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Why FDR’s White House Served Such Terrible Food

Why FDR’s White House Served Such Terrible Food



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32nd U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t just known for his sweeping New Deal or his leadership during World War II: His White House was notorious for its terrible food.

Under FDR’s administration, guests picked at their plates and gossiped about their terrible meals. The White House, once known as a site for gracious meals and gourmet tastes, served such bad food it became notorious. But ironically, those unpalatable meals had their origins in a plan to make the White House an example for cooks all over the country.

When Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933, the United States was in a state of economic collapse. The Great Depression had gutted American households, and suddenly a record number of people were hungry. Milk and meat consumption plummeted, and people got creative with food to sidestep starvation.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was painfully aware of the everyday reality of so many Americans. She herself came from an upper class of people who enjoyed daily feasts that would have fed a typical Depression-era family for a week. But Eleanor had a reputation for caring more about policy than food. Like many wealthy women, she didn’t know how to cook, though she had learned to make scrambled eggs in a chafing dish.

However, she quickly realized that the way she ate in the White House had the potential to influence and help the nation through the Depression. She had a partner in this initiative: Henrietta Nesbitt, whom she knew from Hyde Park, New York. Like so many Americans, Nesbitt was down on her luck. When her husband lost his job, she started selling baked goods to get by. Then, Eleanor asked Nesbitt to be the new White House housekeeper. Nesbitt was astonished—especially given that she had no comparable experience of any kind.

Eleanor didn’t care. She wanted a more modern White House, one that incorporated the new field of home economics. She tasked Nesbitt with improving the White House’s outdated cooking methods and oversaw an ambitious renovation of its cramped kitchen. “This was the ‘first kitchen’ in America, and it wasn’t even sanitary,” recalled Nesbitt in her memoir.

Nesbitt and Eleanor retooled the entire kitchen, installing modern appliances and coaxing the skeptical White House staff to use them. Meanwhile, Eleanor turned to home economists for menus that used modern techniques and were designed to help housewives incorporate both nutrition and economy into their cooking. She resolved to serve them in the White House—a place known for its decadent meals. The move was covered in national newspapers and followed closely by housewives, many of whom began to adopt a White House-style diet at home.

There was just one problem: The nutritious, economic meals tasted terrible. Under Nesbitt’s supervision, the first kitchen began turning out some of the most unpalatable meals in modern memory.

“One of the first people to taste these foods, perhaps the first victim, you could say, was the president himself,” historian Andy Coe told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “They rolled a cart into his office because he usually ate at his desk. And on the cart were deviled eggs with tomato sauce, mashed potatoes and prune pudding.” This ten-cent meal wasn’t exactly what the president, who was accustomed to pricey dishes, usually ate. But he gamely choked down the food, which soon became notorious in Washington.

The White House’s new cuisine was dreary, but economical. Prunes, gelatin-filled salads, spaghetti with boiled carrots and sandwiches began to appear on White House tables; the kitchen served so much mutton that it became a joke throughout Washington. A typical lunch included cold jellied bouillon, salmon salad and bread and butter sandwiches. The First Lady experimented with foods like Milkorno, a Cornell-developed food supplement made with dried skim milk and cornmeal. The succession of bland, unappetizing meals became so notorious that visitors stuffed themselves with food before dining at the White House.

“Eleanor wasn’t just choosing a cuisine; she was defining her role in the White House, and the food had to deliver the right message,” writes historian Laura Shapiro in the New Yorker. The First Lady wanted her kitchen to be a showcase for American foods and modern American ways of cooking them.

To be fair, the Roosevelts’ food wasn’t much worse than what most Americans ate during the Depression. Nutrition, not taste, was paramount in a time of bread lines and soup kitchens, and Eleanor was trying to use her table as a way of encouraging and inspiring other Americans to get through a uniquely challenging historical moment. But the result was decidedly un-tasty—so much so that her own children tried to get off the hook.

“I remember [my son] James asked me if he could have a glass of milk by paying five cents extra,” Eleanor recalled years later. “If any blame is to be placed on anyone for things which displeased my husband in the running of the household, then I was the person to receive the censure.”

The White House wasn’t off the hook when World War II started, either: The Roosevelts ate rationed food just like everyone else, and Nesbitt came up with wartime menus for dishes like eggs stuffed with meat scraps, “noodles and mushrooms with chicken scraps” and casseroles. Even if meals in the FDR White House didn’t inspire the palate, they were intended to inspire the nation to get through hard times.


The Top Five Facts You Didn't Know About the White House

Why is the White House white? Where did presidents live before it was built? There are so many questions to ask about the familiar building, and in this list, Curbed hopes to answer the most peculiar ones like, "What was the food like back in the day?" While browsing through our list of White House facts, you can browse through an interactive map of the building, itself, on the White House website as well to learn more.

1. The first U.S. president to live inside the White House was John Adams.
John Adams, the second U.S. president, didn't begin residing in the White House until November 1, 1800, the third year of his four year term. Beforehand, both he and President George Washington lived on a ridge north of Tiber Creek with spectacular views of the Potomac River. Currently, that very ridge is being used as an underground conduit. The design for the White House was chosen by a competition, which was won by Irish-born architect James Hoban. The design of the White House was modeled after the Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland.

