Mount Vernon, Easter Sunday

The Potomac from the Mount Vernon shoreline, Easter Sunday 2019

I hope everyone had an enjoyable Easter or Passover. I’m watching the beautiful sunset as I type this.

We indeed went to Mount Vernon today. We were questioning our decision halfway there because mass transit proved difficult this holiday weekend. Still, when we arrived we had a good time. (Not wanting a repeat of the frustrating arrival, we took an Uber back to our destination.) The grounds were crowded, which was great. It’s always good seeing people experiencing historic sites. It was warmer than when we were there in January and more of the grounds were thus accessible. The gardens were blooming and the animals–sheep and even cattle–were out. We took in quite a bit. I also had many conversations with the living historians who work there. My strategy on these things is: jump in. At the shoreline not far from where I took the above image I had a conversation with a staffer about how Washington used these low-lying grounds. She replied that it was basically swampland and thus not especially productive. She then added that the flood walls in the Potomac were constructed in the 1930s. This naturally led to a conversation about how and why that happened, with yours truly speculating that it probably happened as part of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps. I intend to dig a little more on this when I get home.

In the gift ship I bought a copy of Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. I don’t want to go into specifics right now, but Chernow and Thomas Flexner will play into some Interpretive projects I hope to work on this summer. It’s only about six weeks away now.

Happy Easter

Contralto Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial on 9 April 1939, Easter Sunday, after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, among others, stepped in. Those on the improvised stage included Ickes, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., U.S. Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr. (D-NY), Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley (D-KY), and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

Happy Easter, everyone. We’re out the door in a few minutes here to go to Mount Vernon.

It has turned into a beautiful weekend here in the Washington D.C. area after the hard rain and tornado that touched down in our vicinity Friday night. Yesterday I ventured to the National Portrait Gallery, one of my favorite cultural institutions. They had a stunning painting of “negro contralto,” as she was called in her time, Marian Anderson. Seeing the portrait reminded me that Ms. Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial was Easter Sunday 1939. Someone at the Portrait Gallery knew what they were doing; adjacent to her likeness was one of Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped arrange Ms. Anderson’s appearance on the National Mall after a local high school and the Daughters of the American Revolution both turned the singer’s representatives down.

Constitution Hall itself dated back a decade. First Lady Grace Coolidge used the same trowel that George Washington used to lay the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol in 1793. Her successor, First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, opened DAR Constitution Hall when it opened a year later on April 19, 1929, ninety years ago this week. Now, ten years later, the organization was embroiled in controversy for turning Anderson away. That’s when Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes stepped in. Terrible as the episode was it was just as well in one respect: Constitution Hall has a capacity of 3,702, and the high school that turned her away only 1,000; a crowd of 75,000 turned out to see Ms. Anderson when she took the stage at 5:00 pm. Millions more listened on their radios.

An Easter performance at the Lincoln Memorial was appropriate, even poetic, for another reason: Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated on Good Friday 1865, something that more Americans would have realized in 1939 than probably do today. The Sunday after his mortal wounding was Easter Sunday, and religious leaders throughout the Union states worked his death and apotheosis as our nation’s secular saint into their Easter sermons.

(image/Library of Congress)


Sunday morning coffee

Franklin Roosevelt’s longtime friend Margaret Suckley took this image of the president in early April 1945 at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. Accompanying him there as well in his final days was Lucy Mercer Rutherford, with whom he had had an affair in the 1910s.

I hope everyone spring is going well. I made the mistake of wearing a flannel shirt when I went into the city yesterday; it was by far the warmest day of the year so far and I was sweating profusely by the time I returned home. I suppose it’s time to put the heavier stuff away. Here is an image taken seventy-four Aprils ago when the weather was turning warm. Margaret “Daisy” Suckley took this photograph of President Roosevelt at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia days before his death. Roosevelt and his entourage–sans Eleanor, who remained in Washington–had arrived in Georgia in the last days of March just before Easter, which fell on April 1. Roosevelt essentially had gone to Warm Springs to die and surrounded himself with many of the people who meant the most to him, including Lucy Mercer Rutherford, the woman with whom he had had an affair during the First World War.

It is interesting how Roosevelt surrounded himself with a coterie of women who remained loyal to him for much of his life. Certainly he and Eleanor loved and remained loyal to each other in a complicated way that only they themselves could understand, if even they themselves did understand. Who among us can say they comprehend their own marriage, let alone what happens behind others’ closed doors? A reason she probably stayed in Washington was a sense that either the president or first lady should remain in the capitol with the war and so much else going on.

