1932: First electoral campaign
Roosevelt had a fairly wide though not unusual experience of illness before paralysis struck him. He was capable of feats of exertion over short periods that amazed his friends — for instance he could tire out a horse on rough mountain trails — but in a curious way his vitality was mercurial; he could vault over a row of chair at the San Francisco convention and play golf within two strokes of a course record, but in those days he was not what would be called a "strong" man. He was graceful rather than muscular; taut, not solid. His body was a sensitive mechanism, and photographs of the time give him a look almost fragile. He radiated energy, as a consumptive may do, but he sometimes burned himself out in doing so; time and again his resistance weakened, and he fell prey to minor illness.
On August 10,1921, Roosevelt took his wife and their sons for a sail on a small craft which he was teaching the boys how to handle. Returning to Campobello he saw a forest fire on the nearby shore; the whole family landed for the strenuous fun of fighting it. To cool off, he decided to take a swim in a nearby lake, Glen Severn, though he had been complaining for several days of feeling tired; then he and the children jog trotted the mile and a half home. Later FDR wanted another swim, and he jumped into the ocean from the beach. The Bay of Fundy is ice-cold even at this time of year. Back in the house again, he found that a batch of mail had arrived; he sat down in his wet bathing suit and went through it for half an hour. Thereupon he had a sudden chill, and Mrs. Roosevelt persuaded him to go to bed. (Interestingly enough he had had a chill the day before, as a result of slipping and falling overboard.)
Thus the attack began — though nobody can know when, where, or under what circumstances the polio virus first entered his system. The first intimation to FDR himself that something might be wrong with his legs was a tenderness in the forepart of the thighs.
The next day, August 11, he had a high temperature and acute pain in the left leg. Mrs. Roosevelt acted promptly; she sent the children away to a nearby camp, and summoned the nearest physician. Dr. E.H. Bennett of Lubec, Maine. Bennett got there by 10 A.M. He was puzzled. FDR could walk, but had severe pains throughout his back and legs. On August 12 difficulty in walking supervened, and Mrs. Roosevelt and Bennett thought they ought to consult another doctor. It happened that a famous Philadelphia diagnostician, Dr. W.W. Keen, was summering in the neighbourhood; he examined Roosevelt on the 13th and again the next day and decided "that a clot of blood from a sudden congestion has settled in the lower spinal cord temporarily removing the power to move though not to feel." Nobody thought then in terms of infantile paralysis. But Keen knew that this was a serious matter; he thought that recovery might "take some months." Roosevelt got worse in the next few days, not better. Keen .changed his mind, discarded the clot theory, and decided that FDR must have "a lesion" in the spinal cord. Also he sent Mrs. Roosevelt a bill for $600. By this time FDR's bladder and the rectal sphincter were paralyzed. Mrs. Roosevelt insisted that a specialist in poliomyelitis from Boston, Dr. Robert W. Lovett, be called in. Lovett saw FDR on August 21, made a correct
diagnosis, and stopped the massages which Keen had ordered. Roosevelt was in the fiercest kind of pain during all of this, and was completely helpless. He had to be catheterized until September 8, and the paralysis spread to affect — temporarily — his arms and back as well as legs.
Sara Roosevelt was away in Europe, about to return home. The whole brunt fell on Eleanor. She did all the nursing. Her letters to the family during this period are models of clarity, courage, and cool restraint.
In New York Roosevelt was taken to the Presbyterian Hospital on Park Avenue, and one of Lovett's associates, Dr. George Draper, a brilliant young specialist who had known FDR well at school, became his doctor and took charge of the case. Through all the agony that followed, Draper and Mrs. Roosevelt were the closest allies; Draper, more than anybody except Eleanor and Howe, should have the credit for saving Roosevelt. Again we see the long and intricate chain of cause and effect that controls the seeming fortuitousness of human lives. Had not Draper, a friend, happened to be on hand, with exactly the right combination of technical skill and personal force, it is extremely doubtful if FDR would ever have recovered to the extent he did.
I have had access to the medical records of the Roosevelt case, including the hospital chart, none of which have ever been published before. His temperature was spotty, varying from slightly subnormal to 102.1; the pulse was between 60 and 100. The diagnosis was of acute; anterior poliomyelitis. On September 23 the record shows that "the patient still shows definite signs of general C.N.S. [Central Nervous System] prostration. This is very marked. Otherwise the situation is progressing favourably." An examination on October 2 showed that the fear of bladder or prostate infection had passed; the prostate was "not enlarged, practically symmetrical, with marked median furrow and prominent lateral lobes," and the patient was voiding "good amounts of urine without difficulty and without urgency." Medicaments included urotropin, pituitary extract, and 25 per cent adrenal residue. Much of this record is too technical for useful inclusion here. On the date of discharge, October 28, 1921, the record says, "Not improving."
Howe decided that the newspapers must be told something, and on September 16, the New York Times carried a front-page story with the following headline:
F.D. ROOSEVELT ILL OF POLIOMYELITIS
Brought on Special Car from Campobello,
Bay of Fundy, to Hospital Here
Recovering, Doctor says
Patient Stricken by Infantile Paralysis
A Month Ago, and Use of Legs Affected
The first paragraph says that Roosevelt had lost the use of both legs below the knee "for more than a month." But one doctor is quoted as saying that "he definitely will not be crippled. No one need have any fear of permanent injury from this attack."
