FDR – 65 Years Ago in Warm Springs
April 12, 2010
Richard J. Garfunkel
At Warm Springs on April 12, 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spent his last day on this earth. He was doing his work until the end. He was dictating to his main secretary, Grace Tully and Dorothy Brady in the terrace of his small pre-Civil War home, known as the Little White House. He was accompanied there by his distant, but loyal cousins Laura “Aunt Polly” Delano and Margaret “Daisy” Suckley.
A few days earlier, on the 9th, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, with whom FDR had been involved in a romantic way from possibly mid-1916 to the summer of 1918 and had been married to the late Winthrop Rutherford until his death in 1944 was traveling to Warm Springs. Along with her was the portrait artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff and the photographer Nicholas Robbins. Ms. Rutherford wanted a painting of the president and Robbins, who an excellent photographer, was friendly with Ms. Shoumatoff and assisted her in her work. On that day, FDR and Daisy drove 85 miles to Manchester, Georgia with a security detail behind them, where the president stopped for a Coca-Cola, and they met the two women who had parked their Cadillac. The Lucy and Madame Shoumatoff transferred to his car, and they all drove back to Warm Springs. Robbins, who was also a Russian, and a naturalized American, born in the Crimea as Nicholas Kotzubensky, was instructed to drive Shoumatoff’s car back to Warm Springs.
On the evening of April 11th, he had dinner with Henry Morgenthau, Jr., his Secretary of the Treasury, who was pressing the president over his idea to create an agrarian post-war Germany. He claimed that FDR had said that he was “with him 100%.” But, Secretary Morgenthau was quite a bit concerned over the president’s health and found him a bit distracted, forgetful, and in his own words confused when it came to certain people’s names. When he left, after complaining about the State Department’s views on the reconstruction of Germany, his last views of the president were of a man quite happy, surrounded by three adoring women who were laughing and talking.
The next day, while he was working on his papers in the late morning, Ms. Shoumatoff painted his portrait. Being a Russian, Shoumatoff asked the president what he thought of Stalin. FDR said that he liked him, but he thought he had poisoned his wife. At the same time, Laura was fixing a floral arrangement, and Daisy was crocheting. His aide Bill Hassett came in with some papers to sign and read and was a bit annoyed with Ms. Shoumatoff’s presence. The president looked at his watch, after saying, “Here’s where I make a law,” and saw that it was 1 PM and said that the portrait session had to end in 15 minutes. At that express moment, both Laura and Lucy, who had left the room, were called back by Daisy when the president fainted. He had dropped something on the floor, appeared to be fumbling for it, put his hand to the back of his neck, and said almost inaudibly, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.” Not long after, he was carried by a Filipino steward Joe Esperancilla and his valet Arthur Prettyman into his bedroom, while Howard Bruenn, his doctor, was phoned. Grace Tully arrived into the room, prayed quietly as he had lapsed into complete unconsciousness. Dr. Bruenn, who arrived shooed, the women out of the room, called Dr. James Paullin, an Atlanta specialist and worked on the president. While he was on the line with FDR’s personal physician Vice-Admiral Ross McIntire, his labored breathing stopped 3:35 PM. Dr. Paullin, a specialist, who was part of FDR’s team of physicians, arrived almost simultaneously and gave the dying president a shot of adrenalin directly in the heart. It did not make a difference.
Lucy Mercer Rutherford and Elizabeth Shoumatoff, quickly packed up their belongings and her paints. The president’s chief bodyguard, Mike Reilly, of the Secret Service, found gas for them for the 186 mile trip back to Aiken, South Carolina. Once the car was ready, they were on the road not long after the president had been stricken.
The assumed physical relationship between Lucy Mercer and Franklin Roosevelt ended in the fall of 1918, with the discovery of a bundle of letters from Lucy that had been found by his wife Eleanor. He had become quite ill upon his return from an inspection trip of Europe and had to be carried from the USS Leviathan and transported to his mother’s townhouse in NYC on September 18th. With the affair exposed, a family crisis ensued, but in the end, FDR parted with Lucy. They may have met once or twice again, and the details of their parting conversations are not known. There is also no evidence regarding whether FDR revealed to Lucy any arrangements which he had made with Eleanor. Under the conditions of the reconciliation, FDR was not to meet or talk to Lucy again, and he and Eleanor would never share the same bed again.
This, of course, is interesting because Eleanor once told her daughter that sex was an ordeal to be borne, and that according to what has been written by members of the family, the fact that they didn’t share the same bed had already been met to avoid further pregnancies. One could speculate that after Eleanor’s 6th childbirth in ten years to her youngest son John, and her removal to a separate bedroom from her husband, that his attraction at age 34 to Lucy may have become more intense. It is hard to believe that a man of his age, with the high libido that all the Roosevelt men possessed, would or could be sentenced to a long celibate life.
Lucy met the wealthy widower Winthrop Rutherford early in 1919 and entered his employ in an undefined role. It may have been as a quasi-governess to Rutherford’s young family of six. But Rutherford, a man in his 50’s, who was exceedingly wealthy and handsome, became enamored with her in short order. They were engaged and married on February 11, 1920. At the age of 29, Lucy had married a man who was 29 years older, or twice her age. The union was successful, the step-children adored her, and she gave birth to her own daughter in 1921. She was a dutiful, loving, and loyal wife, and the marriage lasted until his death in 1944. In the years from 1941 through the war, there were enormous pressures on President Roosevelt, and with Eleanor off traveling to all parts of the country and the world, he sought the company of friends with whom he could relax and escape from the burdens of office. During these years, he was visited at times by Lucy Rutherford. After suffering for years as an invalid, Winthrop Rutherford died in 1944, and Lucy made her first visit in March of that year to Hyde Park. With Eleanor gone, she ate with the president and Daisy Suckley and left by train the next day. There were other meetings, and it was said that he enjoyed immensely her company and her ability to make him relax and not make demands. Could one call her his mistress? I would say that then she was a dear friend from another chapter in his life. He may have been always in love with her, but he did need trusted friends, and through the toll of war, these friends were few and far between. She, especially after the sickness and death of Missy LeHand and others, gave him that friendship and companionship which he so sorely needed.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was both the Soldier of Freedom and as James MacGregor Burns said, “the Lion and the Fox.” He was the creator of the New Deal which halted and reversed the Great Depression. He authored the Four Freedoms and wrote the Atlantic Charter with Winston Churchill. He was the architect of victory for the Western World over the forces of darkness and enslavement. He founded the United Nations. His words and ideas would be incorporated in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He fought for victory to the end, and gave his life as an average soldier would in battle.
At his death Winston Churchill said, “In the days of peace he had broadened and stabilized the foundation of American life and union. In war he had raised the strength, might, and glory of the Great Republic to a height never achieved by any nation in history. “ To Churchill, as he stated, “for us it remained only to say that in Franklin Roosevelt their died the greatest American friend we have ever known and the greatest champion who ever brought help and comfort from the New World to the Old.”
In speaking of the late President, Churchill said in Parliament to the members of the House of Commons on April 17, 1945, “he died in harness, and we may say in battle harness, like his soldiers, sailors, and airmen, who side by side with ours are carrying on their task to the end, all over the world. What an enviable death was his.”