There in Warm Springs that long-ago April Roosevelt was surrounded in his final days by a woman he loved (Mercer) and a woman who loved him (Suckley). It was a complicated set of circumstances, not least because Roosevelt was aided in the whole thing by his daughter Anna.

(image/FDR Presidential Library)

Robert Moses vs President and First Lady Roosevelt

A model of Robert Moses’s unrealized Brooklyn-Battery Bridge

One of the biggest myths about Robert Moses is that he was so powerful that he managed to build whatever he wanted wherever he desired. In reality nothing could have been further from the truth; Moses worked within political and economic realities and more often than not had to change his plans to satisfy elected officials, citizens, insurance companies, and other stakeholders. One project dear to his heart was the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge. If you have never heard of it, that’s because it never got built. The bridge would have gone fro the Manhattan Battery to Brooklyn Heights.

It almost happened. Moses pushed the initiative through the myriad city agencies and managed to get Governor Herbert H. Lehman signed off on the measure. It took none other than President Franklin Roosevelt to quash the deal. It was a personal thing with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; they were New Yorkers who owned a house on East 65th Street, Franklin was briefly a Wall Street lawyer, and their Roosevelt ancestors had roots in the city dating back to the mid-seventeenth century.

Eighty years ago today, writing from far off Seattle in her April 5, 1939 “My Day” column, Eleanor wrote obliquely of Moses and his proposed bridge:

“I have a plea from a man who is deeply interested in Manhattan Island, particularly in the beauty of the approach from the ocean at Battery Park. He tells me that a New York official who is, without doubt, always efficient, is proposing a bridge 100 feet high at the river, which will go across to the Whitehall Building over Battery Park. This, he says, will mean a screen of elevated roadways, pillars, etc., at that particular point. I haven’t a question that this will be done in the name of progress, and something undoubtedly needs to be done. But isn’t there room for some considereation of the preservation of the few beautiful spots that still remain to us on an overcrowded island? After all, lower Manhattan at Battery Park is one of the gateways through which many of us leave and enter our country. These moments are important moments in our lives and the irritation of an eyesore perpetrated in the name of progress will be bad for the souls of many Americans.”

If you look at the rendering above, you see that the proposed bridge would have cut through the harbor directly north of Governors Island, still a major headquarters of the U.S. Army. Further north, in the East River, was the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Besides ruining the beautiful views Mrs. Roosevelt speaks of, there were national security implications. And that was how the president and his Secretary of War, Harry H. Woodring, killed the thing, declaring the harbor too important for national security interests to have such a bridge cross through it. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was built instead.

(image/New York Preservation Archive Project)


NATO at 70

Secretary of State Dean Acheson joins eleven other foreign ministers in signing the proposal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) while President Truman and Vice President Alben Barkley look on, 4 April 1949.

Continuing on in a sense with yesterday’s post about the creation of the Marshall Plan, today marks the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The scene we see above is Secretary of State Dean Acheson signing the agreement with President Truman and Vice President Alben William Barkley looking on over Acheson’s shoulder. Acheson was one of a dozen foreign ministers in Washington on 4 April 1949 who signed on in the creation of NATO. President Truman spoke to those assembled.

From here the measure went to the U.S. Senate, where passage of the NATO Treaty was by no means a given. Senator Robert A. Taft was just of many who had his concerns. Eventually the Senate ratified the NATO treaty in June. Eisenhower was the natural choice to lead NATO. The supreme allied commander in the Second World War at this time was the president of Columbia University and would take a leave of absence from the school in 1950 to lead the NATO troops in Western Europe.

Again, the more we understand the difficulties in creating such complex mechanisms as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Marshall Plan, the better we might see the wisdom in treading lightly on the hows & whys of tearing asunder their hard won gains.

(image/Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer)

The Marshall Plan turns 71

President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall shake hands as the chief executive sees Marshall off on the secretary’s way to the London Conference of Foreign Ministers on 20 November 1947. Marshall had given his Harvard commencement speech advocating aid for Europe five months previously and Truman would sign the bill creating the Marshall Plan five months later.