Dr. Lovett wrote Dr. Draper this hitherto unpublished letter:
With regard to Mr.. R. I was called to see him in Campobello. There was some uncertainty about the diagnosis, but I thought it perfectly clear so far as the physical findings were concerned and I never feel that the history is of much value anyway.
He had I thought some facial involvement, apparently no respiratory, but a weakness in the arms, not very severe and not grouped at all. There was some atrophy of the left thenar eminence.... There was a scattered weakness in the legs, most marked in the hips when I saw him, very few muscles were absent, and in those that were recovering there was a pretty fair degree of power at the end of two weeks. No deformities were present, and the general aspect of the thing was a mild, rather scattered attack without excessive tenderness, coming on promptly and not in a sneaking way, with spontaneous improvement beginning almost at once and progressing.
It seems to me that it was a mild case within the range of possible complete recovery. I told them very frankly that no one could tell where they stood, that the case was evidently not of the severest type, that complete recovery or partial recovery to any point was possible, that disability was not to be feared, and that the only out about it was the long continued character of the treatment. It is dangerous to speak from impressions at the end of the second week,
but my feeling about him was that he was probably going to be a case where the conservation of what muscular power he has may be very important, and it looked to me as if some of the important muscles might be on the edge where they could be influenced either way — toward recovery, or turn into completely paralyzed muscles. I was as non-committal as I could be about who should conduct the treatment, and I asked them to put themselves in your hands and follow your advice.
But things were not to go as well as Lovett hoped. In fact Draper thought presently that FDR might never be able to sit up again, much less stand or walk. On September 24 he wrote Lovett the following letter, which has not been published before:
Just a line to report to you about Franklin R. I am much concerned at the very slow recovery both as regards the disappearance of pain, which is very generally present, and as to the recovery of even slight power to twitch the muscles. There is marked falling away of the muscle masses on either side of the spine in the lower lumbar region, likewise the buttocks. There is marked weakness of the right triceps; and an unusual amount of gross muscular twitching in the muscles of both forearms. He coordinates on the fine motions of his hands very well now so that he can sign his name and write a little better than before.
The lower extremities present a most depressing picture. There is a little motion in the long extensors of the toes of each foot, a little in the perinei of the right side, a little ability to twitch the bellies of the gastrocnemii, but not really extend the feet. There is little similar power in the left vastus, and on both sides similar voluntary twitches of the hamstring masses can be accomplished.
He is very cheerful and hopeful, and has made up his mind that he is going to go out of the hospital in the course of two or three weeks on crutches. What I fear more than any thing else is that we shall find a much more extensive
involvement of the great back muscles than we have suspected and that when we attempt to sit him up he will be faced with the frightfully depressing knowledge that he cannot hold himself erect. It has occurred to me that it might be possible for you to devise some kind of support for him which we can put on while he is in bed, just preparatory to getting him up in a chair for the first time, so that he will not realize too suddenly that his back will not hold him.
I feel so strongly ... that the psychological factor in his management is paramount. He has such courage, such ambition, and yet at the same time such an extraordinarily sensitive emotional mechanism that it will take all the skill which we can muster to lead him successfully to a recognition of what he really faces without crushing him. My thought was that as soon as the tenderness has left completely so that you could move him about as you please ... you would come to New York to see him. At present I feel that we should not get the greatest value from your presence because of the impossibility of manipulating him.
I have studiously refrained from examining his upper extremities because he believes them to be untouched by the disease. It is fortunate that one does not have much opportunity in the recumbent position in bed to call upon the deltoids or the triceps — the biceps are fortunately pretty good so that he is able to pull himself up by the strap over his head and so help himself to turn in bed. This of course gives him a great sense of satisfaction.
Lovett replied that he would of course come to New York at any time, and recommended immersion in strong saline baths and the "use of electric light." He predicted that the involvement in the arms would clear up, which indeed it eventually did.
In November Draper wrote to Dr. Bennett:
First of all, let me ask your forgiveness for having delayed so long in sending you any word about Franklin Roosevelt.
He has done exceedingly well ever since his arrival, although his progress has been slow. There is still a little tenderness in the muscles and, of course, practically no return to power in any of the affected ones, but his general condition is very much better and he has come out of that state of nervous collapse in which all these cases find themselves for some little time after the acute attack. He is now at home and able to get about in a wheel chair into which he is partially lifted and partially swings him self by means of a strap and ring hung from the ceiling. He is cheerful and hopeful and his general morale is very high.
As soon as we can, we propose to get him on crutches with braces to make his legs rigid.
I am ordering sent to you one of the little books on poliomyelitis that I spoke to you about and likewise enclosing the two dollars which you so kindly provided for tipping the ambulance men.
During all this period Roosevelt of course suffered the most harrowing agonies, mental as well as physical. When did it first become unequivocally clear to him that there was no prospect that he would ever walk again? Was he told? Or did he guess it for himself? Did he ever know with full consciousness that his back and arms were in jeopardy too — that he might never be able to sit up again, never even regain the full use of his hands? Who broke it to him that leg braces would be necessary? Of course nature provides a cushion for shocks so grievous as these; the very fact of his complete nervous depression probably helped him, and mercifully he was under mild opiates a good part of the time.
