Rediscovering Geoffrey Ward

Springwood: the birthplace and home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hyde Park, New York

Springwood: the birthplace and lifelong home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hyde Park, New York

Now that a few months have gone by since its premier, visitors to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace have come to the house with a chance to absorb Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Many folks, including yours truly, found it exhausting to take in two hours nightly for almost a week when it first showed. This past Saturday a couple visited who were in town for the long Thanksgiving Weekend. They had done Hyde Park on Friday and were now getting a dose of Theodore. That is becoming less unusual.

One of my favorite aspects of the Roosevelt documentary is that Geoffrey Ward received a considerable amount of facetime. I have always maintained that Ward plays the role of Larry David to Ken Burns’s Jerry Seinfeld. That is, Ward and Burns work together much in the way David and Seinfeld did. The public knows Seinfeld and Burns because they are the brand names. Behind the scenes though, Ward and David are very much equals to their more famous colleagues. Much of what you see on screen is theirs, even if the public doesn’t realize that.

I noted with pleasure yesterday that two of Ward’s long out-of-print titles are now back. My Kindle tells me that I am now 8% finished with Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882-1905 after having downloaded it last night from my local library. That’s good because after that there is A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, 1905-1928 waiting in the wings. These were just re-published in September, presumably to coincide with the PBS documentary’s release.

The “1928” brings FDR up to the election where he takes the New York governor’s mansion. I cannot help but wonder if Ward intended to write additional volumes that would bring the story up to 1945. If so, here is hoping he picks up the project. In the meantime, these two works will hopefully get the attention they deserve.



Digitizing the Harlem Hellfighters


Earlier in the week I finished Richard Slotkin’s Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. It is a dual history of the 369th Infantry Regiment and the 77th Division. Those looking for a triumphalist account of the war should look elsewhere. Slotkin tells a sobering tale of how and why men joined the Harlem Hellfighters and Melting Pot Division and what they hoped to get out of it. Briefly put, men joined for many reasons. The most important, though, was the idea that they were helping their people by by making this sacrifice. And understand, many of them made the ultimate sacrifice. The hope of the Armistice soon led to disillusionment with the failures of the League of Nations, the social and racial unrest, and the economic difficulties in the 1920s and 1930s.

The 369th was comprised of African Americans from many neighborhoods; the 77th was primarily immigrants who were new to the country. Fittingly Slotkin does not end the story on Armistice Day but takes the story all the way to the mid twentieth century. It was only then, after the Second World War, that social gains began to be made in any meaningful way.

The New York State Military Museum has begun digitizing the military records of the men of the 369th. So far staff and volunteers have digitized 2,500 of the 10,ooo documents. They can be viewed online. Reading them is addictive. The cards go all the way to 1949 and should be invaluable source for both military and social historians. Genealogists will find them useful as well.

(image/NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

The colonel’s filing cabinet

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. It is now early Saturday and I am getting ready to face the subway and head to the Roosevelt Birthplace. It should be a fun and hectic day. Thanksgiving through New Year is the busiest time of the year for the Park Service sites here in New York City. I was in the city on Tuesday and it was loaded with tourists.

Before taking off I thought I would share some images. The first two I took last week. This little room is my favorite in the house. When the Roosevelts lived here this small space was Theodore Senior’s office. Now it houses just a few items. I love this spot because it give a sense of who his son–the future president–came to be.

This was Theodore Roosevelt’s file cabinet from when he wrote for the Kansas City Star. I have always loved that he worked for the same newspaper for which Hemingway later wrote. As you can see from the description Roosevelt wrote for the Star from 1917-19. These were of course the years of America’s involvement in the Great War. Roosevelt was primarily an editorialist during this time and he used his column mainly as a pulpit to criticize Woodrow Wilson, not always fairly. There was something about Wilson, beyond his policies, that brought out the worst in Roosevelt. The same was true of Wilson’s other nemesis, Henry Cabot Lodge.



Two years after Theodore Roosevelt’s death the RMA edited these articles and published them in book form. Despite his often harsh tone Roosevelt was correct in many of the pieces. It is easy to forget how worldly and well-travelled Theodore Roosevelt was. He knew many of the leading generals and politicians fighting for both the Allied and Central powers. What is more, he had been traveling to most of these countries for more than four decades. He first visited Europe in 1869 when he went on the first of his family’s grand tours. He was also multi-lingual.

an advert that appeared in an early edition of the Roosevelt House Bulletin

an advert that appeared in an early edition of the Roosevelt House Bulletin

Reading the book today it comes across almost as diary of American involvement in the war.


Come learn more on East 20th Street.

Remembering Charles, one year on

It is hard to believe it has been a full year since the death of our great friend Charles Hirsch. Sometimes I still think he is here. I may see a person on the street with his familiar gait. Or maybe it is someone on the subway wearing a fedora like the one he himself wore. It is still strange not getting a text containing his excitement about how the Packers just won. Some may remember this piece that I wrote last year …

I just came from the funeral of our great friend Charles Hirsch. Charles was a professor in the English Department at the college where I work. He was so many other things as well. In years past he had worked for the Muppets and was a writer/editor at the magazine Highlights for Children. Unafraid to take chances, he often moved to different parts of the country and even the world, certain that his charm, talents, and intellect would allow him to succeed anywhere he went. Of course he was right.

Charles and the Hayfoot at the Gettysburg First Shot marker

Charles and the Hayfoot at the Gettysburg First Shot marker

The word brilliant came up more than once during the ceremony. I am glad it did; I don’t think I ever won a debate with Charles. And yet his personality was such that you never felt he was showing you up. His was the kind of intelligence that lifted those around him. As the priest pointed out, Charles was so dynamic that when you were in his presence you felt like the most important person in the world. Fittingly there was a huge, disparate, turnout for his service, a cross-section of the multitudes of lives Charles lived in his sixty-six years.

