On Dupont Circle: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Progressives Who Shaped Our Worldby James Srodes
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Prize-winning author James Srodes offers a vivid and scintillating portrait of the twelve young men and women who, on the eve of World War I, came together in Washington, D.C.’s tony Dupont Circle neighborhood. They were ambitious for personal and social advancement, and what bound them together was a sheer determination to remake America and the rest of the world in their progressive image.
At one residenceknown ironically as The House of Truthlived Felix Frankfuter, a future Supreme Court Justice, and Walter Lippman, later the most important political writer of the twentieth century. Another house served as the base for three siblings: John Foster Dulles, future Secretary of State, Allen Dulles, one of the founders of the CIA, and sister Eleanor Lansing Dulles, one of the most important economists of the age.
Meanwhile, nearby lived young Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who even then were rising political stars, William Bullitt, a charming and unscrupulous writer and future ambassador, and Herbert Hoover, already the most famous American in the world.
The group mixed cocktails, foreign policy, and bed-mates as they set out to remake the world. For the next twenty years they pursued increasingly important careers as their private lives become ever more entangled. By the end of this story, on the eve of WWII, the group came together again for a second chance at historythis time the result was the United Nations.
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Read an Excerpt
“It was Justice Holmes who gave the place the name, The House of Truth. It was to tease us because we were all so certain we were right. He also said we were the brightest minds and the fastest talkers in Washington. And we were.” From the Papers of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, U.S. Library of Congress.
On a Sunday afternoon in January 1916, journalist Walter Lippmann wrote a note from New York City to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in Washington, DC. “Dear Mr. Roosevelt, I shall be in Washington Wednesday and Thursday and I would like to see you if it is possible for a little talk while I am there. I have to spend the afternoons at the Capitol. So if you could make it in the morning or, preferably, if you could lunch with me either day that would be fine. I shall be staying at 1727 19th Street. Could you drop me a line there about this? Sincerely, Walter Lippmann.”
The note marks the start of a cautious shift by Lippmann from his role as a confidential adviser for former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt to backing the re-election campaign of the then incumbent, Democrat Woodrow Wilson. It also confirms the start of a life-long and often contentious relationship between the thirty-four-year-old Franklin Roosevelt, a rising star in American politics, and Lippmann, who already at twenty-seven was a nationally recognized author on political philosophy and one of the founding editors of the most powerful voice of the Progressive movement, The New Republic. Intriguingly, this also is the first reference to the boarding house which served as Lippmann’s base for the two years he was in Washington, a nondescript row house on a tree-shaded side street just two blocks east of busy Connecticut Avenue---jocularly known to its inhabitants and many visitors as The House of Truth.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about the appearance or purpose of the house. In that second decade of the century Washington remained a city of separate neighborhoods, each of which served a specific government institution nearby. Those having business with the U.S. Congress frequented small hotels up on Capitol Hill. In downtown Washington so many young State Department appointees transiting through to foreign posts stayed at a boarding house at 1718 H Street that having roomed there became a kind of rite of passage to a close-knit fraternity for a generation of American diplomats.
The House of Truth came into being in 1911, when Robert Grosvenor Valentine, the Taft Administration’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, rented it and turned it into an informally-run bachelor’s boarding house. Valentine was a wealthy Harvard graduate and MIT professor in the new discipline of industrial management. He had little trouble recruiting congenial companionship from among the growing number of Harvard alumni who were beginning their careers in the federal government.
The narrow three-story house featured a large living room-dining room space on the ground floor that served as a commons area; tall French windows on the front could open in the evening to catch the breeze. The furnishings there and in the six upstairs bedrooms were second-hand and a bit rump-sprung but that added to a raffish, slightly bohemian atmosphere that made it highly attractive to the young people who were drawn there.
Another important attraction of the house was its location in the newly fashionable neighborhood of embassies and important residences that surrounded Dupont Circle. As late as the 1880s the area had been at the outer limits of the city and was a marshy wasteland and dumping ground. But by 1900 the boundaries of the District of Columbia had been greatly expanded northwards in response to a building boom and a demand for improved municipal services.
The circle with its small park was less than half a mile northwest of the White House and the baroque office building that housed the State, Navy and War Departments, so government workers and high officials alike enjoyed an easy commute. Radiating out from the circle, newly paved streets crossed a recently opened bridge on P Street across Rock Creek Park to link with Georgetown; another bridge for trolleys extended Connecticut Avenue northwards and spanned the Rock Creek to reach out to the far away farm hamlet of Chevy Chase. A third spoke, Massachusetts Avenue, led north and west up a hill to the newly opened Naval Observatory. If one had business in downtown Washington, Dupont Circle was where one wanted to live.
The neighborhood had undergone change almost from the start of its development twenty years earlier. First, huge Beaux Arts mansions had been built by the wealthy and powerful. But plainer row houses then filled in what had been empty lots on either side of the major spokes off the circle. Many of the older more ornate structures by 1916 had changed hands and now housed important embassies including those of Great Britain, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and China. But the House of Truth was in a compact enclave of row houses and small apartments known as “The Strivers.” The Strivers was a community largely of affluent African-American families of mid-level government employees. Originally a racist term of derision, the residents of the community adopted it as a badge of honor and imposed landscaping and upkeep rules that made the neighborhood a source of pride and an example to other Washingtonians.
Robert Valentine was a nationally recognized expert in the new social science of labor efficiency and improved working conditions, the kind of irrefutable reformer that other Progressives admired. He also was a generous host when it came to entertaining so the House of Truth quickly became a social magnet for the influx of young men and women who had come for exciting careers. Two early visitors who became residents were a young lawyer from New York named Felix Frankfurter and a British nobleman, Lord Eustace Percy, who was the private secretary to the British Ambassador. Percy later recalled, “That household had a touch of du Maurier’s Quartier Latin, with law and the erratic politics of the then infant New Republic taking the place of art as the focus of its endless talk and even more endless flow of casual guests. The range of our talk and our entertainment was ‘extensive and peculiar’; but we hardly took ourselves or our symposia seriously enough to deserve the mocking nickname of the ‘House of Truth’ which some humorist conferred upon us.” The “humorist”, of course, was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who lived nearby. Despite his age (he was seventy-five) Holmes quickly had established himself as the pater familias of the younger men and he relished ruling over the dinner table debates as both referee and devil’s advocate.
Most of the bachelors of the House of Truth were very young indeed, in their twenties. They favored the new softcollar shirts and slightly shabby suits common to the impoverished college graduate students they had recently been. Their drink of choice was the newly popular daiquiri cocktail and they pursued debutantes of suffragette convictions with the intensity of their arguments and their taste for dancing to gramophone records of that new syncopated rage known as "jass." The food served was indifferent but was available at all hours--a good thing because the fierce debates around the dinner table often lasted all night and arguing was hungry work.
The house on 19th Street was just one of several important addresses in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that were homes to important political names in the Progressive roster. These houses served as both debating arenas and recruiting centers for what New York socialite Mabel Dodge had dubbed as the young “movers and shakers” of the movement.
Nearby at 1323 18th Street was a vastly different place that was the focus for what might be called the Old Guard Progressives. The mansion of former Secretary of State John Watson Foster was a base for older reformers who had come to power in the previous century, but it also drew young place- seekers from the wealthier families of the Eastern Establishment. Its lure for young visitors was enhanced by the fact that by 1915 one of General Foster's sons-in-law, Robert Lansing, had just been made Secretary of State for Woodrow Wilson. Lansing and his wife lived there as well.
Lansing, a Democrat, and Foster, a Republican, were the two most prominent activists in what was called the arbitration movement in international affairs. For more than twenty-five years they had participated in more negotiations of international disputes than anyone. Boundary pacts, multinational agreements on trade, limits on seal hunting, and global rates for postal and telegraph service all had been dealt with by Foster and Lansing. The common wisdom that prevailed in the final decades of the nineteenth century was that disputes between nations could be reduced to legal issues and adjudicated peacefully if only competing parties would just concede to the judgments of impartial arbitrators.
Arbitration had drawn the support of such determined peace activists as Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who funded a prize to reward those who sought to end war. Steel baron Andrew Carnegie had donated the funds to establish a World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, as a permanent forum for international law adjudication.
The quest for peace was hardly new. After the carnage of the American Civil War, the nature of war itself had morphed from the traditional model of distant conflicts between professional armies to a general melee that resulted in horrifying civilian destruction without resolving the causes of the wars themselves. The destabilizing impact of this new genre of warfare---exaggerated by new armaments of staggering firepower--- appeared to threaten civilization itself and terrified ordinary citizens. No one felt safe. So Prussia could conquer France with ease; Russia could attack the tottering Ottoman Empire and in turn be sent into near-revolution by its defeat at the hands of the upstart Japanese navy. However emotionally satisfying America’s triumph over the Spanish in 1898 might have been, it nevertheless added to the growing instability of the globe.
For all his public reputation for bellicosity, no one worked harder to make arbitration pacify nations than Theodore Roosevelt. He saw neither irony nor contradiction in this commitment despite his much publicized role in the 1898 war with Spain and his leadership in the creation of the United States Navy as an overnight world sea power. He was not alone in this, for many Americans, Progressives included, accepted the need for U.S. global power while decrying the empire-driven conflicts of other nations in Europe and Asia. Roosevelt had supported U.S. participation in the First Hague Peace Conference held in 1899, where the twenty-five other nations failed to achieve a general disarmament pact but did set the first agreed-on constraints on modern warfare.
As president, Roosevelt not only submitted a number of testy diplomatic disputes to arbitration but he personally used the prestige of his office to broker two important peace settlements that could have deteriorated into a world conflict. In 1904 the Japanese surprised the world and Czarist Russia by attacking the Russian fleet at Port Arthur, Manchuria. By 1905 it was clear that while Japan had run up a surprising series of victories it had bit off more than it could digest; the humiliated Czar faced an incipient revolt at home which was crushed with particular brutality, sending rebel leaders, including Lenin, into exile. At the secret suggestion of the Japanese, Roosevelt brought the warring parties together to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and used the sheer force of his personality to win an agreement to end hostilities. The treaty was internationally hailed as a triumph for peace even though it left the main parties dissatisfied. A year later, Roosevelt intervened again when Germany and France came close to war over possession of Morocco. In 1906 he became the first American President to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Meet the Author
James Srodes is the author of Dream Maker: The Rise and Fall of John Z. DeLorean, Allen Dulles: Master of Spies, and Franklin: The Essential Founding Father. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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