There were excruciating ups and downs, as in all serious illnesses. On November 19-20 he had a mysterious relapse; his temperature went up to 101, and his eyes began to hurt. Momentarily it was even feared that, as if fate had not mutilated him enough, his eyesight might become affected. Later the tendons of the right knee tightened, bending the leg like a jack-knife, and both legs had to be put in plaster casts as a remedial measure. The pain of this was the worst in the whole experience. Day by day, for several weeks, a wedge was tapped into each cast,
a little deeper each time, to force the legs to become unlocked. But two items of good news compensated for this torture. First, the arms began to recover. Second, the "great muscles of the back" that Draper was so worried about resumed their normal function. He could sit up!
His mother wanted him to come to Hyde Park immediately after his discharge from the hospital, but he and Eleanor insisted on going to the 65th Street house in town. In his later convalescence, of course, he did spend much time at Hyde Park. Mrs. Roosevelt has recorded the "somewhat acrimonious" disputes that attended the decision to stay in New York City. This is to understate. What really happened during these agonizing months was a battle to the finish between these two remarkable women for Franklin's soul. Harsh words were seldom spoken; the intensity burned beneath the surface; the struggle was fierce just the same. Sara wanted FDR to submit gracefully to the disaster, and live out the rest of his years in vegetative retirement as an invalid ed country squire; Eleanor wanted him to continue active participation in every realm of life so far as this would not impede his recovery. She would not give an inch to the illness. She thought in fact that active re entry into politics would assist him to get well. She was right, and in any case she won.
Anybody who has ever known and loved a person helplessly ill will understand the peculiarly harrowing nature of what Mrs. Roosevelt went through — the jagged alternations between hope and despair; the necessity of giving blind trust to a physician even when the physician, cruelly pressed, could scarcely trust himself; the fearsome responsibility involved; above all the unpredictable oscillations of mood in the patient himself, which had to be ministered to with the utmost firmness, subtlety, and tenderness. Only once, so far as is known, did Mrs. Roosevelt break down. The house was crowded to bursting, and she slept in a cot in one of the boy's rooms. FDR seemed no better, the worried children were on edge, and one day, while reading to the two youngest boys, she started to sob, and could not stop. Eventually, she records, she pulled herself together by going into an empty room in. Sara's house next door; it was the only time in her whole life she ever went to pieces. Of course she herself was enlarged and steeled by the very intensity of an experience so grievous, no less than was her husband. They both came through the ravaging horrors of the ordeal with their characters — far from being diminished — magnificently enhanced,
The Beginnings Of Recovery
By the spring of 1922 FDR was substantially better, though he could not walk, and by early autumn, a year after the illness first struck, he was able to do some work, and to hobble around on crutches. That he was able to make such progress was a triumph of pure grit, the con quest of flesh by will and spirit.
Now we must go into quite explicit and painful detail, because no appreciation at all of Roosevelt's later life is possible without concrete realization of what he went through. Dr. Draper taught him to "walk." Actually, though he himself might have disputed this, he never truly walked again. From the moment the illness struck him, he was" a goner below the waist," as one of the doctors put it. The major leg muscles never came back. Nor could he even stand (unless supported by some one's arm) without a prop, and even with braces he was like a man on stilts, because, being unable to flex with his toes, he had no balance. The braces were heavy, cumbersome, and a perpetual nuisance to manipulate. He could not put them on or take them off himself, and he "hated and mistrusted them." Without braces his helplessness was almost complete. Until the end of his life, he could not rise from a chair or sit down, even with the braces on, without help or at the cost of the most strenuously fatiguing effort. To get up he would have to lift out one leg with a hand, snap the brace tight, do the same with the other leg, then, with his legs absolutely stiff, as stiff as the legs of a pair of dividers, push himself up from the arms of the chair by the sheer power of his arms, wriggle, hold himself completely rigid from shoulder to ankle, tilt forward and upward slowly, very slowly, and then hope not to tip too far and fall.
Louis A. Depew, who became Mrs. Sara Roosevelt's chauffeur in 1918 ... has recorded some details of the terrible months of trial and error during convalescence. It was Depew who brought FDR back to Hyde Park for the first time after the illness in April or May of 1922. A set of bars had been erected in the garden, about ten feet long and fixed in a round base; the lower bars were hip-high, the others higher. On these Roosevelt tried to walk, riding on his hands. Then a trapeze-like contraption was arranged above his bed, whereby the legs could be pulled up and down for exercise, as well as an exercise board, a traction frame, and a mechanism by which FDR could try to hoist himself alone out of the bed and into a wheel chair close by. (But the chair
itself had to be held .) Sara got from Europe an electric tricycle which she thought might be useful, but it did not work and he tried it only once. Also when summer came he tried to swim, both at Vincent Astor's and in a small pool near his own house. He would crawl up to the side of the water, then slide in; Mr. Depew or somebody would stand on the edge, ready to haul him out. He would remember the Bay of Fundy and pant, "Water got me into this fix, water will get me out again!" These were, in a way, prophetic words.
