LeHand at her desk in the White House, c. 1935
|Personal Secretary to the President|
March 4, 1933 – June 1941
|Appointed by||Franklin D. Roosevelt|
|Succeeded by||Grace Tully|
|Born||Marguerite Alice LeHand
September 13, 1898
Potsdam, New York
|Died||July 31, 1944
Chelsea Naval Hospital, Massachusetts
Marguerite Alice "Missy" LeHand (September 13, 1898 – July 31, 1944) was private secretary to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) for 21 years. According to Roosevelt biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, during FDR's presidency, LeHand became "the most celebrated private secretary in the country".
Born into a poor Irish-American family in New York, LeHand attended secretarial school, took a series of clerical jobs, and eventually began to work for the Democratic Party's New York office. There she came to the attention of FDR's wife Eleanor during his 1920 vice presidential candidacy and was hired as FDR's personal secretary. After FDR was partially paralyzed by polio, LeHand became his daily companion, to the extent of adopting his favorite hobbies, games, and drinks. She remained his secretary when he became Governor of New York in 1929 and when he became president in 1933, serving until a 1941 stroke left her unable to speak. She moved to her sister's home in Boston and died in 1944.
The exact nature of LeHand's relationship with FDR is debated by historians. It is generally accepted that their relationship contained a romantic element, though scholars remain divided on whether the pair had a sexual relationship. LeHand was engaged to U.S. Ambassador William Bullitt in 1933, but never married, later asking a friend, "How could anyone ever come up to FDR?"
LeHand was born in Potsdam, New York, to Daniel J. and Mary J. (née Graffin) LeHand, who were the children of Irish immigrants. When Marguerite was young, her father, a gardener with a drinking problem, deserted the family. She had a sister, Anna, and two brothers, Daniel and Bernard. The family later moved to Somerville, Massachusetts. As a child, LeHand was struck by rheumatic fever, and Eleanor Roosevelt later stated that the disease had left her delicate and barred from strenuous exercise. She graduated from Somerville High School in 1917 and then attended secretarial school. Although she never attended college, in 1937 Rosary College recognized her professional achievements with an honorary Doctor of Laws.
After holding a variety of clerical positions in the Boston area and passing the Civil Service exam, she moved to Washington, DC to serve as a clerk during the First World War. At the recommendation of Charles McCarthy, Roosevelt's assistant at the Navy Department, she became a secretary with the Democratic Party's New York headquarters. In 1920, when Franklin Roosevelt was running for Vice President on a ticket with James M. Cox against Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, LeHand's work on the campaign and her clear personal devotion to FDR caught the eye of the Roosevelts. In early 1921, FDR hired her as his personal secretary and gave her the initial job of cleaning up his correspondence. Roosevelt biographer Jean Edward Smith described the young LeHand as "five feet, seven inches tall ... warm and attractive, with ink-blue eyes, black hair already turning gray, and an engaging throaty voice. She was also modest, well mannered, exceptionally capable, and thoroughly organized."
Secretary to Roosevelt
LeHand quickly became a key part of Roosevelt's staff, managing his correspondence and appointment calendar. She was nicknamed "Missy" by Roosevelt's sons and soon became popularly known by this name. In turn, she nicknamed her boss "F.D.", a name only she was allowed to use. In the summer of 1921, Roosevelt was struck by polio during a vacation to Campobello Island, leaving him paralyzed below the waist; LeHand then became his inseparable companion. She once described her early work with FDR thus:
The first thing for a private secretary to do is to study her employer. After I went to work for Mr. Roosevelt, for months I read carefully all the letters he dictated ... I learned what letters he wanted to see and which ones it was not necessary to show him ... I came to know exactly how Mr. Roosevelt would answer some of his letters, how he would couch his thoughts. When he discovered that I had learned these things it took a load off his shoulders, for instead of having to dictate the answers to many letters he could just say yes or no and I knew what to say and how to say it.
Each winter in the mid-1920s, FDR would spend four months on his houseboat, Larocco, off the Florida coast. LeHand lived with him and acted as his hostess. She also accompanied him to the spa town of Warm Springs, Georgia, overseeing and encouraging his physical therapy. In early 1927, FDR sold the Larocco, leaving LeHand distraught by the disruption of their life together; she had a nervous breakdown, and was briefly hospitalized and placed under suicide watch. She recovered and returned to work in November.
