July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
A picture taken the day before President Roosevelt’s death has been hidden away in an artist’s file until now
Commissioned to paint Franklin Roosevelt, Elizabeth Shoumatoff arrived in Warm Springs, Georgia, in early April, 1945. Before starting her day’s work on April 11, she asked an assistant, Nicholas Robbins, to snap a few pictures of the President.
One of these, the last taken, is a haunting document of Roosevelt’s final hours. Never published before, it is shown on the opposite page. Mrs. Shoumatoff, who died in 1980, left a memoir of this photo session and the fateful day that followed:
“At twelve o’clock on the eleventh, I came in for my painting. The President was most cooperative as usual and agreed to be photographed first. I had one pose taken with the cape and another without, just an extra picture for myself. This would be the last photograph ever taken of him.
“The next morning at the appointed hour, I went to the Little White House where the President was signing papers. I knew it was going to be a full day for him. There was to be a barbecue that afternoon, given by the Mayor of Warm Springs, and something else later. To my suggestion that we postpone the sitting until tomorrow, the President said, ‘Oh, no, I’ll be through in a few minutes and will be ready ready for you.’ He looked cheerful and full of pep. As I started mixing my paint, I was struck by his exceptionally good color. The grey look of the previous days had disappeared—a sign, as I later learned, of the approaching cerebral hemorrhage. Working with intense speed I began putting on the first layer of paint and then started, as usual, with the eyes. In a little while a familiar expression began to show. But it was not quite the look I was accustomed to during the past few days. The President seemed so absorbed, his gaze had a faraway aspect and was completely solemn. At one point the President glanced up and said, ‘We have fifteen minutes more to work.’ As I remember, these were the last words he uttered. Suddenly he raised his hand and passed it over his forehead several times in a strange jerky way, without emitting a sound, his head bent slightly forward. I never heard him say anything about a headache as was reported by others who weren’t there.”
Roosevelt fell unconscious and died that afternoon. Left unfinished, the oil painting itself remains on view at Warm Springs.