Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on this date in 1882. On these winter days I sometimes think of the coming summer, when among other things I usually make a day trip to Hyde Park. When I was there last summer I asked the ranger if the site does something every January 30 to commemorate the occasion of the only four term president’s birth. She said the library & museum hold a brief ceremony every year, often with a contingent from the West Point Band just down the Hudson on hand to play. She emphasized the brevity of the ceremony. The winds blowing cold off the river in late January make a longer event untenable.
The photograph of the desk you see above was not taken in Hyde Park. I took the photo this past November at the Roosevelt House on East 65th Street. I sent the image to a friend of mine the night I took this. He was shocked at how modest and unadorned the desk was. I explained that, for all the wealth the Roosevelts had, they tended toward Dutch restraint. Roosevelt once famously said while president that he did not want a memorial in his honor after his death to be any larger than his desk. They honored that request in the mid 1960s. That it took twenty years to build even such a modest edifice is testimony to how long these things take.
When we think of the Hudson River Roosevelts we think of Hyde Park and Washington. Over course there were the twelve White House years. Thirty years before then, during the First World War when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin and Eleanor rented a house from her Aunt Bamie just off Dupont Circle. Still the Manhattan home, with his mother Sara living next door in a detached townhouse, was very much the family domicile for large stretches throughout their lives. I kept the image above in my photo stream for the past 2 1/2 months waiting until this winter day to mark the 136th anniversary of FDR’s brith.
They have my article about Ethel Roosevelt Derby up over at Roads to the Great War. Theodore Roosevelt’s younger daughter died on 10 December 1977, forty years ago this week. Ethel was vey much her father’s daughter and lived a long, full life. Of all the pieces I have written, this was one of the most enjoyable and meaningful to write.
(image/Library of Congress)
I wrote about six months ago about the tress along Eastern Parkway dedicated to Brooklyn boys who had died in the Great War. For my Grand Army Plaza tour I wanted to do a deeper dive and discuss a few of the men. So I did a little digging. Here we have a tablet laid for one “Albert J. Restaino.” When I began checking I discovered sadly that this is an error. The solder is actually Alfred Restaino. Here is the card with his personal information. He was wounded and subsequently died of pneumonia. Note that under Person Notified of Death it lists “Mrs. Restaino–Mother.”
The story only gets more interesting. I wanted to know where Restaino was buried. I never found his final resting place, but did discover that he indeed returned to the United States. In 1920 they held the Summer Olympics in Antwerp in a gesture for all that Poor Little Belgium had suffered during the Great War. In doing an Ancestry search for when or if Restaino came home, Restaino arrived in the United States on the US Army Transport Ship Sherman in September 1920, almost two years after the Armistice. That led me to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in which I searched for any articles about the Sherman published that September. That led incredibly to an article describing the return of the U.S. Olympic Team coming back on the Sherman with the remains of 763 doughboys.
Stories like this are why monuments and memorials are as poignant as they are.
Levon Helm died five years ago today. Here is the post I wrote that day.
The other night I was sitting on the sofa when the voice of Levon Helm wafted from the other room. The Hayfoot was watching a video clip of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Instinctively I got up and went into the bedroom, where we watched it lying down. Like so many other songs sung by Helm–“Up on Cripple Weight,” “Don’t Do It,” The Weight”–it never fails to move. Sadly, the voice has been silenced; Helm died of throat cancer in New York City on Thursday. The drummer was born in the Mississippi Delta town of Elaine, Arkansas and grew up in nearby Helena. When he was a teenager Helm became the percussionist for Ronnie Hawkins. The two Arkansans eventually ended up north of the border and playing in a unit known as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. After breaking off from Hawkins, the unit morphed into Levon Helm and the Hawks. Soon they were backing Bob Dylan just as the Hawks. Eventually the five members of the group–Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson–went out on their own as simply…The Band.
The group released its first album, Music From Big Pink, in July 1968. Big Pink was the group’s rented communal house in upstate New York. The album is notable for many reasons. First, it was a fully realized piece of work, created by musicians who had already woodshedded for a number of years. Released during the worst excesses of the Age of Aquarius, Big Pink manages to avoid the indulgences of the era. The reason for this, I believe, is because Helm especially was so grounded the American Songbook. You can’t have been a musician growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s and 1950s and not absorb its traditions. The first music group Helm saw in person was Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1946, the incarnation of that band that included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. He was six years old. Helm later saw Elvis play in person several times–Memphis being less than an hour’s drive from Helena–before the man who would be King was a cultural phenomenon.
