Everyone knows about the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but not many know about the powerful and loyal confidant FDR relied on, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand. Our guest discusses the life and work of this remarkable woman and how she helped and influenced one of the greatest chief executives of our time.
Kathryn Smith, author of The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the untold story of the partnership that defined a presidency.
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The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand and FDR
Gary Price: It’s been said that behind every great man there is a great woman. With President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it’s usually thought that this woman is his wife, Eleanor. Mrs. Roosevelt was certainly a great woman with her untiring work for social causes, but there’s another woman – Marguerite LeHand, known as “Missy” – who was working tirelessly to help make FDR one of our greatest presidents. Kathryn Smith has brought the life of Missy to the forefront in her new book, The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the untold story of the partnership that defined a presidency. With all of the interesting stories to write about the Roosevelts, why choose to focus on this woman behind the scenes?
Kathryn Smith: Because I wanted her job. The more I read about Roosevelt, and there was always this woman hovering at his shoulder I thought, “What a fabulous life she must have had. How interesting to work for Roosevelt in the White House during that tumultuous decade.” And I wanted to read a book about her and found out no one had written one so I decided to write it myself.
Price: Smith says that Missy came from a humble background: she was raised in an Irish-Catholic, blue-collar family in Boston with only a high school education. But that didn’t stop her from becoming one of the most influential people in FDR’s life.
Smith: She had studied secretarial science in high school and she came to work for his campaign for the vice presidency in 1920. He as the running mate of James M. Cox and they were defeated by Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, god help us, and after the election was over Eleanor Roosevelt asked Missy to come up to Hyde Park and help clean up the correspondence that was left over from the campaign. And she and FDR got along so well that he invited her to come work for him as his private secretary on Wall Street. He was going into the private sector there and that’s where it started. And she stayed for 21 years.
Price: In 1921, FDR contracted polio and spent a great deal of time in rehab, trying to strengthen his legs so he could walk unaided. It was during this time that he was lured into running for governor of New York – a job that Missy most definitely did not want him to take.
Smith: They had been at Warm Springs then for four years. He had started the polio rehab center there and she really thought that if he continued his therapy he would be able to walk again. And it just broke her heart that he was drafted into running for governor of New York. You know, he’d initially said, “No, no, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it.” And he took a phone call from Al Smith who was the democratic nominee for president who just felt that he really needed a strong person heading the ticket in New York to carry the state for him, and Missy kept saying, “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare!” And he finally just caved in and did it.
Price: FDR was elected governor, and Missy came along to be his secretary and oftentimes took over jobs that a wife would do such as act as hostess at gatherings and help him with his rehab. That relationship continued into the White House, and today, it would raise suspicions of scandal. Smith says that in FDR’s case, however, it helped Eleanor and the president burnish their legacies.
Smith: The polio that hit him in 1921 and destroyed his ability to walk really drove them farther apart, it didn’t bring them closer together. And that was about the time that Missy came on the scene and she and Roosevelt they just clicked. They just got along great, and she was happy to do things that Eleanor really just didn’t want to do anymore. I’ve made the argument that Missy helped Eleanor become the First Lady, the great First Lady of history that she did because she was willing to be her back up and that freed Eleanor to travel and speak and go all over the country and go down in coal mines and all the things she did. She didn’t have to stay at the White House pouring tea.
Price: While Missy was serving as secretary to Governor Roosevelt, Smith says she learned a lot by just watching how the wheels of government turned and by staying silent until she had FDR’s ear all to herself.
Smith: She actually worked in the Governor’s Mansion. FDR would go up to the executive office and spend part of his day there, then he’d come home and just conducted a lot of his business at the Governor’s Mansion. So he’d have people come in to talk about policy ideas and you know he’d work with his speechwriters, he’d have press conferences and Missy was just learning an awful lot about policy and politics just listening. She always said that she would just sort of listen and then when she and FDR were alone she would speak her mind. And that really, I think, where her influence was so great is they spent a lot of time just privately, just chatting.
Price: When Roosevelt was elected president, Missy really came into her own. Smith says that she wielded a lot of power over who had access to the president and who didn’t.
