When Franklin Delano Roosevelt noticed the butler starting to set the table for lunch, he looked at his watch. It read 1 p.m. “We have 15 minutes more to work,” he told one of his guests, who was painting his portrait. Another guest watched the artist at work, and a third was busy crocheting. In the quiet of the house, a calm that felt far removed from the stresses of wartime Washington, D.C., the minutes passed. Suddenly Roosevelt raised his right hand and moved it to his forehead. His head dropped. He pressed his left hand against his neck, softly said, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head,” and collapsed. Two hours and 40 minutes later, despite an injection of adrenalin to his heart, he died from a cerebral hemorrhage without regaining consciousness.
Americans learned of Roosevelt’s death at the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Ga., on the evening of April 12, 1945, and many felt shocked by the suddenness of his passing. After more than 12 years of FDR’s leadership, they could barely conceive of following another commander-in-chief during the concluding months of World War II.
Roosevelt’s final days abounded with signs that the president was deteriorating, yet few people beyond his inner circle noticed them, a result of his mostly unflagging mental acuity, the urgency of the events unfolding as Germany’s and Japan’s war machines buckled, and Roosevelt’s own reluctance to regard his weakening condition as serious or debilitating.
Health crises had punctuated his career for a quarter-century before his death. In 1921, at the age of 39, he contracted polio and lost the use of his legs and hips. He received a diagnosis of hypertension some 15 years later. In 1943 and 1944 he suffered attacks of abdominal pain and headaches, and around the same time his repeated battles against influenza substantially reduced his weight. As he entered his fourth term as president, congestive heart disease compounded his health woes.
Amid FDR’s treatments for these actual problems, rumors circulated of additional health concerns: cancers of the stomach, prostate, and skin, as well as nervous exhaustion. The president attempted to fight the rumors by mounting an energetic effort during his successful 1944 reelection campaign. His personal physician, Navy Surgeon General Ross I. McIntire, publicly insisted that Roosevelt at 63 was healthy for a man his age, and that the president’s only health problems resulted from the bouts with influenza and bronchitis. It is difficult to measure how far off the mark the doctor was in his statements; FDR’s hospital chart—where McIntire recorded all of Roosevelt’s illnesses and treatments from 1933 to 1945—vanished after the president’s death.
FDR’s fourth term began ominously. Shortly before his inauguration in 1945, Roosevelt held a meeting with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins at which the Cabinet member was astonished by the president’s blue lips, pale skin, and ill demeanor. During the scaled-down ceremony that followed, the president stood before a crowd on the White House lawn in the cold air to give his inaugural address. “That brief inaugural speech was maybe the shortest on record,” says James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. “Roosevelt knew he was dying, and he was already doing a lot to conserve his energy.”
That month a new face joined the president’s team of health advisers. Margaret Suckley, Roosevelt’s cousin, introduced him to Harry Lenny, a former boxer who had worked as a trainer for Joe Louis and become a masseur. During the next three months, a somewhat apprehensive Lenny gave Roosevelt a dozen or so rubdowns. “I’m not exactly scared because I’m sure of myself and I know my gift but here I am, a lousy prizefighter, treatin’ the president of the United States,” he declared. Roosevelt enjoyed the massages and Lenny’s relaxing banter. Suckley believed that Lenny was partly responsible for FDR’s ability to undertake his trip in early 1945 to the Crimea in the Soviet Union for a fateful meeting with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill: the Yalta Conference.
