The screenwriter, Margaret Nagle, did her homework and studied this period of FDR’s life in great detail. Large segments of the film and the dialog are taken directly from historical events. A number of facts are rearranged in time and some scenes are constructed for dramatic effect, but overall the film imparts the essence of what really happened with the two exceptions described in this section of the Learning Guide.
FDR’s marriage to Eleanor was not just some sycophantic effort to get close to the first President Roosevelt. Alone among the girls in the social register set in which the young Franklin Roosevelt moved, Eleanor took Franklin to settlement houses in the slums of New York. This opened his eyes to a side of life from which his upbringing had shielded him. At the beginning of their marriage, Franklin and Eleanor were very much in love. No matter how estranged Eleanor and Franklin might have become romantically later in life and no matter how different their temperaments, until the last months of his life Franklin used Eleanor to prod his conscience and to counteract the pull of political expediency. Her opinion of his actions was always important to him. Goodwin, Ward 632
The weakness of the film in regard to Roosevelt’s pre-polio character is exemplified by the scene in which Louis Howe asks FDR why he was in the Democratic party rather than being a Republicans like his cousin Theodore. The character of Roosevelt in the film doesn’t give a good answer. FDR’s experience with polio and at Warm Springs certainly taught him humility, and patience, and deepened his understanding of people. It was essential in creating the man who led the country to meet not one, but two of its greatest challenges. However, the pre-polio Roosevelt was already a successful politician with a progressive agenda and an accomplished public servant.
In the movie’s defense it should be noted that eminent historians have found it difficult to describe Roosevelt’s relationships with women. Thousands of pages have been written trying to understand them. Women were important in FDR’s life for love, affirmation, and simple fun. The common thread in these relationships, especially the four major relationships of his life, is how much he cared for and respected each of the women in his life.
Although Lucy Mercer married and had children, it has been said that she loved FDR throughout her life.
Eleanor’s activities on her husband’s behalf gave her the skills necessary to use her position as First Lady to launch a career of her own that was both independent and almost always a benefit to her husband. One of Eleanor’s best attributes was her ability to grow as a person. She became one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Learning Guide to “Eleanor Roosevelt — The American Experience“.
Through the years Missy LeHand had a number of flirtations and relationships with other men but they all foundered. For Missy, no one could measure up to FDR.
The basic theme of the film is that Franklin Roosevelt’s character was forged through his long and painful fight with polio. This, to a great extent, is accurate. What the film misses is that the experience had fertile ground from which to grow a great character. When Mrs. Roosevelt was asked, “Do you think your husband’s illness has affected his mentality?” she responded that, “Yes. Anyone who has gone through great suffering is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.” Morgan, p. 259. The movie places this scene at the convention and does not give Mrs. Roosevelt’s full response, but the actress is able to impart the full meaning. In reality, the question was asked in writing at an appearance by Mrs. Roosevelt in Akron, Ohio. This type of transposition of facts and situation that retains the essential meaning of the event is a characteristic of good historical fiction and occurs repeatedly in this film.) Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, describing the effects of polio on FDR, summed it up by saying, “The man emerged completely warmhearted, with new humility of spirit and a firmer understanding of profound philosophical concepts.” Goodwin, 17; on the role of polio in the development of Roosevelt’s character, see generally Goodwin pp. 258 – 262; Gallagher, p. 27; and Morgan 257 – 262.
MISIMPRESSION #1: Before the Polio FDR Was More Than Just a Spoiled Rich Political Opportunist
The impression left by the film is that the pre-polio Roosevelt was a shallow, selfish, spoiled, rich aristocrat who was also a political opportunist. There were aspects of FDR’s personality that were superficial before he contracted polio but he was also a successful politician committed to progressive reform and a hard working and effective civil servant.
Before being paralyzed by polio, FDR had won election to the state senate in New York from a traditionally Republican district. He prevailed in that election not only due to the magic of his name, but because he campaigned tirelessly. While in the state senate, FDR made a name for himself as a reformer, frequently battling city based machine bosses (Tammany Hall). Before being paralyzed, Roosevelt had served as the second ranking civilian in charge of the U.S. Navy for seven years. His tenure included the entire First World War. FDR’s work in that office was generally well regarded. While Roosevelt had run unsuccessfully as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1920, his campaign was well-regarded and won him the respect of millions of Americans. Morgan, 112 – 116.
