Missy – The ‘Gatekeeper’ Who Ran FDR’s White House
Author Kathryn Smith talks about Missy LeHand, the woman who ran FDR’s White House
American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one of the most intriguing political figures in world history. He was in office at a time of great change and guided the country through World War II. His policies, which set the nation on a new course, have been discussed and written about in dozens of books. But less attention has been paid to the women in his life, outside of his wife, Eleanor.
One such woman who deserves more scrutiny is FDR’s longtime personal secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, who sat right outside the Oval Office and was his de facto chief of staff. A new book by Kathryn Smith sheds light on her role in FDR’s life and in the wider theater of politics.
Smith spoke on the Knowledge@Wharton show about what she learned from the careful research she conducted for her book, The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency. The interview aired on the Wharton Business Radio network on Channel 111 on SiriusXM Radio.
The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency by Kathryn Smith
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: You worked closely with Missy LeHand’s family when writing this book?
Kathryn Smith: Yes, very closely. Missy never married and never had children, but she had two nieces she adored. The daughters of those nieces were the ones that I worked with. They were Missy’s great nieces, and they had just boxes and boxes of wonderful pictures, letters and other archives that I used extensively in the book.
Knowledge@Wharton: How did Missy LeHand and FDR come to know each other?
Smith: A lot of people don’t remember this, but FDR ran in 1920 as the vice presidential candidate of James M. Cox. They ran against Harding and Coolidge, that scintillating and charismatic ticket, and were trounced. Missy was the campaign secretary for Roosevelt for vice president. After the election was over, FDR decided to go to Wall Street to make some money because he had been working for the government as assistant secretary of the Navy for eight years and had five children. His family was well off, but they were not fabulously rich. He went to Wall Street and hired Missy as his private secretary, and that’s how she entered his business life and his professional life.
Knowledge@Wharton: She worked with FDR all the way through him reaching the White House, then she had to leave her job because of some medical problems.
Smith: Yes, in 1941. She had a [terrible] stroke and was not able to work after that. She was only 44 years old. She literally worked herself to death. She died when she was 47.
Knowledge@Wharton: A lot has been written about whether FDR had a personal relationship with Missy LeHand, and maybe other women as well. Did he?
Smith: Well, we don’t know. I like to quote his great niece, Jane Scarborough, who says, “We have no reason to think they did.” But the truth is, we don’t know. I think it says more about us than about him that we’ve got this sordid curiosity. But that was the main thing that I had read about Missy before, that she was this lovelorn secretary, just sort of pathetic, or that she was his mistress.
“People listened to Missy.”
And when I started researching the book, I found out that the story was much more nuanced than that, that she really was his gatekeeper, his confidante, a very important adviser and the de facto chief of staff. Just as a reminder, there has never been a woman chief of staff at the White House except on [Netflix’s TV series] ‘House of Cards,’ and we know what happened to poor Linda Vasquez.
Knowledge@Wharton: At that time, LeHand had to be one of the two or three most powerful people in Washington, D.C. If you wanted to talk to FDR, you wanted to bring something to him, you had to go through Missy first.
Smith: She was the best way to get there, and she operated the back door to the White House. There were a lot of people who didn’t want to get on FDR’s official calendar, and there were people that he didn’t want to get on the calendar. He would say, “Call Ms. LeHand and she’ll let you in through the back door to my office,” because she had the only office adjoining his. She looked out on the Rose Garden, and people would just come in the back door and go through her office and bypass the official calendar.
The other thing she did was bring people in that she thought would be good for FDR. The most important of these was Tommy Corcoran, who worked for the federal government. He was a lawyer, a protégé of [Supreme Court Justice] Felix Frankfurter. He had been his student at Harvard law and part of this group of guys around the capitol called the Happy Hotdogs.
