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FDR’s Gatekeeper: The President’s Most Significant Surrogate First Lady

marguerite-missy-lehandPrevious posts on the site have demonstrated that Eleanor Roosevelt was matrimonially estranged from Franklin, her husband. The breach occurred in 1918 when Eleanor accidently discovered his ongoing affair with Lucy Mercer, her social secretary. Consequently, during his 1920s convalescence for disabling polio, two term governorship of New York state (1928-32), and his 12 plus years as president (1932-45), Roosevelt relied upon other women for his emotional support, relaxation, psychological boosting, and organizing his social life.

Previous posts in this space identified Daisy Suckley, his cousin, and Anna Roosevelt, his daughter, as two women, acting as Surrogate First Ladies, who filled the void left by Eleanor, his wife.

Marguerite (Missy) LeHand is the third, and most important and the most enduring Roosevelt surrogate. She came aboard in July 1921 as FDR’s private secretary. She retained that role and added to it for nearly twenty years until she was felled by a stroke while hosting the president’s annual dinner party for his immediate staff at the White House on June 4, 1942. In many ways Missy was at Roosevelt’s right hand as he implemented his domestic and foreign agenda.

Missy was alone with FDR for most of his emotional recovery from polio aboard his Florida houseboat and in Warm Springs Georgia, that he established as his vacation retreat. For the 208 weeks during 1924-8, Roosevelt was away from home and family for 116. Eleanor was his companion for four; Missy for one hundred and ten. (1). It is much speculated, but never proved that the two were lovers. Elliott, the Roosevelts’ son, wrote “Missy shared a familial life in all respects with father.” (2)

Although appalled that her private intimacy with Franklin would be exchanged for his public and political life, Missy was Roosevelt’s administrative right hand when he was New York Governor and US President. She lived in the governor’s mansion in Albany and in the White House in Washington. Her White House duties would extend late into the evening, as she attended a state dinner, arranged a quiet night of poker to help the president relax, or simply sat with FDR in his study. Missy’s weekends were not her own. (3)

LeHand was the Gatekeeper to the Oval Office. “She learned to screen him from unnecessary annoyances, details that he did not want to know, and people that he did not want to see, and making sure that he addressed matters, however unpleasant.”
Moreover, FDR and his executive secretary liked to kick back and have fun, gossip, joke, and laugh. They shared the same sense of nonsense, in which the dour serious Eleanor could never participate. (4)

However, Mrs. Roosevelt appreciated, even welcomed the surrogate’s closeness with her husband. This freed her from many of the responsibilities of First Lady. It allowed Eleanor to travel widely and promote intensively her political and social pursuits. (5)

Marguerite LeHand suffered a disabling stroke in June, 1941 while hostessing the president’s annual party for his staff. She never fully recovered and never
returned to her role as the confidante of her beloved “FD”.

Missy died on July 30, 1944. Roosevelt paid for all her medical bills; the Roosevelt family still maintains her grave.

Kathryn Smith, The Gatekeeper (New York: Touchstone Press, 2016)
1.    page 60
2.    page 58
3.    page 158
4.    page 43
5.    page 90

First Ladies of America
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