From his youth, Franklin Roosevelt idolized his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt. Lash 118, 119, 167, 168, Ward, 37, 38 & 87 – 92. No president since Lincoln had been as intent as Theodore Roosevelt to use his office to further the interests of the American people as a whole, rather than the special interests that had brought him to power. Teddy Roosevelt inspired thousands of young Americans to enter politics and public service for the purpose of improving the lives of all Americans. Young Franklin Roosevelt was one of them. But FDR’s admiration for cousin Teddy went further. FDR married the then President’s favorite niece, Eleanor. Like cousin Teddy, FDR got his start in local politics in the State of New York. His first national office was the same as Theodore Roosevelt: Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Like Theodore Roosevelt, FDR was a young candidate for vice-president. FDR even adopted the pince-nez that cousin Teddy wore. Ward, 38.
In addition, before his bout with polio, FDR had been a loyal supporter of Woodrow Wilson, greatly admiring the man and his policies. It is no accident that FDR admired the two men considered to be the great progressive presidents of their era. (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, along with Thomas Jefferson, are often mentioned just below Washington, Lincoln and FDR in surveys of historians as to the presidents who have provided the best leadership to the U.S.)
FDR had made mistakes in his early career. He had taken expedient positions at times and there is substance to the charge that he had been disloyal to Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy. It has been charged, with some justification, that before his bout with polio Roosevelt, “lacked the essential quality of the statesman — the fusion of one’s own interest with the national interest.” Morgan p. 258; note that much of Morgan’s criticism of the young FDR doesn’t acknowledge his pre-polio accomplishments and the obvious potential that he displayed.
As Hitler, the Japanese militarists, and four Republican presidential candidates were to discover, Roosevelt was a tough opponent. He usually kept his resolve hidden under an affable exterior, but it was there before polio made his legs useless, as well as after. Here is an example. On one occasion during WWI, the Navy Department was having a dispute with the Bethlehem Steel company over destroyers which the company had built for the Argentine navy. Argentina was a U.S. ally in the war. Thirty-six destroyers had been built. All but a few had been paid for and delivered. Argentina wanted the last few destroyers before it paid for them but Bethlehem Steel wanted payment before delivery. The standoff lasted for two years. The U.S. government intervened, assuring Bethlehem Steel that the State Department would collect the money from Argentina but the U.S. needed its ally in the Great War to get the ships right away. Joseph Kennedy (whose son, John F. Kennedy was born around this time) worked for Bethlehem Steel and was sent to negotiate with FDR. Kennedy was a child of immigrant parents who had grown up in the tough neighborhood of East Boston. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and later became one of the wealthiest men in America. He had little in common with an upstate New York patrician who had never wanted for anything in his life. They met at the Assistant Secretary’s office in Washington but couldn’t resolve the matter. Eventually, Roosevelt said that this was a time of war. If the ships were not delivered he’d send tugboats to get them. The conversation was always pleasant and Roosevelt escorted Kennedy to the door, invited him to call at the Navy Department whenever he was in D.C., and warmly shook his hand. Kennedy was unimpressed and thought the remark about the tugboats was a bluff. Based on Kennedy’s advice, Bethlehem Steel stood firm. A short time later four tugboats appeared at the shipyard where the destroyers were kept. The tugs were accompanied by a contingent of armed Marines. The destroyers were taken out of the shipyard and delivered to their Argentinean crews who were waiting a little offshore. Morgan, 190 & 191. Years later, Joseph Kennedy became a strong supporter of FDR, who appointed Kennedy ambassador to Great Britain. This example of FDR’s willingness to use raw power occurred long before he had polio.
MISIMPRESSION #2: The film Doesn’t Accurately Portray Roosevelt’s Complex and Affectionate Relationships with Women
FDR deeply cared for several women in his life, and they each reciprocated his feelings. The most important were: his mother, Eleanor, Lucy Mercer, and Missy LeHand.