2. The White House wasn't called the White House for almost 100 years.
The White House has been known as many things, including the "President's Palace," the "President's House," and the "Executive Mansion," according to the White House website. It wasn't until 1901 — 101 years after construction of the building was completed — that U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt made the White House name official.

4. The color of the White House was chosen by the masons.
The masons of the White house chose the color white for the building in order to cover the sandstone. By using a whitewash, the walls were protected from rain and snow. To cover the facade of the White House, it takes up to 570 gallons of paint.

4. The White House kitchen used to serve terrible food thanks to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Known as "the first Housewife of the nation," First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt totally transformed the White House kitchen with the intention of providing "good and well-cooked food." After finding the standards in the kitchen to be sub-par, she renovated the kitchen to have professional grade appliances and hired cookbook writer and journalist Sheila Hibben to advise the kitchen staff on a variety of dishes. Rather than rely on the advice of Hibben, though, Roosevelt utilized recipes created at Cornell University's Home Economics department, which recommended using little to no herbs or spices. According to the New Yorker, "Eleanor launched the most notorious era in the culinary history." Nowadays, there are five full-time chefs that work in the White House kitchen who are able to serve dinner to 140 guests and hors d'oeuvres to more than 1,000 guests

5. You can tour the White House while at your desk.
With this interactive map on the White House website, you can explore everything from the Oval Office to the White House kitchen to the gardens outside. While browsing through each level and wing in the map, there are various rooms that you can click on to learn more about what work is conducted inside and what important events occurred there. For example, did you know that the wallpaper in the Diplomatic Room was hand-picked by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy?


FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT (January 30, 1882–April 12, 1945)

Roosevelt was elected the thirty-second president of the United States on November 8, 1932. It was a landslide victory granted by an electorate wanting change and rescue from the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. A lawyer and state senator, Roosevelt served as assistant secretary of the navy in President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. His devotion to Wilson’s new vision for the Democratic Party earned him the vice-presidential nomination in 1920 on the unsuccessful Democrat ticket of James M. Cox.

Personal tragedy followed soon after, when, in the summer of 1921, the tall, athletic Franklin Roosevelt was stricken with poliomyelitis. His case resulted in an atrophy of the skeletal structure that precluded his ever walking on his own again. He adjusted slowly to this affliction before returning to politics, generally concealing his paralysis from the public whenever possible for the remainder of his life. Surrounded by loyal intimates of varying skills devoted to his progressive principles, his charm, good looks, and growing facility with words propelled him into a remarkable political rise. Elected governor of New York in 1928, he served in that capacity, addressing economic challenges with public relief programs until he defeated Herbert Hoover in the presidential election of 1932.

Of aristocratic Dutch and English colonial ancestry, Roosevelt cherished his heritage and spoke often of it. Fifty-one when he became president, he had married his fifth cousin (once removed), Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, nearly twenty-eight years before. They had lived in Hyde Park and Manhattan, and, while he served as governor of New York, in Albany. But Franklin and Eleanor and their five children, Anna, James, Elliott, Franklin Jr., and John (a sixth child died in infancy), always considered Hyde Park home. Franklin’s formidable widowed mother Sara, to whom he was devoted, managed Springwood and to a large extent the entire family.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoys a quiet moment with his dog Fala in his study, now the Yellow Oval Room, on December 20, 1941.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA


Marguerite “Missy” LeHand: FDR’s Right Hand Woman

Throughout his life, Franklin Roosevelt was surrounded by remarkable women. His mother Sara Delano, his wife Eleanor, his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins the first woman to be appointed to the cabinet, and his distant cousin Daisy Suckley. But the woman who is perhaps least remembered but most important was Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, his personal secretary and closest confidant for more than 20 years. Missy suffered a terrible stroke in 1941 and left the White House, so her assistant Grace Tully took over for her. When President Roosevelt died, Grace Tully took all of her and many of Missy’s papers with her. In 2010 when those papers finally came to the FDR Library they were known as the Grace Tully Collection, but most of them were really Missy’s papers.

Kathryn Smith, author of The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency the first full biography of Missy LeHand, describes her as “…tall and slim, with wavy dark brown hair and large blue eyes under dark arched brows – the classic black Irish coloring. She had a long face and a prominent jaw and nose, but a sweetness of expression that spoke of her good nature. “

Missy came into the Roosevelt world in August 1920 when she was offered a job as a secretary to support Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice Presidential campaign. James Cox was the democratic candidate for President, and it was widely assumed he would lose to the Republican candidate Senator Warren Harding. But this was FDR’s first shot at national political office and he went at it with his trademark gusto. Although Missy had little contact with FDR, she worked closely with the inner circle of FDR advisers including Louie Howe, Steve Early, and Marvin McIntyre.

