The Little White House

Warm Springs, Georgia, is home to the so-called Little White House, which served as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal retreat. FDR first started coming to Warm Springs in 1924, three years after he had been diagnosed with polio. The titular warm springs of the area allowed him a certain freedom of movement now denied to him by his illness. He liked the area so much that he purchased land and had a house built on it, which was finished just before he took office as president in 1933. Over the course of his twelve-year presidency FDR visited the Little White House sixteen times, and died there on April 12, 1945. Although FDR’s main presidential library and museum are at Springwood in Hyde Park, New York, the Little White House is well preserved by the Georgia DNR, and has a great museum, almost as good as a NARA-sponsored one. 

FDR was cagey about his limited mobility, and most Americans didn’t know about it or “chose to ignore it,” as a sign indicated at the museum. But he came to Warm Springs for a reason, and the museum is honest about why. 

Also on display: FDR’s 1938 Ford Convertible… 

…with specially designed hand controls. 

    

I was a youthful stamp collector, and this display brought a tear to my eye. Memories!

But the best part of these sorts of museums are all the homespun crafts. Here is a National Recovery Administration quilt. 

A hand-carved wooden chain spelling out FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT (!). 

A model ship. FDR was a great aficionado of sailing and the Little White House contains many such model ships. 

An extensive handmade cane collection. People would send these to FDR. 

You’ve got to love his first inaugural address written out and forming a portrait.

The museum’s prize possession is the “Unfinished Portrait,” which artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff was working on when FDR died at age 63 of a cerebral hemorrhage. 

An iconic photograph by Ed Clark of Life: Chief Petty Officer (USN) Graham Jackson playing “Goin’ Home” on the accordion, as FDR’s funeral train left Warm Springs. 

I was curious to note that FDR’s friend and confidante Daisy Suckley was present when he died. Suckley is the subject of the movie Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) which we saw recently. It is a dramatization of a period in 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited FDR at Springwood in the hopes of gaining American support for Britain while war loomed in Europe. It’s billed as a comedy-drama but succeeds at being neither. Bill Murray is pretty good as Roosevelt; Samuel West and Olivia Coleman are competent at playing the young (and accidental) king and queen, although they certainly can’t compete with Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, and their discomfort at the brash Americanisms they encounter isn’t particularly amusing or convincing. The film actually has an R rating for “brief sexuality,” but it shows no sexuality at all, not even kissing! Suckley is cast as one of FDR’s mistresses, and the most dramatic scene occurs when it is revealed to her that FDR has… other mistresses! But what did she expect? 

(And, as with all such movies, no real work actually being done. There is a scene when Suckley first arrives at Springwood, and must pass through a room full of functionaries poring over documents and busily telephoning other important people, before she gets to see FDR in his substitute Oval Office and examine his stamp collection. But that’s it. The functionaries never reappear, and for the rest of the movie the president of the United States has all the time in the world to drive around in his car, preside over dinners, wrangle with his mother and wife, etc.)

My wife actually hated Hyde Park on Hudson, especially how it has Suckley making peace with her place in FDR’s regular rotation, and how this was cast as a mature, grown-up attitude. She wondered whether the movie wasn’t funded by MoveOn.org. Thus, I was pleased to learn that most historians reject the idea that FDR’s relationship with Suckley was a sexual one. I reckon what we need is a movie entitled Warm Springs, which would deal with FDR’s time in Georgia and how he learned to sympathize with the common man through his interactions with the locals, with no titillating, invented details about an affair with one of his staffers. 

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