Camera Rolls: 312:01-06
Sound Rolls: 312:01-03
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Alonzo Fields , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on September 9, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
All right, Mr. Fields, what I wanted you to start by telling me about was, when you knew you were going to Washington and you had that train trip from Boston...No, not train trip, bus trip. What did you see? What was it like in America in 1931?
Of course, I was invited to the White House. My invitation to the White House, to begin with, in 1901, I was invited...a public invitation, open house on January the 1st. And I was about nine months old and I met President McKinley. My next invitation was October the 19th, 1931, when Thomas Edison died. After his death... He'd been a great friend to Dr. Stratton, Dr. Stratton had been a great friend to President Hoover. I knew they were interested in me, and I received a telephone call, an invitation to the White House. Well, of course, I had no other invitation for a job and I decided, "Well, invitation to the White House? Sure, I'll take it up!" So within three days I was on my way to Washington, and of course to travel with the least of expense I took a bus all through Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland into Washington. Everywhere I saw churches with streams of men in line to get a bowl of soup. Then it puzzled me, as it does today. I never saw a woman or a child in line. I thought to myself, "Then what are they doing? How are they faring?" Well, I first met a condition that I had long forgotten about, being in Massachusetts, and that was segregation. The bus stopped at a rest station, and I got out with all the others, went into the restaurant as others did, and went to the restroom. After I was in there, when I went in there were two sailors, and these sailors looked at me with an eye that I had known years ago. "What are you doing in here?" But they didn't say anything, and when I returned out to the lobby of the restaurant there's a colored gentleman there and he says, "What did they say to you?" I said, "No one said anything to me." He says, "Well, you're not supposed to go in here," and he took me outside and showed me these little sheds, "Colored Women", "Colored Men." On the way, that was my first...On the way to Washington, when I arrived in Washington, I was told to meet the Lieutenant Butler at the East Entrance of the White House across from the Treasury Department. I met him there at ten o'clock as I was supposed to do, and he took me up through the corridors, and around through the corridors and up the winding stairs into the butler's pantry. When I entered the butler's pantry there were five or six butlers, and they were all around a big table with piles of silver, and I said, "Goodness! I've never seen so much silver. They must have had a big party last night." As I was introduced, the Lieutentant Butler said, "This is Fields. He's from Boston. He's well-trained, and you can take him into the dining room at any time." He says, "Where's Ellis?" Ellis was the Chief Butler at that time. So they said, "Ellis is off, but his assistant is in the dining room," and he took me into the dining room and introduced me to Encarnacion and said, "Well, you can take him in any time" Same story. When we entered back Encarnacion said to the group, "This is Mr. Fields, he's from Boston, he's going to be working with us." I could discern that I wasn't really wanted. I was kind of a shock to them. The one gentleman said, "Well, you know Mrs. Hoover doesn't like big men." I thought, "Well, I know the game. This is the White House where they didn't expect to get..." She didn't like big men, and "It's too bad she's out for lunch, because if she wasn't out to lunch you could take him in there today for lunch and he'd be on his way back to Boston tonight on the Federal Express."
Now, you did get the job.
What did you know about President Hoover? What did you think about President Hoover before you started working there? What kind of president did you think he was? What had you known about him? What kind of reputation did he have?
Well, President Hoover had developed a reputation during World War I, and feeding all of Europe, and then he helped to "Hoover-ize" and organize to prevent starvation and promote...in America. He had a reputation, people thought that when President Hoover was elected that this was going to be the salvation of the world. The man was a great humanitarian and he was a great organizer. Of course, he had made his wealth by organizing all over the world.
Now there's a funny story about FDR and Hoover that you told me before, about FDR thinking that Hoover should be president?
Oh yes, oh yes.
Tell me that story.
FDR was so excited over Hoover. I heard him say that the man had expansion of ability in organizing. He could just put his hands, and in a second he could bring thousands of people together and get production. So FDR went over the country, in the Eastern part of the country, because Democrats were Eastern and Southern. He formed a group, and he tried to persuade Hoover to run as president, and he as Hoover's vice-president. President Hoover at that time said that he didn't know enough about politics, and he wouldn't dare to enter it. He did run, FDR ran with Governor Cox of Ohio. Of course, they were defeated by the Harding-Coolidge team on the Republican ticket.
Now, I'm really interested about something that you were talking about when you first got to Washington, really finding out that it was a segregated city. What were the things that really struck you as you first came to live in Washington?
Well the first thing that struck me was right in the White House. When lunch time came, I had a gentleman who was going to take me, show me the White House. The acting chief at that time said, "Well, take Fields to the dining room." As we went down the stairs to the dining room floor, there was a room straight ahead. There was a room to the right, and we started and he said, "We go over here." He says, "That's the White House dining room." I thought to myself, "The White House? If we're gonna have a beginning it should start right here in the White House," I was thinking to myself. So that was the first, right in the White House. That was the first sign that I was in a different part of the country.
