FDR Declassified

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On June 30, 2010, 14 boxes containing a treasure trove of more than 5,000 personal letters, notes, and photographs from the Roosevelt administration and his family arrived at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York. The material—the personal archives of Grace Tully, Roosevelt’s last private secretary, who served him for 17 years—caused a stir among historians, who believe it may provide a hitherto unknown  glimpse into the Roosevelt years.

“There’s no one who has a closer, more intimate relationship with a president than his personal secretary,” says historian Douglas Brinkley, coauthor of FDR and the Creation of the U.N. “Tully was present for all the big moments of his presidency.”

In her 1948 memoir Tully recalled FDR summoning her to the White House just four hours after the Pearl Harbor bombing: “Once more he inhaled deeply, then he began in the same calm tone in which he dictated his mail. Only his diction was a little different as he spoke each word incisively and slowly, carefully specifying each punctuation mark and paragraph. ‘Yesterday comma December 7 comma 1941 dash a day which will live in infamy dash . . .’”

In 1928 the 27-year-old Bayonne, New Jersey, native left the secretarial pool of New York City’s Catholic archdiocese to work for Eleanor Roosevelt before FDR’s run for governor. Soon after, she switched over to help FDR’s personal secretary and confidant, Missy LeHand. They became friends. (The Tully archives contain material that LeHand had given her. Upon LeHand’s death in 1941, Tully took over primary secretarial responsibilities until FDR’s death in 1945.)

While she never enjoyed the closeness FDR had with LeHand, Tully became an integral part of the household. Unshackled by a husband and family, she was free to travel the country with FDR, whom she affectionately called “Boss,” running his business affairs and scheduling appointments. She kept a number of FDR’s important office memos or “chits,” such as the order to promote Col. George C. Marshall, future Army chief of staff, to brigadier general. (This chit was one of the sample nine documents that the National Archives released to the public on July 22.) That FDR regarded Tully with fondness is evident in a letter he wrote from Cairo in 1943. He had seen the pyramids, he wrote, “& made close friends with The Sphinx.” He also promised, “If you learn Chinese or Russian, I’ll bring you next time as interpreter.”

While FDR scholars expect no major revelations in the archives, they do hold out hope that the documents will shed new light on the president’s health problems and relationship with Eleanor. “Roosevelt’s records would be incomplete without the accounts of his personal secretaries,” notes FDR Library and Museum director Cynthia Koch, who first glimpsed a letter from the collection—a note from Eleanor to Tully concerning her children’s school supplies—10 years ago at a rare books dealer. “Both his and Eleanor’s work lives and personal lives were almost seamless. Every work day the president held a cocktail hour, sometimes called the ‘children’s hour,’ where he and his staff stopped work and he made his famous martinis—but they still talked about policy.”

When Tully died in 1984, her archives went to private auction rather than to the  FDR Library and Museum. Perhaps she believed her own words had given a more accurate picture of her “Boss” than any random and ineloquent assortment of his day-to-day scribbles and agenda: “As his secretary, I saw him not so much as a Governor, or as a President, or as Commander-in-Chief; I saw him as a human being . . . a man of straightforward simplicity, courage, passion and honesty—one of the great souls of history.”

The Tully archive will become available to the public on November 15, 2010, and will be posted on the library’s Web site in early 2011. For more, visit www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu or call (845) 486-7770.