LeHand opposed FDR's proposed plan to run for Governor of New York in 1928, telling him, "Don't you dare". When he ultimately decided to run, she suffered another illness that Goodwin describes as "probably a second nervous breakdown". By the time he was elected and assumed office, however, she was well enough to resume work and moved into the second floor of the Governor's Mansion in Albany, continuing on as his secretary. With Eleanor often away working in New York City during this time, LeHand was FDR's day-to-day companion. During her long tenure as FDR's secretary, LeHand came to share many of his likes and dislikes. She enthusiastically learned to play poker, and would spend hours working with him on his stamp collection. She adopted even his figures of speech and favorite drinks.
Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932, assuming the office in 1933. There was little doubt that LeHand would follow him to the White House. As her obituary in the New York Times said, "when her employer was elected to the Presidency, it had become an established fact that neither other offers of employment or proposals of marriage could entice the prematurely gray and handsome young woman from the career she had chosen." During Roosevelt's tenure as president, LeHand became a federal employee. Until the 1941 stroke that incapacitated her, she lived on the third floor of the White House and continued to manage Roosevelt's daily business. She also presided as the White House hostess during Eleanor's absences. In August 1933, Newsweek ran a profile of her describing her as FDR's "Super-Secretary", making her nationally famous.
Relationship with Roosevelt
The question of whether LeHand and Roosevelt's relationship contained a sexual component was widely discussed among their contemporaries and continues to be debated by historians. Hazel Rowley argues that "there is no doubt that Franklin's relationship with Missy was romantic", but notes the possibility that the relationship could not have been consummated due to FDR's disability. Goodwin states that "beneath the complexity, it is absolutely clear that Franklin was the love of Missy's life, and that he adored her and depended on her for affection and support as well as work". Doug Wead wrote in his work on the parents of presidents, The Raising of a President,
Some Roosevelt historians insist that their relationship was never consummated. Eleanor and the children accepted the relationship, which speaks for its innocence. Sara [Roosevelt] spoke favorably of Missy's family and upbringing. Years later, only Elliott, of all the children, would declare that it had not been as benign as historians like to believe.
In 1973, FDR's son Elliott published An Untold Story: The Roosevelts of Hyde Park, in which he recalled seeing LeHand in his father's lap and alleged that she "shared a familiar life in all its aspects with father". His eldest brother Jimmy disagreed, arguing that FDR's illness had made sexual function too difficult for him to have a physical affair. "I suppose you could say they came to love one another", he wrote, "but it was not a physical love."
Despite the closeness of LeHand and Franklin's relationship, Eleanor and LeHand remained on good terms. Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook describes the First Lady as treating LeHand warmly, "as an elder daughter or, in the manner of Asian matriarchs, as the junior wife". The two women went shopping together, and Eleanor took a solicitous interest in LeHand's smoking and general health. Eleanor also accompanied LeHand to her mother's funeral in Potsdam in 1932. Elliott later stated that he believed "Missy alleviated Mother's guilt", allowing her to travel without worrying that Franklin would lack for companionship. In one of her later books, Eleanor wrote that she occasionally failed to "meet the need of someone whom I dearly love", stating, "You must learn to allow someone else to meet the need, without bitterness or envy, and accept it." Cook reads these passages as veiled references to LeHand's role in Franklin's life, and Eleanor's acceptance of that role.
LeHand had a brief romance with Eleanor's bodyguard (and rumored love) Earl Miller in 1931. Miller later told biographer Joseph Lash that he had begun the affair out of respect for Eleanor, feeling that she was hurt by LeHand's relationship with Franklin. LeHand quickly became attached to Miller, but broke off the affair after discovering that he was also seeing another White House worker.
In 1933, LeHand became engaged to the diplomat William Christian Bullitt, Jr., then the U.S. ambassador to Russia. FDR's son James later described this as "the one real romance" of her life. However, the engagement ended after LeHand visited him in Moscow and reportedly discovered him having an affair. Later in life, a friend asked LeHand if she regretted not having married, to which LeHand replied, "Absolutely not ... How could anyone ever come up to FDR?"