What about out in public places? What other kinds of things were there?
Well, in public places there were no signs up. There were no signs "Black Only," but the people of color knew their limitations, what areas they could go in. There was one department store that blacks weren't welcome at all. That was in the great Garfinckel's. Now they're out of business, but at that time blacks weren't welcome there. You'd stand around before you'd be served, and of course you would never get an account there. The theaters, all the theaters in downtown, there were not any movies you could go to. There's one stage show you could go to, and that was the burlesque show, but you had to go up to the top floor, up in the gallery. But there were, on 13th and 14th Street and New Street there were black theaters that you went to. No one ever approached going downtown. If a show would come to Washington that had a black cast there would be certain days set aside for the colored people to go. We didn't say "black" in those days. We said "colored folks". [laughs]
Interesting. It's a time that a lot of people don't even know about. Let me ask you something else about 1931. How did people survive? What happened to them when they lost their work?
Well, they did the best they could. Usually, most people in those days... Let me kind of inject something here: even in the states where there were factories and things like that, there was always a shut-down. See, after Thanksgiving they would overproduce. The people would work overtime, and that used to puzzle me as a kid. I'd say, "They work overtime, they make all this money overtime, and then they shut down." They never had any money to plan for that, and that puzzled me as a kid. I used to say, "They're making all this money. Why don't they save something?" And in two weeks time people would be dependent. The only thing was private charity, and the Salvation Army was one of the outstanding...
You know what, you're doing just...I hardly have to ask you questions. We just ran out of film. It's a real quick moment. These cameras have about ten minutes of film in them, so we'll probably use five or six, we put one in and keep going. So I'm going to ask you to pick up with that thought about how people had private charity, no government help...You think about that story, you've got great description...
OK, so just tell me about how people got help when they lost their jobs.
They just wandered around, in a sense, because there was only private charity. Certain city officials... I know in Indianapolis, Indiana they had a mayor by the name of Lew Shanks, and Lew Shanks, every so often, he would bring in a carload of potatoes and the people would all go down and get bags of potatoes. You'd go out, if you worked, you'd perhaps get so many pounds of beans, cornmeal, flour. No eggs. You'd have to scramble around and get those yourself. There was a packing house that used to sell the trimmings and the trimmings of beef and so forth. You could get that for about five cents or ten cents a pound. I know my family did, and liver and lights and those things they would sell, and they could get them cheaply.
So people sometimes would work and they wouldn't even get paid...
Oh yes. They'd be feeding and food supplies. Corn meal...usually starches, corn meal, well, you'd get beans and things like that. Of course, that was more or less the common diet. And the meat would be these skins or rinds or trimmings off the butcher shop and the big packing houses, things like that.
Now I want to change the subject a little bit. You got this job at the White House. Hoover, President Hoover, then wanted you to serve breakfast. Can you just describe that scene? How did the day start? What were you doing? I want to hear about the medicine ball and all this...
Yes, yes. I'd been there three days. I arrived on Thursday and on Friday night I was told that the president had requested my detail serving his cabinet breakfast, medicine ball breakfast table. Well, I didn't believe it, because I'd heard there'd already been an argument between two butlers that it's not my time and so forth on. I said, "Well, this is my lot." I had to be there at six o'clock in the morning. I'd set up outside under, unless it was raining or snowing, Andrew Jackson's magnolia tree. Andrew Jackson planted that tree in 1829 in memory of Rachel, his wife, and there's many stories about that old tree. Two first ladies wooed under that old tree, and President Taft had an accident on that old tree. Taft as President was a heavy eater, and he liked his champagne, and he wouldn't drink out of a champagne glass, he'd have a goblet of champagne and then he would go to sleep at the table. Well, on Sundays out there, under this old tree -- in the summertime you didn't have air-conditioning then -- and they would have some Sunday meal, mid-day meal under the old tree. Taft would have his heavy meal, and then he would go to sleep, and a butler had to stand by with him. Well, he was a huffer and a puffer, and he would blow. As he did, a little bird got disturbed at this huffing and blowing underneath him. He bombed away and with keen precision he hit President Taft's mustache. As you know he had a flowing mustache.
Oh no! The bird was right in his mustache?
Yes, and President Taft was swearing and his man Jackson told me this story, and his man went over to him and took the finger ball and best he could cleared up his mustache. As he said to Jackson, "Jackson you ever tell this and I'll have your head on a platter." So this tree had a reputation. Lincoln would put a shawl around, and in those days you could look down, see the Potomac River and you could see the Southern rebels nearby on the other side of the river.
So he watched the war there?
Well, no wonder Hoover picked that training place.
Lincoln was his idol, and he would write his speeches and so forth in Lincoln's bedroom. Today Lincoln's the only spirit that really roams around the White House. So I was told that the President wanted me.
OK, now, could you just start up again? Because I want to hear about the breakfast and how...I told you we found some movies of the people actually playing with the medicine ball.
