Summer Roosevelt Reading Festival at Hyde Park
June 21, 2008
Richard J. Garfunkel
One could have not wished for or been granted a more beautiful day in the once sleepy hamlet of Hyde Park, NY. Over the years I have been blessed with pretty decent weather whenever I have made the trek up from Lower Westchester County to the Dutchess County homes of the Hyde Park Roosevelts. On a day like yesterday where the sky was a beautiful azure, the air was crystal clear, and the humidity was almost non-existent, one could understand how the late President always longed to return to Springwood. But, of course, during his 12 years and a few months as our greatest president he returned approximately 200 times.
Of course in those day Hyde Park was a sleepy hamlet, but today one still has to drive up the long sloping road (route 9) from Poughkeepsie to get to Springwood. As one reaches the crest of the rising hill, one goes past the right hand turnoff to St. Andrews Road, where one could, if they wished, to then head down to Val-Kill Cottage, Eleanor’s home. Meanwhile it is about a third of a mile more on Route 9, on the left, and one can see the old stonewall, which marks the eastern boundary of the presidential estate. In the 17th Century, the Stoughburghs were the first European Dutch people who settled in that area called Crum Elbow Creek. In 1812, the community was officially named Hyde Park after one Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, who was a Governor of New York.
By the way, Poughkeepsie, which is the county seat of Duchess County, where Hyde Park is located, was founded in 1687 and incorporated as a city in 1854. For a short time it was the capital of New York (1777) and its population (in 2000) of 29,871 is only slightly more that it was in 1900 (24,029). The Poughkeepsie Journal is the 3rd oldest newspaper in the United States and it is the home to Vassar and Marist Colleges.
Well having a bookfest and reading at Hyde Park, which featured historians giving readings from their most recent literary contributions was, and is, quite fitting. President Roosevelt had a wonderful book collection that stood along with his other collecting interests. To any casual observer, or interested party in the president’s habits of life, one would readily know that he was a famous stamp collector and that he had one of the most extensive collections of naval prints. I haven’t come across a book categorizing his print collection, but I do have two interesting books that chronicle his philatelic interest, “Franklin D. Roosevelt: the Stamp-Collecting President,” and “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Stamps of the United States 1933-45.” They were both written by Brian C Baur and were published by Linn’s in 1999 and 1993. One book analyses FDR’s influence regarding which United States stamps were printed and offered for sale to the public during his tenure in office, and the other chronicles his own extensive collection and its disposition in a series of auctions held by H.R. Harmer, the international stamp auction house. Because his children and grandchildren did not seem interested in the President’s extensive stamp collection, the executors of his estate, James Roosevelt, Basil O’Connor, the president’s former law partner, and family friend Henry Hackett decided to sell his stamps at public auction so others might have the opportunity to own something from the president’s collection.
Harmer’s inventoried the president’s massive collection, of which many of the stamps were loose and therefore not placed in albums. They realized that they would have to hold a series of auctions to accomplish their mandate. The four auctions over seven days, held throughout 1946 from April to December, realized over $225,000 for a collection appraised at about $80,000. The famous naval historian, Samuel Eliot Morison once stated that, “If Franklin Roosevelt had never been elected president, he would have been famous for being a collector.” On the other hand, if he had only served one day in office, he would have been famous for being elected without the ability to walk!
So the library is the home to the more than 15,000 volumes that were in the president’s possession on the day of his untimely passing. In a sense, the library was the first repository for his collection of books, then his public papers for research, then his naval prints, his naval ship models, and the thousands of artifacts of his presidency, which included gifts he received during his lifetime, before and during, his presidency.
The book reading festival, held at the Wallace Center featured a number of authors who have written recent books on the various aspects of FDR’s time, personality, programs and personal life. The writers and the contributors to the festival were the following, Anthony J. Badger, author of Prosperity Road: The New Deal, Tobacco and North Carolina, Gary Brechin, who is working on a team to document and map the legacy of the New Deal public works in California, Kathryn Flynn, The New Deal: A 75th Anniversary Celebration, Harry S. Goldsmith, A Conspiracy of Silence: The Health and Death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Linda L. Levin, The Making of FDR: The Story of Stephen T. Early, America’s First Modern Press Secretary, Joseph Persico, Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherford, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life, Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Andrew Schlesinger, co-editor of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Journals 1952-2000 (this 800 page book has 100 pages devoted to the Roosevelts!), his half-brother Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, Will Swift, Roosevelt and the Royals: Franklin and Eleanor, the King and Queen of England, and the Friendship that Changed History, Nick Taylor, American Made : The Endearing Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, and Steve Vogel, The Pentagon: A History: The Untold Story of the Race to Build the Pentagon. (General Leslie Groves built the Pentagon and also was the head of the team that constructed the Manhattan Project.)
