My Father And Mrs. Roosevelt’s Dogs

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He never took walks along empty country roads, for worry of all the hairy, four-legged animals that he felt might be lurking about in evil community with germs and insects. He felt relatively safe in Manhattan, where dogs were leashed and other animals were behind bars in the zoo. He used to say, in a general context, that to stay happy and healthy a man ought not to wander too far from the lamppost at Forty-second Street and Broadway. And I think what he meant, beyond his lifelong need for a symbiotic connection with the sidewalks of New York and all their human traffic, was that for him Times Square, especially at night, was a safe, crowded place where one might at worst be accosted by drunks, pimps, prostitutes, or thieves after one’s wallet, as compared with a lonesome country road where one might meet up with real danger—a savage dog leaping for the jugular or poisonous insects descending from the mysterious recesses of a tree. In the geography of my father’s mind the unsafe countryside included all the unpaved areas of the world that were inhabited by creatures on the loose, from the jungles of Africa to the wilds of suburbia.

Germs, being too microscopic to put on leashes, remained a problem to my father even in the city, but he managed to live with them by various means. For example, he would wash his hands and rinse out his mouth rather frequently, and every morning he would pour some disinfectant over his toes. He also took an aspirin two or three times a day. In the same spirit of prophylaxis he drank a minimum of tap water, preferring bottled mineral water, which he considered cleaner and somehow therapeutic. Fortunately he was an exceptionally strong and healthy man. I don’t recall his ever having an illness that caused him to visit a doctor’s office or miss a day of work.

As for dogs, my father avoided all contact with them. He considered them dangerous as germ collectors (all that unwashed fur and snouts forever sniffing into garbage); besides, they had dangerous claws and teeth. Except for the puppy my mother once brought home experimentally—which she had to give away after a few weeks—I cannot remember a dog or cat ever being in our house, even those that might have belonged to visitors. As pets we kept a succession of fish, turtles, and canaries, all of which seemed to sense the unwelcome ambiance of our household, because they would soon wilt or grow moldy and die. Ours was a home that bestowed real love only on human beings.

Doubtless, had my father been present at the Creation, he would have beseeched God to eliminate His work of the fifth day, when He gave life to beasts and creeping things. And given the chance, my father might have pleaded this case rather eloquently. He was one of those born lawyers. He had practiced law in New York City for some twenty years before his election to the New York State Supreme Court, where he served until his death. When he sat on the bench in his judicial black robes, his idiosyncrasies were in abeyance. He was known as a distinguished and influential jurist, also as one who showed extraordinary patience and compassion toward anyone who entered his courtroom. It may have been, in some chance balancing of the scales, that his severe estrangement from the animal kingdom was compensated by an intense affinity with human beings. At any rate his particular combination of traits allowed him great fulfillment in the role of judge. His life had two fulcrums—his family and the court.

It was his devotion to the court (his court, all courts) that had led him, at the time of which I write, to be privately at odds with Franklin Roosevelt. He had passionately opposed Roosevelt’s 1937 plan to enlarge and thereby control the United States Supreme Court, and though the court-packing plan had been defeated, he never forgave Roosevelt for trying. An early supporter of F.D.R., he had by 1938 turned sourly against him.

It is relevant here that my father had never had an adequate place to register this rage. As a judge he was prevented by court ethics from speaking his mind publicly on partisan matters, and his image of judicial forbearance prevented him from lambasting the President even in private. Nor, in fairness, would he allow his anger to spill over onto “the Roosevelt women,” as he called them, Eleanor and Sara Delano Roosevelt, whom he continued to admire. There was nothing, however, in his code of behavior that would keep him from venting his fury, with gusto, on two offending Roosevelt dogs.

As we left the party that day, on the walk home, my sister and I abruptly abandoned our party manners. I told her she had ruined the day—dog bite for her, no interview for me. She wept again, claiming that it was not her fault and that I cared more about my newspaper story than about her. My mother had only one concern: we were in no way to mention the dog bite at home, and through my tirade and my sister’s tears we agreed.

Dinner went as usual that evening, with lively talk about the day’s happenings. My father wanted details about the afternoon with Mrs. Roosevelt, and we gave him what we could. It was only as my youngest sister rose from the table that, with his eagle eye for injuries, he noticed the long red mark on her leg.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Mother said. “A scratch.”

“Nothing!” he said. Why wasn’t it bandaged? How did she get it? We all had to admit that it was done by one of Mrs. Roosevelt’s dogs. My father by now was circling the table, stopping every so often to pound it with his fist. I recall his next words exactly, because they left me stunned. “Has it occurred to you,” he asked my mother, “that those goddamn dogs might have rabies ? Or some other dog disease?”