So tell me how they did that.
Well, that morning I got my information, so I went out...I was told to count. You don't know how many are coming. The cabinet might bring others. And so I did, and I counted and I'd set up under the tree. Of course, it was in October, about the 25th of October. The magnolia trees have these beautiful leaves. They look like they're glossed and they have a rust, they look like they might have hair underneath. That morning the frost had been on them and the sun came out and weeping. As I set up the table one drop hit my neck, back of my neck, and I almost jumped out of my skin. Thank God, because if I had been pouring a cup of coffee, what would have happened? And so as I finished and I counted the number of people, and I had set up for eleven. Well, they had been playing for about, I guess 25 or 30 minutes. They had an eight pound ball. There's all sizes of medicine balls, but they had an eight pound ball that they...
Who played the medicine ball?
The cabinet officers, all of them, except Secretary of the Navy Adams and Secretary of Treasury Mellon and Secretary of State Stimson. And I assumed that they were gentlemen and they wouldn't participate in that. But they would be out there and they'd toss this ball around, and then they'd come to have breakfast. Well, just about time as I thought they'd be coming in the doorman walked in with a gentleman and he says, "They out there playing?" and the gentleman looked out and said, "Oh yes." He went on out. Then he told me, he says, "That's Jesse Jones. He's the head of Reconstruction Finance. He's going to be your guest here this morning. And I says, "Well, that will make 12." He says, "Didn't they tell you about Mark Sullivan?" I says, "Who's Mark Sullivan?" "He says, "He's a newspaper writer. He's here every morning. He'll be coming late. So you better set up for another. And I says, "Well, that'll be 13." I thought to myself, "That's unlucky." And then he turned to me and he says, "If you need any more blankets, they're in the china room." Well, no one had told me that the blankets were in the china room or anything, see. And so I went and got the blankets, and you put a blanket in each chair. After they played medicine ball they'd come in to have this breakfast, which would be grapefruit juice and fruit and coffee and whole wheat toast. Then you were supposed to wrap them up in these blankets. Well, of course the President walked in. I had met him the night before. He knew me, but he walked right in just like he didn't...I couldn't discern that he saw me. And he sat down and I wrapped him up in his blanket, he didn't even look up at me. He started his conversation. He says, "Gentlemen, you all know Jesse Jones. He has some information for us." Then they went into the detail.
So that typically happened every morning? How did the morning go? What happened at the breakfast table?
He would usually go to each cabinet officer and ask him the activities and what their perspective was, and what had gone on and so forth on. He went around the whole cabinet table to each cabinet officer: Secretary of Interior, Commerce, the Attorney General, Treasury.
Did Hoover do a lot of talking? Was he lecturing them, telling them what to do?
No, he was asking for information. And then he would lecture. He would get all of the things, then he would lecture.
What kinds of things did they talk about? Did they talk about the Depression?
Oh they talked about the Depression. Oh, that was utmost. It's all they talked about, the Depression, except when the injection of the time of the Massey case in Pearl Harbor, and also Lindbergh's child kidnapping. They would always open with a few words or what was going on in that, and then they'd go right into the business of the...
So one of the things I imagine they must have really spent some time discussing was this Bonus Army, because the Bonus Army came into Washington.
When the Bonus Marchers started arriving, what kinds of things did they say at the breakfast table the next day?
Well, at the breakfast table, of course, they would take up Secretary of War Hurley and the Attorney General. And they would have little get-togethers over that. You know, I can understand, really, I learned what three branches of government, what it really means to us, and little do we perhaps know about it, our own freedom. They jealously fight to protect their authorities. This gives a control...
What kinds of things? Like Congress and the president...What kinds of things would they say?
The rights of the Congress, the rights of the Attorney General, and really, the President and the Executive Branch, as Mr. Barkley used to say, Senator Barkley. He came up from the ranks, from the Congress up to the Executive Branch, because he was Vice-President. He said when he was a Congressman he thought that the Executive Branch and the Senate were a bunch of overbearing so-and-sos. He said they were trying to run the country. When he got to be a Senator, then he reflected that these people down here, they're a bunch of nitwits. Now as I'm in the Executive Branch, he says, in a sense we don't need them. The Executive Branch should be running...
Did Hoover have a lot of complaints about Congress during this time? What did Hoover say about Congress?
His complaint was that...
Could you just explain that you're talking about President Hoover?
President Hoover. He made a suggestion one morning that he thought, this is before the election, that he thought he saw a bright...grey brightening the dark clouds of the Depression. That's they way he put it: grey brightening the dark clouds of the Depression. And he says, "I see a new form of government." And he says it means that the masses of people should never suffer again, so perhaps we should go to the Bible, when Joseph went in and interpreted the Pharaoh's dream, and people from all around... Now in times of plenty we should ensure the people so the masses would have protection. And he said, "This cannot depend on the politicians. You can't depend on the manufacturer. It's going to take statesmen."