For relaxation he liked to sit in an easy chair on the east porch with Louis Howe, making ship models. Sometimes he would be alone; he would drop a knife or tool, and then, if it fell any distance away, be unable to pick it up again. To sail the models, he would go rowing in the Hudson; that is, Howe would get in the bow of the boat, he in the stern, with Mr. Depew at me oars. He even continued teaching the boys how to swim, by sitting on the edge of a pool and holding out a long pole. He did a good deal of carpentry, and, lying on his back hour after hour, played with his stamps and started a catalogue of all his books. Early in 1923 he began to write a little; he started a History of the United States (the text of which may be found in the second volume of his letters) and his book on John Paul Jones. He refused to be down hearted, and never conceded that he would not be able to walk again.
The legend is that his morale, his spirit, were so good that he was never even irritable. Of course that is not true; he had to be fretful on occasion. Once or twice he lost his temper with Anna, whom he loved best; she would weep and, overcome by this frightful tragedy that had assaulted her father, rush wildly from the room. But on the whole he was indefatigably patient, indomitable, and serene. He made his own bed of Procrustes bearable. Above all he was never bored; at the very deepest moments of strain and irritation he could save himself by his own curiosity and technical interest in what was being done for his cure; even when the heavy casts were stretching his legs slowly and painfully into shape he was fascinated by every detail of the treatment. Mr. McGaughey, one of the Hyde Park servants, is willing to swear that he never once saw him angry, plaintive, or seriously discouraged.
A member of the family tells of one series of episodes almost too painful to be borne. FDR got a considerable amount of exercise by crawling. This man over forty who had been one of the most graceful, vital, and handsome youths of his generation spent hour after hour
crawling over his library floor like a child. Then he determined to learn how to get upstairs by himself; day after day he would haul his dead weight up the stairs by the power of his hands and arms, step by step, slowly, doggedly; the sweat would pour off his face, and he would tremble with exhaustion. Moreover he insisted on doing this with members of the family or friends watching him, and he would talk all the time as he inched himself up little by little, talk, talk, and make people talk back. It was a kind of enormous spiritual catharsis — as if he had to do it, to prove his independence, and has to have the feat witnessed, to prove that it was nothing. Much of his energy went in the early days into experiments with such things as a kind of pincers on a stick, to reach for books, and a leaf-picker's device with which he could lift papers off the floor. Sometimes he would carry a book with his teeth. His wheel chairs were usually -small, so that they would fit the narrowish corridors both in New York and Hyde Park, cushionless, and armless; underneath the seat was a concealed ash tray on a swivel, so that he would not drop ashes on the floor. Big casters made them easy to steer. He seldom wheeled himself, but when he did he scooted from room to room at a considerable rate of speed.
Roosevelt had after his illness four means of locomotion: (a) he could walk on somebody's arm with the braces and a cane, (b) he could walk with braces and crutches, (c) the wheel chair, (d) he would be carried. He hated to be carried, and Louis Howe laid it down as an iron rule that he must never be carried in public. But in private he was carried, like an infant, thousands of times. For instance in later years, at dinner in the White House or elsewhere, he would usually be carried in to his place at the table before the company arrived. Often, however, he used the chair. His servants and helpers acquired a marvellous dexterity in manipulating the change from the wheel chair to another so quickly and unobtrusively that few people ever noticed.
He could get around fairly well by these means after a time, and went daily for a few hours to his office with the Fidelity and Deposit Company. Temporarily he gave up his work at law, however, because his firm was housed in a building with particularly steep steps; to negotiate them twice a day was too exhausting. His confidence was rising; he said he would return to public life as soon as he could throw the crutches away. In the spring of 1923 he took a long cruise in Florida waters on a houseboat, the Weona II; this gave him great encouragement.
The next winter he took a similar cruise, with Missy LeHand and a group of friends, and he wrote his mother from Miami, "I took the motor boat to an inlet, fished, got out on the sandy beach, picnicked, swam, and lay in the sun for hours. I know it is doing the legs good, and though I have worn braces hardly at all, I get lots of exercise crawling around, and I know the muscles are better than ever before."
One of FDR's secretaries contributes this reminiscence. He was about to sign some checks in his capacity as head of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and he said, "Wait a moment. I want to show you something." Then he proceeded to pick up one leg by the trouser crease and crossed it on the other one. "Now what do you think of that!" he exclaimed happily. Later she rode back to 65th street with him. "He asked me to sit still when the car arrived home. He got out of the car and moved on crutches up the ramp that had been laid down to the front door. Then he gave the crutches to the chauffeur, and, using the railing along the ramp as support, pulled himself to the door. It was something he had just mastered."
Roosevelt, with great detachment and objectivity, once wrote a very good account of his own illness. His advice to fellow sufferers from polio was to go in for gentle exercise, skin massage, sun-bathing, and swimming in warm water; and to avoid overexertion, cold, deep massage, and getting fat.
Miracle of Warm Springs
In the autumn of 1924 ... began the great adventure of Warm Springs. Here again we confront the extraordinary capriciousness of history; or perhaps it was determined by fate ten thousand years ago that (a) a dilapidated hotel with an adjacent warm pool should exist at Warm Springs, Georgia; (b) Dr. Lovett should have found that swimming in warm water helped some of his patients; (c) Roosevelt became a friend of a New York banker named George Foster Peabody; (d) Peabody bought the Warm Springs resort and leased it to a friend, Tom Loyless, a former editor of the Atlanta Constitution; (e). Loyless wrote Peabody that a Southern lad named Louis Joseph had been stricken by infantile Paralysis two years before and had benefited greatly by the Warm Springs water. Who was this boy Louis Joseph? What has ever happened to him? Every human life is somehow associated with every other human life. Not one person in twenty million has ever heard of
Louis Joseph; yet, by this combinative play and thrust of circumstance, this inextricably conjoined and mysterious chain of events, he became, by the mere fact of his existence, a major factor in the Roosevelt story.