After the election, Eleanor asked Missy to come to her home in Hyde Park and help finish up the correspondence. She did such a good job that when FDR was hired to be a vice president for the Fidelity and Deposit Company he asked her to become his full time secretary. Thus was born a truly remarkable partnership. Just a few months later FDR would be stricken with polio, and Missy would become his companion and gatekeeper.

To fully understand why Missy LeHand had such influence in the White House it is important to look at her role during the years FDR was out of public view recovering from polio. These were without doubt the most difficult years of his life, and those who were with him during that period became his most trusted confidants and advisers.

Polio struck without warning on August 10, 1921, while he was vacationing at his home on Campobello Island in Canada. Months of medical treatments and intense therapy followed and Missy was one of the few who were allowed to see him at his Manhattan apartment during this time. After resigning his job FDR left for an extended cruise on a houseboat in Florida with Missy, his personal valet LeRoy Jones and a rotating cast of old friends. Eleanor did not enjoy or entirely approve of the bohemian lifestyle FDR was engaging in, fishing and drinking and frivolous pastimes, and so she spent little time onboard. But when FDR returned to New York after several months at sea he displayed marked improvements both physically and mentally. FDR was convinced he had found a new form of therapy.

He bought an old boat with his friend John Lawrence and christened it the Larooco (Lawrence, Roosevelt Co.) and in the winter of 1924, FDR, Missy, and Leroy set sail for the warm Caribbean waters near Florida. While there has been speculation that FDR and Missy had an affair during this time, there is no evidence to support it, and her long and warm relationship with Eleanor and the children casts serious doubts on it. But there is no question that the time they spent on board the Larooco laid the foundation for a deep bond between them that lasted until Missy’s death.

The year 1924 also introduced FDR to Warm Spring Georgia, where he would focus his efforts on finding an effective cure for polio and provide a world class rehabilitation clinic for its victims. Once again Eleanor did not care for the informal lifestyle and poverty stricken countryside, so Missy became the hostess for FDR’s Warm Springs home. Missy grew to love this special place, and between the cruises aboard the Larooco and the rehabilitation work at Warm Springs, Missy had become a critical part of FDR’s recovery efforts.

Over the years FDR would invest a good portion of his fortune into Warm Springs, and created the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation which raised millions of dollars for polio research. This eventually became the March of Dimes Foundation which funded the research that led to a polio vaccine in 1954.

But the siren call of political life drew FDR back into the arena and in 1928 he ran for Governor of New York and won. The next four years in Albany provided FDR with a powerful platform to re-establish his national profile. His team included Louis Howe, Frances Perkins, Sam Rosenman, and of course Missy. It was during this transition that Grace Tully entered the picture as Missy’s assistant. A complete collection of their correspondence can be found here: The Grace Tully Collection Finding Aid

Missy lived in the Governor’s Mansion with the Roosevelts, and was part of the family in every way. It was during their years in Albany that Missy first came to the attention of the roving pack of reporters who covered FDR. She was dubbed FDR’s “Right Hand Woman” and when Eleanor traveled Missy would act as the hostess for dinners and other social events.

When the stock market crashed in October 1929, Governor Roosevelt immediately took action. After his reelection in 1930 he became the most activist governor in the country. He started the first unemployment program and fought a corruption scandal with the mayor of New York. Missy later told an interviewer that “Albany was the hardest work I ever did” (The Gatekeeper). During this period Missy had a serious medical issue with her irregular heartbeat and Eleanor grew deeply concerned about her health. She spent time in Warm Springs getting FDR’s new cottage ready for him. When he arrived in May of 1932 the local Meriwether Vindicator became became the first newspaper to endorse FDR for president, and locals began calling his new home, the Little White House.

Missy arrived in Washington to much fanfare and excitement. She would be the first woman to hold the position of the secretary to the president. In a short period of time she became the most famous secretary in America. She was also romantically involved with the dashing and daring William Bullitt who served as FDR’s secret spy and later as Ambassador to Russia and France. Their long distance relationship proved both exhilarating and frustrating for Missy.

Grace Tully described Missy as “the Queen” of the White House staff, and her authority was rarely challenged. Many cabinet secretaries, congressmen, senators and ambassadors courted favor with Missy in an attempt to gain access to the president. Missy’s role as Gatekeeper gave her enormous influence in who the president spent time with. And while she clearly had her favorites, she was widely respected for her fairness and devotion to the president’s needs.

The White House staff grew quickly as the work load of the “First 100 Days” and the ever growing volume of correspondence demanded attention. Missy was part of FDR’s most inner circle, those few people who crossed over from the political to the personal worlds of the Roosevelts. This small group included Grace Tully, Louis Howe, Harry Hopkins, Marvin McIntyre, and Steve Early. Several of them actually lived in the White House at one time or another. And every day they would gather for “Children’s Hour” and FDR would mix martinis or some other cocktail and they would drop the world’s woes and spend time gossiping, chatting, and generally having fun.

They provided FDR with an important escape from the pressures of the White House, and their personal bonds allowed them to speak truth, sometimes uncomfortable truths, to the Boss.