Tradition meant a great deal to Helm and to everyone in The Band. 1968 was a year of turmoil throughout the world. A short list of incidents include: the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior and subsequent rioting in hundreds of American cities, the Events of May in Paris that almost overthrew the French government, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June. And that is just the first six months of the year. At a time when the battle cry for many baby boomers was “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” the group members pointedly posed with their extended family wearing their finest for what would be a widely disseminated group photo. Roots.
The Band’s original incarnation dissolved in 1976 after the famous Winterland concert filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz in 1978. The breakup was probably inevitable given the tension, creative and otherwise, between Mr. Helm and Mr. Robertson. Helm later went on the road with other iterations of the lineup but to less effect. He was first diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s and fought the disease, with periods of remission, up until the end. Helm was always an active musician, but in part to pay his medical expenses he was especially productive over the last several years of his life. Two of his finest efforts came during this period: Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009). He was proof positive that a rock star can age gracefully if he acts his age and stays himself.
With some artists it is just a lifelong thing. Thankfully for us.
This past summer when I was at Hyde Park I had a conversation with one of the rangers in which we discussed that 2017 was the 135th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birth. He was born there at Springwood on 30 January 1882. I usually visit Hyde Park every summer and have spoken to different rangers in recent years about the dwindling number of visitors who have that emotional, visceral attachment to FDR when visiting the site. It is no wonder, with so many Americans having grown up hearing the four-term president on the radio regularly throughout the Depression and Second World War. Nowadays there are still a few such on the pilgrimage, but for the most part that cohort has aged out. I find this photograph intriguing on a number of levels. The image is of Sergeant George A. Kaufman of the 9th Army and was taken in Germany on 9 March 1945. The public did not know it at the time, but Roosevelt was failing quickly by this time. He would die in Warm Springs just over a month later.
Roosevelt’s life and times spanned much of the American moment, an era that sadly might be winding down before our eyes seven decades after his passing. Roosevelt attended Harvard at the turn of the century, served as Wilson’s Assistant Navy Secretary during the Great War, governed New York State in the late 1920s and 1930s, and was in the White House the last dozen years of his life. It is easy to forget that he was only sixty-three when he died. I see on the Hyde Park/NPS website that they are having a program today at 3:00 pm in the rose garden behind the library. The Hudson Valley is cold this time of year, but it looks like the weather will cooperate. I am curious to see if there is more to come over the course of the year.
Some of you may remember just after the new year when I wrote about the funeral of Frederick W. Whitridge.. My post about his son Arnold is up and running over at Roads to the Great War. Arnold Whitrdige died twenty-eight years ago today.
(image/Yale Banner and Potpourri, 1936)
Theodore Roosevelt was in Manhattan on 2 January 1917 for the funeral of his friend Frederick W. Whitridge. Whitridge had been the long serving president of the Third Avenue Elevated Line and had died on 30 December. The funeral was at Grace Church on Broadway and 10th Street. Colonel Roosevelt was a pallbearer along with Joseph H. Choate, J.P. Morgan, British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice and others. It was fitting that Ambassador Spring-Rice was there; Whitridge, an American, was the son-in-law of British poet Matthew Arnold.
One can say this of anyone in any era but Whitridge’s funeral signaled an interesting before-and-after moment. Decades earlier Whitridge had been a supporter of Theodore Roosevelt Sr., coming to his aide after the powerful New York senator Roscoe Conkling blocked his appointment to the New York Custom House during the Hayes Administration. In the 1880s Whitridge was a Civil Service reformer, which is presumably where he came into Roosevelt’s orbit. As mentioned Whitridge was the president of the Third Avenue Elevated Line, one of the four commuter rails that took New Yorkers about their daily lives until being torn down after the Second World War. As leader he was charged with the thankless tasks of negotiating stock portfolios and handling worker strikes. This was no small thing: the elevated lines were part of the daily fabric of New York life and any disruption was duly noted by the public.