Smith: She’s been described as one of the five most powerful people in Washington by one of her contemporaries who knew the power structure very well. She was the only person who had an office right outside FDR’s. He had an appointment secretary so he had an official calendar, but she had influence on that. And then she also operated the back door to FDR’s office. So FDR, if he didn’t want to have someone on the official calendar or if somebody was having trouble getting an appointment, he’d just say “Call Miss LeHand and tell her that I want to see you and she’ll send you to the back door.”
Price: She also advocated for some of her own favorites, giving them audiences with FDR that they normally wouldn’t have received.
Smith: One of the most important was a lawyer named Tommy Corcoran. He was a protégé of Felix Frankfurter, the storied Harvard law professor, later Supreme Court justice. He was one of the “Happy Hot Dogs” which was what Frankfurter’s protégés were called, and he met Missy, was introduced by Frankfurter and she really liked him. The were both Irish-American Catholics and she brought him in to play the accordion for FDR one night after dinner. And FDR just loved that kind of informal musical entertainment – singing around the living room, singing around the piano. So Tommy started going to Missy’s office every morning and he would give her the scuttlebutt, what he’d heard on Capitol Hill, what he’d heard at a cocktail party, and she’d go into FDR’s office and say, “FD,” that’s what she called him, “Tommy’s out here and he says yadda, yadda, yadda,” and FDR would say, “Oh, I want to talk to Tommy. Send him in.” So that’s how Tommy Corcoran got really close to FDR. He became one of his major legislation drafters with Ben Cohen, his housemate who was another Happy Hot Dog, and he became the White House lobbyist on Capitol Hill.
Price: Missy also spent time with FDR in his leisure hours in his study. They’d drink cocktails and the president would work on his stamp collection along with her. Smith said that they would also have informal discussions at this time when Missy would, again, commiserate with FDR over policy issues.
Smith: As he worked, he would just kind of process what had happened during the day and I think that’s when they had a lot of their really serious conversations about how to proceed. But FDR called her “my conscience,” and I think that Missy’s background as a working-class family, blue-collar background that she never forgot because her family stayed in the same neighborhood in Boston in the same house, and her family struggled all through the depression and their neighbors did too, that she wouldn’t let him forget about those people that the New Deal was supposed to help.
Price: Missy didn’t want FDR to run for a third term in the White House because, as in Albany, she feared for his health. Ironically, it wasn’t Roosevelt who went to the hospital first – it was Missy.
Smith: She fainted during a dinner party when Eleanor was out of town and she was acting as the hostess. It was a party for the White House staff. And she stayed in the White House for a few weeks being treated by doctors there, and finally was transferred to a private hospital in Washington where she had a massive stroke and, paralyzed on one side, it robbed her of most of her speech and she really never recovered. She was never able to go back to work after that. It was all related to rheumatic heart disease that she had had since childhood. Most people who had it at that time didn’t live into their 50s because it just was a cumulative heart damage over their lifetimes, and that’s what happened to Missy. It was really sad.
Price: Missy LeHand died in 1941, but her legacy as FDR’s right-hand woman lives on. Smith says that the thing that most surprised her about Missy was the enormous amount of power she held in the 20 years she worked for the Roosevelts.
Smith: When I started working on this book, I was just kind of going by what other people had written and I thought, “I’m going to find out that Missy was FDR’s great love, and blah, blah, blah. And I came away with a completely different point of view that he adored here, that she adored him but that it was her power, it was her influence and her importance in the White House as the functional Chief of Staff, and a woman has never held that post before or since. Who knows. Maybe that will change. But the nearest comparable to Missy is Valerie Jarrett, the senior advisor with Barack Obama, because of the combination of advisor and the friendship that she has with the Obamas.
Price: You can read about Missy LeHand in Kathryn Smith’s biography, The Gatekeeper, available now. Smith also invites listeners to her website at MargueriteLeHand.com, and her Missy LeHand Facebook page. She hopes visitors who knew Missy or her family will offer their remembrances or memorabilia to the site so we can learn more about this remarkable woman behind the powerful president. You can find out more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.