Just before the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1933, Mrs. Roosevelt met with Ike Hoover, the chief usher, to be shown around the mansion, decide how the several rooms of the house were to be used, and to plan out the many arrangements for Inauguration Day.
With the Depression at hand, Inauguration Day was not a lighthearted occasion. Most of the ceremonies were canceled, and only a buffet lunch for the family and a few friends and a reception in the early evening was held. The president did not even attend the Inaugural Ball, but was represented by Mrs. Roosevelt and her children.
There were many things about living in the White House that proved to be nuisances to this First Family, not the least of which was FDR’s children’s habit of raiding the icebox when they were hungry. They were upset to discover that it was locked every night.
Mrs. Roosevelt was more concerned with the social welfare of the nation than with the daily intricacies and protocols of the White House. Her personal secretary, Edith Helm, also served as her social secretary and had a vast knowledge of the White House procedures. Mrs. Roosevelt never shirked her duties and met with the bookkeeper, chief usher, and Mrs. Helm every day she was in residence. The housekeeper, Mrs. Henry Nesbitt, made out the menus, bought the food, and gave the daily orders to the house staff. FDR was not difficult to please about food, but grew tired of meals prepared by the same cook. Mrs. Nesbitt believed in plain food, plainly cooked, and was very difficult to get along with. Mrs. Roosevelt followed her lead, but FDR quickly tired of the simple fare, “My stomach positively rebels and this does not help my relations with foreign powers,” he said. “I bit two of them yesterday!” He went on to say he wanted to run for a fourth term so he could fire Mrs. Nesbitt!
Due to his disability, FDR seldom dined out. Because of this, his personal cook was soon brought from Hyde Park and installed in a small kitchen on the third floor, where she cooked him two meals a day, for variety.
Although Mrs. Roosevelt thought her husband was not that interested in food, some considered him a connoisseur. Actually, it was Mrs. Roosevelt who didn’t care about food. Take the official State Luncheon she hosted for the king and queen of England, for example. Mrs. Roosevelt was not interested in American food, only its history, and thought it would be nice to have a picnic for the royal highnesses at Hyde Park. The now-famous menu consisted of hot dogs, smoked turkey, baked beans, cured hams, potato salad, and strawberry shortcake for dessert. This sounds pretty good to us colonials, but the picture of Queen Elizabeth and King George eating hot dogs and baked beans, dripping mustard on themselves, and asking for a Beano® after dinner, is priceless. This simplicity, nevertheless, never made it to the state dining room. During FDR’s administration, the table was set formally with special plates, napkins and wine glasses for each course, all the silverware, except for dessert and water glasses, the colonial saltcellars of art glass and diamond design, and never a pepper shaker. All the official affairs used a decorative gold china. The centerpieces were bowls of cut flowers, usually yellow roses, as they were Mrs. Roosevelt’s favorite.
A big silver ship in full sail was used for high tea, usually served in the family’s private quarters around 4 o’clock p.m. This gave guests of honor the opportunity to meet privately and informally with the president and his wife, to get to know one another. Today, this is accomplished over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.
During wartime, entertaining at the White House was greatly reduced. In spite of this, FDR invited the Right Honorable Winston Churchill to spend Christmas with him and his family in 1941. The prime minister ended up staying for twenty-four days, which proved to be very, very important as the overall strategy of the Allies in World War II was planned during the visit. In addition to our generals coming and going, and Churchill’s wartime military counselors, security was at its height and no one, according to the Secret Service, was welcome unless it was business of the utmost importance.
The war meant that the White House was put on an austerity plan just like the rest of America. Part of the defense effort involved cutting down on food provided for the staff. According to Mrs. Roosevelt, an order of one egg instead of two, one slice of bacon, toast, and coffee for breakfast was plenty. The midday meal consisted of whatever was available at the market, and all servants were asked to bring their own sugar.
At a private dinner before FDR’s third inauguration, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Roosevelt discussed arrangements for the administration of the Oath of Office.
“Mr. President,” said Hughes, “after I have read the oath and you have repeated it, how would it be for me to lean forward and whisper to you, ‘Don’t you think this is getting a little bit monotonous for the both of us?’”
President Roosevelt was a great joker, but the job was so serious and demanding, especially during a world war, that it took a great toll on him. In January 1945, Roosevelt arranged to bring his son, James, home from the Pacific so he could be present for the fourth inauguration. Although the Americans were winning the war in the Pacific, they still had a lot of fighting to do and knew that an invasion of Japan would be very bloody. James told his father he was not sure he would ever return to see his father again.
“James,” said Roosevelt softly, “There will be no invasion of Japan. We have something that will end the war before any invasion takes place.” As to what it was, James was told, “I cannot tell you, only those who need to know about it. It is something we can use and will use if we have to. Something we will use before you or any of our sons die on Japanese soil.” He then smiled and said, “So you can come back home to me, son.”
“Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like uncorking your first bottle of champagne.”
__Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain, 1946
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