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Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Harvard

F.D.R. Was a Fair Student, An Extracurricular Demon, And a Gentleman-Democrat

By Philip M. Boffey

Historians differ widely in evaluating Franklin D. Roosevelt's Harvard career. Some find him an average undergraduate; others detect a natural propensity for class leadership. Some emphasize his aristocratic background; others point to democratic tendencies. Some claim he had few friends; others assert he mixed well with people.

Though seemingly contradictory, all these generalizations are in some degree true. Roosevelt was a class leader in extracurricular activities, but he was only an average student. He was a New York aristocrat living on the Gold Coast, yet compared to his Groton friends he had some radically democratic ideas. And while he worked well with people, his liberal notions alienated many of his Gold Coast acquaintances.

F.D.R. achieved his greatest college fame in extracurricular activities. "Any chronicle of Roosevelt at Harvard must inevitably bear much outward resemblance to Stover at Yale," Frank Freidel has said, "with its hero ever striving onward and upward from one extracurricular triumph to another."

The extent of Roosevelt's extracurricular interests can be seen in a list of his activities. He belonged to the Fly Club, the Hasty Pudding, the Institute of 1770, the Dickey, the Signet Society, the Social Service Society, the Political Club, the Yacht Club, the Glee Club, the Memorial Society, the St. Paul's Society, and the Harvard CRIMSON.

In many of these, he held positions of leadership. He helped found the Political Society, he was elected secretary of the Glee Club, he worked his way up from assistant managing editor to managing editor to president of the CRIMSON, and, though defeated for class marshal, he was elected chairman of the Class Day committee.

Crimson Career

Most important of his activities was the CRIMSON. On the paper's 70th anniversary in 1943 F.D.R. said: "I am sure that I voice the sentiment of all that company of happy men when I say that none of them would exchange his CRIMSON training for any other experience or association in college days." The occasion admittedly called for a eulogy. But F.D.R. had earlier remarked: "I must say frankly that I remember my own adventures as an editor rather more clearly than I do my routine work as a student."

Roosevelt's CRIMSON career began on October 15, 1900 when he and about 67 of his classmates answered a call for candidates. Competitions in those days were grueling affairs, and Roosevelt had committed himself heavily to journalism for the remainder of the year. W.R. Bowie, managing editor of the paper when F.D.R. was president, wrote in the 1904 Harvard Yearbook this description of a competition: "The task was heavy, the drain on the candidate's thought and time exhausting. The candidate was everywhere; he was 'the arrow that flieth by day, and the pestilence that walketh in darkness.'"

An erroneous legend persists that F.D.R.'s first important story came through a bold interview with President Eliot. Then, as now, there was a rule forbidding candidates to pester the University's top administrators. But, ignorant of this, the story goes, Roosevelt approached Eliot and asked him how he was going to vote in the 1900 presidential election. The legend has several variations, all of which glorify F.D.R. as a brash, bright young man who charms the story from Eliot through sheer daring.

In 1931, however, F.D.R. wrote: "In some way I was a number of years ago given credit for getting a scoop from President Eliot in regard to the way he was going to vote in the autumn of 1900. The real man who got that scoop was Albert W. DeRoode, now a lawyer in New York City, and he should have the credit and not I."

When the first group of freshmen was elected to the paper in February, 1901, Roosevelt was not among them. It was not until the end of April that he got the story which insured his election. He saw in the Boston papers that his cousin, vice-president Theodore Roosevelt '80, was in Cambridge visiting Professor Lowell, so he and another cousin called T.R. up and asked to see him. The vice-president said he was going to lecture in Lowell's Gov 1 course in Sanders the next morning. He would be glad to see them afterward. F.D.R. raced for the CRIME and reported his story. "Young man," the managing editor is supposed to have replied, "you hit page one tomorrow morning." The scoop appeared, Sanders Theatre was swamped, and F.D.R. gained election that June.