FDR aide and confidant Harry Hopkins briefly courted LeHand in 1939, following the death of his second wife, Barbara. Goodwin states while the pair were close, and their friendship sparked Washington gossip, but nothing appears to have come of it: "Missy had probably cut it short, as she had cut short every other relationship in her life that might subordinate her great love for FDR."
Illness, death, and memorials
In June 1941, LeHand, who had suffered rheumatic fever as a child and was somewhat frail, collapsed at a White House dinner party and two weeks later suffered a major stroke that left her partially paralyzed with little speech function. A factor that may have led to her illness was stress stemming from fears that the exiled Princess Märtha of Sweden, a Washington-area resident during World War II, had replaced her as FDR's favorite companion, occupying the seat next to him that had long been LeHand's in automobile rides. FDR paid LeHand's medical bills and made provisions in his will for her care. During the 1941 Christmas season, LeHand, now an invalid, attempted suicide. In early 1942, she spent some weeks in her old room at the White House, but quickly deteriorated due to her frustrations at not being able to help. After an incident in which she tried to set herself on fire, it was agreed that LeHand would return to her sister's home in Somerville, Massachusetts, and she departed from Washington on May 16, 1942.
FDR rewrote his will to leave half of the income from his estate (which was eventually probated at more than $3 million) for LeHand's care, and half to Eleanor. The will stated that upon LeHand's death the income would go to Eleanor, with the principal eventually divided equally among his children. As LeHand died before FDR, her half reverted to Eleanor.
An assistant of LeHand's, Grace Tully, took over as Roosevelt's secretary, but was never a companion for Roosevelt in the same way as LeHand had been. During LeHand's brief return to the White House after her stroke, to help her feel included, Tully brought letters and State Department correspondence for her to read.
When LeHand died on July 31, 1944, the president issued a statement:
Memories of more than a score of years of devoted service enhance the sense of personal loss which Miss LeHand's passing brings. Faithful and painstaking, with charm of manner inspired by tact and kindness of heart, she was utterly selfless in her devotion to duty. Hers was a quiet efficiency, which made her a real genius in getting things done. Her memory will ever be held in affectionate remembrance and appreciation, not only by all the members of our family but by the wide circle of those whose duties brought them into contact with her.
Eleanor Roosevelt attended LeHand's funeral in Cambridge, Massachusetts, over which Bishop (later Cardinal) Richard Cushing presided. Other mourners included Associate Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and former ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. In her will, LeHand left the furniture in her White House apartment to Grace Tully and the First Couple.
SS Marguerite LeHand
In March 1945, the United States Maritime Commission christened an 18,000 ton C3 cargo vessel, the SS Marguerite LeHand, in Pascagoula, Mississippi. As LeHand was leaving on her maiden voyage, she struck the U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse tender Magnolia amidships, sinking it and killing one Coast Guardsman.
Representations in television and film
LeHand was a character in the 1958 Broadway play Sunrise at Campobello and its 1960 film adaptation, in which she was played by Jean Hagen. The productions portray FDR's initial struggles with polio after his 1921 diagnosis, and his decision to continue his political career.
Priscilla Pointer played the role of LeHand in the 1977 ABC television production Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years. In the 2012 movie Hyde Park on Hudson, which portrays the visit of British monarchs George VI and Queen Consort Elizabeth to FDR's estate at Hyde Park, LeHand is played by Elizabeth Marvel.
- Goodwin 1994, p. 119.
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- "60 – Statement on the Death of Marguerite LeHand.". The American Presidency Project. July 31, 1944. Archived from the original on 18 December 2012. Retrieved 18 December 2012.
- "Miss Le Hand's Funeral". The New York Times. New York Times TimesMachine. August 3, 1944. Retrieved July 2, 2015.
- "Miss Le Hand Left Gifts to Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt". The New York Times. March 17, 1945. Retrieved January 6, 2009. (subscription required)
- "To Honor Miss LeHand: Roosevelts Invited to Launching of Ship Named for Late Aide". The New York Times. March 16, 1945. Retrieved January 6, 2009.(subscription required)
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