Roosevelt was an only child. His mother had a very powerful personality. She controlled the majority of the Roosevelt fortune and was not above using it to try to make both Eleanor and Franklin act in ways she desired. Her threat to disinherit Franklin if he divorced Eleanor (one of the many events portrayed in the movie that actually occurred) was very real.
The marriage between Franklin and Eleanor was a love match at first but differences in their personalities caused problems as they grew older. Lash 119 – 135. Eleanor suffered a traumatic childhood. Her mother was a beautiful woman who could not get over having a child who was not pretty. Eleanor was constantly trying to secure her mother’s affection. Eleanor’s mother died when Eleanor was 4. Eleanor’s father loved her but his alcoholism kept him from being consistent. He, too, died prematurely. Eleanor was only 9. Lash, 3, 28, 29, 32, 33, 44, 56. Thus both of Eleanor’s parents let her down and then disappeared. Eleanor was a serious person and while she had been attracted to Franklin’s love of fun and good times and tried at times to participate fully, it never suited her.
Eleanor discovered FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer when she found a packet of Lucy’s love letters while unpacking FDR’s luggage. (He had been on a Navy Department tour of Europe.) Franklin’s love for Lucy was another in a string of betrayals (her mother, her father and now her husband). Eleanor never completely forgave him.
The dramatic interview shown in the movie between FDR, Eleanor, Howe, and FDR’s mother probably did not occur. We have found no record of it. The scene, however, conveys the positions of the people who mattered in the Roosevelts’ decision to stay married. FDR’s mother threatened disinheritance, Eleanor was willing to give FDR his freedom, and Howe reminded FDR that a divorce would doom his political career. Another complicating factor was that Lucy Mercer was a Catholic and would not have been permitted to marry a divorced man. Ward, 408 – 416.
The matter was not decided for several weeks and undoubtedly after many discussions. FDR eventually promised never to see Lucy Mercer again and gave up any conjugal rights to Eleanor. This was a great relief to Eleanor. She felt, like many women of her generation, that sex was something to be borne rather than a celebration of love. Goodwin, 20; Ward pp. 16 & 17.
In most other ways, the Roosevelts tried to reestablish their marriage, with striking success in some areas and failures in others. Eleanor raised FDR’s children, survived his domineering mother, and nursed him through the physical and emotional agony of the acute phase of polio. In the service of his political career, she changed herself from a fairly classic housewife and mother, and a person who hated public speaking, into someone who spoke in public frequently. In the service of her husband’s career, Eleanor learned to use the levers of political power well enough to go toe to toe with powerful politicians and win. This kept Franklin’s name in the public discourse during the period from 1921 to 1928 when he was focusing on his therapy. When FDR was governor and president, Eleanor would travel the state, and later the country, inspecting plants, housing projects, defense industries and anything else her husband wanted to know about. He trained her in what to look for and she would report her findings back to him. In addition, throughout FDR’s life, Eleanor was his progressive conscience, the voice of the downtrodden and disadvantaged. Goodwin, 27 – 29; 98, 104, 630.
One of the disconnects between the Roosevelts was Warm Springs. Both were bothered by the poverty and racism they found in Georgia. However, Franklin was able to get beyond this and appreciate the warm friendly reception that he received. His ability to do this allowed Warm Springs to become an important center for his life. Eleanor, who would become the first major American public figure to work actively on behalf of equal rights for blacks, could not forgive the racism. She was never comfortable at Warm Springs and came as little as possible, leaving Roosevelt’s care while he was there to his long time personal secretary, Missy LeHand. Goodwin, 116; Morgan, 280. Lash, 296 & 297.
FDR’s relationship with Lucy Mercer was more than just a casual affair. She and Eleanor were the great romantic loves of his life. Loving Lucy and having to give her up appeared to some friends of Roosevelt to have led to a more profound change in his character than the bout with polio. Eleanor’s cousin, Corrine Robinson Alsop, observed that, “Up to the time that Lucy Mercer came into Franklin’s life he seemed to look at human relationships coolly, calmly, and without depth. He viewed his family dispassionately, and enjoyed them, but he had in my opinion a loveless quality as if he were incapable of emotion …. [To] me [the affair] seemed to release something in him.” Other friends agreed, observing that Roosevelt emerged from the affair with the more superficial aspects of his personality purged away, tougher, more resilient, and wiser. Goodwin, p. 377.
