FDR's Funeral Train: A Betrayed Widow, a Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balanceby Robert Klara
The true story of the wartime train that took one dead president, one living one, and 140 of the most influential men of the U.S. government on an adventure that has been shrouded in mystery-until nowSee more details below
The true story of the wartime train that took one dead president, one living one, and 140 of the most influential men of the U.S. government on an adventure that has been shrouded in mystery-until now
Gay Talese, author of A Writer's Life
"A riveting, sumptuously detailed look inside a luxurious, mysterious private train swaying from one presidency to anotherthe picture windows in its last car showcasing a bronze coffin to thousands of trackside mourners ignorant of the vivid tensions in the cars ahead."John Stilgoe, Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape, Harvard University and author of Outside Lies Magic: Discovering History and Inspiration in Ordinary Places
“Robert Klara’s FDR’s Funeral Train is a well-written and vivid account of America’s greatest national mourning since Abraham Lincoln was shot. Every page here is illuminating. At times Klara practically transports the reader back to 1945. A major new contribution to U.S. history.”Douglas Brinkley is author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
"No fan of FDR and his presidency can afford to pass up this book. Robert Klara takes you inside FDR's funeral train, and into the minds and hearts of those who made the president's last journey with him. Klara offers a unique, never-before-told perspective on the sudden transfer of power, the players who wanted to grab some of that power and the widow whose grief was tinged with the bitter taste of betrayal. A remarkable story by a true storyteller."Lorraine Diehl, author of The Late, Great Pennsylvania Station
"No one in 1945, friend or enemy, was unmoved by the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, after his dozen critical years in the White House. FDR's Funeral Train vividly recalls the nerve-racking week behind the headlines, when his family and his government rose above a trainload of personal problems to help the nation across the chasm left by his demise. An exciting addition to the Roosevelt bookshelf, Klara’s book is overflowing with the stuff that every history reader craves – fresh, original research." Julie Fenster, author of The Case of Abraham Lincoln and FDR's Shadow
"With great skill and riveting detail, Robert Klara uses a three day train journey to provide readers with a fascinating glimpse into the inner-workings of the Washington elite in the days after FDR's death. This fast-paced narrative is filled with vivid portraits and plenty of intrigue. It also manages to shed new light on a critical moment in our nation's history."Steve Gillon, author of 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America and Resident Historian, The History Channel
"An intriguing account of FDR's last journey and a must read for all those still caught up in the romance and mystery of rail travel"—David B Woolner, Senior Fellow, Roosevelt Institute and Associate Professor of History, Marist College
"FDR's Funeral Train is a fascinating tale well told. Hop aboard with the skilled storyteller Robert Klara. You'll be glad you did."James Bradley, author of Flags of our Fathers and Flyboys
"Klara charms as he informs. A little gem."Kirkus (starred review)
“Evocative account of the sometimes awkward juxtaposition of those who had served and now mourned one president and those who were eager to begin working for, and influencing, another.”Asbury Park Press
“A riveting tale of how several railroads brought Franklin D. Roosevelt’s body home.”Trainstalk
“A book that reveals much of the heretofore hidden angst and intrigue that had accompanied a dead president on his final journey back home.”Charlottesville Daily Progress
"Klara, a veteran reporter, has put together a thrilling piece of history. Sixty-five years after FDR’s death, Klara has managed to provide a fresh look at history as well as the political landscape of the 21st century."The Daily Beast
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FDR's Funeral Train
A Betrayed Widow, A Soviet Spy, And A Presidency In The Balance
By Robert Klara
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2010 Robert Klara
All rights reserved.