After a major White House renovation in 1934 Missy was moved into a prime office with a view of the rose garden, and a door that opened directly into the new and improved Oval Office. Hers was the ONLY office with such a door. Her office also had a door leading to the garden, allowing “unannounced” visitors direct access to FDR when he didn’t want their names showing up on the official White House registry.

In her book The Gatekeeper, Kathryn Smith describes Missy’s role this way:

“Missy was the Swiss Army Knife of the White House. A formidable, multitalented multitasker.”

From March 1933 until May 1941 Missy assisted FDR and the family in every imaginable way. She traveled with them and paid their bills, acted as hostess when Eleanor was away, provided advice on personnel, personal and political matters, and kept the White House secretarial staff operating at a remarkably high level of effectiveness under constant stress. It was a virtuoso performance.

But in 1941 Missy’s health problems finally caught up with her, as they would with FDR four years later. Missy had suffered from a bad heart from the time she was a little girl. FDR himself was suffering from a range of medical problems during the spring of 1941 the pressure of the war in Europe was taking a toll. On June 4 th , at a party in the White House, Missy collapsed, probably from a combination of a stroke and a heart attack. She was laid up in her bed for weeks, then transferred to a hospital. Despite all of her work in helping bring FDR’s dream of a presidential library to fruition, on June 30 th , 1941, when it was dedicated, Missy was not there. Partially paralyzed and barely able to speak she was confined to the hospital in D.C. She was later moved to Warm Springs, Georgia, to help in her recovery. She was there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. She called the White House and her former assistant Grace Tully took a message for the President, but he did not call her back that day. But FDR never gave up on her. He paid all of her medical bills and changed his will so that half of the proceeds of his estate would go to help support her until she died. Then it would revert back to Eleanor.

In March 1942 Missy returned to the White House, a shadow of her former self, and moved back into her apartment on the third floor. FDR would visit her for short periods of time while he fought a global war, and the old “Children’s Hour” gang kept her company. But after she accidentally started a fire while lighting a cigarette the decision was made to send her home to Somerville, Massachusetts.

Missy lived with her sister and two nieces for several years, and finally passed away on July 31, 1944. FDR was on a military tour of the Pacific, and issued this statement:

The great esteem in which Missy was held is reflected in the list of people who attended her funeral on August 2, 1944. It included Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and 1,200 others. But with a World War raging Missy’s passing was soon lost in the swirl of news about battles, victories, and another presidential campaign.

Missy’s very capable protégé Grace Tully took over the administrative responsibilities, but her personal relationship with FDR was not the same as Missy’s. When FDR died, Grace Tully ended up with all of the papers that she and Missy had collected over the years. The remained with her until her death, and in 2010 they finally arrived at the FDR Library as the Grace Tully Collection. But many of those papers belonged to Missy.

Kathryn Smith’s new book goes a long way to correcting the error of omission that history has made regarding Missy LeHand. In an era when it was very difficult for women to rise to the highest levels of government, she was truly FDR’s “Right Hand Woman.” Hopefully The Gatekeeper will finally put to rest the sexist gossip that Missy gained her power because she was FDR’s mistress. Because it was not her looks but her extraordinary talent, commitment, and dedication that earned her the privilege to work by FDR’s side for more than 20 years.


Presidential Pours: A History of Wine in the White House

VINTAGE STATECRAFT Each president has his preferences when it comes to wine. But the choice of a bottle for a White House function carries a particular political significance.

Lettie Teague

WHEN PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden move into the White House on January 20, what wines will they serve? Will they stick with the tried-and-true picks of their predecessors or select something more daring—a sparkling wine from Texas or Vermont perhaps?

As Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., recounts in “Wine and the White House: A History,” some American presidents were more fond of the grape than others, but they all recognized wine’s important political role.

Although it was published last fall, Mr. Ryan’s 456-page opus seems even more relevant now as current White House staffers prepare to hand their successors the keys to the cellar. Until reading this book, I’d never given much thought to the selection and service of wines by presidents and their staffers—in fact, I’d never given much thought to certain presidents, such as James Buchanan and Rutherford B. Hayes, at all. But thanks to Mr. Ryan I learned that the former liked wine so much he eventually drank himself into gout, while the latter liked wine so little he had to be all but forced to pull some corks. (His teetotaler wife was nicknamed “Lemonade Lucy.”)

President Harry S. Truman was apparently just as stingy with the juice. He served, it’s noted, a single glass of Champagne to guests before dinners, while during the meal “the process of refilling the empty wineglasses was deliberately slow.”

Wine is an excellent prism through which to consider past presidents and their accomplishments or misdeeds (or both). Take, for example, Richard M. Nixon. While the 37th president may have resigned in disgrace, he is also responsible for putting Schramsberg, the Napa Valley sparkling-wine producer, on the map when he served a 1969 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 in a toast to the breakthrough in American-Chinese relations.

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FDR’s Steady Diet of Depression

Far from the White House and its awful menu, FDR, at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Virginia, tucks into a decent meal.

Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe
April 2017

In the fight to restore America to prosperity, food became a weapon

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT was partial to fine foods expertly prepared. He enjoyed filet mignon, lobster, oysters, crab, Lake Superior whitefish, and king salmon. He had a special affection for caviar. However, two weeks into his new administration, in a show of solidarity with the American people, President Roosevelt sat down to a lunch of hot deviled eggs in tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, and prune pudding. The president’s budget lunch balanced calories and nutrients: eggs for iron and protein, potatoes for energy, prunes and tomatoes for vitamins A and C—all for 7.5 cents! Reporters asked what he thought of the food. It was “good,” FDR said he had cleaned his plate. Newspapers published recipes for all three dishes.

Food, like language, is always in motion. War, technology, migration, and commerce all reshape diet. During the 1930s, American home economists interrupted that process and, in one colossal push, aimed to replace traditional food ways with a scientific eating program. Amid Americans’ growing fears of malnutrition, the job of creating nutritional standards went to a female-dominated branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture called the Bureau of Home Economics.

During World War I, the Office of Home Economics, as it was then called, had become a hotbed of culinary research. Home economists figured out what Americans should eat now that the country was shipping beef, pork, wheat, and sugar to troops overseas. Cornmeal and barley flour substituted for wheat, honey and sorghum for sugar, and beans and nuts for animal protein. The office distributed recipe cards. To explain the science behind the recipes and help homemakers plan menus, wartime food guides introduced vitamins, calories, and the concept of food groups.

The USDA made the Office of Home Economics a bureau in 1923. Bureau Chief Louise Stanley was a professor of home economics with a doctorate in chemistry from Yale. Stanley staked out a place for home economics in government, assembling the largest staff of female scientists anywhere in the country. The bureau’s divisions—Clothing and Textiles, Economics, and Food and Nutrition—received a constant stream of letters requesting help that intensified as the economy worsened. In 1930, bureau food economist Hazel Stiebeling composed an emergency diet for Southerners wracked by drought. The bureau expanded mimeographed pages into Adequate Diets for People of Limited Income, a first in a series of increasingly sophisticated federal food guides. When letters began pouring in from women struggling to feed their children, bureau guides served as both prescriptions for rational eating and as nutritional primers. The booklets made clear how vitamins and minerals contributed to good health, information, which most people at best had sketchy knowledge.

Depression-era food guides accepted the bleak reality that some Americans ate insufficiently even in prosperous times and were now so poor that a balanced diet was beyond their means.

To remedy this, in 1933 the bureau published Diets at Four Levels of Nutritive Content and Cost, a booklet that related menu to income, a formula reprised in 1936’s Diets to Fit the Family Income.

Diets to Fit the Family Income described how high-end households earning more than $5,000 ($85,000 today) a year could afford a “Liberal Diet” of varied foods in generous amounts. The “Moderate Diet,” with fewer protective foods but “fully satisfactory in all nutritional details,” was for families living on $3,000 to $4,000. A “Minimum Diet,” for households earning between $1,000 and $2,000, met nutritional needs, but as cheaply as possible, with just enough fruits and vegetables, eggs, and meat to maintain health. A badly strapped family’s sole option was the “Restricted Diet,” recommended only for short periods. Based on bread and milk, this regimen had no safety margin if someone scorched a pot of beans or the flour went moldy.

Nutrition in the 1930s was an emotionally fraught subject. Vitamins were of special concern. Mothers feared that “hidden hunger” from vitamin deficiencies could be injuring their children. Home economists leveraged those fears. Bureau food guides warned that poor childhood nutrition could handicap a child for life, suggesting that one false move on a homemaker’s part risked lives of night blindness and bowlegs.

Aunt Sammy, the USDA’s version of Betty Crocker, the imaginary homemaker associated with General Mills brands, made it all sound manageable. The star of the widely distributed radio show “Housekeepers’ Chat,” Aunt Sammy was a voice of reassurance during the 1930s. About vitamins, Aunt Sammy said in her small-town cadence, “Most of us who have a simple but varied diet, and are without food prejudices, get our supply of vitamins whether we think about it or not.” Aunt Sammy’s taste in food was equally no-nonsense. She appreciated an ancestral American diet that had fallen out of favor. Cracked whole wheat, historically used to make breakfast porridge but in the 1930s thought of as animal feed, was among frugal foods the bureau promoted. Aunt Sammy, portrayed by multiple women, became its champion. In a 1932 broadcast, she extolled cracked wheat’s virtues:

Maybe it’s my Scotch blood. Maybe it’s the early training from a thrifty grandmother. Maybe it’s the hungry people I’ve seen and the undernourished children. Anyway, I always hate to see good food going to waste, especially when pocketbooks are thin. That’s why I want to remind you today about one of our best foods which has been neglected by housewives in recent years. Whole wheat, wheat in the kernel, is plentiful and cheap these days especially in the wheat belt. You can get wheat at the feed store or mill or maybe from a farmer in your neighborhood. Yet, many people I’ve been hearing about have gone hungry because they don’t know how to use this wheat, how to fix it in tasteful dishes that the whole family will enjoy.

