Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Story of Franklin Roosevelt's Alternative Destiny

by Nomad

Here's an obscure bit of trivia about our 32nd President president: a story of a path that was never taken and that made all the difference

The Best Thing

My mother tended to be an optimist and whenever I came home with some tale of woe, no matter how desperate or despairing the situation was, she would usually say, "You know, that might just be the best thing that ever happened to you."

That kind of Pollyanna approach was not exactly what I wanted to hear. I wanted hand-holding sympathy. However, looking back, I think she was, for the most part, correct.
If one chooses to believe in fate, then it is the invisible hand of destiny that nudges us this way and that to keep us on a certain path. Every obstacle in our path, every disappointment has actually been a challenge that we had to learn from.

In my mother's world, nothing happened randomly: there was a reason why terrible things happened, why our hopes and dreams were sometimes crushed or deferred. The detours were just as important as the destination.

FDR: A Man Adrift

The other day, I stumbled across this story about the early career of Franklin Roosevelt. I cannot vouch for the veracity of the story but it sounds plausible enough. I have filled in the details as best I could.

In the early 1920s, Franklin Roosevelt was little more than a member of the high society with an important name and lots of ambition.
True, he had graduated Harvard University and Columbia Law School. Eleven years earlier, he had won a New York State Senate seat and won re-election, despite the fact, the district was deeply Republican.
No question, he had the right background for 20th-century success.

Having served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson, he had, in 1920, run as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket with Ohio governor and presidential nominee, James Cox.
The ticket lost to Republican Senator Warren G. Harding whose administration would be mostly remembered for its scandals.
Through his connections, Roosevelt partnered with a law firm and was the vice president of Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland.
The mornings would be devoted to his law practice and the afternoon hours to Fidelity. The deal was made and FDR’s salary set at $25,000 (approximately $287,000 in at current values).
Nice salary for part-time work, right? Some have suggested that his famous name was a means of attracting clients. He reportedly did not like the legal profession.

According to the highly-critical book, The Roosevelt Myth, by journalist John Thomas Flynn:
At this point, Roosevelt could not be tagged as man with any indispensable qualification in any field of life. He was 40 years old. He had a reputation of being a snob.
His devoted follower Frances Perkins says of Roosevelt of this period, 
"He didn't like people very much. He had a youthful lack of humility, a streak of self-righteousness and a deafness to the hopes, fears and aspirations which are the common lot."
This brings us to our story, as presented by the the February 1947 issue of Cornet Magazine. It was written by Jane West Walton. 

One day in 1923, while I as a story editor for Paramount Pictures in New York, Adolph Zukor called me to his office. He was holding a letter when I entered.
"It's from one of the Roosevelts," he said. "He wants to to sell us a story about John Paul Jones."

I glanced at the letterhead and read: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vice-President, Fidelity & Deposit Company of Maryland, 120 Broadway, New York City.
"Are you interested?" I asked.
Zukor shrugged. "Not much. Besides, I can't afford to do a costume picture now."
"What do you want me to do?"
"The Roosevelts are important people," Zukor said," I think we ought to let him down easy."

That afternoon, I telephoned Roosevelt. "I'd like to talk to you about your story idea on John Paul Jones," I said.
"Wonderful!" he replied enthusiastically, "But not on the phone. Can you come to tea tomorrow?"

The next afternoon, I entered the Roosevelt mansion on East 65th Street and was enchanted by the charm of the family circle. From the things he said, I deduced that Roosevelt looked upon writing as his new career. 

FDR's Reasons

There are some things that the author did not mention. In August of 1921, two years earlier, Franklin Roosevelt's promising political career had been crushed.
While at the family's vacation home off the Maine coast, he was stricken with poliomyelitis (infantile paralysis). According to the conventional wisdom of the time, a political career for a cripple was out of the question.

How much Roosevelt believed this, it is hard to say. However, it goes some way in explaining why Roosevelt was contemplating an alternative career path.
That's not to say that Roosevelt was wallowing in self-pity or completely idle during this time.

