The Roosevelt Summer Book Reading Festival
June 19, 2010
Richard J. Garfunkel
The Roosevelt Summer Book Reading Festival has again been blessed with great weather. It therefore was an incredibly pleasant day on the Hudson River. On days like this one could easily imagine why Franklin Roosevelt loved his home so much. The drive up the Taconic to Route West 55 to Poughkeepsie was smooth, uneventful and relatively free of traffic. Once I exited at La Grange it is about 13 miles west to Route 9 and north to the FDR homestead. It always takes about one hour to drive the sixty miles from Tarrytown.
As I approached Springwood, FDR’s ancestral home on Route 9, which is located in an area called Crum’s Elbow on the Hudson, in the Village of Hyde Park, I looked across the old wheat fields that fronted the mansion. I always imagine how it looked to residents back in the days when the late President was in residence.
My first trip to Hyde Park was probably sixty years ago, and over the past forty years I have made numerous trips when ever time allowed. The big house, which was originally purchased by FDR’s father, James Roosevelt, in 1866, was called Brierstone. Over the next thirty-four years James Roosevelt continued to improve and enlarge the house. At James’ death in 1900, both his widow, Sara Delano Roosevelt, and his son Franklin regarded Springwood as their primary residence. FDR was born there in 1882 and it hasn’t changed much since it was enlarged back in 1915, from an old Victorian villa into a mansion more than twice its former size. But over the past decade, or so, it has faced a number of challenges from fire and its natural aging, which one could expect from a building almost one hundred-fifty years old. FDR loved the sprawling estate, and in 1915, in his voter registration form, he listed his occupation as tree farmer. He had early on learned that the ground Springwood was built on had been raising corn for hundreds of years and that the top soil had been eroding and blowing into the Hudson. He noticed that his estate’s production per acre had also declined over the years, and he believed that the loss of trees and their root systems created more erosion and drier soil. Therefore, over his adult life-time, he planted over 20,000 trees there annually.
After turning left across Route 9, into the property, I parked at the Henry A. Wallace Visitor’s Center. This center, constructed and opened in 2003-4, has made a remarkable addition to the Roosevelt National Historical Site. Since its opening it has been the focal point of all the intellectual and social activity that goes on at the whole complex. In fact, the whole character of the site has been incredibly enhanced by the Wallace Center.
Upon entering the Wallace Center at 9:40 am I saw the director Cynthia Koch, at the podium, waiting to address the gathered throng, and I went over, said hello, and wished her good luck and hoping that day would move smoothly. Cynthia and her staff have this program, and its schedule, down to an art form, and this day was no different. Later I would again meet Cynthia as she was escorting Professor Alan Brinkley, the keynote speaker. I had recently met Professor Brinkley at the NY Historical Society, while he was hosting an event on FDR.
I also met Chris Breiseth, the former head of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and terrific guy, who has had a remarkable academic and intellectual career from his days at Cornell’s Graduate Studies program to his recent work with both the Roosevelt Institute and the Frances Perkins Center. While Chris was at Cornell working on his PhD studies in European History over in the School of Arts and Sciences, Frances Perkins was at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Chris and others invited her to come and live at Telluride House in the spring of 1960. She remained until her death in May of 1965. He had one year with her in the Telluride House, 1962-63, after his return from Oxford University where he was from 1960 to 1962. He actually arranged for the dinner in the spring of 1960 where he and others encouraged Miss Perkins to come and live with them and made the formal invitation. She and Chris organized a seminar for house members with Henry Wallace in the spring of 1963 and worked with her the following year to do a similar seminar (over a weekend) with Jim Farley.
By the way, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Kirsten Downey, at this event a few years ago, who has written a wonderful biography of Ms. Perkins. Linda and I met her again in NYC at the Harvard Club when there was a symposium on the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Social Security legislation by President Roosevelt. There are always interesting and exciting people to meet at the FDR Library, especially when they host this event.
Chris was talking to Dr. Steven Lomazow, who with Eric Fettmann, of NY Post, has written a very controversial book about FDR’s health, sickness and cause of death. Before the publication of his book, I had read the reviews and had spoken to Dr. Lomazow, at length, about his conclusions. I also had interviewed Dr. Harry Goldsmith MD, on my program, The Advocates, http://advocates-wvox.com , who I met at this event in 2008. Goldsmith’s research and book, The Conspiracy of Silence, The Health and Death of FDR,, had stimulated a great deal of interest in the medical connections between FDR and his doctors, Cary Grayson, Ross McIntire and Howard Bruenn, and the speculation that FDR suffered from and was affected by the affects of malignant Melanoma. Both Goldsmith and Lomazow focus on the extreme medical secrecy, regarding President Roosevelt’s health, and seem to feel his doctor’s action were unique. My sense is that all presidents have hidden their health challenges as defense mechanism against scurrilous political attacks, nit-picking and off-the-wall speculation regarding decision-making.