OK. When you think of him saying that...
So I want to talk about that breakfast meeting when the Bonus Marchers started coming to Washington. What happened? That would have been in May of 1932.
Yeah. 1932. They were trying to get a bonus, I think of $10,000. I think that's what they were trying to do. Congress was in session. Good farm, American Legion, so forth on. When they started coming in, the President suggested, he and retired Brigadier General Glassford, he was the chief of police, and the President had suggested: why not send army cooks, army kitchens over and feed them? Well, the cabinet and especially Hurley of the War Department said that would only encourage more to come, and that it was a "ragged army", I forget how he described them, were laying siege to Washington. He says, "You've got to drive 'em out." That would be accommodating them, and we'd just get more and more and more and more. Of course, that went around the table.
So they really debated that?
Oh yes, oh yes. It went around the table. Now, as I say, the President suggested that they send army kitchens over and feed the men. But President Hoover, I suppose if he'd been Harry Truman he'd've said, "You get so-and-so over there." His advisors, none of them were in favor of sending army kitchens over there to feed the men, because it would only enhance a larger group of loafers and so forth.
Did you hear them talk about the conditions in the camp or did you go down and see the camps yourself?
No, I never went down. I didn't see them, didn't see them at all.
Now, when the people in the cabinet, Hurley and some of the people who didn't want the Bonus Marchers to be encouraged, what kinds of things were they afraid of? What did they say? Were they scared of these men?
Well, to this sense it was a disgrace for them to be a ragged bunch of people...They tried to claim some of them were communists, and some of them were counterfeiters and I don't know what all. The president merely listened and no one was in favor of really doing anything. They wanted to get them out. Of course, many thought the bill would be passed, but it wasn't passed, and then when Congress went home in June, well, that's when they...and, of course, I remember that incident quite well because the President always took a nap after lunch. He'd have lunch around one o'clock and then he'd nap, say from 1:45 to around 2:30. He was at his nap and General MacArthur came in, waking him from his nap, and said that they were just getting unbearable, and the President says, as I understand it, I didn't hear this, this is how I understand it. The President says, "Well, why not take a calvary over there and see what you can do?" Well, now at that time they had just taken in, I say, about six or eight tanks. The tanks were new. The Italians had used them, but the little things they had were just toys. They had developed some tanks. The order was given, and I was in the dining room when General MacArthur came down, and of course he was very fond of his uniforms. He was a good looking, stately man. He was more Napoleonic-like, you know? He started out and in no time we saw a commotion. These tanks were coming across from Fort Myers in Virginia rolling up Pennsylvania Avenue, going across the river.
I know they rounded the Bonus Army and they actually burned up some of their tents.
Did you see any of that? What did that look like?
Well, I saw it at night. You could get on Pennsylvania Avenue, and I'd look down and you could see the whole scene was ablaze. And the officer in charge of that group was Lieutenant Dwight Eisenhower [sic - Eisenhower was a Major, not a Lieutenant].
Right, right. Now, the next morning at that breakfast table what was the discussion after this destruction of the camps? Who said what?
The President himself said, "The American people will never believe this. Why did we have to use so much force for these unarmed men?" He says, "They'll never believe that we did this." He says, "There's no way." And he says, "I know the Democrats..." because the Democrats' convention was coming up, was in June, see. "They'll never be able to understand such action." Of course, in the meantime this trooper from Chicago was killed in the upheaval, and the same troops that caused his death, the next two, three days were burying him at Arlington and they were his funeral escort.
Now did Hoover feel that MacArthur had exceeded his orders?
No. If he did he didn't say so. No, he never said so. Of course, the troops...the tanks...they had no unit, they were considered calvary. So in the midst of this he took the calvary.
We're doing just great. I'm going to do a little more about the Bonus Army because it's such an interesting story. We have footage of those tanks. It's interesting. I'm going to ask you to describe again when MacArthur came to talk to Hoover. If you could, try to say "MacArthur" and "Hoover" so our viewers...
Yeah, yeah. I do that a lot when I'm writing. I say, "He said, he said..."
So Hoover never blamed MacArthur...
OK, so now the next morning at the breakfast, what happened?
The next morning at the breakfast table the President was very much upset. He said to the cabinet, "I know that there is no way we can explain to the American people what happened yesterday. Why did we have to use so much force against unarmed veterans? Why did we have to do that? I know the Democrats are laughing themselves to death." He says, "There's no way we can explain it. No way we can." That was the end of the conversation. He said no more about it. The other cabinet officers, they all sat there with their heads down, listening, that's all.
He knew that was a big political problem.
Oh yes. Oh he knew, yeah, he knew.
What kind of a political reputation did Hoover end up with? Do you think he was maligned?
Well, he was maligned...
Could you say "President Hoover"?