Too Much Credit

Roosevelt boosters have given him more journalistic credit than he deserves. One has said that the CRIMSON was "dull reading until Franklin came along. He gave it a shot of modern journalism that raised its circulation--and the blood pressure of the faculty." And another has exclaimed: "The astounded college awoke. Gossip carried the news of the revived CRIMSON throughout the student body and town. Men who had never read the paper took fresh interest. Well! ...Hm! ...Well! Well!... So the dead have arisen! ...Say, that's an apt bit, and this is a scathing comment, if I may say so--have you read it?"

Actually, Roosevelt was a good, though not a spectacular, Crimed. His fellow editors remember him variously as "a cocky, conceited chap with a great name but nothing else," the best "mixer of claret punch for the semi-annual initiations of new editors," an "energetic, resourceful, and independent" person, and a man with "remarkable capacity for dealing genially with people."

'Lillie of the Valley'

Roosevelt's first position on the CRIMSON was secretary, a traditional sophomore post. In those days a comic poster was printed playing with the names of the newly elected officers. F.D.R.'s read: "For Secretary, Rosy Rosenfelt, The Lillie of the Valley."

"Rosy" advanced to higher executive position, and did a fairly conventional job in each. For the first semester of his junior year, he was one of the two assistant managing editors, in charge of the paper two nights a week. The papers of that period were dull and routine by todays standards--one historian has characterized them as "bulletin boards"--and F.D.R.'s appear no different from the rest.

In the second half of his junior year, Roosevelt won the managing editorship. Here again, he was competent, but not outstanding. Slightly better sports reporting was the only noticeable change under his leadership.

But he clearly demonstrated an ability to command the cheerful loyalty of those who worked for him. One of F.D.R.'s staff recalls that Ed and Mac, the CRIMSON printers, "habitually presented stern resistance to any departure from their routine." But, when Roosevelt asked it, they would "do anything with alacrity and complete approbation," even though it meant taking the forms off the press to make them over for some late news.

Other editors noted the same quality. "Before I graduated," Robert W. Ruhl '03 said, "I talked with the other editors who had executive positions and they said Franklin had a lot on the ball and the nerve of a brass baboon... The man could, if he wished, charm the birdies right out of the trees."

Although Roosevelt completed his college requirements in three years, he took graduate courses in the fall of 1903 so that he could stay on and head the paper as president, a position to which the m.e. automatically advanced. It was then the president's job to write all the editorials, and F.D.R.'s reputation as a crusading journalist stems chiefly from this aspect of his CRIMSON career.

Always an Issue

Roosevelt always had an issue to campaign for, and there is some evidence that he occasionally stirred up the student body. After a sarcastic editorial on the ineptness of the football team, he wrote home to his mother: "The row about Monday's editorial is subsiding--at least half the college think it was quite called for. Something of the kind was necessary but I shouldn't have made it quite so strong."

By today's standards, and perhaps by the standards of the time, however, Roosevelt's editorial range was conventional indeed. Freidel claims that his policies varied little from those of other alert college editors of his generation. He continually attacked both the football team and the student body for lack of spirit, he proposed a separate section in the stadium "where ladies may enter without fear of being asphyxiated" by tobacco smoke, he advocated boardwalks in the Yard during the wet winter months, and he successfully campaigned for better fire-fighting equipment in the Yard dormitories. His regime was evaluated by the Harvard Alumni Bulletin as "at least mildly distinguished for the animation of his many editorials, and for certain college reforms which he engineered."

Despite his numerous activities, F.D.R. found time to participate in athletics. He was not good enough to make the varsity teams, but he played freshman football and rowed on the freshman crew. All through his college career he was greatly interested in intramural sports, chiefly rowing. "We had the most exciting kind of race yesterday and won by four feet," he exclaimed in one letter home, and there are similar references throughout his correspondence.

Social Whirl

What time and energy he had left--and he possessed considerable of the latter--was chiefly spent on the Cambridge-Boston social whirl. Roosevelt has often been characterized as a democrat during his college days, but he was one only in a gentlemanly sense. When compared to his Groton friends, he had some radical notions, but when compared to the average student, he was definitely aristocratic.