He and Missy were both Irish-American Catholics, and she brought him in to play the accordion for FDR after dinner one night. FDR liked him, so Tommy would start showing up at her office and telling her what was going on, what scuttlebutt was on Capitol Hill and the gossip, and she said, “Well, let me go in and tell FD about that.” She called him FD. If FD wanted to hear more, he would say, “Yeah, send Tommy in! I want to hear about that.” Tommy became the White House lobbyist and the man who really pushed the Social Security bill.
Knowledge@Wharton: That was an amazing time for this country. You write about the fact that when World War II started, it was Missy LeHand who told FDR what the Germans had done, and she was the first person to talk to him about this, not Eleanor.
Smith: Eleanor wasn’t even in the White House that night; I think she was in Hyde Park, [the family estate in New York.] Missy was over the switchboard operators, and the rule at the White House was they could not wake the president up after he went to bed without consulting her first. She gets a call at about 2 a.m. from Ambassador William Bullitt in Paris, who had heard from the ambassador in Poland that the Germans had invaded. She said sure, and they sent the call up to FDR. She dressed and ran downstairs to his room, so they were just sitting up in his bedroom listening to this appalling news. FDR scribbled out a little note on a piece of scrap paper about what he had done and wrote “in bed, 3:15 AM, FDR,” and Missy put it in her scrapbook.
Knowledge@Wharton: Was she still working for FDR when Dec. 7, 1941, rolled around?
Smith: No, she had had her stroke in June and had gone down to Warm Springs, [a spa town in Georgia where FDR had a house,] for rehabilitation. She helped FDR establish the polio hospital there. She was in a wheelchair and was very upset, tried to call the White House, couldn’t get through to him — it was a little bit crazy that day.
Knowledge@Wharton: Much has been written about the relationship that FDR and Eleanor had. When FDR passed away, the division of wealth that he set forth was equal between Eleanor and Missy. That tells you how important she was to him, whether or not they had a relationship.
Smith: Right. He stipulated that half of the income of his estate each year would go to Eleanor and half to “my friend, Marguerite A. LeHand for her medical care,” because from the time Missy had her stroke, Roosevelt personally paid for all of her medical care. He brought in the best specialists in the country to see her, and when they really couldn’t do anything, she went home to Massachusetts and he continued to pay for her rehabilitation, for a nurse who stayed in her home. He would do things like send her movie tickets and authorize a car to pick her up and take her to the movies. He really cared a lot about her, but he never saw her again after she left the White House.
“From the time Missy had her stroke, Roosevelt personally paid for all of her medical care.”
Knowledge@Wharton: Were you able to determine Eleanor’s view of Missy LeHand?
Smith: Missy was vital to Eleanor also. From the time FDR was elected governor of New York in 1928, Missy became the backup hostess at the governor’s mansion and then later at the White House for Eleanor — because Eleanor had her own life. She was teaching school in Manhattan three days a week during the governorship. She could just go off and do what she was going to do, and Missy would take care of the household and preside over the tea table or the dinner table, or supervise the staff, order the groceries, whatever.
By the time she got to the White House, Eleanor was so involved with these different causes and became such an activist that her Secret Service name was Rover. She would be gone for months at a time, and she could always count on Missy to stay behind and take care of things and also to be a companion to FDR, because their marriage was not close emotionally.
I think they really rubbed each other the wrong way most of the time. Missy was FDR’s companion and would spend time with him, and Eleanor just didn’t have to worry about it anymore. They were very fond of each other, Missy and Eleanor. Whenever Missy was ill — she had heart trouble from the time she was a young girl — Eleanor would always step in and take care of her. When her mother died during the campaign of 1932, Eleanor went home with her to make the funeral arrangements. They were very affectionate in their notes and letters, so there was a lot of love there.
Knowledge@Wharton: That’s an amazing piece to the story because with all the conjecture out there, you would think there would have been jealousy on the part of Eleanor.
Smith: Missy was very good about understanding Eleanor’s boundaries. Eleanor always wanted to be respected as First Lady, and Missy always did that. I never found even the slightest negative thing about Eleanor in any of Missy’s correspondence, even with the man she was in love with it was just always very, very respectful of Eleanor. So I think that was the way she was.
