize with Steve Early. For years, the Physician to the President and Press Secretary had spearheaded the ongoing and increasingly difficult cover-up of FDR’s panoply of infirmities. The climactic chapter was about to begin. Having reflexly lied to Elenor about the state of her husband’s health for years, without hesitation he related, “He had some sort of spell and passed out. Howard Bruenn is with him.”
“I’m supposed to attend a benefit at the Sulgrave Club. Should we leave for Georgia right away?”
“No. That might cause too much alarm. Why don’t you go ahead and I’ll call you when I know more. We can fly down there later this evening if necessary.”
Wearing an attractive red suit, the First Lady set out to the Sulgrave Club for the 17th Annual Tea and Entertainment of the Thrift Shops, one of Washington’s most fashionable charities, arriving promptly at four o’clock. Seated at the head table between the Chairlady of the event, Mrs. John Dougherty and, ironically, the widow of the late Woodrow Wilson, Eleanor gave a brief speech then settled in for a program featuring the renowned pianist, Evelyn Tyner.
Back in Warm Springs, Bruenn could do little more than supervise the demise of his unconscious patient. After an hour or so he was able to break away from the bedside long enough to give Mcintire another update and smoke a cigarette on the back patio, where he found he found a distraught Hassett, worriedly reiterating his his concern over “a long siege.” Thoughts of his treatment of Chief of Staff "Pa" Watson who had met a similar fate on the return trip from Yalta were fresh in his mind. Watson lingered for three days before succumbing to his stroke.
By 3:30, only the most primitive areas of Roosevelt’s brain, those that controlled his breathing, were still functioning. For over two hours the sound of his loud and labored death rattle had at once been torture and reassurance to Mike Reilly, Hassett, Daisy, Polly and Grace Tully in the living room and in the kitchen by Prettyman, Daisy Bonner, Esperancilla and Lizzie McDuffie. Bruenn again left the bedside and was on the phone with McIntire when Fox yelled out “Doc Bruenn, Doc Bruenn get in here right away!” The agonized respirations had ceased. Bruenn administered an injection and began artificial respiration. Just then, the front door of the cottage slammed open and a breathless Jim Paullin came storming in, having made a frantic seventy mile trip from Atlanta in an hour and thirty-five minutes speeding down back roads. After briefly assessing the dire situation, he reached into his bag, drew up a vial of adrenaline into a glass syringe with a long needle at its end, located the space between the fourth and fifth rib on the left and injected it directly into FDR’s heart. After a few agonal beats, there was no pulse, no blood pressure, no respirations and Bruenn called a halt to any further efforts at resuscitation. In a soft but emphatic tone he pronounced “this man is dead!” He looked at his watch. It was 3:35 PM, Central War Time.
Almost on cue, the normally sedate Fala crashed through the screen door at the front of the Little White House, ran to the top of the mountain and howled, eventually finding his way back home.
“Admiral, it’s over. Paullin got here just a few minutes ago and gave him intracardiac adrenalin. I pronounced him at 3:35.”
Bill Hassett took the phone from Bruenn and went to work. “Doc, is Early there?”
“No, I Haven’t seen him today. Could you please put Bruenn back on for a second?”
“Howard, I want to thank you for all you’ve done for the Boss. You know how much he cared for you. He would never have made it this long if you weren’t around. Let me talk to Early and we’ll figure out how to handle the press.”
“Thanks Sir, I’ll be standing by.”
After a few minutes, the White House operator located the Press Secretary at the apartment of Pa Watson’s widow.
“Steve, the Boss is dead! He collapsed about two and a half hours ago and Bruenn said it was a huge brain hemorrhage. For a while he thought it would be a long ordeal but he went fast. Where do we go from here?”
Early was well aware of Roosevelt’s dire medical condition but had not expected the death to be so acute and took a few seconds to gather himself.
“Let me talk with Doc McIntire and I’ll get back to you. We should break the news to the press simultaneously. Is Mrs Rutherfurd there?”
“No, she and her crew pulled out of here about an hour and a half ago.”
“Good, the last thing we need now is to have to explain who she was and why she was there when the shit hits the fan.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more! Call me back after you speak to Mac and we can get on the same page. Please find out what, if anything, he wants Bruenn to say to the press.”
