Wednesday, January 20, 2016

FDR's Funeral Train, by Robert Klara

I had never heard of this book before it was chosen for one of my book groups this month.  It is an account of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's last trip (by rail) down to Warm Springs, Georgia, in late March, 1945. He had a private cabin there on the grounds of the institution he had founded, built around thermal springs, to treat polio victims like himself. Just weeks into his unprecedented fourth term, FDR was taking a brief break from war-time Washington. It was a trip he had made many times before. This would be the last. He suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage on the morning of April 12th, while sitting for a portrait. Within twenty-four hours, his body was back on the train. His massive copper casket was placed in the last compartment of the train, clearly visible through the car's windows with its honor guard of four servicemen. The train made its slow way back to Washington, as crowds gathered all along the route to watch it pass, many in tears. In Washington, there was a brief service in the White House on April 14th, before the family returned to the train with a carefully-compiled list of guests. This time they were headed north, to the Roosevelts' family estate in Hyde Park, New York. The next morning, April 15th, FDR was buried on the grounds in another brief service. In just three hours, everyone was back on the train and headed home.

Let me say first that there are a lot of trains in this book. The engines, the different cars, their various amenities, the tracks, the stations, the crews - all are described in meticulous detail, and in prose that sometimes verges on the purple. ("The locomotive's 4,075 horses had begun pulling . . . Moments later, the car would be nodding like a porpoise. . . the GG-1's traction motors took a quick sip of 11,000 volts from the wire overhead..." A car sputters along, "drinking its wartime cocktail of watered-down gasoline." And are a rising sun's rays really auburn? ) Several of the Pullman cars, such as the presidential Ferdinand Magellan, the train equivalent to Air Force One, are even included in the Epilogue that briefly outlines the lives and careers of the key players in the story. Though I like train stories and histories, I found the level of detail a little overwhelming.

The subtitle of the book is "A Betrayed Widow, A Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance." The "betrayed widow" was of course Eleanor Roosevelt. Present with FDR when he died was Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. She and FDR had had an affair during the First World War, when she was working as Mrs. Roosevelt's social secretary. The affair officially ended in 1918, but they continued to see each other in the years that followed. FDR's daughter Anna had even arranged visits in the White House during Mrs. Roosevelt's frequent absences. (It must have felt like a double betrayal when she was absent working on behalf of her husband, as well as for the causes dear to her.) In the midst of the shock over the president's death, his staff also had to cover up the fact that Rutherfurd had been there. It was all to no avail, as Mrs. Roosevelt either already knew or soon learned. The press however kept a discrete silence.

The "Soviet Spy" was Lauchlin Currie, one of FDR's economic advisers. He doesn't actually appear in the story until half-way through the book, as a passenger on the train to Hyde Park. From his prominence in the subtitle, I thought he was going to play an important part, but all he did was ride the train up and back. It's of course interesting that the Soviets had secured an agent who actually worked in the White House, in the West Wing. He gave them information about the administration's economic policies and relations with Stalin. But his story seems shoehorned into this account of FDR's death.

The third phrase, "a Presidency in the Balance," refers to Harry S. Truman's sudden succession to the presidency. It wasn't completely unexpected: FDR was clearly in poor health by 1945, though his primary physician continued to insist it was just fatigue, a cold, nothing serious. I had forgotten that Truman had played no major role in the administration during his weeks as vice-president. The author points out that the new president wasn't even aware of the most important war-time secret: the development of the atomic bomb. He had to be brought up to speed quickly. Truman also decided that at this time of crisis, he needed to make an address to Congress. All the way up to the funeral, and all the way back, he was meeting with advisers and speechwriters. Mr. Klara carefully plots out which of Roosevelt's cabinet and advisers transferred their allegiance to the new president, and which were on their way out of power. A final chapter covers the address, in which Truman pledged himself to carry out Roosevelt's goals, particularly victory in the war still going on, under no terms but the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

I found this book very readable, and it held my interest throughout, though I didn't try to remember all of the details. (The other members of the group agreed.) I knew of Roosevelt's death at Warm Springs, and I've been there with my family as a child, when we were living in Georgia. I knew little about his funeral, and it was interesting to compare it with other presidential funerals. (The off-beat and fascinating National Museum of Funeral History here in Houston has a permanent exhibit on presidential funerals.) I was surprised at the speed, and the lack of pomp and ceremony, even though FDR had left instructions for a simple funeral. Reading this made me want to read more about Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman. I have a book of his letters to his wife Bess, and I've also been thinking about re-reading David McCullough's great biography of him.


  1. It sounds like a lot happened in those few days between when Roosevelt died and was buried. Who knew? I have to admit, if I read this book I'll probably skip all the train parts. The rest of it sounds really interesting though.

    1. And meanwhile the war was carrying on as well - the Russians at the gates of Berlin, American troops liberating the camps. But at least according to this, everything at least in Washington came to focus on FDR's funeral, in those days.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!