One person who missed the funeral was Frederick’s son, Captain Arnold Whitridge, who had been serving with the British Royal Field Artillery since 1915. Arnold was actually an American, a 1913 graduate of Yale, who was attending Oxford when the Great War broke out in summer 1914. With his father’s death he was back in the United States though not for long. When the U.S. entered the war in April 1917 he joined the A.E.F. and soon found himself in France once more.
(top image, Library of Congress; bottom NYPL)
I noted with interest the passing of Phil Chess earlier this week. Though I would not put too much into it, it was fitting that Chess, a fixture in the Chicago music scene for well over half a century, died the week the Cubs made it to the World Series for the first time since 1945. Phil and his older brother Leonard were the founders of Chess Records, one of the independent labels that sprung up after the Second World War to record the urban blues. The brothers started in what we’ll euphemistically call the entertainment industry when in 1938 they began operating juke joints catering to the South Side’s growing African-American community. I’m simplifying here but when their Macomba Lounge burned down in 1950 they used the insurance to fund what would become Chess. The brothers would spend the next decades recording Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Etta James and scores of others.
The story truly began during World War One. In The Warmth of Other Sons Isabel Wilkerson notes that the Chicago Defender mentioned in passing in its February 5, 1916 edition that northern railroads were facilitating the movement of African-American laborers from the South to the North to work in the munitions plants. After the war the Chess brothers were part of that other Great Migration; their father, Yasef Czyz, came to the United States from Motal, Poland (today part of Belarus) just after the Great War. He soon sent for his wife and children. By the time Leonard and Philip reached their mid-twenties the blues too had come age. Leonard in particular spent much of the early 1950s traveling not only the South but through Northern industrial hubs such as Detroit, St. Louis and Gary, Indiana–essentially anywhere within driving distance from Chicago where Africans-Americans lived, worked, and socialized–to plug the Chess catalog and scout for new talent. Phil was the quieter, younger brother who kept things running.
I have always been conflicted about the Chess Brothers and their cohorts. On the one hand there is no question that they recorded, disseminated, and thus saved an essential component of American–and today, world–culture. On the other hand their enterprise was built on a foundation of exploitation of that talent. That exploitation became only more apparent when the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and others came along and began making real money; in the 1960s those once-pesky things like contracts, copyrights and royalties went from ancillary issues to matters of serious economic consequence. One can’t argue that it is not part of the story.
The Chess family has maintained–not without merit–that while their business practices were sometimes unorthodox, they looked after their artists in their own ways. This meant things like paying for funerals and medical expenses, occasionally bailing someone out of jail, and dirty work like paying for abortions in those years prior to Roe v Wade. Let’s not kid ourselves; we’re talking about bluesmen here. It is a messy and human story from a time when America was a harder place and people did what they had to do to get along. Today the blues is securely canonized, but such was not always the case. The life and times of Phil Chess were–and still are–part of why it is so mythologized.
(image/Steve Browne & John Verkleir via Wikimedia Commons)
I was home working today. I was writing about the creation of the New York State Republican Party, which formed in Saratoga Springs in August 1854 as a response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Young Chester Arthur was one of the delegates. In September 1904 during the heat of the presidential race between Theodore Roosevelt and Alton B. Parker–two New Yorkers–the Republicans held a 50th reunion in Saratoga Springs. TR’s running mate, Charles W. Fairbanks, was one of the speakers in Saratoga at that 50th celebration. Members of John C. Frémont’s family were on hand as well, including his son Major Francis P. Fremont who five years later would be court-martialed for a third time in the waning months of the Roosevelt administration.
What caught my eye when reading the 50th anniversary Proceedings was this photograph of the aging Frederick W. Seward. Frederick was of course the son of William H. Seward. He graduated from Union College a year after Chester Arthur and he too would be at the Saratoga Convention in August 1854. Frederick later worked as Assistant Secretary of State for his father in the Lincoln and Johnson Administrations and served in the same capacity for William Evarts for a time during the Hayes’s years, eventually succeeded by John Hay. Seward thwarted the Booth conspirator who tried to assassinate his father and a half a century later was still around to tell the tale. He helped run the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in 1909, a forgotten event today but which among other things involved Wilbur Wright flying from Governors Island, around the Statue of Liberty, and back.Even more incredibly an article in the Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine informs us that passengers aboard the Lusitania witnessed that feat.
Seward died in April 1915, fifty years after the Civil War’s end and two years prior to American involvement in the First World War.