Whole wheat in milk chowder with carrots, onions, parsley, and pork whole wheat with diced beef and chili pepper whole wheat scalloped with liver and bacon and whole wheat stewed with tomatoes and served on toast were a few of Aunt Sammy’s suggestions. Another concoction, combining whole wheat, fish, and tomatoes, exemplified the bureau’s search for new ways to use low-cost ingredients.

Well aware that many people would have preferred not to eat foods it was endorsing, the bureau was always trying new ways to counter food bias. One was to dress up low-status foods like beans, a critical source of cheap protein. To lend elegance to split pea soup, why not float a slice of lemon on top and sprinkle with bright red paprika and finely chopped parsley? Or mash beans, form dainty patties, and fry them like croquettes? Aunt Sammy suggested stuffing onions with them (p. 63).

The bureau timed the release of new food guides with “Housekeepers’ Chat” and “The Market Basket,” a weekly USDA newspaper column. The same information reached rural America through home extension agents working with land grant colleges that used bureau food guides as textbooks. In 1934, the bureau attracted a media ally. In the 1920s, reporter Gove Hambidge, interested in the marriage between science and food, had published articles in Ladies’ Home Journal about how that union was changing American cuisine by enabling manufacturers to supply products of unparalleled purity and consistency. Home cooks were reaping the benefits of labor-saving devices and canned or “frosted”—frozen—foods that defied the old laws of seasonal availability. When the Depression began, Hambidge focused on nutrition. The Bureau of Home Economics could not have asked for a more dedicated spokesperson. For Ladies’ Home Journal, Hambidge wrote “Make the Diet Fit the Pocketbook,” an article on the bureau’s income-oriented diets that reached more than 2.5 million readers. Hambidge expanded the article into a book, Your Meals and Your Money, and then joined the USDA staff as an advocate for nutrition education.

Eleanor Roosevelt pours milk at a Vassar’s childcare school in 1933. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone Via Getty Images)

The bureau’s main patron was Eleanor Roosevelt. Before the Roosevelts even moved into the White House, she wrote to Bureau Chief Louise Stanley suggesting they meet, part of her plan to make the most of Washington’s “women executives” and their talents. The two corresponded regularly, with Stanley a frequent guest at the first lady’s all-female press conferences. In personal appearances, in print, and on radio, Eleanor talked up the bureau’s work. When critics asked why government money should pay for research on how to clean rugs and put up preserves, Eleanor dashed off a letter to the newspapers insisting that the countless people helped by the bureau more than compensated for its small cost to taxpayers.

In a more personal act of patronage, Eleanor brought home economics into the White House. At Cornell University early in 1933, she sampled one of the economy meals devised by her friend Flora Rose, a noted home economist. On Rose’s menu was polenta made with Milkorno, a compound of dry skim milk and ground corn Rose had developed to feed the unemployed. Eleanor was so impressed she decided to add the economy menus to the White House diet.

Such public events, in which people of note—politicians mostly, and usually men—endorsed Depression menus, had become a civic ritual, but no one expected notables to eat that way at home. Eleanor, however, saw a teaching opportunity. She believed home economics could relieve the drudgery of housekeeping. A woman who practiced balanced nutrition was guarding her family’s health—and by extension that of the country—when it was most at risk.

Born into a household full of servants, Eleanor was an unlikely gastronomic role model. By her own account, the one dish she cooked was scrambled eggs, prepared à table in a silver chafing dish. However, as first lady she was uniquely positioned to showcase food recommended by home economists and to inspire America’s home cooks.

And what better way to make her point than by serving the same food to her own family?

The president’s budget luncheon signaled a regime change. The first family would eat turkey tetrazzini and corned beef hash, like normal Americans. Culinary economizing extended to guests, starting day one at the White House. The inaugural lunch—cold jellied bouillon, chicken and salmon salads, bread and butter sandwiches—was a long way from the elaborate spreads that had been par for the course. For dinner that night, Eleanor requested oyster stew with crackers, scrambled eggs, creamed chicken, peas, rolls, and biscuits. The White House butler called it “a New England countryman’s supper.”

The departure from precedent scandalized the White House staff, but Eleanor had allies. The new housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, whom the first lady had brought from Hyde Park, shared her employer’s appreciation for “plain food, plainly cooked.” A homemaker with no professional kitchen experience, Nesbitt, 59, was in charge of provisioning and menu planning, her culinary fingerprints easily recognized in dishes like ham loaf and chipped beef and noodle casserole, foods more at home in a school lunchroom than the presidential mansion.

Under Nesbitt, the White House kitchen served not only some of Washington’s dreariest food but also some of its most dismally prepared, as recorded by appalled dinner guests. Senator Hiram Johnson of California described a meal with FDR that included “indifferent chowder,” followed by “some mutton served in slices already cut which had become almost cold, with peas that were none too palatable.” When writer Ernest Hemingway was invited to dine at the White House in 1937, he was warned to expect the worst. Still, he was taken aback by the “rainwater soup” and “rubber squab.” Hemingway was spared Nesbitt’s insipid vegetables, known as one of her many dishes to avoid. Experienced guests made sure to eat before leaving home, and not a few offered medical excuses, Nesbitt observed. “Sometimes it seemed to me that practically all the leading men in the world had ulcers, and often when a group of them were having dinner in the White House, we’d have as many as 150 forbidden items,” she said.