It now struck Early that it had fallen to him to find Harry Truman. Technically, his first call should have been be to the Secretary of State but very few Roosevelt insiders paid much heed to the lightly regarded Edward Stettinius. After thinking about it for a few seconds, he decided that it would be appropriate for Eleanor to break the news.
After letting Frances Watson know the news, his first call was to McIntire to get more details.
“Bill Hassett just called me. What the hell happened?”
“Massive brain hemorrhage”. Bruenn did the best he could but it was hopeless. He pronounced him at 3:35, their time. Paullin got there at the very end. Thank God he didn’t linger!”
“Hassett wants to know if Bruenn should talk to the press?”
“What do you think, Steve?”
“You know Ross, they know about him already. Let’s not complicate the issue any further. I think we should let him tell them that he was there to help take care of the Boss and that this was all completely unexpected. I’m sure he’ll do a great job.”
Ok, where’s the First Lady?
“She’s over by Dupont Circle at a benefit. Before she left, Polly Delano called her to tell her the Boss fainted. I downplayed it until I had a chance to speak with you and told her I’d keep her updated. Same with Anna, she’s over at the hospital (Bethesda) with her son.”
“I’ll get a message to her to get back home. First I have to find Truman, I should be back at the White House before they get there.”
McIntire’s top priority was to put all the evidence of his ten-year cover-up safely six-feet under as soon as possible.
“The sooner we get the Boss buried, the better! We have to make absolutely sure there’s no autopsy, that would really fuck up the situation royally!”
“That’s for sure! Do me a favor and put me through to the operator. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
“Operator, this is Steve Early. Please stay on the line, I need to make a series of calls. First, could you please put me through to the Vice-President’s office?”
“Of Course, sir, right away.”
“Vice President’s office. How can I help you?
“This is Steve Early, I need to speak with Mr. Truman as soon as possible. Does anyone know where he is?”
“He’s over on the hill, probably headed over to (Speaker Sam) Rayburn’s office by now for the board meeting”. Rayburn and his cronies held a daily "meeting" of sipping bourbon and branch water every afternoon while congress was in session that came to be known as the "Board of Education".
“Thanks. If he calls, please tell him I need to speak with him as soon as possible.”
“Operator, now I need Speaker Rayburn’s office please.”
“Speaker Rayburn’s office.”
“This is Steve Early. Is the Vice President there?
“He’s on the way over.”
“Could you please ask him to call me as soon as he gets there? It’s important.” The White House Operator will know where to find me.”
“Of course, I’ll tell the Speaker right away.”
“One more call, Operator. Please put me through to the Sulgrave Club.” It was ten minutes to five, eastern time.
“This is Press Secretary Early. I need to speak with Mrs. Roosevelt right away, she’s expecting my call.”
Early did not want to the bearer of bad news over the phone. The tone of his audibly agitated voice told her everything she need to know.
“Mrs. Roosevelt, would you please come home at once?”
Eleanor returned to the dais, politely waited for the pianist to finish her piece, then excused herself to a standing ovation, her last as First Lady.
Just then Truman called Early back.
“Mr. Truman, we need you at the White House right away, could you quietly come over? Use the Pennsylvania Avenue gate”
Thinking perhaps he has been tapped for a special assignment, Truman excused himself from the gathering, informing them that he would be back shortly, evaded his security guard and briskly walked to the curb to hail his government car and driver. The two then made their way, without escort, the mile and a half to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
When Early reached the White House, McIntire was anxiously waiting for him.
“Steve, we should both go down to Georgia with Mrs R. Let’s see if we can get the train to leave Warm Springs by ten o’clock tomorrow morning. That way there won’t be enough time to even think about an autopsy.”
“Great idea, Mac!”
In few minutes Eleanor arrived at the White House. Holding back tears, Early told her what she already knew “I’m so sorry to have to inform you that the President slipped away at 4:35 from a massive brain hemorrhage. Dr. Bruenn was with him but there was nothing he could do.”
Eleanor was the calmest person in the room. The last tear she had shed over Franklin was in 1918. There would be no more.
