Member interview: Writer sheds light on FDR’s right-hand woman

Illustration by Monica Garwood

Battling breast cancer in 2000, Kathryn Smith found comfort pursuing her lifelong interest in Franklin D. Roosevelt. The more she read, the more intrigued she became with the 32nd U.S. president’s private secretary, Marguerite Alice “Missy” LeHand. “I thought, what a fascinating life she had because she was by his side through the polio crisis, establishing the polio rehabilitation center in Warm Springs and then after his return to politics,” she says. Smith, a past president of the Rotary Club of Greater Anderson, S.C., and a longtime newspaper journalist, turned that curiosity into a book, The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency. FDR historians have praised the work for its scholarship in detailing the life of LeHand, who was not only a private secretary but also a de facto chief of staff, confidant, and source of inspiration to Roosevelt as he fought the polio that paralyzed him from the waist down. Smith shared LeHand’s story with The Rotarian.

THE ROTARIAN: How was LeHand involved in Roosevelt’s polio rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Ga.?

SMITH: When FDR and Missy first came to Warm Springs in 1924, it was kind of like riding into a tribal village – unpaved roads, a lot of houses didn’t have doors or windowpanes, and Eleanor Roosevelt was so appalled she only stayed a couple of nights. She never stayed long. She didn’t like it there. Missy was always the hostess in Warm Springs. When Roosevelt started the polio rehabilitation hospital, there were no doctors, no nurses. It was just “Dr. Roosevelt" and “Nurse Missy."

TR: What was her role at the White House?

SMITH: FDR had four secretaries. The press dubbed them the White House secretariat. She was his private, or personal, secretary, and she was the only one to have an office adjoining his. She also lived in the White House. Missy was one of the people who helped FDR become the FDR of history. But she also enabled Eleanor to become the Eleanor of history. She was Eleanor’s backup at the White House so Eleanor could go off on her trips and inspection tours and always knew Missy would take care of things at the White House. People have ignored how important she was as an adviser and how important she was as the de facto chief of staff of the White House.

TR: Didn’t LeHand’s closeness to FDR raise eyebrows?

SMITH: The person who really perpetuated the rumor that Missy was FDR’s in-house mistress was his son Elliott, who was the black sheep of the family. He said this in print for the first time in his 1973 book. All four of the other children disavowed the book. In fact, the whole time she had a long-term [love interest], William Bullitt Jr., the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union.

TR: What would LeHand have said about your endeavor?

SMITH: I hope she would like it. I’ve come away with tremendous respect and affection for her. In political circles there are people who hate each other. But all [at the White House] liked Missy. She was described as a saintlike person. She wasn’t a gossip and she didn’t play to those rivalries. Her No. 1 loyalty was always to FDR. He knew he could always count on her that she wasn’t playing those games.

The Rotarian