Peabody thought that Roosevelt might be interested in the Joseph case, and passed on what information he had. At first the water did the boy little good; then after a summer he was able to stand up in the pool; then a year later "he could walk on land with the aid of canes." At once Roosevelt, breaking everything else off, set out for Warm Springs to see what this miracle might mean.
The Warm Springs pool is fed by a subterranean spring which gives it a constant temperature of about 88 degrees; the water, full of mineral salts, is of exceptionally high specific gravity. Its peculiar property is that patients can stay in it for extended periods, up to two hours or even longer, without the enervation or fatigue that usually accompanies bathing in water at this temperature. Immersion in any water will help a paralytic to some extent because water removes the weight of gravity. If, in a polio patient, any musculature remains at all, or any vestige of the neuromuscular coordinating mechanism, some degree of rehabilitation is possible if the muscles are exercised in circumstances where the force of gravity does not operate. But the beneficent effects of the Warm Springs pool seemed to go far beyond this minimum.
Roosevelt stayed six weeks on his first visit, and made more progress than in the preceding three long years. "He felt life in his toes for the first time since August, 1921." Not only did he help himself; he helped other patients too, by working out a series of underwater exercises. A good deal of publicity, contrary to his wish, attended his first visit; when he returned the next spring a dozen crippled persons had arrived without warning or invitation and were waiting for him. This provoked something of a crisis in the affairs of the local hotel; the healthy visitors were afraid to mix with the invalids, for fear of "catching" polio. Roosevelt took this in hand, arranged for the paralysis sufferers (his "gang" as he expressed it) to eat at a separate table, and even saw to it that a new segregated pool was built. Promptly he became "Dr." Roosevelt and, in close cooperation with the local physician, took effective charge of the establishment. He has recorded his struggle teaching two very fat ladies to get their feet down to the bottom of the pool, for a special exercise he invented. " I would take one large knee of one of the ladies and I would force this large knee and leg down.... And then I
would say, 'Have you got it?' and she would say, 'Yes' and I would say, 'Hold it, hold it'. Then I would reach up and get hold of the other knee very quickly, and start to put it down and then No.1 knee would pop up again.... But before I left...I could get both those knees down at the same time."
But Warm Springs was not the only therapy FDR tried. Only some one in the grip of an intolerable illness can know with what soaring hope, tempered with anguished scepticism, one clasps at every straw. In 1925 he heard of a neurologist named William MacDonald of Marion, Massachusetts, who had devised a "walking board" for polio patients; he spent two summers with Dr. MacDonald, trying to walk round and round on this apparatus. One incident of this period is described by Mrs. Charles H. Hamlin, a close family friend: "One night Franklin and Eleanor came to visit me in Mattapoisett. Two men carried him in to a seat at the dining room table. He told the men not to return until 9.30. When dinner was over. Franklin pushed back his chair and said, 'See me get into the next room.' He got down on the floor and went in on his hands and knees and got up into another chair himself." Dr. MacDonald had taught him how to perform this feat, so that he "would have a feeling of freedom to move if necessary."
But Warm Springs remained his chief hope. Not only did he return again and again (usually his only companions were Missy LeHand and a valet); he rented a house there, and eventually built one; it is striking that he should have named it the "Little White House," though his mother testifies that this was not because of any future "aspirations." Warm Springs became, in fact, his winter home. More and more he came to love the bland, soothing Georgia sun and the gentle quality of the countryside. Oddly enough Eleanor Roosevelt was somewhat lukewarm about all this. She wrote early in 1926:
...My only feeling is that Georgia is somewhat distant.... One cannot, it seems to me, have vital interests in widely divided places, but that may be because I am old and rather overwhelmed by what there is to do in one place and it wearies me to think of even undertaking to make new ties. Don't be discouraged by me; I have great confidence in your extraordinary interest and enthusiasm. It is Just that I couldn't do it....
Roosevelt was utterly convinced by this time (he had twenty-three "patients" at Warm Springs by the spring of 1926) that the curative properties of the resort were all that he had hoped, and he determined to enlarge his activities and regularize them. He felt that an impartial medical board should go into the whole matter; such a board was set up, under the chief of orthopaedics of the New York State Board of Health, and it reported favourably. Thereupon FDR took the decisive step of buying the whole Warm Springs property, hotel, cottages, pools, and all, with 1,200 acres of land, for use as a hydrotherapeutic centre; the institution was incorporated as a non-profit enterprise known as the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, and it has been functioning ever since. He himself put something like $200,000 into the enterprise, which was a substantial part of his total fortune.