On the afternoon of March 30, following the overnight trip from Washington, POTUS had rounded the tight bend at Warm Springs, eighty-four miles south of Atlanta. The town perched along a branch line so insignificant it resembled a piece of lint on the Southern Railway's sprawling route map. Long before the clang of the locomotive's brass bell could be heard, a distant plume of smoke over the treetops announced the train's approach. POTUS's engineer touched the throttle gently to summon the steam needed to nudge the overweight Magellan up the slight grade by the depot. The ten cars rumbled through, slowing up until the train's tail was even with the road crossing. Then the brakes gripped the wheels tight. A mighty hiss followed as the reservoirs spat their pressurized air into the dirt. FDR had arrived in the sleepy Georgia hamlet for the forty-first time. It was Good Friday.
Here, in the yard beside the station, there was plenty of room for bystanders. For locals, the president's arrival was always a special occasion, familiar as it had become. Helped to his Pullman's vestibule, FDR would never fail to doff his fedora and smile at his assembled "neighbors," a term Roosevelt essentially applied to everyone inside the Georgia state line. But today it would be different. It was a ghost's face that appeared in the shadow of the Magellan's open doorway. Regulars in the crowd could tell right away that something was wrong.
Pushed in his wheelchair toward the waiting automobiles, Roosevelt joggled like a rag doll, and as Mike Reilly lifted him into the car, he landed as though he were a wet sandbag. The Secret Service chief, who'd grown accustomed to the president's summoning the tremendous strength hehad built up in his shoulders to literally vault from wheelchair to automobile, was disturbed.
Reilly deposited the president into the car's seat—not the passenger one, but the driver's. Roosevelt kept his royal-blue 1938 Ford coupe permanently garaged down in Warm Springs (its Georgia plates read "F.D.R.1"). FDR soaked the carburetor with gasoline and the little car took off, roaring up the road lined with wild violets and dogwoods, the Secret Service phaeton hot on his tail. Watching him fly up the hill, some in the crowd felt a sense of relief. The president had looked frail, but he was the same road demon he'd always been.
* * *
"When I'm worn out," Roosevelt had told his doctors in 1928, "I'll come back to Warm Springs. In a few days I'll be like new again." FDR had uttered those words when his bid for the New York governor's mansion signaled the start of his political career and the end of his efforts to rehabilitate his legs. Yet Roosevelt had called it right: Warm Springs—a gone-to-seed Victorian resort he'd discovered in 1924 and purchased outright two years later—did somehow always make him new again.
Though Roosevelt's first dip in the property's thermal waters had imbued only a fleeting sense of buoyancy to his shrunken legs, something about the place with its pine-scented air possessed the power to restore the rest of him. His Wall Street friends scoffed when Roosevelt parted with two-thirds of his personal fortune to incorporate Warm Springs as a foundation and open it as a treatment center for polio victims. They didn't understand that the dividends FDR had in mind would not be paid in cash.
After buying the land, Roosevelt selected a hilltop near Georgia Hall, the property's old hotel, and raised a simple cottage of white clapboard. Hanging from a chain over the cottage's front door was a ship's lantern, lit only when the president was in residence. FDR had insisted on a simple, rustic décor of hook rugs and knotty-pine furniture. Measuring fifty-four feet at its widest point, the cabin was shorter than the Pullman car that would bring him there. Roosevelt adored the place.
Just prior to the president's arrival from Washington on that spring Friday of 1945, Daisy Bonner, a local cook who had prepared each and every meal for FDR when he was in Georgia, had climbed up to the empty cottage to stock the kitchen and air the rooms out. As Bonner stepped inside, she gasped at the sudden sound of wings beating over her head. A tiny, snow-white bird was fluttering around up at the ceiling. Bonner had no idea how the creature had gotten in. It was, she'd say later, a sign.