President Harry S. Truman signed the Economic Recovery Act on this date in 1948. Better known as the Marshall Plan after the Secretary of State who helped bring it to fruition, the initiative was one of the great successes of the Cold War. In April 1948 Europe was entering its fourth spring of peace, such as peace was; if you were living in Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe, or many other locales at the time you might have seen things differently. The most immediate crisis after V-E Day was relocating displaced persons and feeding the starving. Much of the latter task fell to Fiorello H. La Guardia, the former mayor of New York City who took the job of Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in spring 1946 and worked his characteristically indefatigable schedule for nine brutal months until resigning in poor health and passing on in September 1947.

Great as the work of La Guardia and his staff of almost 25,000 workers was, it was apparent that their endeavors were insufficient on their own and that a longer term strategy was necessary. On 5 June 1947, now two full years after the war’s end, Secretary of State George Marshall gave the Harvard University commencement address in which he laid out the case for an assistance plan to aid Europe. He called for a policy not to aid any particular country per se but a policy “against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos” more generally. The Soviets themselves could have participated had they wished. Events moved quickly after that, with bipartisan support coming from both houses of Congress. The bill passed 69-17 in the Senate and 329-74 in the House. All that was left was for Truman to sign the measure into law on 3 April 1948.

People often take initiatives such as the Marshall Plan for granted, in large part because they were conceived so well and executed so efficiently that we take their benefits for granted. Men like Truman, Marshall, Dean Acheson, and the late Franklin Roosevelt understood the mistakes of the First World War. They had seen the Bonus Army in Washington and the rise of Hitler and fascism in Europe. That is why they created such measures as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (GI Bill) and Economic Recovery Act (Marshall Plan). We would do well to remember just how difficult it is to execute good policy. It is extraordinarily difficult to solve problems well, and all too easy to undo good diplomacy through arrogance, carelessness, and ignorance.

(image/National Archives and Records Administration)


Opening Day 2019

Professional and college baseball players such as the 1919 University of Michigan baseball team were returning to the field in that first spring after the Great War’s end.

The days have been busy and full this week, which is a good thing. We took our students to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade yesterday afternoon to view and discuss the construction of Robert Moses’s Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. I concluded the presentation with a brief reading, just two paragraphs, from Truman Capote’s 1959 Holiday magazine article “A House in the Heights.” Capote lived in at least two rented homes in Brooklyn Heights during his time in New York City. I pointed out to students the one at 16 Pineapple.

I would be remiss if I were not to note that today is Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season. Today is the earliest Opening Day ever. It makes sense to push up the start of the season to accommodate the longer post-season; they just don’t want it falling into November. I came across this photograph of the 1919 University of Michigan baseball team and find it extraordinary on a number of level. First of all is the stunning clarity of this image, taken not on the field but within the control of a photographer’s studio. The menswear of both the players and coaches/managers is intriguing as well. One of baseball’s most special features is that you get dressed up to play it. Baseball uniforms are not so much gym clothes but style wear. There is a reason the Yankees wear pinstripes.

When this photo was taken ball players were returning from Europe and rejoining their college and pro teams. I’ll probably come back to it in October, but as it would turn out the 1919 Black Sox scandal, and subsequent trial, would add to the bitterness and cynicism of the post-Great War milieu in the early 1920s.

Enjoy the season.

(image/Rentschler’s Studio, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Bentley Historical Library)

Sunday morning coffee

A First Army field jacket seen at Brooklyn Flea, March 2019

I hope everyone’s week was good. Blogging will continue to be light in the coming days while the semester is in full swing. There is just so much going on. Yesterday I began Eric Rauchway’s new book Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt and the First Clash Over the New Deal, which is about the four month interregnum between the November 1932 election and March 1933 inaugural. Almost fifteen years ago now I read Rauchway’s Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America for a class on the Gilded Age with David Nasaw. I’m only about fifty pages in but the tone so far is very harsh toward Hoover. I’ll come back to it with more observations when I finish the book.

I was at Brooklyn Flea across the street from the Barclays Center yesterday, where I bough a small leather wallet and a pair of cuff links. I’m transitioning to wearing suits more and am making French cuff shirts part of my arsenal. I have three suits now and intend to get a solid grey worsted or flannel number over the summer in time for the fall semester. All in due time.

