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 [email protected] 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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