Nesbitt became an expert at deflecting criticism—even the president’s. One of FDR’s favorite foods was Maryland terrapin soup. His complaint that the Nesbitt version was watery bruised her feelings—until she learned that FDR was in a stew over the gold standard. Nesbitt assured herself she was a convenient punching bag for his frustrations. From then on, she chalked up his grumbling to workplace pressures, dismissing the Boss’s comments as more of the same “food peevishness” found in so many other men.

To be fair, Nesbitt had an impossible assignment. Eleanor had volunteered her husband for a culinary experiment guaranteed to make him unhappy. No dish may have put Franklin Roosevelt further off his feed than “salads”—assemblages of mayonnaise, canned fruit, gelatin, and cream cheese. Eleanor, by contrast, was content with a supper of milk and crackers. “Victuals to her are something to inject into the body,” son James said.

“I would be most unhappy if I could not buy new books,” Eleanor told a group of women, “But having beefsteak for dinner would mean nothing to me whatsoever.”

Still, Eleanor cared about food—not for how it tasted, but for what it represented. Scientific cookery, a cuisine of female empowerment, spoke to the feminist in Eleanor. The progressive in her believed this diet was good for society. Scientific cookery also resonated with Eleanor’s ambivalence regarding the pleasures of the table. Growing up, she had learned self-denial from her mother and grandmother. With millions of Americans destitute, those childhood lessons seemed more pertinent to her than ever, and as first lady she made it her mission to share them with the country. Her 1933 book, It’s Up to the Women—part political manifesto, part homily, part homemaking manual—invited readers to break their dependence on material pleasure and return to their ancestors’ values. To get them started, Eleanor devoted a full chapter to the kind of food those abstemious ancestors would have sanctioned. In home economics, Eleanor found a way of thinking about food that was consistent with her values. Built on self-denial, scientific cookery dismissed pleasure as nonessential, treating it as an impediment to health. Placing too much stock in the way food tasted would steer us to the wrong kinds of foods—rich, highly seasoned, and extravagant. But where our taste buds failed us, science would jump in. Home economists hitched their cause to history’s most beloved first lady, and with her support they helped reshape a nation’s culinary consciousness.


The First Kitchen

The meal started abruptly, with a main course of stuffed eggs, prepared as plainly as possible by mashing five hard-cooked yolks with a teaspoon of vinegar and half a teaspoon of minced onion. A thin coat of tomato sauce covered the eggs, which were served hot, accompanied by mashed potatoes and whole-wheat bread. Dessert was a small portion of pudding made chiefly from prunes, flour, and water. Festive it wasn’t nevertheless, this was luncheon for six at the White House on March 21, 1933, less than three weeks after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first Inauguration. The President, a sophisticated and enthusiastic food lover, was not at the table. He had asked for a tray in his office, and later said that the meal had been “good.” But for Eleanor Roosevelt, proudly presiding at the lunch, “good” didn’t begin to address it. She had been planning the White House meals since well before the Inauguration, commissioning nutritious, low-cost menus from the home-economics faculty at Cornell, in the hope of making the White House a demonstration project for conscientious cookery during the Depression. It was a personal triumph to see one of these humble, wholesome meals served on White House china—two courses for only seven and a half cents per person, including coffee. She told the press that she and the President would be eating this way regularly.

But Eleanor was also testing a very different approach to the First Kitchen. An acquaintance had sent along an idea she found appealing: why not showcase the finest American ingredients and regional dishes? The nation had a distinguished culinary heritage, but gastronomes of the nineteen-thirties feared that traditional skills and flavors were disappearing as homemakers pounced on canned soup, cottony white bread, and American cheese. The best-known expert in American culinary history at the time was the cookbook writer and journalist Sheila Hibben (who not long afterward became The New Yorkers first food critic). She agreed to visit the White House kitchen and advise the staff on such homey classics as stewed crabs, johnnycake, and chicory salad, as well as Presidential recipes going back to Washington and Jefferson. Honest fare like this, Hibben believed, could help people make their way through hard times. “Crisis or no crisis, the tension of the country is better for preoccupation with the art of cooking,” she counselled the First Lady.

Low-cost prune pudding or Thomas Jefferson’s favorite gooseberry fool? Eleanor wasn’t just choosing a cuisine she was defining her role in the White House, and the food had to deliver the right message. These days, the term “home economics” doesn’t conjure very much, except among baby boomers who remember junior-high cooking classes mysteriously focussed on baking-powder biscuits. But in the early nineteen-twenties, as Eleanor was becoming active in feminist politics, she visited Cornell’s home-economics department and discovered a radical movement. Its founders envisaged training women in nutrition, chemistry, sanitary engineering, and other fields dominated by men—not to create female scientists but to create scientific homemakers. The key to American progress was going to be intelligent housekeeping. “The woman who boils potatoes year after year, with no thought of the how or why, is a drudge,” Ellen Richards, the first president of the American Home Economics Association, explained. “But the cook who can compute the calories of heat which a potato of given weight will yield, is no drudge.”