Lifelong Toll and Tribute
It is time now to estimate some of the results of this extraordinary experience to Roosevelt. First, in the realm of the purely physical. Nobody with legs can easily appreciate what it is like to be without them. I do not mean in such obvious realms as that FDR could never take a hike, kick a football, dance, climb a fence, skate, or play with his toes in the sand. So long as he lived, he was never able to climb a stair more than two or three inches high, lean deeply to kiss a child, crouch to catch an object, scuff with his feet, squat on the grass, tap a foot, do a deep bend, or kneel in prayer. Beyond this were countless other deprivations and discomforts. Consider the thousands of times a day a man with normal legs and feet uses them instinctively, without thought: to hold balance in a veering automobile, to give emphasis while speaking, to brace the body in all manner of reflexes. All this — and much else — Roosevelt lost.
I do not even mention such items as that his physical movements were of necessity severely circumscribed; that special ramps and the like had to be set up whenever he travelled; that, by and large, he could not speak in halls where the platform was not easily accessible from street level; that the simple business of getting in and out of an auto mobile was an almost intolerable strain; that he could not completely dress or undress himself; that he wore a cape instead of an overcoat, and a sweater instead of a bathrobe, because they were easier to get into; that he could never fulfill one tenth or one twentieth of all manner
of ideas that came to him. It was a pleasant notion that, when President, he should call on Mr. Justice Holmes. But just how he could be lugged up the narrow stairs in the Holmes dwelling had to be carefully planned out. It was imperative at the Atlantic Charter conference that he should visit Mr. Churchill on the Prince of Wales. But how to get him up the side of that battleship!
Hundreds of thousands of people saw Roosevelt wave or heard him say a few words from the observation car of his campaign train. The torture caused by these appearances, particularly toward the end, is seldom realized. Before each stop Pa Watson or Sam Rosenman would come into his compartment and say something like, "Mr. President, we'll be in Springfield in about ten minutes." FDR would put down what work he was doing, call for his valet, and his trousers would be taken off (sometimes he did this himself); then the braces were put on, and he locked and tested them, then, this accomplished, he got into his trousers again. During all this he talked incessantly. He would walk to the end of the car when the train eased to a stop, squeezing sideways down the aisle on the arm of a companion; then hold himself erect on the platform, smile, and say his few words or perhaps make a speech of some length: then be slowly turned around by whoever was helping him and return to his compartment where the process was duplicated in reverse (if you were one of those holding him you had to learn to let him down in his seat very carefully); he would whip off his trousers and unlock the braces with the greatest delight; then dress again and go back to work until it was time for the next stop.
Many people have watched him arrive somewhere for a ceremony. First, his legs would project from the automobile; second, he would snap them forward stiffly; third, he would lift himself out on his arms, then lean on whoever was helping him. During this, for a few seconds, his face would be absolutely grim and concentrated; then, becoming aware of the crowd, his features would automatically flash into a public smile.
If he were making a speech in a hall he had, to brace himself accurately on the lectern. This was always tested beforehand, to see if it would bear his weight.
He slipped, almost fell, or fell not more than five or six times in "lore than twenty years, a remarkable record. Once, crawling in his houseboat off Miami, he tore several leg ligaments in a bad fall. During
the first presidential campaign, while making a speech in Georgia, he toppled over when the table against which he was leaning slipped. Members of his entourage quickly helped him to his feet; he kept on with his speech at the exact point where it had been broken off, and made no reference to the mishap; the audience cheered wildly. In Philadelphia four years later, a bolt in one of the braces became unlocked just before he was to address the Democratic convention, and he lost balance. The
pages of his speech splashed to the floor, but Gus Gennerich, his body guard, and Mike Reilly caught him before he actually fell. They reached down and relocked the brace while Jim Parley and his son James closed in around him to keep the mishap from the eyes of the crowd. But there was a good deal of confusion and the President was badly shaken; his words to Reilly were a curt snap, "Clean me up!"
But the worst agony lay in subtler fields. For instance the President could never, except when he slept, be left alone; once he told Ambassador Winant that his utter lack of privacy was the hardest single thing he had to bear. Occasionally, by error, he was left alone. Once Frances Perkins was with him in the Oval Room just before he was going to bed; he rang, but unaccountably no one answered; finally he turned to Miss Perkins and said, "Please find Prettyman [the valet]; I am helpless with out him." Also it was difficult for him to dismiss a visitor who over stayed his time, since he could not employ such ordinary gestures as rising from the chair or leading the visitor to the door. Again, as I mentioned in a previous chapter, his immobility made it tedious, even arduous, to do routine business in a conference — he could not rise suddenly, move from chair to chair, talk standing, or otherwise do what every body else does all the time, to relax the mood of a gathering, stiffen an argument, or emphasize a point. Try sitting for four or five hours in serious conversation with an argumentative group without once moving from your chair.
Psychologically one can trace dozens of minor characteristics that developed as a result of the paralysis. He loved gossip so much because he himself could not get around; talk was an outlet for all his suppressed energy. He loved holding the tiller of a boat because this gave him a sense of controlling motion. He had the close consciousness of time, of the passage of time and the intervals in time, so characteristic of people who have had prolonged illnesses; for instance his meals had to be served on the split second. He had a very serious conception (no matter how much he dallied in conversation) of the difference between 7:29 and 7:30.
Another point is that — understandably — he was somewhat timid of minor illnesses; when he had a cold, he needed to be babied a good deal. He hated to be near sick people, except Howe and Hopkins.