After he became President, FDR saw Lucy Mercer again on isolated occasions. She came a few times to the White House to dine with FDR when Eleanor was away. A few times when he traveled north from Washington by train he would take a route that allowed him to stop for a few hours and visit her. She came several times to Warm Springs and was visiting him there when he died. When Eleanor discovered this and that her daughter Anna had helped FDR to make the arrangements for this final and other meetings with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor was deeply hurt, but eventually her fundamental graciousness won out. When she found among her husband’s possessions a watercolor of Franklin painted by Lucy’s friend, Madame Shoumatoff, Eleanor sent it to Lucy. Goodwin, 561, 562, 600 – 603, 611 – 615, 631 & 632.
Missy LeHand was Roosevelt’s personal secretary and, for two decades, his almost constant companion. She devoted her life to him from 1921 until she was disabled by a stroke in 1941. Missy served as Roosevelt’s administrative assistant and his partner at card games and other leisure activities. When FDR spent three winters in Florida on a houseboat, Missy was usually with him, sleeping in an adjacent room. Eleanor stayed in New York with the children. When FDR was in Warm Springs, Missy was usually with him. She had living quarters in the Governor’s Mansion in Albany and in the White House. She served as FDR’s hostess when Eleanor was away, which was often. Missy, it was said, was so sensitive to FDR that she could predict his moods and wants before he felt them.
Possessed of good judgment, Missy was not afraid to tell FDR if she thought he was making a mistake. When her stroke made it impossible for her to continue with her duties, many people in the government saw it as a national disaster. She had served as a channel for them to give advice to FDR that would otherwise not have been heard. Ward, 562, 709 – 714; Goodwin, 20 & 21, 116 – 121, 336; Morgan 256 & 257.
Missy and Eleanor had an excellent relationship. Eleanor appreciated Missy’s important service to FDR but also the fact that Missy’s presence allowed Eleanor the independent life she craved. Ward p. 712 – 714; Goodwin 119 & 245. When Missy had her stroke, FDR found visiting her very difficult but went quite often at first. It was always less than Missy wanted. Eleanor visited and sent letters, presents, flowers, and fruit. Goodwin, 245, 399 – 400. The Roosevelts made sure that Missy had adequate medical care and financial support. But FDR worried about what might happen if she were to outlive him. He secretly changed his will to give half of his estate to Missy. The other half would go to Eleanor. “I owe her that much. She served me so well for so long and asked so little in return, ” Roosevelt later explained to one of his children. The bequest lapsed when Missy died in 1944. FDR was across the country and couldn’t attend the funeral. Eleanor, Missy’s friend to the last, represented him. Goodwin, 246, 535 & 536.
NOTES ON HISTORICAL ACCURACY OF SPECIFIC SCENES IN THE FILM
Many elements of this film are based on real life events. This section of the Learning Guide discusses several of them.
FDR was the high spirited, laughing center of the community at Warm Springs. He was its leader, its most famous and most privileged resident. The polios at Warm Springs drew strength and inspiration from Roosevelt and he from them. Throughout his life FDR would visit Warm Springs and monitor what occurred there. Ward, 771 & 772.
“I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me” was composed in 1934 and was performed by disabled girls in wheelchairs at Warm Springs after FDR became President. One of the “Powder-Puff” girls who performed that night recalled that FDR and the rest of the polios shouted with laughter during their performance. “[W]hen some of the veteran reporters who had accompanied the President … were seen to be wet-eyed at the sight of such lovely girls unable even to stand, the polios laughed all the harder and FDR hardest of all.” Ward, 772.
FDR feared fire. At the age of two he had witnessed an aunt burning to death when her clothing, accidentally drenched with alcohol, burst into flames. On another occasion he saw a horrific scene when horses burned to death in a barn fire. FDR’s fear of fire intensified when his legs became paralyzed. He would crawl “up and down the hall between his bedroom and the elevator, practicing his escape.” Ward 639 & 640; Goodwin 16.
“Babs” was FDR’s pet name for Eleanor. It came from “baby” and was a term of endearment. Ward, 12.