I cannot believe we live in a world without Charles Hirsch. I am grateful for times we all had together, at our wedding in Florida where it was freezing cold, in Gettysburg, Yankee Stadium, and so many other places besides. I wanted him to live long enough to see me accomplish some of the projects on which I am currently working. Alas, that was not meant to be. Still, I will carry on with the knowledge that he believed I have what it takes to do them. It meant the world to me when he said that.

We will miss you, Charles. Yours was a life well lived.

November 1963

Gettysburg battlefield for the back porch of Eisenhower's farm, early 1960s

Gettysburg battlefield from the back porch of the Eisenhower farm, early 1960s

This past Wednesday morning I mentioned to the Hayfoot that it was Remembrance Day, the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Remembrance Day, besides being an opportune time to contemplate Lincoln’s words, is a gentle reminder that the cold and early darkness will not last forever. Spring and summer will indeed return and with that will come our near-annual visit to Gettysburg.

I was thinking about this again yesterday when I realized it was the 51st anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. JFK’s murder is something I have never gotten too involved in; it just seems an interminable rabbit hole. I remember living in Dallas in the mid-1990s and coming across Dealey Plaza by accident one day. This was already thirty years after Kennedy’s death and more people than you might think were out selling their pamphlets with their individual theories. For 5/10 bucks someone would take you on a guided tour. Maybe people are still doing this.

One aspect of Kennedy’s assassination that does not always occur to people is that it came three days after the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Quite intentionally, some of the iconography of Lincoln’s funeral was incorporated into the ceremonies for Kennedy. Interestingly they had invited Kennedy to Pennsylvania but he went to Texas instead. His predecessor, Eisenhower, took his place. Eisenhower of course lived in Gettysburg and was an active part of the community. One thing that stands out in the Eisenhower parlor are the statuettes of Meade and Lee on the mantel.

Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote this letter just after the 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and Kennedy assassination

Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote this letter days after the Kennedy assassination and 100th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.

This past February, on Lincoln’s Birthday no less, I was doing research at the Union League Club for the Theodore Roosevelt Sr book. Nineteen sixty-three was the centennial not just of the Gettysburg Address but of the ULC as well. Roosevelt Senior and his brothers were early members of the club, which was founded in February 1863 to help Lincoln prosecute the war. This was just after Fredericksburg and the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln popularity was down and he needed all the help he could get. The Union League Club is something I always discuss during my tours of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace.

I came across an interesting document. It is a letter written by Dwight Eisenhower to the leader of the Union League Club thanking him for honorary membership in the organization. Many things stand out in the letter. One of the most striking is that it was written on 30 November 1963, eight days after the Kennedy assassination.

(top image/Library of Congress)


Warren Shaw Fisher

The dapper James J. Walker defeated Warren S. Fisher and other candidates in the 1925 NYC mayoral election. Walker's fashion sense was part of the iconography of Jazz Age New York.

The dapper James J. Walker defeated Warren S. Fisher and other candidates in the 1925 NYC mayoral election. Walker’s fashion sense is part of the iconography of Jazz Age New York.

I have been thinking more and more about the United American War Veterans since posting the bit the other day about the plaque they placed at the U.S. Custom House on Memorial Day 1921. It seems remarkable to me that a prominent group like that could just come and go so quickly. I intend to do more with this in the near future, but a cursory search reveals that the story is as fascinating as it is obscure.

The head of the the U.A.W.V. turns out to have been a New Yorker named Warren Shaw Fisher. He was a veteran of both the Spanish-American and Great Wars, and his father had fought in the American Civil War. It turns out Fisher was a bigwig in New York State Progressive politics. On 26 October 1919 he stood in for Leonard Wood at a veterans function at Carnegie Hall. The timing was not accidental, Theodore Roosevelt had died that January and his birthday was the next day. Everyone in the audience would have known that.

Just two weeks earlier Wood had spoken at Carnegie Hall himself, at a fundraiser of the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association. Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Theodore’s sister and a published poet, read a poem she had written about Quentin Roosevelt’s air service buddies and the role  they played at Theodore’s funeral that January. This Carnegie Hall fundraiser served the dual function of promoting Wood’s 1920 presidential prospects. It must have been an extraordinary moment.

The 1920 campaign was where Corinne Robinson gained fame as the first woman ever to speak for a major party candidate when she spoke on Wood’s behalf. Fisher threw his influence behind the general’s presidential run and was active in the Leonard Wood League.

On the 4th of July 1921, just five weeks after the dedication of that plaque on Bowling Green, Shaw was the grand marshall in a 100,000 strong march against Prohibition. The 69th Regiment Band played behind him with a sign declaring that “The Volstead Act Must Go.” In case anyone failed to get the message, the parade included wounded vets driven in automobiles.

In 1922 Fisher supported Al Smith in his successful bid to retake the Albany governor’s mansion. Like Smith, Shaw was a Tammany Democrat. There must be a great story here because in the 1924 presidential election Shaw abandoned Smith and backed Robert La Follette. Shaw ran for New York City mayor in 1925 on the Progressive Political League ticket. The Progressives were strong in New York because of Theodore Roosevelt’s roots here, but the election went to Jimmy Walker.

Fisher died just three years later at the tender age of forty-nine. This may explain why he and the veterans group he led are all but forgotten today.

(image/Library of Congress)