* * *
Elizabeth Shoumatoff, Russian-born portraitist of America's aristocracy, saw the president seated in the back of his parked limousine outside a corner drugstore in Greenville, Georgia, and her heart sank. The ebullient man she'd painted at the White House in the spring of 1943 could not possibly be the pale, diminished one before her now, the evening of April 9, eleven days into his vacation in Georgia. Though the night air was warm, Roosevelt had wrapped himself in his heavy Navy cape. He was sipping a Coca-Cola, doing his best to smile. The Russian gazed at the president she had just traveled hundreds of miles to paint a second time. "How," Shoumatoff thought, "can I make a portrait of such a sick man?" Lucy Rutherfurd had been responsible for setting up the whole thing, but if Shoumatoff blamed her longtime friend for her predicament, she also knew the importance of Lucy's being here—of their both being here. "He is thin and frail," Rutherfurd had warned, weeks earlier. "But there is something about his face that shows more the way he looked when he was young."
No woman would have known better. The youthful, handsome countenance of Franklin Roosevelt had been etched into the mind of Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd from their first meeting, when he was the newly minted assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy and his wife needed an appointments secretary.
During the winter of 1914, the Roosevelts were new to Washington and overwhelmed by the social demands that went with Franklin's title, so they were grateful for the young, polished, and well-connected Lucy Mercer. Her easy laugh and statuesque beauty charmed the Roosevelt children—but charmed their father even more. It is not certain exactly when the romantic affair began, but by September 1918, it had met its abrupt end. With World War I winding down in Europe, Franklin had returned home, ill with pneumonia, from an inspection tour of the front lines in France. Unpacking his trunks, Eleanor discovered a hidden cache of love letters from Lucy. Though she had suspected her husband's duplicity for some time, Eleanor was devastated by the evidence that proved it. She later wrote that at that moment, "the bottom dropped out of my own particular world."
Divorce—viewed in those days with nearly as much disdain as adultery—was the remedy Eleanor had initially demanded. But the social shame of marital dissolution would not only have meant the end of FDR's burgeoning political career, it would have cost him his inheritance, as his mother, Sara Delano, had made icily clear. So from 1918 onward, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt remained husband and wife on paper and for the sake of press photographers. The secret terms that permitted FDR to keep both his public career and his solvency included his agreeing never to see Lucy Mercer again.
Mercer went on to marry the rich but elderly Winthrop Rutherfurd, and Franklin, whose intimate relations with his wife ended as abruptly as her trust in him, had gone on to attain the White House. But Mrs. Rutherfurd and the president had never quite gotten around to severing their ties. There were limousines that mysteriously arrived to bring Lucy to Roosevelt's inaugurals, phone calls discreetly routed through the White House switchboard.
Shoumatoff had first met Lucy Rutherfurd in 1937, after one of the Rutherfurd children hired her to paint their mother, and an enduring friendship had grown out of that sitting. From the first, Lucy admired Shoumatoff's ability to capture not only a face, but also a soul with little more than her studied glance and the silver box of watercolors she carried around in her purse. "You should really paint the President," Lucy suggested one afternoon in the spring of 1943. At first, Shoumatoff doubted she could arrange it. By the following morning, Lucy had done just that.
Two weeks later, inside the Oval Office, Shoumatoff managed to capture FDR's pensive depths as well as his handsome face on a tiny square of canvas. Delighted, Roosevelt immediately resolved to sit for the Russian again, this time for a larger, more official portrait. But the war had intervened, robbing the president of both the time to be painted and the physical strength and striking features that were worth painting. By the time FDR raised the long-deferred sitting with Rutherfurd again, it was the spring of 1945. He was no longer well, and Rutherfurd—whose furtive meetings with FDR had made her a witness to his alarming decline—sensed intuitively that there was not much time left. "If the portrait is to be painted," she told Shoumatoff, "it should not be postponed."
Rutherfurd had made sure that it was not. And so, on April 7, Shoumatoff set off from her home in the Long Island suburb of Locust Valley, detoured into Manhattan to fetch her assistant Nicholas Robbins, and then began the long drive down to Aiken, South Carolina, where Rutherfurd waited for them to pick her up. When the three finally rendezvoused with FDR in Greenville—a tiny town nine miles from Warm Springs—Shoumatoff had been driving for three days. She had helmed her big white Cadillac convertible, its fuel tank topped off despite the strict gasoline rationing. (This, too, was apparently some of Lucy's alchemy at work.)
