F.D.R: The Last Journey


The fifteen minutes were almost up when the President raised his left hand to his temple, dropped it limply, then raised and pressed it behind his neck. He said very quietly: “I have a terrific headache.” Then his arm dropped, his head fell to the left, his body slumped. A call went out to Dr. Bruenn, who had been sunning himself at the pool. When Bruenn arrived, the President was still slumped in his chair; only with difficulty was the heavy, inert body carried into the bedroom. The President’s breathing stopped, then started again in great snoring gasps. Bruenn sheared away his clothes, injected papaverine and amyl nitrate, and telephoned Rear Admiral Ross T. McIntire, the President’s personal physician, in Washington. Madame Shoumatoff had already left with Mrs. Rutherfurd. Hassett arrived and knew the end was near when he heard the awful labored breathing. Grace Tully sat quietly in a corner of the living room, her lips moving in prayer. The minutes ticked by; the breathing grew more tortured; then it stopped. Bruenn could hear no heart sounds. He injected adrenalin into the heart muscle. No response. At 3:55 P.M. Dr. Bruenn pronounced him dead.

Grace Tully walked into the bedroom, kissed the President lightly on the forehead, then walked out onto the porch and stood there wordless and tearless. The reporters were summoned from the barbecue on Pine Mountain. They swept into the little house. Hassett was standing near the center of the living room. “Gentlemen,” he said quietly, “it is my sad duty to inform you that the President of the United States is dead. …”

The news came to Churchill in his study at 10 Downing Street just before midnight; for a long time he sat stunned and silent, feeling as though he had been struck a physical blow. In Moscow, Ambassador Averell Harriman was awakened at 2 A.M. ; he drove to the Kremlin to see Stalin, who seemed moved and preoccupied by the news as he held the envoy’s hand for a long moment, saying nothing. In Chungking, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek received the news as he began eating breakfast; he left the meal untouched and retired for mourning. In Japan an announcer for Radio Tokyo read the death bulletin and surprisingly presented some special music “in honor of the passing of a great man.”

In Berlin the news came to Goebbels on the steps of the Propaganda Ministry just after a bombing attack. His exultant face could be seen in the light of the flames from the burning Chancellery across the Wilhelmplatz. He had been telling the Führer and others that Germany would be saved at the eleventh hour by an unexpected event, just as Frederick the Great had been saved by the death of the czarina two centuries before. He called for champagne and telephoned Hitler, who was in his deep bunker.

“My Führer! I congratulate you. Roosevelt is dead. It is written in the stars that the second half of April will be the turning point for us. This is Friday, April 13. It is the turning point!”

Next morning the army band and a thousand infantrymen from Fort Benning, black streamers flying from their colors, led the hearse between lines of helmeted paratroopers down the curving red clay road through the Warm Springs Foundation. Behind came Eleanor Roosevelt in an open car, the President’s Scottie, Fala, at her feet. At Georgia Hall patients in wheel chairs waved farewell to the friend who had presided at their Thanksgiving dinners and swum with them in the warm pool. Graham Jackson had waited at the barbecue to play his accordion for the President; now, his face a map of anguish and disbelief, he stepped out from the columned portico and rendered “Going Home.”

Its drums beating a steady, deadened roll, the procession wound down to the little railroad station. The heavy, flag-draped coffin was handed through a window into the rear car of the presidential train. There it rested on a pine box so low that only the top of the casket could be seen through the windows. Four servicemen stood guard. The train started imperceptibly and began rolling down the track to Atlanta.

Eleanor Roosevelt sat in the presidential lounge car. The afternoon before, she had been at the White House when word came from Warm Springs that her husband had fainted; Admiral McIntire, in Washington, advised her to go ahead with a speaking engagement so that people would not be alarmed. She had done so, with her unquenchable sense of duty, only to be called back to the White House and told the definite news. She had had time to ask Harry Truman, “Is there anything we can do for you?“; to send a message to her four soldier sons, “He did his job to the end as he would want you to do.” Then she had flown south with McIntire and Stephen Early, the President’s press secretary.

While the train rolled through the gently billowing land of west central Georgia—his adopted state, Roosevelt called it—the world was trying to adjust to the death of the President. Almost everywhere the first reactions had been shock, incredulity, grief, and fear. Now it was time for second thoughts. Editorialists struggled to capture the nature of the man, the meaning of his life, the measure of the loss.