President Hoover, to me, was maligned because it was great fodder for the Democrats. Of course, the man had a great reputation. At times they thought of him as being the paramount of American organization. The Democrats, still now and then you'll hear them go back to Hoover Days. Even now they'll mention Hoover, as if it was the blame of Hoover. Young people today, you mention Hoover, "Oh Hoover, who's he?" They think he was a rich man in the beginning. He was born an orphan. I mean, he was an orphan when he was eight years old. The difficulty he had...
Till you [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
Oh yes. Got my eduction.
Now I want to ask you about this other famous Depression president that you got to know, FDR. I wondered if you could start telling me about when FDR came to the White House, that first time, that was the first time you met him. You said Hoover was kind of curious about FDR...What was Hoover saying about FDR?
Well you know, President Hoover never had much to say about anyone. Maybe that was part of his fault. I think President Hoover gave you the impression that "You talk and I'll take care of the matter." The difference between he and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Roosevelt would talk to anyone and he would leave you feeling that you would give him good advice. But you didn't have that inclination to talk to President Hoover because there was a distance.
FDR had had polio.
Yes, he'd had polio.
Did Hoover talk about that?
The cabinet brought it up. The governors were holding a convention in Hot Springs, Virginia.
OK, so there was this Governors Conference in Virginia. What was Hoover going to do?
The Governors Conference was going on in Hot Springs and the conversation was about the Governors Conference. Al Smith had said he was going to run, and so this conference they were trying to get together, and that was Garner, Governor White of Ohio, McNutt of Indiana, Lewis of Illinois, and FDR. The conference seemed to be leaning towards FDR. At the breakfast table the question came up about his handicap. There was always Dr. Boone with the cabinet every morning, and they asked Dr. Boone, "What do you know about it?" He says, "I don't know anything about it. I haven't heard anything particular about him." But he says, "I'll try to find out." No, we never heard anything. So the conversation went on about him, so finally President Hoover says, "When is the conference over?" Well, someone says, "On Thursday. The conference will end on Thursday." He says, "So as not to interfere with the conference, why not invite him? Tell him that the President of the United States wants to talk to him about the conditions of the world, financial conditions of the country, and invite him for a stay. We don't want the women folks because we want to size up this particular champion of the Democratic Party, FDR."
So now what job did you have?
Well, within three days the governors accepted, of course. It was like a command to you, the President, so they accepted and the dinner was set for Friday night. And the president's office received information from the governor of New York saying that the governor would like to come in through the South Grounds of the White House so he could take the elevator up to the dining room floor, because he couldn't negotiate stairs without a ramp, and also that he'd like to have a strong, sturdy chair at the table, and that there would be a strong man to hold that chair. Well, of course, the Governor got his, all the information he wanted, and after about 15, 20 minutes of dinner the governor's valet was permitted in, by the name of...
McDuffie, I think.
McDuffie. And McDuffie came in, and he went to the table and showed me how to place the chair with a 45 degree angle to the table. And he said to me, he says, "Now he will alert you when he is going to take a seat, but don't help him even if you think he's falling. He'll let you know if he wants help. So you just stand by that chair." Then we went down to the Oval Room downstairs, diplomatic room, and there we met the governor. He drove up in the car, and Mac went up to him. He says, "Governor, this is Fields. He's on the White House staff, he's going to help me with you tonight." And this man beamed and he says, "Well, hello, Fields!" He took my hand in both hands and shaked my hand and looked right at me with a smile, and then he put his arm around my shoulder, an arm around his valet's shoulder, and we lifted him out of the car and placed him in the wheelchair. Well, I had assumed that I would lead him to the elevator, and as I started off to lead him the governor says, "Wait a minute, Fields. Come here and walk by me here. I want to talk with you." Well I walked by the governor and all the way up we talked, and he was asking me about myself and so forth on, where I was from and so all forth. He also asked me did I know Mayor Curley? I laughed and said, "Yes, I think I voted for Mayor Curley a couple times." He laughed about it, and all up to the elevator door, and at the door, at the lobby of the elevator there was a fellow named Charlie Green who had known him when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He looked up and he said, "Why hello, Charles! How are you Charles?" And with that swagger of his and warm greetings and Charles and he shook hands?" And then when he got to the elevator there was John Mays. Then he did bowl over. "John! You look the same. John, when was the last time you had a tip from Barney Baruch?" John Mays was a horse player. He liked to gamble on the horses, and Mr. Baruch used to give him tips, and of course if the horse lost Mr. Baruch could kind of repay him for his tips. And the President turned to me, you know, "Mays never lost less than five dollars. There's always five dollars."
Amazing. So he really knew everybody.
Oh yes, oh yes.
So did he make a real impression at this meeting, at this meeting with the president and all the other governors?
Well, with the other governors there wasn't much conversation, but when he got up to the elevator corridor, led him up the elevator, then I discovered that he had on heavy steel braces. He locked these braces and his legs were prone from that sitting position, and then he put his arms around our shoulders and we stood him on his feet, and he took the arm of his bodyguard, the cane in one hand, and walked into the dining room. The angle of that chair, and with a nod to me, he fell. He literally fell in the chair because when he sat down his legs were prone in that sitting position. Then I waited until he unlocked his legs and as he lifted to move to the table I gradually moved the chair to the table. Now it did take a strong chair, and no slight man could hold...He had a magnificent torso and with just his torso he weighed a 180 pounds alone. His legs were withered.
