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History: Award-winning newsman on the trail of FDR’s final days

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Author Joe Lelyveld, a former New York Times editor, visited Hobcaw Barony last week to see where President Franklin D. Roosevelt came in the spring of 1944 to muster the energy to win World War II.

“He almost makes it,” said Lelyveld, who is writing a book about the final years of Roosevelt’s life, a period glossed over by biographers. “It’s mainly about trying to figure out what was on his mind as he thought about the end of the war and standing for another term in office,” Lelyveld said. “It’s very hard to do. Some people say he was already dying in the spring of 1944. He was certainly not a well man. He knew that. On the other hand, the Normandy invasion was about to occur, and it’s inconceivable that a wartime leader could announce on the eve of the biggest invasion in history that he was stepping down. The invasion was on June 6. The Democratic Convention was meeting July 19. It was getting a little late. My personal opinion is that he was trapped.”

Polls, Lelyveld said, made it clear that no other Democrat stood a chance of winning. That meant not only a change of president but a change of parties if FDR didn’t seek re-election. “I think Roosevelt might have tolerated Wendell Wilkie as a successor, but Wilkie was knocked out in the Republican primaries,” Lelyveld said. “I don’t think Roosevelt saw a successor among the possible Republicans. That’s my theory anyway.”

Lelyveld said Roosevelt talked about resigning after the war even though he gave few clues about who he preferred as a successor. “I found only one reference,” Lelyveld said, “as to who would be his successor: Jimmy Byrnes of South Carolina, who was called the assistant president in those days, largely running the domestic side of the White House.”

Lelyveld wanted to visit Bernard Baruch’s Hobcaw House to get a feel for it. The bedspreads purchased for Roosevelt’s visit are still in his room. “One of the things that intrigued me about that period of time,” Lelyveld said, “was the idea that a president at such a difficult and dangerous time could just disappear for a month. He didn’t like being cooped up in the White House.”

Lelyveld said reporters from the major wire services were stationed in Georgetown during Roosevelt’s visit but weren’t allowed to write anything until he was back in Washington. The New York Times mentioned in passing that Roosevelt was “somewhere in the South” during his absence. While residents of Georgetown figured something was going on at Hobcaw because of the military patrols, not even members of the Cabinet knew where he was.

An entry in Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s diary from mid-April said Baruch had visited his office and revealed FDR’s secret location. Lelyveld has a theory that Hobcaw was chosen partly to accommodate Roosevelt’s friend Lucy Rutherford, who drove over from Aiken for lunch on April 28. Roosevelt had an affair with Rutherford during the time of World War I, and his wife, Eleanor, never forgave him. “He promised he’d never see her again,” Lelyveld said, “but he broke that promise regularly.” Eleanor arrived at Hobcaw after Rutherford had safely departed.

Originally, Roosevelt was to go to Guantanamo Bay, but it was deemed too dangerous. “The first lady had been to Guantanamo, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox had been there. Suddenly, it was dangerous. Instead, he was going to Hobcaw,” Lelyved said.

Roosevelt also picked Hobcaw so he could fish. He spent some time on about half the days of his visit fishing in a pond on the property or up the Black River. Remarkably, he even went off the coast once and caught a half-dozen flounder.

Despite his hospitality, Baruch’s influence was limited with Roosevelt, Lelyveld said. “There was something in Roosevelt that resisted Baruch,” he said. “He had known him since the Wilson years. I think he liked him, enjoyed him. Baruch may have argued his points too strongly for Roosevelt’s taste. I just don’t know.”

Lelyveld became managing editor and executive editor at the New York Times after years as a foreign correspondent covering Africa and Asia. He won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for his book “Move Your Shadow” about apartheid in South Africa.

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