In the time I was there, I was able to listen in on the talks given by Joseph Persico, Nick Taylor, Andrew Schlesinger, Amity Shlaes and Harry Goldsmith. In between their readings, most of the authors were seated at tables in front of the library bookstore and people were able to get their books signed and digress with the authors. I was able to meet Joe Persico, Nick Taylor, Dr. Goldsmith, both Schlesinger brothers, and Mrs. Schlesinger, and Amity Shlaes. I was most gratified to be able to get some time with Joe Persico, who has written some excellently received biographies. Persico, who is a tall and incredibly distinguished–looking gentleman, was the chief speechwriter for Nelson Rockefeller when he was governor and vice-president. He has written books on Edward R. Murrow, the Rockefellers, Nuremberg, WW I’s Armistice Day, and the bestseller, Franklin Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage. I just finished his book on Franklin Roosevelt’s relationship with Lucy Mercer, and other women who influenced his life. It is wonderfully researched and it is an important contribution to the understanding of Roosevelt the man, and his need for adulation and warmth from the women that surrounded him and entered his exclusive circle.
Coincidently I met again another FDR collector, Gary Schultze, who had acquired a cane owned by the president. I had a picture of FDR using that same cane when he met with Marshall Foch, in probably the late 1920’s. We had met originally at the FDR Library’s opening of the “100 Days” exhibition in March. Tonight on PBS International there was Gary Schultze. He had collected a “short snorter,” from it seemed the possession of Harry Hopkins. A “short snorter” was a piece of currency that was signed by servicemen in London during World War II. It was used as a type of remembrance regarding the passing acquaintances of men at war, who met at the local pubs and had a ”snort,” or a little shot of whisky. It seems that Harry Hopkins, FDR’s confidante and special emissary, had a 10 Shilling note with the autographs of many of the great figures of World War II. Some of the names on that bill were FDR, Churchill, Eisenhower, Harriman, Patton and others. Wow am I jealous!
Gratefully, for the library and the bookstore, the Wallace Center was crowded with all sorts of FDR aficionados and visitors of all ages. During the lunch break, I was able to slip quietly out to the graveyard in the Rose Garden and the big house overlooking the Hudson. In the silent beauty and quietude of the Rose Garden with its solitary marble grave marker, I met a few people and we talked about the Roosevelt legacy and how he helped save the world. FDR, known as the “Indispensable Man,” said that there was in reality no indispensable man. Do I think that he really believed that? I am not sure. Like all humans; great and not so great, Roosevelt was not perfect, and, believe it or not, he has had his detractors. But, all in all, he continues to fascinate new generations of Americans and an unlimited number of people from abroad. Maybe it was his charm, charisma, leadership, or maybe it was the fact that he was able to overcome polio, paraplegia and the depression that resulted from his inability to walk. His story continues to be compelling, and Ms. Cynthia Koch, the Director of the Roosevelt Library, in her glowing introduction of Mr. Joseph Persico, said that this year alone 87 new books were published about FDR, the New Deal, and his personal affect on the world he lived in and dominated.
With all that in mind, FDR remains the model of the great democratic leader. FDR’s biographer, William Leuchtenberg, said, In the Shadow of FDR, “The shadow cast by FDR has created an imposing set of challenges with far-reaching consequences. Each of his successors has known that if he did not walk in FDR’s footsteps, he ran the risk of having it said that he was not a Roosevelt but a Hoover. Yet to the extent that he did copy FDR, he lost any chance of marking his own claim to recognition. The efforts of Roosevelt’s successors to deal with this dilemma – to prove their fidelity to FDR while distancing themselves from him- has done much to shape the course of events from the spring of 1945 to the present.”
Unfortunately I had to get back to Tarrytown, and I was unable to listen to and meet all of the authors. For sure most of them had one thing in common, the recognition that FDR’s exalted place in history, as one its greatest and most innovative leaders, is assured. I am left with the following piece from In the Shadow of FDR.
William Leuchtenberg, remarked in the preface of his book, “more than two decades later the Time-Life correspondent Hugh Sidey wrote of a White House gathering that drew a number of Washington dignitaries to honor FDR.”
“You could stand on this Tuesday afternoon in February of 1967 and look out over the faces in the East Room of the White House and suddenly understand that Franklin Roosevelt still owned Washington. His ideas prevailed. His men endured. The government that functioned now was his creation perhaps more than that of any other single man.”