Did he really talk though? He wasn't held back by it?
Oh no. He was determined, he was determined. He was jovial. Most people, invalids, tend to be kind of scratchy, but he was jovial.
The next day at the breakfast table, tell me.
The next day at the breakfast table...Of course, that evening I had about 20 waiters serving the dinner, and as they came out, after seeing him seated, they said, "Oh my God, that man can never be president. What makes him think he can be president? You've got to be active! How're you going to be president? He can't be president." Well, the next morning at the cabinet meeting they were thinking much like the butlers in the pantry. How can he be president? Dr. Boone said, "It's impossible. People...To elect him president and they find out he's only a half man. They'll never elect him president." But there was one man at the table that spoke up, and that was Justice Stone, who later became Chief Justice Stone. Justice Stone says, "Well, let's not be in a hurry. Let's don't rush this thing, 'cause if we say much about it it will kick back on us.
What did he mean by that?
He meant that if they whispered about him being handicapped that the people would begin to think that they were telling one of those unpleasant things about a candidate just to defeat him, and that with his appearance and even on the television about his appearance he says, "Few people will ever see him standing up like he did with us." He says, "He'll come in walking on someone's arm." And he says, "Of course you might be startled seeing him walking on someone's arm but the man's standing. He has this magnificent torso." He says, "And he'll be standing at the podium. He can stand there for hours." And he says, "He has a magnificent, warm smile and voice that radiates with sincerity. Well, that new media of communication," which is then just the radio, he says, "Well, that new media of communication, he can be mighty impressive, and he'll refute anything you might say about him."
What about President Hoover?
President Hoover never said a word. Just never said one word. He listened and looked around the table, never said one word.
What kind of reputation do you remember FDR was developing during the campaign? He made this speech about a "Forgotten Man." Do you remember that? Did that cause a sensation?
Well he and Al Smith got into the primary, and Al Smith accused him of bringing class against class, and so forth on. He spoke then, at his speech he went to the convention in a plane.
Could you just start that again, because that's interesting. Just say "FDR."
FDR. FDR went to accept at the convention in a plane, which was unthought of in those days, and it was kind of risky. The cabinet felt that he's playing up to the gallery. He's like his Uncle Ted. He'll play up to the gallery. Of course people say, "A man can't be a cripple and get in a plane when no else is hardly daring to ride in a plane." He went and gave his acceptance speech, and that's when he talked about the forgotten man. At that same breakfast that morning talking about that they were talking about it. The president said, "Well in 20 years from now this is the thing that is coming."
OK, and if you could just remember to say "Hoover and FDR" that will help us.
The next morning, of course, the nomination of president...FDR. Well, he wasn't president, he was governor. Governor Roosevelt went to the convention to give his acceptance speech, and he went there by plane. The cabinet were really...especially Mark Sullivan. He said, "Well, he's like his Uncle Ted. He's playing to the gallery. The people in the gallery, they'll see all of this and it's exciting." But he says, "No one's going to pay any attention to that. That won't get the vote." He went to the convention and there he talked about "Forgotten Man." Of course, from then on as the campaign went on, the radio was really outstanding and then he would go all over the country. And they had a picture one morning showing him at Indianapolis on the circle in Indianapolis in an old-English restaurant, or hotel, standing on the balcony. Oh, it was a glorious, outstanding picture. All the monument was packed with people, and FDR standing up with his elegant pose and talking to the people. That picture seemed to upset the cabinet. It was so impressive to them, and they passed it around, passed it around and looked around, so forth on. They were then interested about Coolidge. They wanted Coolidge to say something, and Coolidge had refused to participate. He hadn't said anything at all. Of course, the story is that President Coolidge was much upset when Hoover accepted... He said, "I do not choose to run," and of course no sooner had he said that than Hoover, like a fish, he jumped to the beat and started running for the presidency. He didn't have too much love for President Hoover.
Now during the campaign, did the talk at the breakfast table... Did Hoover seem to think he was going to win the election, or did he think he was in trouble with FDR? Do you know?
He felt he was in trouble. He felt he was in trouble. His whole thought was that these people would not believe the "political muck." He called it political muck. "They won't believe the political muck. They know my reputation." He just didn't feel that he should rebut. He was going to proceed with his own upright attitude, that the people would not believe the political muck, that I have no interest in the masses of the people when I've spent all my life in the masses of the people. They will not believe that political muck.
So you think right into November Hoover thought he had a chance to win?
Well, I'm sure he did, and of course it depended on . showed him winning all along. Of course, I don't think has ever taken a poll since. That was since 60 years ago.