Knowledge@Wharton: What was it about her that made her so successful at her job?
Smith: She had tremendous discretion; nobody could get a word out of her. She was charming, she was very loyal and just had good horse sense. She had a good, level head and was a very shrewd judge of character. She also knew how to manage FDR. Some people have asked me, “What policies did she suggest?” Look, they were full of policy wonks during the New Deal. They didn’t need anyone else coming up with ideas, but they were short on people to facilitate and make things happen. FDR was a terrible procrastinator, so Missy would just get the gears going. Just like bringing Tommy Corcoran in to be his lobbyist. He wasn’t going to get that stuff passed without a really, really smart guy on Capitol Hill working the system.
I can’t tell you a single thing that she suggested, but she supported what was good for the little man. She was from a working class neighborhood. She had a high school education. She never forgot her roots, and that was that. The other thing that was really important was she was a Catholic, and that was an incredibly important voting block for Roosevelt. Something like 80% of Catholics voted for him in 1932, and the father of hate radio at that time was Father Charles Coughlin, who had 30 million listeners a week. That’s more than twice what Rush Limbaugh has today, and the population of the country was a third of what it is now. He hated FDR, so they had to do a lot to keep the Catholic voters in their fold and counteract what Father Coughlin was saying on the radio.
“Missy was FDR’s companion and would spend time with him, and Eleanor just didn’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Missy wasn’t the only Catholic around. In fact, FDR had a lot of Catholics around him. Joseph P. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s father, was a very important Catholic who worked in his administration. He was ambassador to Great Britain. He didn’t do a great job there, but it was very visible. Tommy Corcoran was another [and] Jim Farrell, who was the postmaster general.
But the funny thing about Eleanor — we know her so well for her broad-mindedness and her support of civil rights and minorities — she didn’t like Catholics. She didn’t like it that FDR had all of these Catholics around him. There’s a picture in my book of the day that Missy got an honorary degree from Rosary College, which is today Dominican University. They gave it at the White House, and they had two nuns there, a Catholic priest, Eleanor and FDR and Missy. This went out from the Associated Press all over the country. It had to be great PR for the president, but you could just kind of see Eleanor was, “Oh, I really don’t want to be here.”
Knowledge@Wharton: I would imagine that Missy also played a role in the relationships that FDR had to have with other countries.
Smith: I don’t know that. I know that some of the ambassadors like William Bullitt, who was her boyfriend, there was a lot of correspondence between some of these ambassadors and Missy. But she didn’t travel. FDR did not travel outside of the country when she was working with him. She traveled extensively with him inside of the United States.
Knowledge@Wharton: You talked about the fact that Missy LeHand was the de facto chief of staff for FDR and there hasn’t been a female chief of staff at the White House. Were the staffs of the president much smaller then?
Smith: Tiny, tiny, tiny. The thing that is also important to remember is that the title, secretary, was the ultimate job title for a White House staffer. Missy was the first woman to be a private secretary to a president in U.S. history, and she came in with three other secretaries, all men. Louis Howe, who many people will know was FDR’s political adviser; Steve Early, who was his press secretary; Marvin McIntyre, his appointment secretary; and Missy, who did everything else.
They appeared together on the cover of Time magazine as the White House secretariat. There were only three covers of Time in 1934 that had a woman on them, and she was one of those three. That says a lot, doesn’t it? One of the other ones was a fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, and the other was a group of women activists for children, and that included Eleanor Roosevelt.
Knowledge@Wharton: But it was also a time when you were starting to see women take more important roles in general. It was still more of a male-dominated area.
“FDR was a terrible procrastinator, so Missy would just get the gears going.”
Smith: Well, it still is. Look at Washington today. You have Frances Perkins, who was the first woman cabinet secretary, did an excellent job at labor. FDR [presided over] a period where a lot of women had very, very important jobs in Washington.
