The Death of President
Franklin Roosevelt, 1945
It was April 1945. The end of the war in Europe
was in sight as the allied armies pressed their invasion into the German heartland.
In Washington, President Roosevelt's health had noticeably deteriorated. His
ashen-grey complexion and
physical weakness raised concerns for his health among friends, family and associates. The president needed a rest, a chance to recuperate and regain his strength. Accordingly, the president once again traveled to the "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Georgia. With him went an entourage of friends and relatives. FDR had first visited this health spa, noted for its healing mineral waters, twenty-one years earlier in an effort to find relief for his paralyzed lower body. Roosevelt looked forward to two weeks of relaxation.
|FDR's casket approaches the Capitol
after arriving in Washington, DC
At 1 PM on April 12, Roosevelt sat in the living room of his cottage surrounded
by friends and family. As he signed letters and documents, an artist stood
painting his portrait at an easel nearby. The conversation was lively, the
atmosphere congenial. The president turned to the artist and reminded her that
they had only fifteen minutes left in the session. Suddenly, he grabbed his
head complaining of a sharp pain. The president was suffering a massive cerebral
hemorrhage that would end his life in minutes. America's longest serving president
who had led the nation through the Great Depression and World War II was dead.
Grace Tully had been Franklin Roosevelt's private secretary
for seventeen years, starting when he was Governor of New York State and continuing
to the White House. She accompanied the President on his journey to White Sulphur
Springs. We join her story as she receives the message in the early afternoon
of April 12 that the president is sick and to send the doctor to his cottage
“I could feel a chill in my heart, a sense that
this was something different from another complaint about his sinus acting
up or his tummy being out of whack. I decided to go at once to the President's
By the time I reached the house, both Bruenn and Fox
[two physicians] were with the President in his
bedroom. Miss Suckley [the
President’s cousin] was in the living room, Miss Delano [another
cousin] entered from the bedroom
as I walked in. There were sounds of tortured breathing from the bedroom and
low voices of the two men attending him. Miss Delano and Miss Suckley looked
shocked and frightened; the former told me the President had finished
some work with Mr. Hassett [an assistant to the president] and
was sitting for Madame Shoumatoff [the artist].
At 1:00 o'clock the President remarked to the artist, 'We have only fifteen
minutes.' At 1:15 he put his hand to his head and slumped backward in a coma.
Prettyman and a Filipino house boy had carried him from his chair to his bedroom.
Hacky already had gotten Dr. McIntire on the phone
in Washington and had put Bruenn on the line with him. At McIntire's instruction,
Dr. James E. Paullin, a heart specialist in Atlanta, had been summoned. Dr. Paullin made a desperately
fast automobile trip to Warm Springs and arrived while we were waiting
anxiously in the living room
Almost within seconds of Paullin's arrival, Bruenn was called again by Dr.
McIntire. While on the phone he was summoned back to the bedroom. Bruenn left
the line open as he disappeared into the Boss' room. In a minute or so he was
back. With a tragically expressive gesture of his hands he picked up the phone
again. I knew what his message was before he spoke. The President was dead.
My reaction of the moment was one of complete lack
of emotion. It was as if my whole mind and sense of feeling had been swept
away. The shock was unexpected and the actuality of the event was outside
belief. Without a word or a glance toward the others present, I walked into
the bedroom, leaned over and
kissed the President lightly on the forehead. Then I walked out on the porch
and stood wordless and tearless. In my heart were prayers and, finally,
in my mind came thoughts, a flood of them drawn from seventeen years of
acquaintance, close association and reverent admiration. Through them, one
recurred constantly - that the Boss had always shunned emotionalism and that
I must, for the immediate present at least, behave in his pattern. I did, for
a matter of hours.
". . . She was completely calm when she arrived. Miss Delano
and Miss Suckley each embraced and kissed her. I did the same.
'You know,' I said, 'how deeply
sorry I am for you and the children.'
|Spectators watch FDR's funeral
cortege pass in Washington DC
She patted me lightly on the shoulder.
'Tully, dear, I am so very sorry for all of
Before entering the bedroom she sat down on the sofa in the living room and
asked the cousins to tell her exactly what had happened. She listened quietly
and turned to me when they had completed their story.
'Were you here, Grace?'
I recounted my own schedule of the day, telling her
what I had been in the house when he died. After a bit more conversation,
Mrs. Roosevelt walked to the bedroom, entered and closed the door. She
was inside for about five minutes - alone with her husband. When she came
out her eyes were dry again, her face grave but composed."
". . .There was little sleep that night and when I
joined Mrs. Roosevelt and the Misses Suckley and Delano in the morning, it
was obvious there had been little for them. But as before, Mrs. Roosevelt was
strong and calm, her grief so contained that it helped to hold us all.
A funeral cortege had been formed at the Little White House with the four
of us riding in the car immediately following the hearse. Lines of marines
were drawn up along the way from the cottage to Georgia Hall, the route which
the President had always driven on his departure from Warm Springs.
|Graham Jackson plays as FDR leaves
Warm Springs for the last time
Before the Hall, as always, were the patients and
attendants the friends
who gathered each time to wave and smile their farewells to this man who shared
with them the bond of personal affliction, a bond which had been more gay than
morbid. On other occasions these farewells had been tinged with some sadness
for it meant the ending of a holiday for them as well as for the President
of the United States. On this day the sadness was understandably deeper; the
farewell was final, the loss permanent. The child patients were sobbing and
there were tear-streaked faces. The adults sobbed too.
As the cortege drew into the drive and halted, the
sad strains of an accordion played 'Going Home.' It was Graham
Jackson, a Negro, who had played many times for F.D.R. and the hundreds of
others there. Bareheaded and with tears running down both sides of his face,
he stood in front of the group and paid his last homage. And as the cars
started again slowly, driving around the semicircular drive and on toward
the station, Jackson swung into one of the President's favorite hymns, 'Nearer,
My God, To Thee'."
This eyewitness account appears in: Tully, Grace, F.D.R. My Boss (1949); Goodwin, Doris Kearns, No Ordinary Time (1994).
How To Cite This Article:
"The Death of President Franklin Roosevelt, 1945 " EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com