Hard labor at Yalta
Some historians, especially those critical of the results of the conference, speculate that Roosevelt’s declining health made him unable to combat Stalin’s demands at Yalta, with the outcome that the USSR gained a vast sphere of influence in Eastern Europe after World War II. Many at the conference observed that Roosevelt at times did not look well, some stating that he seemed to have “gone to bits.” “To a doctor’s eye,” Churchill’s personal physician wrote, “the president appears a very sick man. He has all the symptoms of hardening of the arteries of the brain in an advanced stage, so that I give him only a few months to live”—a prediction that proved prescient. An episode of pulsus alternans, a condition sparked by high blood pressure in which Roosevelt’s heart alternated strong beats with weak, greatly concerned other doctors in attendance. FDR’s daughter, Anna Roosevelt Boettiger, who traveled with her father, confidentially wrote to her husband of her concern for the strength of the president’s heart. “And the biggest difficulty in handling the situation here is that we can, of course, tell no one of the ‘ticker’ trouble. It’s truly worrisome—and there’s not a heluva lot anyone can do about it.” On the other hand, some of the president’s aides, including Admiral Daniel Leahy, found his stamina at Yalta no worse than anyone else’s. Despite any discomfort or fatigue, Roosevelt labored hard at the conference and argued his points with alacrity and wit.
James MacGregor Burns has been especially interested in determining the connection between FDR’s health and his performance during his last meetings with Stalin and Churchill. “I went through all the versions of the transcripts of the Yalta Conference, the American, British, and Russian,” Burns says. “If you do that, forget about the charge that he was ineffective, and think of him as one of the discussants, you find that he is right there, very attentive and responsive to the arguments made by the Russians and the British. In my view, there’s no sign at this conference that his effectiveness was impaired seriously by his health.”
People around him thought the president looked good when he returned from Yalta, but within days he developed a gray pallor and circles underneath his eyes. His address before a joint session of Congress on March 1 was slurred and ineffective; he startled his audience by delivering it seated in his wheelchair instead of using his braced legs to stand at a podium. Irene Jackson, wife of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, noticed at a dinner celebrating the wedding anniversary of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt that FDR’s head periodically dropped from apparent exhaustion during conversation, and she predicted the president’s approaching death. Roosevelt said that he would soon need a visit to Warm Springs, the place he had long used as a retreat to recover his strength, because he wanted to “sleep and sleep and sleep.” Just before what proved to be his last press conference, on March 20, the president could light his cigarette only by planting his elbow in an open desk drawer and bracing his severely shaking hand. When Canadian Prime Minister MacKenzie King had met with Roosevelt a week earlier, he noticed that one of the president’s eyes suddenly appeared misdirected, “not quite on the square.”
Yet the president’s health did have an effect on his work capacity. “When he was confronting a big, demanding issue like Yalta,” Burns adds, “he was at top form. With many other lesser issues, he was either not involved or simply did not have the patience and the time to give them as much as he would have given earlier. If leadership is the devil in the details—meaning that you do deal with the smaller stuff—then Roosevelt was not giving leadership in that sense.” Historian Robert H. Ferrell points out that FDR’s diminished stamina during his final year caused him to give short shrift to a host of issues, some of them not small stuff; he counts among them war strategy decisions in the Pacific theater, requests for American support from Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, and the urgent need for Vice President Harry Truman to receive some preparation for the possibility of unexpectedly assuming the presidency. Ferrell estimates that toward the end, FDR was able to work only between one and four hours a day. “The cost to the Republic was surely great,” he writes. “Roosevelt in his last year was arguably as incapacitated as President Wilson had been, a shell of his former self, unable to keep abreast of the great decisions he had left to the end of the war, too ill or too arrogant to inform his successor about them.”
‘He was an optimist’
But this view of Roosevelt’s motives for discounting his physical decline seems harsh. Cynthia Koch, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., does not believe that FDR was trying to conceal his declining health. Instead, she likens his indifferent attitude toward his late illnesses to his refusal to focus on his disability from polio. “This was part of a more genteel era,” Koch says. “He knew it wouldn’t do any good to focus on his disability.” Burns argues that FDR’s indifference bordered on a refusal to acknowledge the truth: “I think he was aware of his health but was in some denial. It was a denial that made him doubt whether his health would affect him. He thought that like others who had health problems as president, he would live through his term. He was an optimist.” In fact, Roosevelt believed his health would permit him not only to attend the opening sessions of the United Nations on April 20, but also to follow that with a long trip to the Netherlands, the war front, and Great Britain, where he planned to address Parliament.