Roosevelt's own attitude to his affliction, as this became cemented into his character during the years, was to disregard it completely so
far as externals were concerned. He had the special type of courage of the cripple who will not admit that he is crippled; this was a kind of defense mechanism since, at all costs, he had to protect himself from the invasion of any doubt or underconfidence. Almost never did he refer to his disability; for instance his mother testifies that she never once heard him mention it, incredible as this may seem. The artist Walter Tittle quotes him with an offhand remark, "Oh, yes, I could walk with crutches then," but even such casual references were very rare. He never under any circumstances used the illness as a political weapon. One minor point is that, for years, he would not say the word "golf aloud, and nobody who knew him well ever talked about golf; it wounded him too deeply to think that he could never play again. He never returned to Campobello, much as he loved it, until 1933, because its associations were too painful. He wanted to discard utterly from his mind anything that had to do with the illness. He tried to seize every thing that was normal. Above all he wanted to live like a normal man.
Nor would he permit anybody else to be sorry for him or show pity; nothing irritated him so much as special solicitude from friends or visitors. "No sob stuff!" was his stem warning to reporters who saw him after the attack, and he once told a biographer, "It's ridiculous to tell me that a grown man cannot conquer a child's disease." Above all, he never traded on his affliction, no matter how it might, as Mr. Ickes once put it, be exhausting his emotional reserves. Even healthy presidents ask for sympathy on occasion; Roosevelt never did. His attitude was, "I'm on top, I need your help, let's work together."
FDR himself could ignore his illness; other people couldn't. Members of the family had little, if any, self-consciousness about his disability, if only because he had no self-consciousness himself. But outsiders seeing him and his methods of conveyance for the first time were almost always profoundly shocked; even hard-boiled newspaper men who knew that he could not walk as well as they knew their own names could never quite get over being startled when FDR was suddenly brought into a room. The shock was greater when he wheeled himself and, of course, was greatest of all when he was carried; he seemed, for one thing, very small. Beyond this it was impossible not to feel emotion at realizing tangibly that the President of the United Sates was powerless to move. Yet in a few seconds, so relaxed was Roosevelt himself, the feeling of disconcertment would pass away. One reason
1941: a seemingly relaxed FDR has just signed the declaration of war.
why many visitors were so dumfounded was the voluntary conspiracy of silence about his illness that the newspapers maintained for many years. Caricatures never stressed his lameness; photographs were usually taken from the waist up; news stories seldom, if ever, mentioned that he was a cripple; and the fact that he used a wheel chair was never printed at all until the very end. In fact many people never even knew that he was paralyzed. During the 1930's when I lived in Europe I repeatedly met men in important positions of state who had no idea that the President was disabled.
Nobody but the most crassly callow visitors to Roosevelt ever made reference to his handicap. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, however, once committed the gaffe of telling the President, when she was about to leave the room, not to bother to get up. He "thanked her for the compliment."
Other Results of the Illness in Varying Fields
1. When he returned to public life he was sometimes forced to unnecessary exertion and he sometimes took unnecessary risks in order to prove that he was perfectly fit physically.
2. Probably the illness had something to do with turning him to the Left politically. A psychiatrist might say that his physical disability was displaced into an absorption with economic disability in others. He learned that there were inferiorities other than those purely physical.
3. An unfriendly critic, pursuing similar hypotheses, has suggest ed that Roosevelt's conquest of himself, through braces, led him to put braces on the economic life of the entire nation, and that he tolerated the atrophy of American "principles" even as he had to adjust him self to the atrophy of his own legs. The whole country became "paralyzed."
4. Without the slightest medical justification, scurrilous haters of FDR used the illness as the "basis" of a whispering campaign about his health in general. It was even charged on one unutterably weird and silly occasion that what he really had was a disease of the horse, equine encephalomyelitis.
5. Roosevelt's struggle with polio was that of a pioneer, and his intrepid example helped thousands of victims of the disease. Later, during the war, he was an inspiration to paraplegic cases in particular. He seemed to be a living symbol of the conquest of affliction.
6. His own recovery removed all traces of fear from his character, and helped induce his optimism. He learned to concentrate and con serve his energy. Above all the loss of his legs increased vastly his sensitiveness emotionally and intellectually.
7. Finally, he compensated for the fact of being paralyzed by an immense, overwhelming will to power. He, a cripple, would do what no other human being in the world had ever done, be President four times.
Parallels, If Any
The number of important personages in history who have had severe physical disadvantages is, of course, considerable. Most of these, it seems, are artists; it is as if the hair shirt of illness gives boundless stimulus to creative activity. But political figures have had some famous handicaps. Choosing in all fields one need only think of Milton, who was
blind, Beethoven, who became deaf, or Lord Nelson, who, mutilated by wounds, had to fight pain all his life. Julius Caesar suffered from epilepsy, Alexander the Great was a drunkard, and Nietzsche died insane. Gibbon had a famous hydrocele, Marat suffered frightfully from a skin disease, and Charles V had gout, arteriosclerosis, and dropsy. Many eminent men had syphilis (Henry VIII, Benvenuto Cellini, Baudelaire), and sufferers from tuberculosis can be listed with out end — Voltaire, Kant, Keats, Dostoevsky, Moliere, Schiller, Descartes, Cardinal Manning, Spinoza, Cicero, St. Francis. But in the realm of physical deformity names are not so numerous. Several celebrated writers were eunuches or eunuchoid. Peter Stuyvesant lost a leg and buried it in the West Indies, Toulouse-Lautrec had abnormally short legs, and Talleyrand was lame. Goebbels had a clubfoot, and Kaiser Wilhelm a withered arm. Lord Halifax has a withered hand.