That night of April 9, FDR settled Shoumatoff and Rutherfurd in one of the intimate guest cottages near his own. Shoumatoff would begin her first sketches of the president the next morning. The 1943 Oval Office sitting had been shoehorned into the frenetic affairs of state, but at Warm Springs, the painter would have more time. Although Roosevelt did some work during the day at his retreat, his schedule had consisted mainly of late risings, early bedtimes, and long afternoon drives in the big, open Packard that the train had hauled down from Washington. In all, Shoumatoff would have three days to stare over her easel at the face of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
On that first night of her stay, as Roosevelt mixed his beloved cocktails, Shoumatoff was struck by the figure of Laura "Polly" Delano, FDR's unmarried cousin who lived alone with her championship dachshunds in a Tudor-style mansion in Hyde Park. With her silk pajamas, jingling bracelets, and "bright blue hair" the 59-year-old spinster strutted about the room like an exotic water fowl. The painter was not exaggerating. FDR's son Elliott described his aunt as "a sprite no more than four feet nine inches tall with parchment skin and purple hair ... her fingers heavy with rings."
Polly—the family's grande dame and gadfly—approved of everything about Franklin except for one thing: his wife. She had never considered Eleanor a suitable match for his sparkling personality and seldom failed to find ways of indicating as much. Polly's efforts to bedevil Eleanor took such forms as plying the grown Roosevelt boys with liquor while their mother watched uneasily. Polly's behavior had been heartless; she had to have known that Eleanor had lost both a father and a brother to alcoholism.
* * *
On the morning of April 12, Roosevelt slept late and awakened with a headache but looked good to Dr. Bruenn, who decided to go for a swim with Mike Reilly, Toi Bachelder, and Grace Tully in the foundation's pool, two miles down the road. That left the president in the company of his cousins Daisy Suckley and Polly Delano, his correspondence secretary William Hassett, the painter Shoumatoff, her assistant Robbins, and, sitting nearby in quiet admiration, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd.
FDR picked a spot near the French doors that opened onto the patio, where he sat in his favorite leather chair with a card table pulled up to it so he could work. As Shoumatoff set up her easel and began mixing colors, Hassett was laying around the room—on tables, chairs, even the couch—letters and documents to which the president had just put his name. FDR was a blotty signer, pressing hard on the fountain-pen nib and laying a thick trail of ink on the page. The tremor in his hands didn't help matters; the signatures needed time to dry. FDR joked that Hassett was setting out his "laundry."
Within the next hour, Elizabeth Shoumatoff had already completed the handsome face of the president, his thoughtful eyes staring intently into the viewer's and yet somehow also deep into some unknowable distance within and beyond. Altering the facts in a way only painters can, Shoumatoff also removed at least ten years with her brush. Yet she agonized to replicate one detail of the man before her. A glorious ruddiness had spread over the president's face only minutes before, chasing away the pallor that had hollowed his cheeks. Such vigor in that color; Shoumatoff summoned all her talent to capture it. She never suspected that the rosy hues washing over president's face were in fact a sign that one of the blood vessels in his brain was about to break.
It was 1:00 P.M. Down at Georgia Hall, a picnic in the president's honor was in the offing. A great kettle of Brunswick stew—Roosevelt's favorite—had been hoisted onto the coals. In the Little White House, Polly walked into the kitchen to put some water in a bowl of roses. Shoumatoff's brush pecked at the canvas. Suckley looked up from her crocheting.
The president seemed to be fumbling for something, his hands flitting about his head, as if waving away a moth that was not there. Suckley rose and walked over to him. "Have you dropped your cigarette?" she asked. Roosevelt turned and looked at her. His furrowed forehead was knitted with pain and yet he addressed her with a tired, apologetic smile. "I have," the president began, his hand reaching tentatively behind him, "a terrific pain in the back of my head."