Knowledge@Wharton: What’s the most impressive thing to you about the work Missy did at the White House?
Smith: That she not only worked at the desk at the office outside of FDR’s, but she lived in the White House. She was on call 24/7, and you can just imagine the pressure of that job. She was serving as backup hostess. She would bring in people to play poker with FDR and would either sit in on a hand of poker or be sure they had their glasses full. She was called upon to do so many different things. That’s one of the things that just amazes me, and that she had a bad heart during all that time. I don’t know how she lived as long as she did.
Another thing that’s really impressive is she recommended appointments to him. In 1932, when he was elected, you didn’t take office until March of ’33. During that interim, there was an assassination attempt on FDR’s life that ended up killing the mayor of Chicago instead of him. All of the banks in the country were on the verge of failure, and the man he had designated to be attorney general died on the way to the inauguration. The man was an older guy who was in his 70s, he had just married a much younger woman from Cuba, and he died on the train.
We don’t know why. Someone said it was presumption beyond his powers. But nobody had an idea about who to appoint in his place, and Missy said, “How about Homer Cummings?” He had been a DNC chairman and was a lawyer. He was supposed to be the governor general of the Philippines. No one could think of a better suggestion, so they approached him. She lobbied for Felix Frankfurter to be appointed to the Supreme Court, and he was. People listened to Missy.
Knowledge@Wharton: Do you believe that if she had been healthy enough and wanted to go down this path, that she could have been a very motivational force in politics herself?
Smith: I don’t see her as someone who would have been interested in office. I think she always had been a facilitator and a power behind the throne. And I don’t think she had a big ego like that either. She just adored FDR and what he believed in and just loved working for the Roosevelts.
Knowledge@Wharton: Was she a fairly private person?
Smith: Yes. She didn’t keep a diary, she never made a note, never planned to write a memoir, which made it really challenging for me as a biographer to get to the bottom of who she was. I mean, everybody around FDR wrote a memoir after he died. The lady who was in charge of housekeeping in the White House wrote one, his physician wrote one, Grace Tully, who succeeded Missy as private secretary, wrote one.
If you didn’t work yourself to death under FDR, you wrote a memoir after he died. But Missy never planned to do that, so finding her story [meant] not only working with the family archive and the papers at the FDR Library, but culling little bits of information from every source you can imagine. I read over 100 books, just pulling little things out of the diaries of Harold Ickes, who was the interior secretary and a big fan of Missy’s. It was really a chore, but it was fascinating.
“She not only worked at the desk at the office outside of FDR’s, but she lived in the White House.”
Knowledge@Wharton: Why did you want to write a book about her?
Smith: I wanted to have her job. I thought of all of the people in history, what a fascinating job that would have been. I’m from the South. My grandfather was what we call a yellow dog Democrat, which means he would have voted for a yellow dog if it was on the Democratic ticket, and he adored FDR because he had been a young father at the beginning of the Depression and things really started turning around for him after the New Deal began.
I just learned at my papa’s knee about FDR. The first term paper I ever wrote in high school was about FDR. The more I read about him during my adult life, there was always this woman hovering in the background. It was always the one who knew FDR best, the one who could make FDR do things. I thought, how fascinating, I would love to read a book about Missy LeHand. Then I found out no one had ever written one. I thought, I’ll write one myself. And here we are.
Knowledge@Wharton: These types of stories are great because they give you more insight into the person. In this case, it’s FDR and how he ran his White House.
Smith: Right. As a friend of mine says, it’s the last bite of the apple because everyone else close to FDR who had any importance has really been plumbed already. There have been books and books and books. There’s a new one coming out about Eleanor and Lorena Hickock, who was her close friend. Another one came out today about the last months of FDR and how he negotiated with Stalin at Yalta. But I think that this is really giving a different insight that people will be very interested in. I’ve gotten lots of nice comments from historians. Everyone I talk to says, “Oh, I’m a big Missy fan!” She’s got a lot of fan clubs even today, so many years after her death.