So the conversation, the cabinet members, even in October and November, what kinds of things were they saying about the campaign?
They felt that the crowds would not vote. That's what they said. The crowds would not vote. He was getting crowds all over the country, but the crowds would not vote. Their whole thought was that the crowds would not vote. Especially in the North, they just couldn't see it, because this man had a silver tongue, they called him almost like a Billy Sunday. Billy Sunday was a great evangelist in that day. They were getting to say to themselves, "He's sounding like a..." I can't think of it..."
OK. I want to just cut for a second. This has been really wonderful...I know that you know Walter White came to the White House. He was working on trying to get Congress to pass the anti-lynching law. Maybe you could tell me how it is that Walter White came to the White House and what he did when he got there.
Well, Mrs. Roosevelt, she was quite active...and she was telling Franklin he'd have to pass, he'd have to do something about it, you know. This night she was talking to him about it, and she was telling...
Excuse me, could you just...
Yeah, but also "it." The anti-lynching law. If you could just start again...
The anti-lynching law. She was talking to the President about it, and she was talking to him also about what Wilkie had said about it. So the President said, "I know what I'll do." He says, "I'll get Walter White." He looked up, and he says, "Today is Wednesday. I'll have Walter White, I'll have Early call Walter White and have him here for Sunday tea, and I'll talk to him about it. " Mrs Roosevelt kind of laughed, "You don't want Early to call." He says, "Why not?" She says, "Early and Walter had a falling-out." He says, "What about?" "About the anti-lynching law," she says, "because Early thought he was too fresh about it, too outspoken about it, and Walter also gave him [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ." And the President says, "Oh, I didn't know that." And she says, "You better let me call Walter, Franklin." And he says, "All right Babs, you call Walter." So Walter arrived for the tea at 4:30. Mrs. Sarah was about, we called her Delano, Mrs. Delano, she was a house guest, and she liked to function in on certain things, and so to kind of give her ego a little boost the President had her come down to pour tea out on the south portico. Of course Walter was talking to the President all the time. I didn't know what the conversation was until I went out when he rang the bell that he wanted to leave. So I escorted Mr. White out, and then I went back to hold the chair for the butler, for his valet. So I went back and this conversation I heard. Sarah said, "Well, that was such a nice man, such a gentleman..."
Justice Frankfurter was an advisor to President Roosevelt, and you could depend... When they'd have lunch under the old magnolia tree I could depend on getting some information. Usually it'd be about minorities or some legal thing, see, on the New Deal and so forth on. It was... July... There'd been a promise that on July the first the President was going to get through some action on rights to work on the contracts. Blacks couldn't, they weren't qualified, yet nobody was teaching them to be qualified and so forth on. And so Justice Frankfurter was talking to him about the Supreme Court. Hughes was resigning, this was in June, the first of July, and says, "You've got to be thinking about somebody for the job." He also suggested that he do Justice Stone, because Justice Stone was a moderate Republican and with the war threatening it'd be just the thing to do. And then he says, "While I'm talking to you about it" he says, "Phillip Randolph is planning a march." He went on to tell him about this bill and the President says, "Well, my God, what did they think it was about?" He says, "This is something. What are we going to do? If they come, you can imagine what they'll do in Washington. All of these colored people marching into Washington..."
We just ran out...
Let's hear what Frankfurter told FDR, and especially I'm interested in how FDR reacted. OK, so how did FDR learn about the March on Washington?
In June of 1941 he was having lunch with the President, and he'd been talking about other things, about the Supreme Court and Chief Justice. Then he told the president about the organization that A. Phillip Randolph was getting up, that he was trying to organize all of the fraternal organizations and churches and so forth, and aggravate nearly 10000 people to march on Washington for this right to work. The President says, "Oh my God. What is he thinking about? Can you imagine" he says, "can you imagine, Felix, what this would mean, all these colored people coming in to Washington?" He says, "Oh, that can upset everything. We've got to stick together." Then Mr. Justice Frankfurter said, "Well, no doubt Randolph is more outspoken at this time, but it's no more than I would be if I was in Randolph's place." So then the President said, "Something has to be done." He says, "Well, I'll tell you. Franklin says, "Why not get Mrs. Roosevelt and Sidney Hillman and the [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] LaGuardia to talk to them." So they did, but Randolph and them, told LaGuardia. LaGuardia says, "What have I done?" They scolded him. So they were determined to have the march. So then, I forget now... By July the first the president had issued the order, the OPM to proceed with the right to work regulation.
What was Roosevelt worried about? What was the pressure he was feeling?
Well, he was feeling the pressure, not only from the unions, he's feeling the pressure from the groups in aviation, and all the groups are people, as he said do not understand and in many instances he said they're not any better educated than the colored people. It's their right to participate in this, and we're going to need everybody in this program.
What do you think he was feeling about Randolph's proposed march? Was he worried? What was his worry if the march did happen?