The closest analogy to Roosevelt in some respects, my friend Jay Alien suggests, is of all people St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. Loyola was a brilliant and worldly youth, a page at court, an armed warrior in the service of the Duke of Najera, and a lively and successful lady's man. His birth was noble, and he was rich. His early life was one of ease and dissipation. Then in 1521, at the age of thirty, during the siege of Pamplona, a cannon shot smashed both his legs, and he became a cripple for life. During a prolonged and agonizing convalescence, during which he could not walk, he turned to literature and meditation, and gradually took on the characteristics which made him famous. He forswore carnal desires, prayed seven hours a day, scourged himself, and set out on his massive travels, lame. He taught himself Latin, became ordained as a priest in 1537, and promptly got into trouble with the high authorities of the Church for his independence of mind and vigour; then came the formation of the Society of Jesus, under his burning guidance. The analogies to Roosevelt, mutatis mutandis, are suggestive throughout the whole life span, since Loyola too was a propagandizer, a popularizer, a political leader, and a spiritual force almost beyond comprehension, whose impact jarred the world for years, and whose work lived after him.
Loyola aside, there are few close parallels. In fact so far as I know FDR is the only man in all history who could not walk who reached a commanding position in world affairs.
The Realm of Compensation
Several consolations and compensations attended Roosevelt's affliction. For instance it is an extraordinary fact that, paradoxical as it may seem, the blight of illness made him robust.
FDR had always been somewhat given to illness and very thin; now all the energy of his body seemed to go into a prodigious development of the torso, neck and arms. His face had been sensitive and narrow, with some marks of weakness; now it broadened out. Almost overnight, the head became Herculean. A minor contrary point is that he lost two inches in height. Jack Dempsey once said that FDR had the most magnificent development of shoulder muscles he had ever seen; on one occasion — and with no power in his legs, remember — he landed a 237-pound shark after a two-hour fight. Ask any fisherman what that means.
There is a curious double paradox here. His illness made him robust, yes, and for many years he was one of the sturdiest and healthiest men alive. Yet something oddly perverse attends a man who, wonderfully healthy, cannot walk.
Other compensations were more orthodox. He always had a good excuse not to do thing that might bore him. He dropped out of society altogether and has time to work things out and evaluate; he discovered that what he previously thought was "thinking" had been merely "looking out of the window". He didn't have to exhaust himself on games, celebrations, and interminable public functions and private gatherings. Once he said to an ambassador, "How do you stand all the dinner par ties? — I'll bet my stomach is in better shape than yours!" Once he confided to his son James, "The reason I get so much done is that I don't have to waste time with my legs." He said to Bernard M. Baruch once, "I save a lot of energy. What does a fellow need legs for, if we have elevators?"
But the more important transformations occurred in the ripe realm of the spirit. Roosevelt learned what suffering was; he learned compassion. Just as the muscles of his chest acquired a superdevelopment, so did he grow colossally in such attributes as serenity and will. He could not balance on his legs; he did learn to balance with his mind. Maybe he couldn't walk; but his feet were certainly on the ground. He learned the need for courage, and hence could transmit courage to the nation. In some respects it might almost be said that polio was God's greatest
gift to him. Through the fires of this ordeal he established a power over his own mind that he had never had before, and this gave him power over the minds of others. The supreme experience of his life was to beat Death off, and then conquer indomitably the wounding traces that Death left.
Before the illness, all his charm and accomplishment notwithstanding, Roosevelt had something of the lightweight in him; even friends like Henry Stimson called him "an untried rather flippant young man." (Of course, later, he was to have another teacher almost as Draconian as illness — the Presidency.) But many people will testify to the fact that until the middle 20's, they liked FDR very much but thought that he was nothing more than an attractive, somewhat spurious, and highly amiable young man — almost a glad-hander, a playboy. He had promise, yes, but no great stature. He had brilliance, yes, but it was superficial. They were stunned, two or three years later, to discover that the ribs underneath this affable exterior had become steel; that the tremendous struggle he survived had etched ineradicable lines of power in every aspect of his character.
One interesting result of all this was superconfidence. Because he had beaten his illness, Roosevelt thought that he could beat anything. "The guy," Harry Hopkins once told Raymond Swing, "never knows when he is licked," and Hopkins thought that this was his chief defect.
Illness Did Not Make Him President
Finally, one should reject the notion that it was primarily illness that made Frankin Roosevelt President. Obviously he must have had a good deal of character in the first place, not only to reach the stations in life that he did reach before illness struck him, but to have been able to get through the shattering ordeal of the attack itself. There are, after all, plenty of victims of infantile paralysis who never become great men. Once a friend asked Mrs. Roosevelt if she thought he would have been President if he-had not been ill. Her answer was, "He would certainly have been President, but a president of a different kind."
From John Gunthere,
Roosevelt in Retrospect, A Profile in History,
Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 1950
Roosevelt waves to supporters in 1920, the year before he had polio.
Roosevelt onboard a warship in the mid-1930s.
FDR with a young girl at his Hyde Park, New York, home.