And then he slumped forward.
Though FDR would linger, unconscious, for another two and a half hours, it was all essentially over in that instant. Everything that followed—from camphor passed under the president's nose, to Dr. Bruenn's frantic injections of papaverine and amyl nitrate, to the summoning of Dr. James E. Paullin, a heart specialist who sped down from Atlanta just to plunge an adrenaline syringe into Roosevelt's heart—all of it would have no effect. Later, Dr. Bruenn likened the hemorrhage to "getting hit by a train."
In the minutes before Roosevelt expired, a sense of helplessness, of inevitability, crept like a phantom through the rooms of the cabin. The rasping of FDR's incapacitated lungs made it clear to everyone that the end was upon him and that there would be no bargaining with it. Grace Tully abandoned herself to silent prayer; Hassett pointlessly studied his watch; the doctors around the bed stood still as oaks. Yet at that moment, as Roosevelt lay in extremis, a purple cyanosis clawing its way across his skin, Polly Delano rose, dialed the White House, and calmly related to Eleanor that Franklin had suffered "a fainting spell" but that "there is no cause for you to upset yourself."
It was an absurd understatement. Polly, the president's son Elliott later said, was playing for time—time to make sure that Lucy Rutherfurd was clear of the place, all evidence of her presence expunged, and everyone settled with sanitized recollections for the First Lady when she arrived.
On Roosevelt's death certificate, file no. 7594 with the Georgia Department of Public Health, beneath the entry on line 10 for Usual Occupation—"President of the United States of America"—the cause of death appears as cerebral hemorrhage with a contributory cause of arteriosclerosis, duration two and one-half years. Line 23 lists the time of death as 3:35 P.M.
* * *
When Hassett reached Steve Early at the White House with the news that FDR was gone, Early gave strict orders that no one was to be told until he could reach the First Lady—who'd left only a short time before for a fundraiser at the Sulgrave Club, a women's literary guild housed in a mansion off DuPont Circle. After taking Polly's call, Eleanor had not wanted to leave the White House, but Admiral McIntire had encouraged her to keep the afternoon's social appointments. As a physician who understood the severity of FDR's coronary picture, McIntire must have suspected that the president had suffered far more than a fainting spell. His blind devotion to FDR, Elliott Roosevelt later posited, was the only plausible explanation for his avoidance of the dark facts before him.
Hassett repaired to his cottage, where he readied a brief announcement of the president's death for the reporters and then awaited Early's clearance to read it to them. Seated at the switchboard set up to route calls through the Little White House, operator Louise Hackmeister knew that in minutes she would be the conduit for a piece of news that would plunge the country into grief. It need only be released. A little after 4:30 P.M., she reached the United Press's Merriman Smith down at the picnic via a transmitter the Secret Service had set up inside an adjacent barn. "Smitty?" Hacky said, trying to control the panic in her voice, "Mr. Hassett wants to see you. Find the other boys and get to his cottage as fast as you can."
Smith was confused. Following a brief press conference a few days earlier, the three wiremen—Smith, the Associated Press's Harold Oliver, and Robert Nixon of the International News Service—had been told that "the lid" was on (meaning, no more news copy) for the trip. Suddenly the three were in the big Lincoln with a Secret Service man at the wheel. The speedometer needle tickled 90 as the heavy convertible lunged up the road. Smith guessed that Hitler must have died. Bob Nixon thought the war was over. But when Smith stepped into the living room of Hassett's cottage and saw Grace Tully's swollen eyes, he knew she had not been crying about the end of the war, much less the end of Hitler. Hassett fumbled with some sheets of paper. "Gentlemen," he said quietly, "it is my sad duty to inform you that the President of the United States is dead." The lid was off.
Excerpted from FDR's Funeral Train by Robert Klara. Copyright © 2010 Robert Klara. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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