Rest at Warm Springs
On March 24, the Roosevelts traveled to their home at Hyde Park for a long weekend. There the tranquility of spring’s arrival was soon disrupted by troubling news about Poland, where Churchill feared Stalin was building the framework for a communist state in violation of the agreement struck at Yalta. Previously reluctant to confront the Soviet dictator, FDR cabled his concerns from Hyde Park to Moscow. Upon his return to Washington on March 29, a haggard-looking Roosevelt declared his need for more rest, and he made plans to immediately go south to Warm Springs. There he would enjoy driving the tree-lined roads and telling stories to the children.“That’s where he always went to feel better,” Koch says.
He left by train the next day with his stamp collection, books, and papers packed. A crowd awaited him when he arrived at the station in Warm Springs—the day before the U.S. invasion of Okinawa started—and some were surprised to see that the president could not assist the Secret Service men who moved him into an automobile. He was dead weight in their arms, and the crowd breathed audible apprehension as FDR’s head seemed to dangle peculiarly. The car conveyed him to the Little White House, a small, antebellum-style home that FDR used during his visits. Newspapers reported that Roosevelt had several guests staying with him: his cousins Laura Delano and Margaret Suckley, as well as his secretary, Grace Tully. The papers did not, however, report the presence of another guest, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, who had been Eleanor’s assistant and Franklin’s lover decades earlier. She and FDR still shared warm feelings for each other; Rutherford’s visit to Warm Springs was unknown to Eleanor.
The president spent some time at leisure, but he also corresponded with Churchill about the situation in Poland, wrote a draft of a Jefferson Day speech, and entertained Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, who noted with dismay that FDR’s hands trembled and his memory of names seemed faulty. But Roosevelt’s appearance greatly improved, and his skin color assumed a ruddiness that some physicians later believed hinted of the cerebral hemorrhage to come. One visitor took a professional interest in the redness of his complexion: Elizabeth Shoumatoff, an artist and friend of Lucy Rutherford who arrived late in the president’s Warm Springs sojourn to paint his portrait. She was at work on the canvas on April 12.
A blur of events and reactions followed the president’s collapse. Shoumatoff and Rutherford hurriedly left Warm Springs. In Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt was told of her husband’s death. She arrived in Warm Springs around midnight, dressed FDR’s body in a double-breasted blue suit, and rode the funeral train that conveyed him past 2 million people who lined the tracks through the South and into Washington for an official memorial ceremony. Harry Truman was sworn in as president. Informed of Roosevelt’s death, Stalin appeared stunned. A devastated Churchill could not at first muster a response to the news. Even Japanese radio offered praise for the fallen leader.
For only the second time in its history, the New York Philharmonic canceled a performance. All around the country, theaters, stock and commodity exchanges, restaurants, and other organizations closed their doors as Americans paused to mourn and contemplate the future. “He had been a fixture in their lives,” Koch observes.
A great leader lost
Not only a fixture, but also a friend. Through the power of his personality and his unfeigned interest in the lives of ordinary people, the president who guided the nation through deep economic depression, redirected the nation from isolationism to action against totalitarianism, and proved to be one of history’s greatest war leaders managed to convince people that he was their comrade. Americans of all ranks felt the loss of his presence, but perhaps British Prime Minister Churchill expressed it most eloquently: “I feel so deeply for you all,” he wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt the day following her husband’s death. “As for me, I have lost a dear and cherished friendship which was forged in the fire of war. I trust you may find consolation in the glory of his name and the magnitude of his work.”
Franklin Roosevelt was buried in the rose garden—Roosevelt means “rose land” in Dutch—at Hyde Park. Even though many Americans who were alive during his presidency have now joined him in death, FDR remains a dominant figure in our historical memory—a president against whom other aspirants to that office are still compared.
Frequent contributor Jack El-Hai is author of the 2005 book The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness.