Aide To Four Presidents

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There were rumors at the Washington Navy Yard that while he was Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover had spent a good many weekends fishing in Chesapeake Bay. We accordingly expected he would continue to amuse himself in this fashion. Bay fishing had never interested President Coolidge; and since none of us on the Mayflower knew much about good fishing spots, favorable season, tide and proper bait, I went to the Bureau of Fisheries soon after the Hoover nomination and asked them to prepare for me a chart with all helpful fishing information written on it. They did a fine job. The professional and amateur fishermen all over the bay divulged their most treasured secrets under promise that the information would be used only for the entertainment of the new President and given to no one else—exact ranges that had been kept as family secrets for generations and all the lore that good fishing requires.

I showed the chart to President Hoover one morning and told him if he could give me a few hours to get bait, we could be ready to leave at any time for whatever fishing grounds he liked. He seemed interested and much pleased. Consequently at his press conference that afternoon I was dumbfounded to hear him announce that as an economy measure he had directed that the Mayflower be put out of commission and the White House stables closed. The press immediately played it up as a joke on Coolidge—Coolidge economy outdone. Calvin broke his rule of silence to say in effect that he guessed the sailors and horses would still have to eat at government expense. There was a good deal of harmless amusement for a few days, but in the long run the de-commissioning had a bad political effect. We had hundreds and sometimes thousands of visitors each day who were shown about the living quarters and lower decks. The President’s suite, with an oversized marble bathtub installed for William Howard Taft, the handsomely brocaded saloon and dining rooms, the spit and polish of the upper deck were all greatly admired and approved. To get aboard, it was necessary to bring a letter from a member of Congress. The abrupt ending of this easy way of entertaining visiting constituents was resented by many members of Congress.

After the Mayflower was de-commissioned, the Navy Department started to convert her into a survey vessel. During the alterations, however, a fire occurred, so intense that the old yacht sank at her dock from the weight of water pumped into her. She was then sold for junk, but she proved too tough a bird to endure such a fate. Someone raised her and, as I understand, she has since then had a most adventurous career—as a private yacht, as a floating nightclub and gambling hell in the inland waterways and even, some say, as a rum runner. I never knew what happened to President Taft’s fine old bathtub; the amount of gin which could have been manufactured in it staggers the imagination.

Shortly after the good old Mayflower was abandoned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, I got word that the President wanted me to be ready to leave the White House with him the next day and to bring an engineer officer of the Marine Corps with me. We were to be gone all day, Mrs. Hoover would bring lunch for everyone, and we were advised to wear leggings. The Secret Service were the only ones who knew what it was all about and Colonel Starling enjoyed keeping us guessing.

We drove to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to a spot previously scouted by the Secret Service. Some local agents with horses were awaiting us. President and Mrs. Hoover mounted their horses promptly and started up a trail that followed a stream called the Rapidan up a mountainside, leaving word for the rest of us to ride or walk as we saw fit—we would all meet for lunch at one about a mile up the trail. President Hoover in the saddle on a prospecting mission, I saw at once, was a different person altogether from the rather hesitant, wool-gathering man we were used to seeing at the office. He sat his horse with assurance, his eyes were alive with interest, he went about his survey as if he knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. In the course of the day he made his decisions quickly and clearly—main cabin here facing so and so; guest cabins here, here, and here; mess hall and galley there; put in dams here, there, and there and stock with trout. In a few hours the whole project was laid out and many details settled. It only remained for my Marine colonel to prepare his drawings for final approval and get the work done.

I never saw the completed camp. I understand that a great deal of the Mayflower’s equipment was sent there—rugs, china, linen and furniture. Also the Navy cooks and stewards. For the first time in the annals of the Navy, without the necessity of shipwreck, a naval vessel was replaced by a shore station, but this did not disturb President Hoover.

III My first acquaintance with F.D.R.

Admiral Brown served Hoover only a few months, leaving before the crash which brought the relatively carefree Republican era to a close. After his regular sea and shore commands, including a tour of duty in charge of the great submarine base in New London, Connecticut, where he could watch Hoover’s depression economies chipping away at American naval strength, he was to return to the White House in 1934 to become aide to a man whose ideas on sea power were very different. Brown served Roosevelt longer than any other President and his account of their personal relationship, which goes back many years, throws fresh light on a number of historical episodes.