America Was Promises


Physically suffering. Generally speaking, he had to go to his doctor at the end of every day and have a probing operation done on his sinuses. He told me it was the most exquisite torture he had ever conceived of as being humanly bearable. That was, of course, not the only agony, because the distortions of his body that he had to make in order to get around at all were also acutely painful. But I didn’t know any of this in the beginning.

How did you first meet him?

In the line of business, for Fortune. I remember once that Harry asked me to take him to meet Roosevelt. I reserved a double room for us—I thought I’d save him some money if he wouldn’t save himself any. I realized later I probably shouldn’t have done that. We called on the President the next morning. The President was absolutely marvelous. It was right after his nonintervention speech in 1937. He admitted that he favored the Spanish Republican side. “But I can’t say that publicly,” he told us. “Remember, I’m the President of all the people.” Harry was charmed. The President knew he was charming him. Halfway down the stairs, Harry stopped me and said, “What a man! What a man!” Within two weeks, he was denying he ever said that.

How did your nomination as Librarian of Congress come about?

Well, first of all, Herbert Putnam, who was still Librarian, had gotten too old. And second, Roosevelt cared greatly about libraries, and particularly about that library. Finally, he felt that he had to act. This was in the summer of 1939, and by that time I had left Fortune to help start up the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard. I got a call from Roosevelt’s right-hand man, Tommy Corcoran, telling me that I was lunching with the President the next day. I said that was pleasant news- and asked why, exactly. Tommy said, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Mr. Roosevelt was a charming companion. Wonderful company. I’ve never seen anybody who had anything like his.. .what they now call charisma.

So I went down, and I hadn’t the slightest inkling before I got into the Oval Office. After lunch, the President announced that he wanted to send my name up to the Senate to be Librarian of Congress. I told him that I would have to talk to Ada about it. He said, “Yes, of course. I haven’t met your wife but I can’t imagine you marrying a woman who wouldn’t want a say on this one.”

Ada and I talked and talked and talked. In the end I decided that I hadn’t really gotten down to the things in my mind to do then. I wrote the President a very respectful letter, thanked him warmly, and told him that I couldn’t accept. I got an immediate letter back from him. He said that I could run the Library of Congress before breakfast, and that I would be able to write as I had never been able to write before in my life. Then Tommy called me again. “You’ll see him tomorrow,” he said. And I went.

Ada foresaw the future. She said, “Don’t struggle too hard.” So I told the President that I would do it, but that I was deep into a long poem that I had to finish. We agreed that I would take office in the fall.

What was the poem?

It was called America Was Promises .

Your nomination shocked a lot of people, especially professional librarians. The New York Herald Tribune did, in fact, use just those words in an editorial: “A shocking nomination. ” Did you have any background as a librarian?

No. You will probably ask me now if I had any experience as an administrative official. The answer is again no.


Actually, I was going to ask if you could do the job before breakfast.

I never even succeeded in getting home for dinner.

Did you write at all?

Practically not at all. One morning I came into my office early and wrote in five minutes a poem called “The Young Dead Soldiers.” That was almost the only time that happened to me. But from 1939 to 1945, when the President died, I really didn’t do a thing. It was a tremendous job. He knew that. He knew it perfectly well, but he took a certain pleasure in kidding me.

What do you consider your outstanding accomplishment as Librarian of Congress?

I almost immediately found that the library had to be totally and completely reorganized. It was in trouble financially. The salaries were too low. The morale was practically shattered. I think that the reorganization of the Library of Congress—which immediately resulted in an invitation to address the next meeting of the American Library Association—was the best thing I did.

How informed was Roosevelt about the arts?