Some idea of the extent of his social activity can be grasped from this excerpt from a letter home: "On Thursday I...went to lunch at the Sturgises', and to dine at the Lords'...on Saturday went to lunch with Mrs. Brown at the Touraine and went to the theatre in the evening. On Sunday (yesterday) I met Sidney Lord in Harvard Square at 9:30, & we went to Oakley and had a very good game of golf, & met various members of the family. I hustled back at 12:30 and went in to a stag lunch with Willy Burnham... After service I paid several calls, one to the Forbeses' but they were out. I hustled back here and in again to dinner at Gerry Chadwick's where I stayed all evening."

His living quarters on the Gold Coast also reflected his social background. Endicott Peabody, official preacher to the University, often decried the "gap between Mt. Auburn Street and the Yard," and it was just such expensive dorms as Westmorly Court, where F.D.R. lived, that Peabody disliked.

Roosevelt did not eat at the large common dining halls in college. For the freshman year, prep school graduates generally ate at their own special tables in Cambridge eating houses. "Our table, you will be glad to hear, began at lunch yesterday," he wrote to his mother, "and the crowd is a very nice one and next to the table of some of the other Grotonians.

Porcellian Rejection

In his upperclass years, Roosevelt ate at his various sophomore, junior, and "final" clubs--the Institute of 1770, the DKE, and the Fly. But he failed to gain election to the most elite club--the Porcellian--despite the fact that his cousin Theodore had been a member. A scandal involving one of his cousins may have hurt his chances. But whatever the reason for his rejection, it was a serious blow to him. Eleanor Roosevelt thought it gave him an inferiority complex and led him to become more democratic.

That he had non-"clubbie" tendencies is clear. "Franklin was not a typical club man of his generation at college," a classmate recalls. "He had more on his mind than sitting in the Club's front window, doing nothing and criticizing the passers-by. Thus his not 'making' the Porcellian meant only that he was free of any possible restraining influence of a lot of delightful people who thought that the world belonged to them, and who did not want to change anything in it."

'The Featherduster'

What these people chiefly disliked about Roosevelt is that he did want to change things, and many of them found reason to scorn him. "His smart friends tended to regard him as overmuch of an intellectual," according to Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., "and the girls of his own set called him 'the featherduster' because of supposedly shallow and priggish qualities."

Much that F.D.R. said and did was of the sort to alienate the Gold Coast crowd. He made occasional slighting references to Society in his letters: "Last week I dined at the Quincys', the Amorys' & the Thayers', three as high-life places as are to be found in blue-blooded, blue stockinged, bean eating Boston." And in retrospect he wrote: "Once upon a time when I was in Cambridge I had serious thoughts of marrying a Boston girl and settling down in the Back Bay to spend the rest of my days. Such was the influence of four years of that... kind of association I am complaining about. By the grace of God I took a trip at that time, meeting numbers of real Americans, i.e. those from the west and south. I was saved, but it was an awfully narrow escape."

The best known story of F.D.R.'s "democracy" in college concerns his supposed reform of the class elections in his senior year. For years the class day officers had been drawn from the select clubs, which were better organized for political maneuvering than the mass of the student body. A year or two earlier changes in the election procedure had been proposed, and F.D.R. continued, rather than originated, the campaign. "There is a higher duty than to vote for one's personal friends," he admonished his classmates, "and that is to secure for the whole class leaders who really deserve the positions."

F.D.R.'s alienation from the aristocracy at Harvard should not be exaggerated, however. Most members of his social class still accepted him. Herbert Burgess, a Fly Club brother, remarked that "his charm and ease of manner were apparent in those early days." And while he may have been disappointed in not making the "Porc," the Fly, then as now, was considered one of the better clubs.

Still a 'Gentleman'

Though a rebel in some respects, Roosevelt did not turn his back on things social. He was impressed enough to write home once: "THE CROWN PRINCE OF SIAM was at the game, and came to the FLY after it for some 'afternoon tea,' i.e. a little champagne!" And while heading the CRIMSON, he refused to stop running the list of men who made the various clubs. (The next year's editors stopped "that concession to snobbery.") Democratic though he was, he remained a gentleman in the Roosevelt tradition.

Despite his social activities, F.D.R. was no ladies' man. But his love for Eleanor Roosevelt would appeal to any romance magazine. Eleanor had an unhappy childhood. She loved her warm-hearted, weak, and per-

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