The press secretary gathered himself and got down to business:
“Truman is on the way over but he doesn’t know yet. I’ll have him brought to you when he arrives. Doctor McIntire would like to fly down to Georgia with us. I’ll let Tommy (Malvina Thompson, Eleanor’s live-in secretary) know when we’re ready. We can talk on the way down about the funeral. Do you think anyone will want to see his remains here in Washington?”
“In that case we’ll get a mortician to prepare his remains. (Early was unaware that FDR had expressly left instructions in a note to his oldest son that he did not want to be embalmed nor have an autopsy) I’ll take care of all the arrangements. If it’s OK with you I’ll ask the people in Warm Springs to pick out an appropriate casket.”
“That would be fine. Thank you for your kindness. We can be ready to leave in a few minutes. First I have to contact our children.“
Whether or not Eleanor heard Early’s words correctly, her telegrams to James, Elliott, Franklin and John read “Father has slept away.” Apparently, some reporters also misinterpreted Early, since a few newspapers, including the Los Angeles Examiner, incorrectly reported that FDR had died in his sleep.
As Truman arrived at the White House, he was immediately ushered up to Eleanor’s study on the second floor. The sullen mood of the staff gave him the first hint of what he was about to hear, something he had dreaded since the inauguration. Eleanor softly put her hand on his shoulder.
“Harry, the President is dead!”
As Truman later recalled:
"For a moment, I could not bring myself to speak. The last news we had had from Warm Springs was (that the President was) apparantly doing so well that no member of his family, and not even his personal physician, was with him. All this flashed through my mind before I found my voice.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” he responded.
“No, sir, Is there anything I can do for you? You’re the one who’s in trouble now!”
Just then, a bawling Edward Stettinius appeared, giving the first reminder to Truman that he was now the chief executive. After asking his Secretary of State to immediately convene a cabinet meeting, indeed there was something he could do for Mrs. Roosevelt, honoring her request to approve the use of a military plane to transport her, Early and McIntire to to Georgia.
This would be his first official act as the thirty-third President of the United States.
McIntire quickly headed back downstairs to his office to call his protege.
“I’m coming down with Mrs. R. and Early, have Paullin call an undertaker to clean him up. If anyone starts talking about an autopsy, tell them he didn’t want one and there’s no time. We want the body on the train by ten in the morning.”
As Bruenn told Daisy Suckley only a few days earlier, he would have “jumped out of a window” if the Boss asked. He would take whatever measures necessary to protect the memory of the man he had come to admire so deeply over the past two years. The mission would continue for half a century.
Even in a most hectic and trying moment, Eleanor’s deep compassion for her friends did not falter. Between meeting with the new President, hastily changing into a black dress and heading off to National Airport, she asked Tommy to put in a call to the nurse of her friend Elinor Morganthau, who was recovering from a heart attack in Daytona Beach, Florida, in order to ask her to turn off the radio in her patient’s room in the fear that the news of FDR’s death might cause a setback.
Now that Eleanor and Truman had been duly informed of the President’s death, Early called back Hassett in Warm Springs:
“You announce it (the death) in Georgia and I’ll call a conference up here for, lets say... 5:45 my time. It will be OK for Bruenn to brief the reporters. Doc McIntire will speak with him about what to say. We should be there before midnight. In the interim, we need you to talk to the funeral director that Paullin chooses and pick out a casket.”
“Sounds good Steve. Who’ll be taking care of the funeral arrangements?”
Anna and General Marshall, you can coordinate things with them. We hope to be able to get the train out of Warm Springs sometime in the mid morning. Please tell Mike (Reilly) to start working on the arrangements. It’s going to be a long night!”
The silence in Madame Shoumatoff’s car was deafening. The threesome had become hopelessly lost and the two women had yet to share with Robbins the real reason why they had to leave so abruptly. Though Lucy knew the situation was “grave” prior to her leaving, after four hours she was desperate for news and asked to stop at a hotel in Macon in order to call both her daughter in Aiken and the Little White House. After numerous attempts at the latter at a payphone were unsuccessful, Madame Shoumatoff overheard a number of the employees tearfully speaking about the President’s death. As they continued their journey, with Lucy softly sobbing in the back seat, flags were already being flown at half staff. Robbins only learned that the President had died from the staccato intonations of commentator H.V. Kaltenborn on the radio. After he took the wheel and went yet another thirty miles in the wrong direction towards Savannah, they did not arrive at the Rutherford estate until after midnight, where Lucy's distraught daughter (and FDR's god-daughter) Barbara had been nervously waiting.