As to keeping his health information private, FDR knew who his opponents were and how vicious their tactics and actions could be. There are unlimited examples of their efforts, innuendos, lies, fabrications and character assassination for the sake of political gain. It seems that the authors relied upon the words and files of reporter and columnist Walter Trohan, the Limbaugh, Beck and Hannity of his day. FDR got along quite well with Trohan, even though he worked for the Chicago Tribune, and the author’s admitted that he was probably the source of much disinformation and under-handed criticism of the president. There is no doubt that FDR’s political enemies would use any edge to bring down his administration. FDR had an obligation to his millions of supporters who supported wholeheartedly his ideas and policies.
Of course, with Dr. Goldsmith’s research and medical experience, along with Lomazow’s long background in neurology, they make a specious case based circumstantial evidence that FDR’s powers of concentration, reasoning, and even judgment were impaired. Yes, he was sick, and there may have been multiple causes to his illness, but for sure, all evidence, from my perspective, was that he was perfectly aware of all that was going on, and that no other human knew what he knew and could deal as affectively with the problems of peace and war.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet all of the authors, or hear all of their talks. As we all know, it is impossible to be in more than one place at a time. I did get to meet and listen to Neil Maher, the author of Nature’s New Deal, the CCC and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement, Richard Breitman, author of Refugees and Rescue, the Diaries of James G. MacDonald, 1933-45, which reveals much of the background work FDR used to help Jewish refugees, Terry Golway, author of Together We Cannot Fail, FDR and the American Presidency in the Years of Crisis, who had been a guest on my radio show, on January 27, 2010, and Julie Fenster, author of FDR’s Shadow: Louis Howe, The Force that Shaped Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, This book is an excellent addition to the available literature on FDR’s close friend and associate Louis McHenry Howe. There is really only one other book on their relationship, Roosevelt and Howe, by Alfred Rollins. Lastly, I met Andrew Roberts, author of the most interesting book, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West 1941-5. I have read his book, which chronicles the lives and activities of Franklin D. Roosevelt, George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army, Winston Churchill, and Field Marshall Alan Brooke, Great Britain’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and how they developed the strategy to win WWII in Europe. Both Neil Maher and Andrew Roberts are currently scheduled to be guests on The Advocates.
At the end of the long, but interesting afternoon, Alan Brinkley, the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University, gave the keynote address. Brinkley is a graduate of Princeton University (AB) and received his Ph.D. from Harvard and is the son of long-time newscaster, the late David Brinkley. Below is the whole list of participants.
Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin
The GI Bill: The New Deal for Veterans
Oxford University Press, 2009
The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America
Bloomsbury Press, 2009
FDR's Alphabet Soup: New Deal America 1932-1939
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945
Indiana University Press, 2009
Michael G. Carew
Becoming the Arsenal: The American Industrial Mobilization for World War II, 1938-1942
University Press of America, 2009
Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946
W.W. Norton, 2009
Julie M. Fenster
FDR's Shadow: Louis Howe, The Force That Shaped Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt
Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
Together We Cannot Fail: FDR and the American Presidency in the Years of Crisis
Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2009
Steven Lomazow, M.D. and Eric Fettmann
FDR's Deadly Secret
Neil M. Maher
Nature's New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement
Oxford University Press, 2007
Kristie Miller and Robert H. McGinnis
A Volume of Friendship: The Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway, 1904-1953
Arizona Historical Society, 2009
Stephen R. Ortiz
Beyond the Bonus March and GI Bill: How Veteran Politics Shaped the New Deal Era
New York University Press, 2010
The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China
Simon & Schuster, 2009
To Keep the British Isles Afloat: FDR's Men in Churchill's London, 1941
Smithsonian Books, 2009
Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945
Lauren R. Sklaroff
Black Culture and the New Deal: The Quest for Civil Rights in the Roosevelt Era
University of North Carolina Press, 2009
American Commando: Evans Carlson, His World War II Marine Raiders, and America's First Special Forces Mission
New American Library, 2009
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is dedicated to preserving historical material and providing innovative educational programs, community events, and public outreach. It is one of thirteen presidential libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. For information about the FDR Presidential Library call (800) 337-8474 or visit www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu.