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Louis Howe, The Force That Shaped Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt
By Julie M. Fenster
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 Julie M. Fenster
All rights reserved.
THE AIR IN SARATOGA
In October 1919, Louis Howe was in Washington, working by day and staying at the Hotel Harrington by night. His family was in Fall River while he worked as the assistant to the assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt. One night, Howe "had plenty of time to lie still and think everything over," as he put it in a letter to his wife. His mind was at its best when he lay down on a bed or a couch, the floor, or occasionally even on a dresser, in order to think: just think. When he wrote to his wife, he felt a longing for his seven-year-old son, Hartley, known as "Bubble" or "Bubkins" or just plain "Bub." His other child, Mary, he complained, looked on him only "as a checkbook."
Mary Howe, nineteen, was a student at Vassar College and one of the few people in the world who would think to look to the perennially strapped Louis Howe as a checkbook. Much of the rest of the letter, in fact, was devoted to his latest attempt to keep the family solvent, juggling payments to take care of the rent and Mary's tuition. Financial troubles dogged Howe, but they were only distantly connected to the despair of the letter, an emotional frustration that revealed itself in many of his letters home, especially in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
As Howe neared the age of fifty, he was still unsettled, perhaps because his upbringing failed to prepare him for the life he faced as a man. Louis Howe was not meant to be poor. He was not meant to be working in a bureaucracy, with scant call for his creativity. He wasn't meant to be alone in his heart. He'd been promised much more, although in that regard he was hardly unique in middle age. The difference between Howe and a million others was that he was more stubborn than fate. Even when his hopes withered, as on the night at the Hotel Harrington, his inability to compromise remained.
If the points of Howe's early years had determined a straight line, it would have led straight to a position at the head of a newspaper, and his close-knit family would be at home a few blocks away. The line hadn't been a straight one, though, and so it was that Louis Howe was lying perfectly still in a hotel room in 1919, his only friend a boy of seven, four hundred miles away.
Howe had his share of friendly acquaintances. There were the people at St. Thomas' Episcopal church where he sang in the choir. And the amateurs in the theater troupe where he helped to put on plays. They were not the ones he had in mind, though, when he assessed his life in the letter from the Harrington and concluded that everyone who knew him—save Bub—viewed him with indifference, hatred, or opportunism. He meant the people about whom he cared, the Roosevelts and the Howes. The proper order was not certain as he scribbled away on letters in the night, yet it couldn't be ignored: the Roosevelts and the Howes. The Howes or the Roosevelts.
Howe made a stark first impression, and those who knew him the least found it easiest to describe him. According to the universal opinion of casual acquaintances, he was slovenly, gruff, odd-looking, and completely oblivious to rank or social manners. One woman went so far as to state that he was low-class, and that people in the upper "caste," as she put it, naturally found it hard to accept him. If Howe chose to be coarse, though, caste had nothing to do with it.
Louis McHenry Howe was born into a very rich home in Indianapolis, Indiana, on January 14, 1871. As a matter of fact, the house itself was among the more costly in the city, valued at a steep twenty thousand dollars. Louis' mother, Eliza, known as "Lide," was part of the Indianapolis establishment. Her father, James M. Ray, had been an early pioneer in the area—so early that he was part of the federal commission that purchased land for the city and its surroundings from the local Native Americans. Ray later served as president of the Bank of the State of Indiana and made a fortune investing in mines. As soon as he could, he dedicated a great deal of his time and money to improving local education, especially through schools for females and for the blind. Lide's first husband, James Sharpe, was another Indianapolis business leader, an executive with the Indiana and Illinois Railroad. The couple had two daughters, Maria and Cora, before Sharpe's death in the early 1860s.
In 1867, Lide married Edward P. Howe, a native of Massachusetts whose family had settled in Cincinnati in the 1850s. Howe's parents had built a successful store there and then purchased a share of a wholesale business, which gave their children a comfortable start in life. Edward, the oldest of four, was a bright boy who graduated first in his class in high school. The year of his graduation, however, was 1860. In the nervous climate of the times, he was anxious to see whether regional tensions would actually escalate into war. His focus on the national situation was a luxury that didn't last, though: soon after he graduated, his family lost the wholesale business.
Going broke was especially easy in the later part of the nineteenth century. Opportunity was easy to find and so was money on credit—and so were reversals, even on a local level. Those who borrowed heavily to make money were not uncommon, but they were the first to be ruined. For that reason, great families in that era were not judged on the initiative to make money, but on the discipline to keep it, which was rarer by far.
In the face of the downturn in Cincinnati, the Howe family moved to Indianapolis, where Edward's father took a job as a clerk and rented a home for his wife and children. When the Civil War began in April 1861, nineteen-year-old Edward was just starting a clerkship at a law office near Indianapolis. In September, he enlisted and late that autumn he was mustered into the 57th Indiana Regiment. As the regiment marched through Tennessee, Howe served as a quartermaster, working his way up steadily. After two years, he held the rank of captain. Though his skills in supplying the regiment were crucial, he requested field duty toward the end of the war, when the 57th was fighting in Georgia. He apparently saw action at several sites between Chattanooga and Atlanta. After fighting in the war for three years, Howe then helped to write its history, which took even longer. Returning home late in 1864, he worked as an assistant to the adjutant general of Indiana, preparing the record of the state's involvement in the war, The Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana, 1861–1865. When it was finished in 1868, the Report stretched to five thousand pages and filled eight volumes.
Captain Howe, as he was known for the rest of his life, was ambitious to secure his place in the upper class that his wife Lide occupied naturally. At the time of their marriage in 1867, Lide owned their house, and as of 1870 she controlled assets of $5,000. Edward had $3,000 of his own, but he had plans to increase it. He soon found an executive position with an insurance firm. He also tried politics for the first and last time, running for the state senate on the Democratic ticket, as well as the Liberal Republican line. Apparently, there weren't enough voters of either type in Indianapolis, because he lost, although he had the consolation of running ahead of the other losing Democrats. The Republicans, who had emerged from the Civil War with a more reformist reputation than the Democrats, dominated both national and Northern politics in the 1870s. Captain Howe was more progressive than most others in his party, but his loyalty never wavered, as he persevered through many long years when "Liberal-Democrat" was a contradiction in terms.
When Louis McHenry Howe was born in 1871, his father was thirty, his mother thirty-nine, and his stepsisters, Maria and Cora, nineteen and fourteen. In effect, the baby had four parents to fret over him. And they did hover over him, in part because they were affectionate people and in part because they soon discovered that the baby was sickly.
Julia G. Sharpe, who lived near the Howes, was a cousin of Eliza's first husband, James Sharpe. She described the Howes' son as "a rather pathetic little person—with large dark eyes and emaciated figure." His family certainly didn't regard him as pathetic, though. His parents and stepsisters considered him a rare jewel, and handled him accordingly. "Louis, born late in the lives of his parents, was a very delicate child," Miss Sharpe wrote in a letter years later, "and it was said that his doting parents took him every morning to a doctor for a physical examination."
By the time Louis was three, his condition was still troubling. Only one thing had really changed: the Howe family was practically penniless. Captain Howe had speculated in real estate and other ventures, probably using his wife's connections and certainly using her money. Unfortunately, Captain Howe's big chance to make a fortune came along just before the Panic of 1873, which instigated five hard years of economic depression. Anyone dependent on borrowed money was in trouble, as values dropped and loans were called in. Even Lide's father, James Ray, one of the city's founders and a symbol of its prosperity, was toppled at the age of seventy-three. No longer serving as a philanthropist, he was out looking for one. Before long, with the help of friends, he found what was later described as "an easy, but well paid position in the Treasury Department at Washington."
For several years, Edward and Lide Howe managed to take care of their family. To save their fragile little boy from having to walk long distances, they bought him a miniature phaeton, a stylish type of carriage, with a pony to pull it. They tucked him inside and then escorted him to the doctor or elsewhere. The neighbor children couldn't help but gawk. "Such a program," Julia Sharpe noted dryly, "had been lacking in our lives."
As an underweight child afflicted with asthma, Louis was a ripe candidate for early death, especially in the late nineteenth century, when air quality in cities was not very good and illnesses such as tuberculosis and typhoid swept through without warning, clearing out the weak—such as a skinny, wheezing little boy—along with many of the strong as well. The Howes took a conservative route, protecting their boy from both exertion and exposure, picking him up and carrying him when the pony phaeton wasn't available. The sense of need may well have been theirs as well as his. The special treatment gave them the benefit of having Louis with them constantly, to be hugged and held, enjoyed and indulged, included in conversations and closely nurtured. Some parents chose, on the contrary, to build up weak children through a rough-and-tumble regimen. Theodore Roosevelt, who was also small and asthmatic during his childhood in the 1860s, eventually adopted that path for himself. So did others in Howe's era, such as the writer Ambrose Bierce and Woodrow Wilson.
The "strenuous life," as Theodore Roosevelt later labeled it, mandated vigorous exercise as a way for children "to overcome ... difficulties." That approach certainly had its success stories. It is somewhat harder to compile a list of potential celebrities who never made it to adulthood as a result of insistent relatives and their theories about hard living. The Howes chose not to take any chances with Louis. His breathing problems undoubtedly provided more than one stark episode to justify, for them at least, a constant sense of caution and a way of life that made the household revolve around the boy. "Some of the mothers of the neighborhood," recalled Miss Sharpe, "were inclined to criticize his bringing up as being pampered and thought he would have developed better had he been allowed to play with other children and not under the eyes of older and too solicitous people." And yet by the time Louis was seven, he was no longer the main problem. Edward Howe's health had collapsed, probably from some combination of exhaustion and disappointment over that the fact that he could no longer care for his family. Lide's family stepped in to help.
Lide had a stepsister named Anna, who had married Sylvester E. Strong, son of the nationally known Sylvester S. Strong, an authority on the rehabilitation of invalids. Both the father and son were physicians in Saratoga, New York, where they owned Strong's Sanitarium, a thriving institution that offered a full range of services along the medical spectrum. People could check into Dr. Strong's whether they were gravely ill, mildly run down, or just urgently self-indulgent. In Saratoga, the differentiation wasn't important. Everyone went there to feel better in one way or another.
In the nineteenth century, Americans, especially those from big cities, were more anxious to escape heat and humidity—and the diseases theycultivated—than snow and cold. Cool, clean Saratoga, located about twentyfive miles north of Albany in eastern New York State, answered the demand for respite and grew into an exclusive summer resort. It catered to rich people and gamblers, two groups that invariably excited one other, at least when the season was still young. Gambling casinos operated illegally and openly in the middle of town. Opulent hotels lined the main street. By day, their long front porticos formed the axis of life in town, as people sat outside, unabashedly perusing the people on the walk. By night, the ballrooms at the great hotels brought the same pastime indoors and set it to music.
Sylvester S. Strong, who had started his career as a Methodist minister, aimed to add a wholesome, productive element to Saratoga when he opened his "Remedial Institute," as it was originally called. Although his sanitarium was a private hospital with four or five physicians on staff, it also helped to pioneer restful palliatives such as massage therapy and formulated mineral baths, which have remained popular at spas ever since. "A casual observer would not observe its medical character," noted a travel book. "There is no appearance of invalidism, and its prominent features are those of a first class family hotel."
In 1878, when Louis was seven, the Howes lost the house in Indianapolis and moved permanently to Saratoga, where they checked into Strong's Sanitarium. Louis would benefit from the town's clear air and healthful waters, while Edward's health would benefit from the fact that his whole family could live at the sanitarium for free. Although he had given up on real estate investments for the time being, he hadn't lost hope of recouping his fortune (and Lide's) in some future business venture. First, though, he had debts to repay and a family without a home of its own. Looking back on his literary experience with the Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana, he accepted a job as a reporter at the town's leading newspaper, The Saratogian. With that, he was able to support the family again, in a rented home in town.
The Saratogian was a first-rate paper, and, like Saratoga itself, more potent than its size would suggest. It had just one flaw, from Captain Howe's point of view: It was Republican. In 1882, the captain purchased a smaller paper, the overtly Democratic Sun.
For about five years, Louis continued to lead a cloistered life, receiving his education at home. Finally, at the age of twelve, he was allowed to go to school. The fact that the institution selected was otherwise a girls' school did not make it any less appropriate from the Howes' point of view. The main point was that it was located across the street from the home they had rented. Whatever the distance, Louis was finally out of the house. On his own with other children, he took pride in the French spelling of his first name and insisted that it be pronounced "Louie," unlike the English "Lewis," with which there was no option except the hard and formal.
Whether the town worked its wonders on Louis, or he just outgrew some of his earlier maladies, he turned from a weakling of a boy into a very lively teenager. He was still skinny and sometimes asthmatic, but no one had to carry him around or plop him into a pony phaeton. The challenge was just to keep up with Louis as he played tennis, acted in school plays, and helped his father at the Sun.
In later life, Louis Howe never spoke of himself as a Midwesterner. He came into his own as an upstate New Yorker in Saratoga and he knew it as well as anyone, taking pride in its history before and after the Europeans arrived. In an article written in 1905 for The New England Magazine, Howe described the occasion in 1767 when William Johnson, an Irishman and large landowner in upstate New York, was suffering from a wound to his leg received in battle twelve years before. The Mohawk Indians voted in tribal council to escort him to the springs at Saratoga for treatment. Johnson was the first person of European descent allowed the privilege. After a few days, he was cured and when he returned home, he spread the word about the healing powers of the mineral water. "In 1783," Howe wrote, "George Washington, accompanied by Alexander Hamilton and Governor George Clinton, visited the Spring. Washington was so favorably impressed with its virtues that he made inquiries with a view to acquiring the land and building thereon a summer home, although at that time the spring lay in the heart of the wilderness, and one log hut sheltered all the inhabitants of the place."
Excerpted from FDR's Shadow by Julie M. Fenster. Copyright © 2009 Julie M. Fenster. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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