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Desperate Times

Today’s economic crisis is less than a year old, but a jobs program is already afoot in Congress. During the Great Depression, though, several years passed before government took such a measure. Much else about the Depression was different, too. When New York State began to offer work to the jobless in the fall of 1931, the state’s governor, Franklin Roosevelt, wrote letters to the mayors of the hardest-hit cities and asked for their help in dispensing relief.  

FDR was already popular—but mostly because his name was Roosevelt.

These letters went out under Roosevelt’s gubernatorial letterhead and included his signature. Roosevelt’s longtime secretary, Missy Lehand, presumably typed each one of them. Although they were form letters, as much effort went into them as today would go into a college diploma. Yet the world of Governor Roosevelt and his secretary was under-credentialed. The governor got gentlemen’s Cs in college, and did not finish law school. (His one academic distinction, being editor of the Harvard Crimson , arguably came his way because his cousin Theodore was President at the time.) Missy Lehand was a secretarial school graduate. FDR’s top political adviser, Louis Howe, was an ex-newspaperman who had gone to work at 17 for the Indianapolis Sun , a paper that had long since vanished.

Undercredentialed and unglamorous. FDR was an invalid. Missy Lehand was from Somerville, Mass., a town next to Cambridge, where FDR had gone to college, but known to Cambridge residents as “Slummerville.” Howe was a partial invalid, the victim of a childhood bicycle accident and a string of illness that made him so weak that his parents had sent him to a female seminary rather than a high school. FDR was popular—there was already talk of his running for President in 1932—but more because his name was Roosevelt than because of anything he’d done.

Then FDR made himself the first prominent leader to convince a legislature to give jobless people work. As soon as Albany approved the relief plan, the governor wrote to the mayors of places like Yonkers. The letter arrived in a Yonkers that was not today’s commuter stop, but a mill town of hats, carpets, and the Otis Elevator Company. In 1931, it was hungry. Several dozen police officers had just sponsored a charity drive that provided food and clothes for 2,000. If the state would now help, the progressive Republican mayor of Yonkers would welcome it. Mayor Fogerty put the most powerful man in town, his mentor, Leslie Sutherland, in charge of dispensing the funds. Roosevelt knew Sutherland, who had helped Theodore Roosevelt get the Republican vice-presidential nomination in 1900. Everybody knew Sutherland:  he was the very visible vice-president of the company that ran the New York (and Yonkers) street cars. Roosevelt would have known him in another way. While the future president was growing up on an estate abut 50 miles north of Yonkers, Sutherland was a laborer in a part of Yonkers that was still rural. Roosevelt had seen young men like Sutherland at work. When the two spoke—and they surely did, since the vice-president of the trolley company was someone the governor could not avoid speaking to—Sutherland would have found a way to say as much.

Roosevelt wrote Fogerty—that is one part of the story. Then Fogerty, who was in truth only an intermediary, passed the letter to Sutherland—that is another part. And then the men who had had to get food from the cops now got pay from the rest of us. The carpet works was way below its peak of 8 million yards a year, but the mill hands would get some money anyway.

As one looks at Roosevelt’s letter today, the strokes of the typewriter stand out. Missy put something into it, perhaps something more than a bit of labor. Not style (that aspect of the letter is all Roosevelt) and not content (another member of FDR’s circle, the former social worker Harry Hopkins, would have been influential), but perhaps additional motive. As well as Roosevelt knew places like Yonkers, it would have strengthened his conviction to know that someone from Slummerville was typing the letter. Someone he trusted and even admired. Lehand had his power of attorney. Under his will, she received a life estate equal to Eleanor’s. Would it be too much to say what while Roosevelt ran the state, these two women (and his mother) ran him? Roosevelt was not self-reliant, he was an aristocrat. If there was not enough for people to eat, that was not just a crisis; it was an affront to his class.

Perhaps they all put something into it. Then something came out of it. The New York relief program gave Roosevelt a credential. He was on his way to the White House.

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Fred Naiden is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
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