In May 1923, (a few months before this story takes place) Roosevelt appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
The magazine had featured an article about his role as president of the newly-established American Construction Council (ACC) ACC was an unsuccessful attempt at self-regulation by the construction industry. Its failure answered the question whether corporations could, with the help of government, regulate themselves.

We were at tea when finally he asked, "What did Mr. Zukor think about my idea?"
The entire group looked at me. There was such trust and confidence in their faces that I could not tell the truth so I said evasively: "He's considering it seriously."
"Is there anything wrong with it?" Roosevelt asked.

"It's not that," I said, groping for an excuse. "Paramount works so far in advance that we're checking our Hollywood studios to see when we can fit a picture of that type into our schedule."

For three months, we continued this pretense. As I accepted invitations to visit the family in New York and Hyde Park, I became more aware of Roosevelt's determination to assume a literary career and it made it increasingly painful to tell him that his first attempt was doomed to failure.

At last, when I could endure procrastination no longer, I told him that his story had been rejected. I could see he was crushed. Clumsily, I rambled with excuses of production schedules and studio complications. but he was obviously bitterly disappointed and the issue was not mentioned again in our last hour together.

With that particular dream dashed to bits, Roosevelt began, with the help of his wife and his close friends, to put his life back in order.
On June 1924, FDR re-entered the public arena at the Democratic National Convention in New York City. Thanks to the work of Louis Howe and Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR was able to stay active in politics while he began his rehabilitation.

In 1924, FDR backed New York Governor Al Smith as the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party, and Smith asked FDR to give his nominating speech at the convention. When on stage, FDR moved to the podium assisted only by his two crutches – a huge feat for him to perform.
In October 1924, Roosevelt began to visit Warm Springs, Georgia in hopes that hydrotherapy would alleviate the worst of his paraplegia.
Three years later, in 1927, Roosevelt went on to found the charity hospital for polio victims. After years of feeling the beneficial effects of the waters, Roosevelt made the decision to do more.
As one source points out:
Roosevelt decided to buy the property and run it as a combination vacation resort and treatment center. He hired health care professionals and organized card games, water basketball, picnics, musical evening and other activities. Polio survivors appreciated both the treatments and the companionship. Some guests could not pay, but nobody was turned away.
Later named Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, the facility still exists today and "continues a tradition of compassion and quality care."

Let's return to the story. It is now 1938:

Fifteen years passed. During President Roosevelt's second administration, my husband, Capt. Duncan Walton, USN., and I were invited to a White House reception for Arm and Navy officers and their wives. When we were presented to the President, he looked at me searchingly. Then he asked, "It's Jane West, isn't it?

I said, "Yes, Mr. President."

A broad smile brightened his face. "You know," he said," I think at the time, I wanted to sell my story about John Paul Jones and become a professional writer more than I had wanted anything else in my life. My darkest moment was when you told me that Paramount had rejected it."

"I'm sure they regret that more now than you did then," I said.

"Perhaps," he said, "but that rejection taught me something important. A failure, no matter how dismal it may make the future seem, doesn't mean the end of a man's life. I've learned that the best way to overcome failure is to put it and all its reminders into the past, and then to attack an even greater challenge with a deeper determination to succeed."

"Your own political success proves that theory."

The President smiled again.

"Do you think so?" he asked. "Well, this much is certain- if Paramount had taken that story, you and I wouldn't be chatting in the White House, would we?"

To be honest, I had my doubts about this story. It sounds a little too good to be true, doesn't it?
Yet, the details about the author check out. And the strongest support from an unimpeachable source, FDR's wife.

In response to the Walton article, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her daily column, My Day:
I was pleased to receive a little story written by Jane West Walton, telling of my husband's desire to write about John Paul Jones. He collected everything he could find about the Scottish-born American naval officer and found him a most intriguing character. But he never gave enough time to writing about Jones, so I was not surprised to find his little story was not accepted back in the 1920's.

In fact, I can recall the occasion. But what amused me was Franklin's characteristic adjustment to his disappointment. He never dwelt on the failures or disappointments in life. He went right on to the next thing that could be done. I think that is what kept him young and hopeful in spirit.
So, what's been the biggest challenge in your life? Did you have any alternative path that, for one reason or another, didn't come to pass?