top of page

The Roosevelts, Part 3: FDR

And now, for probably the most well-known of the "Hyde Park" Roosevelts.

(Click here for Part 2)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on 30 January 1882, the only child of Sara Delano and James Roosevelt. However, he was not his father's only child. James did have a much older son, also named James, from his first marriage to Rebecca Brien Howland. FDR's brother, nicknamed "Rosy," was born in 1854, the same year as FDR's mother. By the time FDR was born in 1882, Rosy was already grown up and had a family. He had married into another of America's leading families when Rosy wed Helen Astor in 1877. FDR and Rosy's daughter Helen and son James were even close in age. He played with them when Rosy's family visited Springwood, the family's estate in Hyde Park, New York.

Young Franklin reportedly had a tough time adjusting to high school. He was taught at the house on the family property till the age of 14 when Franklin was sent to prep college at the Groton School in Massachusetts.

Franklin's undergrad studies seemed to be easy for him, taking him only three years to earn a bachelor's degree in history from Harvard. FDR then enrolled at Columbia University's law school, but abandoned his legal studies in 1907 after he passed his bar exam. He only practiced for a few years before jumping into politics. In 1910, he won his first election to the New York State Senate.

Theodore Roosevelt left office in 1909. While he and FDR shared many opinions, Teddy and his family were Republicans, while Franklin, TR's fifth cousin, was a lifelong Democrat. Naturally, that produced some tension when FDR entered politics. TR’s oldest son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., spoke out out against his office-seeking relative in the elections of 1920 and 1932. "Franklin is such poor stuff," said the younger Theodore, "it seems improbable that he should be elected president."

Years before FDR became president, he invested in The Old Gold Salvage and Wrecking Company, intrigued by their efforts to uncover treasure said to be buried on Oak Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. Legendary lost jewels of French King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, which were said to have made their way to Canada around the time of the French Revolution, were of interest to the young FDR. His grandfather, Warren Delano Jr., who was a noted sailor and wealthy goods and commodities trader, had also financially backed Oak Island ventures.

Prior to FDR's involvement, The Old Gold Salvage and Wrecking Company had tried on several occasions to find the storied treasure. With FDR's backing, Captain Henry L. Bowdoin arrived on Oak Island in August 1909 representing the group, confident that their modern technology for the time would make some progress. By this time, the area now known as the "money pit" was cleared out to 113 feet (34 m) and divers were sent down to investigate. Although multiple borings were taken in and around the pit, none of the cores revealed anything of interest. Soon Bowdoin's agreement to dig on the site ran out and in a disagreement with the treasure trove license holder, Bowdoin and FDR discontinued their excavation.

FDR (3rd from Right) on Oak Island in 1909

FDR traveled to the remote island on several times, and his interest in Oak Island treasure-hunting activities lasted throughout his presidency. Even as late as 1939, Franklin considered returning to Oak Island during a visit to Canada, but poor weather forced him to turn him back. To date, no treasure has been found. Current exploration by the Lagina brothers has been documented on the History channel's "The Curse of Oak Island", which started in 2014.

FDR first entered the presidential ticket as James Cox’s running mate. Cox and Franklin supported President Woodrow Wilson's visions for their campaign. Despite their campaign, they lost to Republican Warren G. Harding in 1920.

Franklin was elected governor of New York in 1928 and served from 1 January 1929 until his election as President of the United States in 1932. As the governor, he tackled official corruption, addressed the need for energy by the advent of hydroelectricity on the St. Lawrence River, reformed the state’s jail administration, and constructed a brand new state jail at Attica.

During a rally at Miami's Bayfront Park on 15 February 1933, less than a month before Franklin’s first term began, former bricklayer Giuseppe Zangara attempted to catch Franklin's attention by screaming, "Too many people are starving!" He then reportedly fired six rounds at FDR with a cheap revolver. "I like Roosevelt personally, but I don't like presidents," he claimed. Zangara shot five people attending the event, including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak who received a fatal stomach wound, before he was subdued. Zangara missed Franklin entirely.

When Fidel Castro was 14 years old, he sent a letter to FDR. "My good friend Roosvelt [sic] I don't know very English, but I know as much as I write to you." So began the letter that the White House received from Cuba’s eventual dictator back in 1940. Although Castro was just a teen at the time, he was already very ambitious. He asked FDR for "a ten dollars bill green american [sic]" because "I would like to have one of them." As a postscript, Castro offered to show Franklin "the bigest minas [sic] of iron" in Cuba.

On 8 December 1941, a day after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, FDR made a speech regarding the infamous attack. It is estimated that 81% of the American people tuned in their radios to listen to the President, which is still the largest audience ever recorded for a Presidential radio address.

The start of World War II left baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis with a tough decision. Now that the country was at war, should he suspend America’s pastime and put pro baseball on hold for the duration? FDR did not think so. He wrote to Landis on 15 January 1942, saying that "I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going." Noting that, "there will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before," Franklin believed that Americans deserved "a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off work." Known as "the Green Light Letter," this dispatch from FDR emboldened Major League Baseball to carry on for four seasons during the war, although hundreds of players left to join the military.

Henrietta Nesbit, house keeper of the White House during FDR’s reign, said that his favorite type of food was "something he was able to dig into." He reportedly liked hot dogs, fish chowder, scrambled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches and fruit cake.

On 11 June 1939, FDR and Eleanor were hosting King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Hyde Park, their home in Hudson Valley. It was the first time a reigning British monarch had ever set foot in its former colony. To celebrate such a momentous occasion, the president served the royals a picnic dinner of hot dogs and beer which the visiting leaders enjoyed while eating with the cooks, gardeners, and other staffers of the Roosevelt estate. FDR's mother was not pleased with her son's antics. The queen had no idea how to eat a hot dog. She was confounded when she saw the mystery meat and asked her hosts, "How do you eat this?" FDR allegedly responded "Very simple. Push it into your mouth and keep pushing it until it is all gone." Ignoring his advice, she decided to use a knife and fork, but the King followed it.

In the afternoon of 12 April 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia, while sitting for a portrait by Elizabeth Shoumatoff, FDR said: "I have a terrific headache." He then slumped forward in his chair, unconscious, and was carried into his bedroom. The president's attending cardiologist, diagnosed the medical emergency as a massive intracerebral hemorrhage. At 3:35 p.m. that day, Franklin died at the age of 63.

FDR and Fala in 1941

Franklin was often accompanied by his dog while working. She was a Scottish Terrier called Fala, the name, of native American origin, means "Crow". When Fala died, she was buried next to the President.

To read my post about what FDR once did to Thanksgiving, click here.


bottom of page