When I was at the flea market yesterday I saw what I though might be a pasteover Beatles Butcher cover. I don’t own any vinyl, nor do I plan on going down that rabbit hole, but when I saw a copy of Yesterday and Today in a bin I had to stop and look. The anodyne trunk photograph was pasted on, which led me to think it might have been a second state copy. I mentioned it to the vendor, telling him what he may have on his hands, and even got him to take a picture of me with the album cover. When I got home I examined the photo while reading online about ways to tell if a record is indeed a Butcher second state. (First and third state versions are obvious.) To make a long story short it was not a Butcher cover, and the giveaway was right there even though I was unaware of it in the moment: the copy I saw had an RIAA Gold Record seal, an indicator that this was a later pressing. And that was the end of that.

I did see and photograph the First Army field jacket you see above. Even had it been in my size I would not have purchased the coat. Putting it mildly, it is bad form to wear military gear with patches if one has not served with said unit. Seeing it though was something special. I always wonder when I encounter such things in second-hand places how they got where they did. Who owned it and where & when did he serve? Two years ago I bought a heavy winter coat, made in England many decades ago, in a thrift store in Pompano Beach. It is entirely speculation on my part but I can surmise that the double-breasted, full-length coat once belonged to a retiree who brought the piece down with him from the Northeast only to bring it to Goodwill upon realizing he would never need it in sub-tropical Florida. I think of him and who he might have been every time I put it on, and try to live up to his legacy.

A little Sunday reading

The New York City Mayor’s Committee on Permanent War Memorial’s official rendering for the unrealized enduring monument.

Here is a little something to read over the remainder of one’s weekend: my piece at Roads to the Great War about the temporary Victory Arch built in Madison Square in the winter of 1919. This is the article I was alluding to last week when I posted the pictures of the return of the 27th Division. I have always found it interesting the way civic leaders built such ornate edifices knowing they would be used hard for a few short months or years and then torn down. Almost all of the facilities built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago for instance, were temporary assemblies built not of marble or granite but timber and plaster of Paris. The White City in all its majesty appeared poised to stand for centuries when in reality its wood and plaster would not have withstood more than one or two Chicago winters. At least we have the stories and photographs to remember them by.

Enjoy your Sunday.

(image/New York State Library, Manuscripts and Special Collections)


La Guardia & FDR, October 1936

Fiorello La Guardia and Franklin Roosevelt break ground on the “tube” connecting Manhattan and Queens one month prior to the 1936 national election. Members of Local 184 made Roosevelt an honorary member during the ceremony. After this long day, Roosevelt traveled north of the city to his home in Hyde Park. New Deal funds totaling $58,000,000 in 1930s dollars went into building the tunnel, which opened one month ahead of schedule in October 1940. Roosevelt was the first to drive across.

I wish the image quality were higher but there is surprisingly little documentation of this historical moment. Here we see Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and President Roosevelt at the groundbreaking for what we now call the Queens–Midtown Tunnel. The photograph is from the 3 October 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the day after the groundbreaking. I was not aware until I began co-teaching this course in January of the size and scope of the infrastructure projects built in New York City under the New Deal. Of course I was aware of such efforts as refurbishing Civil War battlefields, tidying parks, planting trees, building small-scale restrooms and picnic areas along byways. But large scale infrastructure is something on a whole other magnitude.

Municipal leaders outside Gotham believed the fix was in between Roosevelt and La Guardia. That is understandable given that Roosevelt had previously been the governor of New York and that he and Eleanor still owned a house on East 65th Street. The reality though was that New York City and State entered the New Deal process earlier than most locales because men like Herbert Lehman, Robert Moses, and Fiorello La Guardia were ready from the outset with plans. As the 1930s went on other municipalities caught up in real dollars.

This image we see here, grainy as it is, was taken about one month prior to the 1936 national campaign in which Roosevelt ran for re-election against Al Landon. La Guardia was a Progressive Republican supporting Roosevelt. Both men understood the power of publicity and the photo op. Roosevelt’s radio address was broadcast nationally. More than 100,000 people, many of them schoolchildren, turned out on 2 October 1936 to see Roosevelt speak, Mayor La Guardia, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and Senator Robert F. Wagner also sharing the stage. (Earlier the same day this photo was taken La Guardia and Roosevelt together attended Game 2 of the Yankees-Giants World Series at the Polo Grounds in Upper Manhattan, a game the Yankees won 18-4.) While many did not realize it at the time–though given his political instincts Roosevelt almost certainly did–the 1936 presidential election sealed the coalition of conservative white Southern Democrats, blue collar trade unionists, rural populists, African-Americans, and ethnic voters that largely held together until the tumult of the 1960s.