Hermann Hagedorn died fifty years ago today. The name may not ring many bells within the general populace. Hagedorn, however, was a towering figure within the world of Theodore Roosevelt memory and historiography. When the Roosevelt Memorial Association was formed weeks after the former president’s death, Hagedorn became the group’s first acting secretary. He eventually became the RMA’s executive director. Hagedorn dedicated a significant portion of his life to the Roosevelt legacy; the RMA formed in 1919 and Hagedorn was still going strong during the Roosevelt Centennial in the late 1950s.
Hagedorn met Theodore Roosevelt in 1916 when a small group of supporters were trying to convince him to make one final run at the White House. That of course did not come to pass. The son of a German immigrant, Hagedorn was born in New York City. Though the United States was not yet involved the Great War, the fighting was raging in Europe when Hagedorn and Roosevelt first met. One can see why they were drawn to each other. Roosevelt was advocating for Preparedness while Hagedorn was extolling the virtues of Americanism, especially with the German-American community.
The Men’s and Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Associations were responsible for rebuilding Roosevelt’s boyhood home on East 20th Street. As I often emphasize on tours this was a time before presidential libraries. In addition to the house itself there was, and is, a museum and substantial library on site. Hagedorn claimed in the August 1929 Bulletin of the American Library Association that officials from the New York Public Library had told him that the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace’s collection was “the most extensive library built around one individual in the United States.” The library indeed includes a substantial collection of books and other materials. It is worth noting that the Birthplace library collected not just photographs but moving imagery as well. This was pioneering stuff in the 1920s.
The RMA and Hagedorn did a lot more than just the Birthplace though. They were responsible for constructing Roosevelt Island in Washington DC and transforming Sagamore Hill into the historic site it is today. These are just a few of their accomplishments.
Hagedorn wrote a number of biographies of Roosevelt written for children and adults. He authored his first Roosevelt biography, The Boys’ Life of Theodore Roosevelt, in 1918 while the former president was still alive. In the mid 1920s Hagedorn edited Roosevelt’s Complete Works, a substantial undertaking given that Theodore Roosevelt authored over thirty books. Some people believed that Hagedorn became too involved in the Roosevelt legacy and that he sometimes stepped over the line into idolatry. Lewis Mumford and Oswald Garrison Villard were two of Hagedorn’s harshest critics. Hagedorn did sometimes lapse into hagiography but some of the criticism was shrill and unfair.
Hermann Hagedorn accomplished many things in his lifetime. There were plays, poetry, biographies of such figures as Leonard Wood and Albert Schweitzer, and other projects over his long life. Still, he is now most associated with the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt. So much of what Hagedorn did is still here today.