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POLITICAL NOTE: Modern Mercury

11 minute read

(See front cover)

Best skit in Washington’s famed Gridiron Club show this winter was laid on cloud-bedecked Mt. Olympus (a setting borrowed from Lunt & Fontanne’s successful play, Amphitryon 38). In it Mercury reported to Jupiter on the affairs of the Earth below, and Jupiter told Mercury how he ran Olympus. Excerpt:

Jupiter: Never admit a mistake, son, or you won’t be a god any longer.

Mercury: But don’t you ever make mistakes, poppa?

Jupiter: Yes—and some of them get confirmed by the Senate.

To some of the audience who glanced from the stage to the face of the most distinguished spectator it seemed that Franklin Roosevelt was obviously displeased by this reference to the vulnerability of some of his appointees—such as Associate Justice Hugo Black. But the President could not resent the keen analogy to the relations between himself and his son James, who might well be a modern-day Mercury using a White House Packard for his winged heels.

As a messenger plying between Olympus and the World Below, James Roosevelt last week rounded out his fourth month of heavy duty. To observers reflecting on the position of the President’s most intimate observer, it seemed that 30-year-old Son Jimmy had found himself after several false starts, had proved himself indispensable to the ablest politician in the U. S., and in so doing had, at the age of 30, already lived one of the most remarkable careers in U. S. public life.

Boy, James Roosevelt was born in a house in Manhattan at No. 125 East 36th Street, six months after his father graduated from. Columbia University’s Law School, but his earliest memories are of Albany when his father was the State Senator from Hyde Park. James had not long toddled around Albany with his English nurse (his chief interest then was learning the names of all the local fire horses) before he was whisked off to Washington for seven years of the Wilson Administration.

In Washington, where his handsome young father was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, young James found plenty of excitement. On one alarming occasion officers searched hours for him, while he was gaily riding through the countryside on the back of a motorcycle behind Crown Prince (now King) Leopold of Belgium.

On another, he was upstairs at home asleep when the house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was blown up (two men were blown to bits and the Roosevelt house next door was partly wrecked by the blast). Says James: “I remember it so well because Mother rushed home and gave me hell for being out of bed.” Searching among the ruins of the Attorney General’s house next morning, 12-year-old James found a human collar bone. He brought it home and put it on the table. “It almost spoiled the family’s breakfast” he recalls.

When James was packed off to swank Groton School in 1920 Father was hopelessly stumping the country as Democratic nominee for the Vice-Presidency. By the time James had made the football team as left tackle, Father was apparently bedridden for life with infantile paralysis.

In the family tradition James progressed from Groton to Harvard. The Roosevelts are not distinguished for scholarship* but James nevertheless stayed off probation (flunkers’ list). He joined the Fly Club (social). Signet Society (literary) and the junior varsity crew, got his diploma six months late because he had failed to pass German.

Man. By the time he finally got his diploma from Harvard James Roosevelt had followed another Roosevelt tradition, of marrying young. In choosing blonde, sapphire-eyed Betsey Gushing, whom he met at a dance in Boston, James made what is probably his best decision to date.

Second daughter of Boston’s famed Brain Surgeon Harvey Gushing, Betsey quickly became Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite daughter-in-law. Not so rich as Franklin Jr.’s bride, Ethel du Pont, nor so young as John’s fiancee Anne Clark, nor so athletic as Elliott’s second wife, Ruth Googins, Betsey Roosevelt, nevertheless, combines virtues of all three. The serenity of the James Roosevelts’ home life is pleasing to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who have had more than their share of domestic troubles with their progeny. Betsey calls her husband “Rosie.”

Out of Harvard and with wife, James Roosevelt settled in the Gushing home in Brookline, Mass. Still following the parental pattern, he registered at Boston University’s Law school. Soon, however, he rebelled at living on an allowance from his family. James has the three ambitions common to most of the Roosevelts: 1) to get married, 2) to gain economic independence, 3) to become President of the U. S. Having attained the first he set out to get the second. Through the dean of the Law School he met a Boston insurance agent named Victor de Gerard—a onetime Cossack captain who escaped from Soviet Russia in 1924.

As an insurance salesman James Roosevelt was an instant success. As son of the then Governor of New York and likeliest future President of the U. S., he had many valuable contacts. Business boomed so fast that James Roosevelt forsook the law school after one year to spend all his time acquiring financial independence.

The de Gerard connection did not last but James continued the insurance business with John Sargent, a shrewd Harvard-man, as Roosevelt & Sargent Inc. Son James sold a $2,500,000 policy to the American Tobacco Co. on the life of its President George Washington Hill. The Columbia Broadcasting System bought a like amount of the Roosevelt brand of insurance. In his first year with Sargent, James acquired $67,000 worth of independence. Business improved each succeeding year until James—now the richest of the Roosevelts excepting possibly his grandmother—is estimated to be worth half a million dollars. And the end is not in sight: James resigned the presidency of his firm when he went to work at the White House, but he still draws half the profits.

Politician. James Roosevelt acquired a taste for politics as his father’s page boy in the 1924 Democratic Convention, which went 103 ballots. In 1928 James and four classmates bought a Ford named Ebenezer for $30, stumped Massachusetts for Al Smith, had the satisfaction of seeing the State carried by his man, sold the Ford, after leaving it out all winter, for $32.

