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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.

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.

"I could feel a chill in my heart."

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 at once:

“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 cottage.

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.

Mrs. Roosevelt arrives

". . . 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.'

She patted me lightly on the shoulder.

'Tully, dear, I am so very sorry for all of you.'

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.

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, (2008).

Listen to the radio broadcast of FDR's funeralprocession.