F.D.R: The Last Journey

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Today, as we move against the terrible scourge of war—as we go forward toward the greatest contribution that any generation of human beings can make in this world—the contribution of lasting peace, I ask you to keep up your faith. I measure the sound, solid achievement that can be made at this time by the straight edge of your own confidence and your resolve. And to you, and to all Americans who dedicate themselves with us to the making of an abiding peace, I say: The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

 

Warm Springs on Thursday morning, April 12, 1945, was sunny and pleasant. Dogwood and wild violets bloomed along the road to Pine Mountain. There, at his favorite picnic spot, friends of Franklin Roosevelt were preparing a barbecue for the late afternoon; the smells of honeysuckle and stewing beef and chicken mingled in the soft Georgia air. A wooden armchair was set out for the guest of honor under a wisterialaden oak tree, placed so that he could gaze at the greening valley below.

Down in the valley, in his corner bedroom in the Little White House, the President was sitting in bed reading the Atlanta Constitution; the big-city newspapers from the North had been delayed by bad weather in Washington. The headlines reported American troops fifty-seven miles from Berlin and 115 miles from the Russians; a big fleet of super-Forts had bombed Tokyo in daylight. Roosevelt looked up from his paper at the sound of chatter in the kitchen. He called out to Lizzie McDuffie, who was dusting the living room. What were they talking about? Lizzie came to the door. Mr. Roosevelt had always had time to talk with her, to answer her questions.

“Well, Mr. Roosevelt, do you believe in reincarnation?” Did she believe in it? he countered. She didn’t know, Lizzie said, but if there was such a thing she wanted to come back as a canary bird.

“A canary bird !” The President looked at her two-hundred-pound frame, threw his paper down, and burst out laughing. Lizzie McDuffie would never forget that: the President with his head thrown back, his eyes closed, laughing and exclaiming—as she had heard him do a hundred times—“Don’t you love it? Don’t you love it?”

When Hassett reached the Little White House around noon with the delayed mail pouch, Roosevelt was sitting in the living room in his leather armchair chatting with his cousins Margaret Suckley and Laura Delano and with Mrs. Winthrop Rutherfurd.∗ Two years before, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd had commissioned a portrait painter, Elizabeth Shoumatoff, to do a water color of the President; recently he had asked the artist to paint another picture of him as a gift to Lucy’s daughter. Madame Shoumatoff came in while Roosevelt was signing a sheaf of appointments and awards Hassett had put before him—signing them as usual with a wide, flowing pen, so that Hassett had to spread them out to dry. The usual banter followed about putting out Hassett’s “laundry.” One document was a bill just passed by Congress to continue the Commodity Credit Corporation and increase its borrowing power. The President signed it with a flourish, telling the ladies, “Here’s where I make a law.”

∗An assistant to Mrs. Roosevelt and intimate friend of Franklin Roosevelt during the World War I years, Lucy Mercer had later married Winthrop Rutherfurd. She and Roosevelt re-established their old friendship during World War II.

Hassett looked on disapprovingly as the painter set up her easel, measured Roosevelt’s nose, asked him to turn back and forth. His boss looked much too weary for all this, he felt. He collected the signed documents and departed, leaving the President with some papers to read while he was being sketched. The room was quiet now. The artist continued her work, but the President became so intent in his reading that he fell out of his pose. She used the time to fill in colors. At one o’clock the President looked at his watch.

“We’ve got just fifteen minutes more.” The houseboy was setting the dining table on the other side of the room. Margaret Suckley continued to crochet, Laura Delano to fill vases with flowers. Lucy Rutherfurd watched the President. He made a little joke and looked into her smiling face. He lit a cigarette and studied his papers.