His worry was that the other groups would perhaps interfere. There would be bickering along the parade line, so forth on. That's what he was afraid of. He was afraid that other groups would resurrect against the march. That's what he was afraid of.
What was his attitude about the way black people were demanding their rights? Did he feel that was going too far?
No, no. He never expressed himself that way. Mrs. Roosevelt kept at that side of it. President Roosevelt, he had many angles. What I mean by that, every member of his family were politically interested. Perhaps sometimes in their own favor, but they were interested in getting information to him. They couldn't shut President Roosevelt out. It was relevant. McDuffie, he went around, intermingled with the blacks and he took a forefront with the blacks. Blacks thought they could talk to the President through McDuffie. He had many sources. Of course, he knew what was going on, yeah. Of course, everybody thought, all the minorities and masses of people felt if they told Mrs. Roosevelt there's no question that it would get back to the President. Of course, she was a great force with the President. She really kept some of these people, perhaps, in reverence because she was out there with them, see. They were sure, they were sure.
Now another very dramatic moment when you were in the White House was Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Can you describe that day for me? Tell me where you were and what you saw and especially how President Roosevelt reacted.
Well that day, I'll just tell you about that day. I'm about to add to... I was about to go back and tell you about the week before. You want that day?
Just that day.
Just that day. Pearl Harbor [laughs].
OK, so just that day. Now, tell me the story.
Well, we were having a luncheon. Forty ladies in the State Dining Room, and the President was having Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Bullitt, former ambassador to Russia, and General Watson, and Ms. Tulley. I had assigned two men to serve the luncheon, and I'd go from one to the other. It was like a three-ring circus sometimes at the White House. So I would go upstairs and see how they were progressing, come back downstairs to the dining room, and my pantry crew detail lined them up. As I... I had just left the President. The information hadn't arrived up there to him. As I came downstairs I was looking over the dining room, I saw they were ready for the change of course for the salad course. I went in and got my crew working. When I went upstairs, my men were standing around. They didn't know what to do. The President was in a heel, he had his head in his hand, and he was saying, "Oh my God. My God, how did it happen? How did it happen? Now I'll go down as a disgrace in history." And he was just shaking his head like that. General Watson, and oh yes, Mr. McIntyre had come up, Secretary McIntyre. They were carrying messages, and Ms. Tullet was getting communication from Naval Operation, Admiral Sharp. They were bringing messages back and forth, and finally Watson came out. He says, "Mr. President, they got the whole goddamn navy. What in the hell are we going to do now?" The President just sat there, amazed. He says, "How did it happen? How did it happen?" Mr. Hopkins spoke up and he says, "We can't decide what this will be until later on." And then the President says, "Where is Marshall?" Well, Marshall... trying to find Marshall. He says, "Leahy and Admiral King are on the way here. They'll be here in a minute." By that time they were there.
Could I just ask you to repeat that one piece where he was told that they got the whole fleet? Who was it that told him that?
General Marshall...Not General Marshall, General Watson.
Just tell me that part of the story one more time.
He came out with the information in his hand. "My God, my God, Mr. President, it looks like they got the whole goddamn navy. What in the hell are we going to do now?" And the President says, he just sat there in amazement, kind of shaking his head. Then finally he looked up and he says, "Have you gotten Marshall? Is Marshall coming?" He said, "We are trying to find Marshall, but Admiral Leahy and King will be here any minute." By that time they stepped into the study.
What a dramatic day. What a dramatic moment. What happened next?
From then on, well, of course, the whole place was buzzing. The [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] office, the [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] were bringing in chairs and the president was at his desk, and they formed a horseshoe. All the different Congressmen and military men and advisors. From then on the luncheon was cancelled. I sent up for beer and sandwiches, and we were serving from then until one thirty the next morning. After I dismissed my men, of course then the war issue had brought up...Secret Service had to have a clear on everyone, a clearance on everyone. I'm making out my list and giving it to the Secret Service...Before I left, Mr. Clontz, the usher on duty, he came to me and says, "The President wants two beers and sandwiches up in his office. He says to send them up right away. I had no one to send, so I took it up myself. When I got up there Mr. Ed Murrow was talking to him. It seemed like Ed Murrow had been sitting around all the afternoon for his appointment, and at that hour the President was talking to Ed. There seemed to be a blue maze around him, he seemed that tired. He says, "Ed, I don't know what's out there. But I will declare war on Japan tomorrow. I will not declare on Germany yet, but I will declare war on Japan. We don't know what's out there. We won't know until we clear it up tomorrow." Of course, I left him and he was... As I left and went home that night I said to myself, "My God." I knew that I was so tired that sleep would embrace me when I got home, but I wondered what the President would do. You see these people and you do take on and you realize, after all, it's your country. I don't care what you might say about it, what other country do you have at that time? It's your country, and you feel for them, you feel for them.
And you were there at all these times.
I was there. I saw the expressions on their faces. I heard their bad language and so forth.
But you knew what they were struggling with. Well, that was great.