At 5:45, the press briefing held at Carver Cottage was attended by the pool reporters who had come to be known around Warm Springs as the “Three Musketeers”. They had been summoned from a barbeque after waiting there in anticipation of FDR’s arrival. After Hassett’s terse announcement of the death, Howard Bruenn took the floor and gave a virtuoso performance. “A massive cerebral hemorrhage. It was like a bolt of lightening. One minute he was there and laughing, the next minute - wham!”
“Did you see this coming?
“It isn’t the sort of thing you can forecast. He was very tired when he got here. You saw him the other day. Wasn’t he in fine spirits?”
While Bruenn’s name appeared in many newspaper accounts, no mention was made as to why a cardiologist had been attending the President. On the front page of the Chicago Tribune, Walter Trohan was now unleashed to present a detailed account of FDR’s deterioration that had been previously taboo. The impact was virtually nil. The next day Trohan called his old friend, Harold Moore, editor of an obscure but well regarded monthly magazine, News Story. The men agreed that they would publish a comprehensive article to appear over three issues. Trohan would remain anonymous as the source. The article laid out many details never previously reported about FDR’s cancer and events taken first hand from Mike Reilly, including the strict press censorship and the collapse in Hyde Park. Once again - no impact whatsoever. The world had moved on. The monumental news of Nazi capitulation and the Atomic Bomb had overshadowed any unsubstantiated chatter about the health of the man that led the country for the last twelve years. Mcintire and Early’s cover-up had taken hold.
Funeral director Fred Patterson had spent his April 12th playing golf and was about to sit down for an evening of listening to reports about the death of the President on the radio when at half past five the phone rang. It was his old friend, Doctor Jim Paullin calling from Warm Springs.
“Fred, you’ve probably heard by now that President Roosevelt died here in Warm Springs this afternoon. We’d like you come down and prepare the remains.”
“Of course, Jim. Thank you for thinking of us.”
“Expect a call shortly from a Mister Hassett or a Doctor Bruenn about the casket.”
“I’ll start making the arrangements.”
Purely by chance, Brannon Lesesne (pronounced le-sayn), the technical director of the funeral home had walked in. He had heard of the news of Roosevelt’s death at a bowling match.
“It’s good you’re here Brannon, we’ve got some work to do. I just got a call from Warm Springs and they want us to take care of President Roosevelt. Give (embalmers) George (Marshman) and Hayden (Snoderly) a call and tell them we’re going down to Warm Springs. I’m still waiting to hear about the casket.”
Concerned that the more time that passed the harder his task would be, Patterson decided to call the Little White House. Bruenn took the call.
“Jim Paullin called me a few minutes ago about preparing the remains. What have you decided about the casket?”
After Bruenn’s conversation with McIntire, he and Hassett had had a chance to bring up the topic of the casket with the people at the Little White House while waiting for Eleanor’s arrival. Grace Tully recalled that Roosevelt had chosen a casket of solid mahogany with a copper lining for his mother in 1941. Hassett brought up that it had to accommodate a six foot three inch body.
“We need something appropriate for a President of the United States. Perhaps in mahogany with a copper lining. It has to be at least sixty four inches long.”
Patterson had only one solid mahogany model in the funeral home, it had already been promised to a family in New Jersey. The copper lining was another problem. Since the war started copper was in short supply.
“That’s a tough order on such short notice but I might be able to get a hold of one in a few hours. I do have a very nice one made of copper and brass.”
“Bring them both. We’ll let Mrs. Roosevelt decide which one she prefers.”
“OK, I’ll call you when we are ready to leave.”
Patterson immediately put in a call to his casket supplier. After hearing who it was for, they would customize a copper lining and install it in a few hours. It was delivered to the funeral home at 8:45. At nine, Patterson’s three car caravan including two Cadillac hearses, the second driven by apprentice mortician John Shrade carrying the six hundred pound solid metal model, left for Warm Springs. They arrived at the Little White House at 10:45 and were told that they must wait for Mrs. Roosevelt to arrive before they could get to work.