In 1932, the 24-year-old insurance salesman already had some first-hand knowledge of three Presidential campaigns. Because the Democratic Party in Massachusetts was split then as now, James was made his father’s campaign manager, undoubtedly to the disgust of old-line politicians, among them Governor Joseph B. Ely, and Senator David Ignatius Walsh, whose pre-Convention candidate had been Al Smith. James made an ill-starred alliance with Boston’s egregious Mayor James Michael Curley (see p. 18) a tie which he does not now like to recall. Neither does he like to remember his boyish boast that he was “probably closest by blood and affection to the man who makes the appointments.”

Today, without ever having held an elective office, James Roosevelt is nevertheless tsar of Massachusetts patronage. His Boston secretary, lanky Eddie Gallagher, is more occupied with the State House than the insurance business. And against the clay when Massachusetts might elect him to office, Son James is careful to retain Massachusetts as his legal residence. Last November he bought (for $37,000) a 140-acre place in “Tory Row” at Framingham, Mass., including a 150-year-old house with four chimneys.

For the rest, in building the political career which he hopes will culminate in the oval office now occupied by his father, James Roosevelt has been careful to join the Moose, the Elks, the Masons; has cultivated an impressive oratorical presence, so studiously like his father’s that most listeners cannot distinguish their radio voices (off the radio there is no similarity).

Secretary. His bags packed, James Roosevelt was ready to move into the White House as long ago as 1935. But he had not counted on gnome-like little Louis McHenry Howe, who had more to do with the making of Franklin Roosevelt than any other man, whose most valuable contribution to that process was his ability to say No. When Louis Howe said No, Son James became, not a Presidential adviser, but manager of his father’s twelve-cow dairy at Hyde Park.

Blood is thicker than politics and when Louis Howe died two years ago it was inevitable that James would succeed him.

Since Press Secretary Stephen Early had taken over Howe’s old office, James moved into the Early office. From Louis Howe, James inherited a capable secretary, freckled, bespectacled Margaret (“The Rabbit”) Durand. Last month he acquired a new assistant, shock-haired young James Rowe—the last of a long line of notable secretaries to the late Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., now the protégé of left-wing Adviser Thomas G. (“White House Tommy”) Corcoran.

However, James Roosevelt had occupied a White House office ten months before Father Roosevelt revealed the duties of his son. James, said the President at a press conference one day last October, would act as a clearing house for the problems of 22 (later expanded to 23) Govern mental agencies. If he were an editor, the President added, he would say the story was worth two paragraphs on page five.

That Editor Roosevelt misjudged the value of his story, Washington correspond ents agree. For what he was creating was not a minor job but an Assistant President of the United States, who would take over duties previously relegated to Louis Howe, Secretaries Early and Mclntyre, even James A. Farley, who dispenses less & less patronage as Son James dispenses more & more.

Today, this important gentleman is 30, robust and an inch taller than the six foot three he was when his Father took office. A model young man, his industry and ambition permit him few bad habits, and his stomach trouble permits no more than an occasional highball. Instead, he gulps down threequarts of milk daily. Unlike his father, who consumes three or four packagesof cigarets each 24 hours, James smokes sparingly, usually not before dinner.

Secretary Roosevelt rises at eight o’clock, dons one of his four well-tailored business suits* and eats a hasty fruit-egg-toast-and-coffee breakfast. By 9:15 he is in the White House car which has been sent for him, his eldest daughter, Sara, 5, seated beside him. He drops her at the Potomac School the kindergarten of which he is a War-time alumnus. By 9130 James Roosevelt is at his father’s bedside with Secretaries Early and Mclntyre. ready for the day’s orders. At 10 his appointments begin.

On a typical day last week he had 21 callers. His good friend, Joseph P. Kennedy, spent an hour with him before packing for Europe and the Court of St. James. Chairman Splawn of the ICC talked over the rate increases which his Commission is expected to grant the railroads. Congressman Lucas of Illinois, fresh from announcing his candidacy for the Senate seat held by William Dieterich, solicited support for his campaign. Aubrey Williams, Administrator of WPA (vice ailing Harry Hopkins), discussed the spending of the new quarter-billion-dollar relief appropriation (see p. 13.)

The White House switchboard checked up recently, learned that James Roosevelt picked up the telephone 150 times a day. Congressmen who want Administration support for bills, projects, pap, or patronage have learned that the most direct route to the Presidential ear is through Son James, whose long legs carry him across the reception room to his father’s office in something less than 30 seconds.

At the end of such a day Secretary James and wife almost always dine at the White House. After dinner he usually goes upstairs with his father to the knickknack-filled second-floor study, next to the President’s bedroom. Recently, a reporter asked an old-time politician how much influence James exerted on the affairs of the nation.

“Well,” drawled the astute oldtimer, “Jimmy is the last man to see the President of the United States at night.”

* Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Phi Beta Kappa key is an honorary award.

* Although he has not had a new suit in two years, the Assistant President’s wardrobe also includes: 1 tuxedo, 1 dress suit, 1 cutaway, 1 odd coat, 2 pairs of odd pants, 2 pairs of white pants.

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