Ford Motor Company made a special car for FDR which could be operated by hand levers rather than foot pedals. FDR was such a bad driver that Eleanor and many of his friends refused to drive with him. The scene showing FDR teaching Eleanor how to drive and both having a grand time is not accurate. Missy LeHand, however, loved to go with FDR on a late-afternoon spin, as the crippled man delighted in being able to move on his own. Goodwin, 119.
In 1928 when a political ally, Daniel E. Finn, asked Smith whether he was afraid that in trying to persuade Roosevelt to run for governor of New York “you are raising up a rival who will some day cause you trouble?” Smith answered, “No, Dan, he won’t live a year.” Quoted from Ward p. 788.
The Warm Springs therapist, Helen Mahoney, asked FDR what he hoped to accomplish in the hour upon hour that he was spending in therapy. FDR told her “I’ll walk without crutches. I’ll walk into a room without scaring everybody half to death. I’ll stand easily enough in front of people so that they’ll forget I’m a cripple.” This is, after all, the goal of rehabilitation, the ability to do what one wants despite one’s disability. Gallagher pp. 63 & 64.
Louis Howe was Roosevelt’s political operative and advisor. Early on he had faith that Roosevelt would someday become President. Roosevelt’s paralysis did not shake his confidence. Morgan 132 – 136. The movie shows Howe as critical to Roosevelt’s development and career and as a catalyst for Eleanor’s developing political abilities. If anything, the movie probably understates Howe’s importance to both Roosevelts. Howe climbed the ladder of power with FDR, holding his position as confidential advisor to Franklin and acting as a mentor to Eleanor until his death in 1936.
It appears that FDR was infected with polio at a Boy Scout camp that he visited. Some children at the camp also came down with polio. It is suspected that the water supply was contaminated. Ward, 575.
The Warm Springs mailman, Mr. Watts, read everyone’s postcards and reported the contents to their recipients before delivering them. He read the letters, too, if he could make out the writing through the envelope. Ward, 764 FDR recruited push boys from among local young men and girls from a local college to serve as assistants to the polios. Romance between polios and push boys and the local girls was not discouraged. Hanky panky and lively gossip about it were an entertaining part of life at Warm Springs. The character in the movie with the cigar recalls a large fat man named Doyle who was so immobilized that the push boys had to put cigars into his mouth. The performance by a quartet of “Powder-Puff” girls in wheelchairs of “I Won’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me” was just one of the many theatrical events put on at Warm Springs. Ward, 772.
A man named George Foster Peabody was a half-owner of Warm Springs and convinced FDR to visit the resort while they sat together at the 1924 Democratic Convention. Loyless was the other half owner. The scenes about the newspaper article and its effects are true.
Roosevelt purchased Warm Springs for $200,000, using more than two thirds of his personal fortune. Within a short time, Roosevelt had transferred Warm Springs to a non-profit foundation and was soliciting funds to support it. Roosevelt sold his beloved naval prints to raise money. When Al Smith asked him to run for Governor of New York, one of Roosevelt’s conditions was that a rich financier who was an important Smith backer agree to donate $100,000 to the foundation. The donation was made. The fees charged to patients at Warm Springs never covered expenses and was about one third the cost of hospital care at the time. Gallagher p. 50
Fred Botts was a real person who had spent years secluded in a back bedroom of his parents’ home. He came to Warm Springs in a railroad mail car without any invitation. He was desperately ill when he arrived. There was no medical care at Warm Springs at the time and “Doctor Roosevelt” treated Botts by feeding him cream. He and FDR became close friends. Botts was later employed as the Registrar at Warm Springs in charge of admissions. Botts, who had a beautiful singing voice and had wanted to study opera before his illness, stayed at Warm Springs all of his life. Gallagher, 42. We have not been able to find historical evidence supporting the film’s contention that the arrival of Fred Botts was an emotional turning point for Roosevelt, but the scene rings true. Whether it was Botts’ arrival or something else, whether it was dramatic or undramatic, whether it was before Roosevelt discovered Warm Springs or afterwards, at some point during the period covered by this movie, FDR decided that he was one of the disabled, accepted their community as his own, realized that he was personally committed to the welfare of the members of that community, and learned the joy of helping others. The movie, most likely employing poetic license, uses the Fred Botts episode to illustrate the crossing of this emotional bridge.