FDR’s death had brought about an ironic balance. Three people had unexpectedly and abruptly left at 2:30. At 11:45 three different people arrived from Washington to replace them, each with a different agenda.
Ross McIntire immediately went into conference with Bruenn and Paullin to continue his mission to assure that no autopsy would be performed. All of the doctors “agreed”. Steve Early met with Bill Hassett about dealing with the flood of reporters that were expected to surface in the morning. Again Eleanor was the calmest person in the room. After hugging a tearful Grace Tully, Polly and Daisy she asked each in turn what had happened. Tully was almost too emotional to speak, relating the events of her day while holding back tears. Daisy calmly related the details of how he collapsed. Neither wanted to add any additional pain at such an inopportune moment. And then Polly dropped the bomb. Franklin had been sitting for a portrait by a friend of Lucy Rutherfurd and, indeed, Lucy had been there as well, staying in the guest cottage.
Laura Franklin Delano never wanted for anything other than love. Her father, Warren, brother of Franklin’s mother Sara, was President of the Delano Coal Company, one of the largest in Pennsylvania. Her mother, Jennie Walters, was the great granddaughter of John Jacob Astor, the worlds richest man. As a child she disdained all drink other than Apollinaris Mineral Water and thus acquired the nickname "Polly". Her life was devoted to the avocations of the idle rich, breeding Irish Setters and Dachshunds and for many years judging dog shows in the United States and abroad. An accomplished carriage driver, she won numerous awards at the annual Dutchess County Fair, driving the horses raised at her father’s vast estate, Steen Valetje, in nearby Barrytown-on-Hudson and those of her cousin and Hudson Valley neighbor, Helen Astor. She was also an active member of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore that had been founded by her maternal grandfather, Henry Walters, a railroad magnate and consummate collector. Naturally flamboyant, she adopted a peculiar style of clothing, an overabundant display of jewelry and purple-dyed hair. The sharply accented widow's peak that she carefully applied to her forehead each morning became her trademark. While Polly could be kind and compassionate, she shared her aunt Sallie’s disdain for Eleanor.
The widow Roosevelt now asked “for a minute” to be left alone with her husband. She stayed five, not in grief but, after Polly’s blunt revelation, seething with disappointment over all the broken promises and for what might have been. Yet as she had been taught from the days of her youth, she would hide the bitter hurt and anger that had been harbored for twenty-seven years, take a deep breath and play out the final chapter of the charade of her marriage- for the sake of her family and her country.
After Eleanor emerged from the bedroom, Polly continued her vindictive barrage. Not only had Lucy been at Warm Springs, she had been seeing Franklin for years, on numerous occasions as a guest at the White House. Compounding the insult, Anna had often been present! Again, Eleanor internalized her emotions. She would deal with her daughter privately back in Washington.
In the midst of all the hubbub, Hacky put a call through to Eleanor from her long-time paramour, Lorena Hickok, from her home at Moriches on Long Island to inquire whether or not she should come to Washington to console her lover in her time of need. Eleanor diplomatically demured,
“You of all people must realize what a load I am carrying now. If you came at this time you’d just be another worry”. Hick perceived the rebuff as an act of concern and love, later writing “I have never been so flattered.”
At 5:47, Eastern time, the International News Service tapped out the shortest news flash in the history of news transmission: FDR DEAD. Within two minutes all nationwide broadcasting systems interrupted their regularly scheduled programming with a similarly terse announcement.
At 12:33 on Friday the thirteenth, Patterson’s team was finally permitted to begin their difficult task. It had been nearly nine hours since death and the body was not a pretty sight. It was emaciated, covered with blisters, a side effect of a cocktail of antibiotics, and the abdomen was swollen from the frequent small feedings that had dammed up behind the intestines blocked by cancer. The major arteries that were normally used as portals for embalming fluid were hardened and clogged by years of smoking, hypertension and fat-laden diet. Marshman, Lesesne and Shrader struggled to restore the stiff and reddened features in the cramped, hot and humid bedroom.
Without Patterson’s experienced supervision of the entire burial process, the tight schedule could never have been met. The first order of business was for Eleanor to select the casket from the two that have been brought.
“Mahogany or Brass?”
The widow appeared either distracted or uncomfortable. Finally, McIntire chimed in:
Eleanor nodded in agreement and the six-hundred pound solid metal model was brought into the living room to await the prepared remains of the President.
Patterson now turned his attention to find out what arrangements were being made to transfer the loaded casket onto the train, asking Mike Reilly, “Is someone constructing a bier?”
“You know, the thing the casket will be sitting on? We’ll also need a ramp to get this six-hundred pound box up into the car.”
Ramps had been a particular specialty of the Secret Service. For the last twelve years they had been supervising their construction virtually every time the President spoke at an outdoor location outside of Washington in order to prevent the public from seeing that their leader was wheelchair bound. Reilly immediately set out to find a carpenter, accompanied by Patterson, who went to check out the arrangements at the train station.
The ad hoc “funeral secretary” chose the car named Conneaught which was normally used by the press corps, since it had large windows where the flag-draped casket could be seen by the thousands who would line the route, first to Washington and then to Hyde Park for burial.
Since the train had come to Warm Springs with the Ferdinand Magellan at the rear, the first order of business was to transpose it with the Conneaught. The next job was to remove a window to create a space large enough so that the inside of the car could be accessed. Then, the ramp and bier needed to be constructed and installed, the casket put in place and the window reinstalled. Amazingly, with a combination of determination, ingenuity and pure luck, a task that would ordinarily have taken days was accomplished in under eight hours!
Upon his return to the Little White House, Patterson was informed by his embalmers that some additional work might need to be done on the remains after the train departed. The request went up the line until it reached Ross McIntire. “No Room” he emphatically pronounced. Indeed, there would have been room on the eleven car train, but McIntire wasn’t about to allow any additional roadblocks prior to burial. A compromise was reached when a container of embalming fluid was permitted to go, just in case the funeral directors in Washington might need it.
When the body reached the East Room of the White House, a few people were permitted a last look at the mortal remains of their boss and father. Finally, Eleanor asked for one last moment alone, removed her wedding ring, placed it on her husband’s hand and asked that the casket be sealed.
Since Bill Hassett had identified Nicholas Robbins as the artist who was painting Roosevelt when he was stricken in Warm Springs, a gaggle of reporters was waiting outside his Manhattan apartment when he and Madame Shoumatoff pulled up after a grueling two day trip up U.S. 1 from Aiken. The artist wanted no part of reporters and after a mad chase through Harlem, they shook their pursuers on the Triborough Bridge, finally arriving at home of Mrs Shoumatoff’s daughter, Zoric, in Locust Valley on Long Island. After a call to Aiken, despite orders from Early to the contrary, a press conference was arranged the next morning at 10 A.M. with the help of a friend who ran a local newspaper. The artist confirmed her presence at the Little White House but was entirely successful in not revealing the presence of Lucy. Other than for family members and close friends those at Warm Springs, the secret would be protected until after Lucy’s death in 1948.
At 10:43 on Sunday morning, April 15th. the body of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was laid to rest, as he had specified, where the sundial stood in his mother’s rose garden.
At precisely 10 a.m. the first of a twenty-one gun salute was fired from a battery on the grounds of the library to the east. Fala barked in response. An Honor Guard lining the hemlock hedge surrounding the garden stood at attention as flights of bombers and training planes droned overhead in a cloudless spring sky. The stocky seventy-eight year old Reverend George W. Anthony, rector of the Hyde Park Episcopal Church, stood at the head of the grave. Facing him was Eleanor, flanked by her children, Brigadier General Elliott Roosevelt on her left and daughter Anna, with her husband, Colonel John Boettiger, on her right. Behind them were her four daughters-in-law, and behind them President and Mrs. Truman. A delegation from the Senate and House stood with members of the Supreme Court and Cabinet on the west with the White House staff on the east. Standing at the gravesite during the ten minute service, Ross McIntire looked back with pride and satisfaction upon his twelve years in the innermost circle of the most powerful man on the face of the earth - and breathed a sigh of relief.
On April 18th, Roosevelt’s death certificate that had been personally accomplished and signed by Howard G. Bruenn of Bethesda, Maryland on April 13th, was filed at the Meriwether County, Georgia courthouse. The primary cause of death was given as “cerebral hemorrhage.” The only contributory cause listed was “arteriosclerosis”.