Secretary Clinton may become America's first female president, but she's not the first female secretary to hold a powerful position in a presidential administration.
As Kathryn Smith reveals in her new book, The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency, another secretary played a strong but hidden hand in the Oval Office. Marguerite LeHand, personal secretary to Franklin D. Roosevelt for nearly twenty years, served as his confidant, communicator, adviser, companion and hostess, both in Washington and at FDR's Little White House in Warm Springs, GA. The only place she did not play a prominent role was in Hyde Park, where Sara Roosevelt, FDR's mother, seems to have distrusted her and perhaps feared her closeness to Franklin. To "Missy" (the Roosevelt children's name for her), FDR was FD (in writing, Effdee) a name that no one else used.
LeHand came from a family of working-class Boston Catholic parents. A trained secretary when she went to work for FDR's vice-presidential campaign in 1920, she stayed with him through his "wilderness years" as a polio survivor, spending weeks at a time alone with him on his rickety houseboat, Larooco, and helping him build what became the Warm Springs Center for Rehabilitation for polio sufferers. She went to Albany with him during his years as governor (1928-1932), and served him from 1933 to 1941 in the White House. LeHand was incapacitated by a stroke in June, 1941. FDR amended his will to leave her half of the income from his estate for her medical care. "I owed her that much," FDR said to his son James. "She served me so well for so long and asked so little in return."
In the writing of her book, Ms. Smith had access to a treasure trove of primary materials—letters, notes, photos, invitations, newspaper clippings—that had not yet been seen. They enabled her, she says, "to flesh out [Missy's] portrait—the way she expressed herself in writing, her love of family, her glamour and desirability in Washington society, the playful relationship she had with everyone in the White House, from F.D.R. down to her co-workers in the West Wing."
These materials also help to set the record straight with regard to LeHand's love life. While Missy and Effdee might have been lovers during the wilderness years (that's speculation: there is no evidence either way), Smith reveals that in 1933 she fell in love with William C. Bullitt in 1933, a witty, engaging man whom FDR appointed the first ambassador to the Soviet Union. There were rumors of an engagement, but LeHand denied them, and Smith puts the matter firmly to rest. "There is no indication in her letters that she believed their relationship would lead to marriage," she writes.
In the White House, FDR's secretary was indispensable:
A formidable, multitalented multitasker, Missy might on any given day be directing the work of fifty staffers, writing a check to Franklin Jr.' s doctor for treatment of hemorrhoids, telling the president the wording in a speech "just doesn't sound like you," soothing an irate bureaucrat who couldn't get an appointment, and then racing over to the White House to "pour tea for a crowd of archaeologists." In a letter she dashed off to her niece Babe, Missy lamented, "I am having a devilish time trying to finish this—the telephone—callers & that man—the P!!"
If there were any doubts that LeHand was a central figure in FDR's personal and political life, Kathryn Smith's lively, meticulously documented book has laid them to rest. Smith has given us a carefully drawn portrait of a brave and talented woman whose dedication to FDR shaped her life and his.
Kathryn Smith is a journalist and writer with a life-long interest in FDR and his circle. She has lived all her life in Georgia and South Carolina, and earned a bachelor's degree in journalism at the University of Georgia. She worked as a daily newspaper reporter and editor, and has been the book columnist for the Anderson Independent Mail for twenty years. She is the author of an oral history of World War II told by living veterans and civilians called "A Necessary War." Visit her website.
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