The incident in the movie in which Franklin and Eleanor crashed the convention of the American Orthopedic Association (AOA) was not exactly as shown in the film. In 1926, FDR heard that the convention was being held in Atlanta. He wrote the Association and asked to speak. His request was denied. FDR was told the he was not a doctor nor had he training of any kind. FDR was not accustomed to rejection. FDR and Eleanor (who was making one of her infrequent trips to Warm Springs) went to the convention. While they didn’t interrupt the proceedings in the manner shown in the film, FDR did lobby the delegates. As a result, the AOA adopted a resolution appointing a committee of three orthopedic surgeons to receive and evaluate a report by a physician about the therapies offered at Warm Springs. Gallagher 46.
Franklin was described in an early medical report before he had ever heard of Warm Springs as “[a]n extraordinarily sensitive emotional mechanism”. Ward, 605, Gallagher p. 15. In the movie, this is transported in time to the AOA report and serves to illustrate the realization that must have come to FDR at some time before he ran for governor of New York, that he would never walk again. This is another example of properly exercised poetic license.
The report to the AOA was made by a physician that FDR had recruited for Warm Springs. FDR convinced Dr. LeRoy W. Hubbard, an experienced orthopedist with the New York State Department of Health, to take charge of the Warm Springs medical program and write the report to the AOA. Dr. Hubbard brought Helena Mahoney with him. She was an experienced physical therapist and played an important role, second only to Roosevelt, in the creation of Warm Springs as a rehabilitation center.
Dr. Hubbard’s report to the AOA described the progress of 23 polio patients. He found no miracle cure at Warm Springs but that each had improved as much as could be expected from any other existing treatment program. In 1927, after receiving Dr. Hubbard’s report, the AOA endorsed the “establishment of a permanent hydrotherapeutic center at Warm Springs.” Gallagher 47.
The scenes showing Roosevelt dodging Al Smith’s telephone calls in 1928 trying to convince FDR to run for governor of New York recall real events. Eleanor helped Smith get FDR on the phone and Smith was able to talk FDR into entering the race. FDR remarked at the time, “When you’re in politics you have to play the game.” Goodwin, 118.
The movie mixes the events of the 1924 and 1928 conventions but captures the importance of those events. James Roosevelt helped his father to the podium when FDR nominated Smith in the 1924 convention. Roosevelt used crutches at the 1924 convention but “walked” with the assistance of his son Elliott when he mounted the podium to nominate Smith again in 1928. FDR had to show that he could still be a leader. For three years before the 1924 convention, Eleanor and Louis Howe had labored to keep FDR’s name before the public. FDR himself had carried on a voluminous correspondence for that purpose. Both Howe and Eleanor worked hard to convince Smith and his backers to ask FDR to nominate him. Smith showed substantial political acumen and courage in agreeing. The convention speeches were great successes for FDR and demonstrated that he could still lead even if he couldn’t walk. Gallagher, 53 – 63.
The incident with the photographer who tried to take a picture of Roosevelt being carried up a flight of stairs represents the code of honor among the news media not to show Roosevelt in a dependent position. When a photographer sought to violate the code, other photographers would block shots of FDR looking helpless or gently knock the camera to the ground. Goodwin, pp. 586 & 7.
For the four years between the 1924 and 1928 conventions, Roosevelt labored hard to learn to walk. When he realized that was impossible, the goal changed. He would be content with appearing to be able to walk short distances in controlled circumstances, such as the walk to the podium at a speaking event or a convention. The appearance of progress in his fight against paralysis between the conventions was paramount. In 1928, FDR appeared to walk using only a cane but in fact he would be gripping Elliott’s arm for support. FDR stressed to Elliott repeatedly that both of them must “always seem always to be having a grand time, no matter what sort of strain their mutual effort actually demanded.” At the end of his “walk” to the podium FDR stood before the delegates on his own two feet, triumphant. They cheered and cheered. Ward pg. 784, Gallagher pp. 63 – 67