Eleanor, who was guiltily aware that she had always relied on servants and governesses to perform her share of woman’s work, appreciated the unsentimental attitude toward domestic life that permeated home economics. “The mother of a family should look upon her housekeeping and the planning of meals as a scientific occupation,” she urged in her first book, “It’s Up to the Women,” which appeared soon after Roosevelt took office. Her section on food, in a chapter called “Family Health,” began with the stern advice “Do not eat too much.” The recipes, created at Cornell and used, she claimed, at the White House, took little notice of herbs or spices, and borrowed nothing from the many immigrant households where flavorful, low-cost cooking had been under way since well before the Depression. The stuffed-egg luncheon was included, and so was a stew of beans and tomatoes, a dish of fried liver in gravy brightened only by a slice of onion, and a carrot “relish” made from raw carrots and a bit of diluted vinegar. These recipes were planned with an eye toward dispatching two necessary jobs—cooking and eating—as efficiently as possible.

Sheila Hibben had an entirely different concern—to remind Americans that food was supposed to taste good. A talented, well-travelled home cook who turned to writing when she had to support herself and her daughter after the death of her husband, Hibben had a culinary sensibility that was half a century ahead of its time. Americans had been “spoiled,” she wrote in 1932, by “peaches from South Africa and strawberries picked green and shipped too far.” She wanted gas stations to distribute food maps as well as road maps, and believed that the best American cooking could hold its own against the best in Paris. “Cold boiled crabs, with their shells cracked open and served with a sauce of fresh lime juice and olive oil, are . . . superlatively good with beer,” she suggested in a 1934 New Yorker article. It was a time when “the ultimate in flavor,” according to the Times, was a popular buffet dish known as Turkey Supreme: diced turkey mixed with nuts, whipped cream, crushed pineapple, and mayonnaise, spread on a tray and frozen.

Hibben, who sometimes sublet her apartment on Twelfth Street and moved into a cheap hotel when she needed money, knew that food didn’t have to be extravagant to be appetizing. The White House could focus on “simpler things—jowl and greens, for instance,” she told Eleanor, and she assembled fourteen menus to prove it. Each was influenced by a particular region of the country, and she begged the First Lady not to pad them with salted nuts, olives, and other emblems of generic formal dining. Her New England menu remains a perfectly tuned classic:

Cape Cod Clam Chowder, Pilot Biscuit.

Boiled Corned Beef with new Cabbage (serve English Mustard with this).

New Potatoes in butter.

Corn Meal Muffins (made with yellow corn meal).

Lettuce and Tomato Salad with French Dressing.

Cheese Wafers.

Baked Indian Pudding, with Vanilla Ice Cream.

Coffee.

To Eleanor, the disadvantages of this approach were clear. A campaign in favor of local ingredients, skilled home cooking, and the flavors of the past wasn’t political. Such a project didn’t carry any of the larger messages about agriculture, the food industry, proper diet, and sensible parenting that it would seventy-five years later, when Michelle Obama picked up a shovel and started planting cucumbers, beans, and carrots on the White House lawn. Nor did it occur to Eleanor that improving American eating habits might mean dispelling the long-held American assumption that healthful, inexpensive food had to be plain and tasteless. She wanted White House meals to set the right example for a struggling populace, but she didn’t see how “the art of cooking” was going to help. She was much more comfortable with reform measures that spoke a language she could understand: economy, nutrition, efficiency.

So Hibben departed, and Eleanor launched the most notorious era in the culinary history of the Presidency. The menus from Cornell were a little too grim for daily use, but she encouraged her new housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, to work up her own version of economical cookery, honoring the principles of the Cornell experiment if not its pure austerity.

For the next twelve years, Mrs. Nesbitt turned out meals so gray, so drooping, and so spectacularly inept that they became a Washington legend. They also irritated an epicurean President three times a day—an outcome that may or may not have figured in Eleanor’s calculations. Numerous historians of the F.D.R. years have noted the abysmal meals at the White House, and anecdotes about Mrs. Nesbitt’s assaults on the Presidential palate have circulated in memoirs for decades. But the food itself—with its political and personal backstory—has received far less attention. Few biographers in any field take advantage of the culinary trail that runs through daily life. Today, after hundreds of scholars, journalists, friends, aides, admirers, and scandal-seekers have analyzed every traceable minute of the Roosevelts’ lives, it’s still difficult to explain the resilience of Eleanor’s inexorably dreary cuisine. The most powerful man in America couldn’t kill it.

Eleanor had grown up with little idea of what went on in a kitchen, but she was a quick study. By the time she became, as the Washington Post put it, “the first Housewife of the Nation,” she had developed a straightforward message about her culinary goals. “I am doing away with all the kickshaws—no hothouse grapes—nothing out of season,” she told a reporter who inquired about the “economy menus,” and added that she intended to provide “good and well-cooked food.” Few guests or family members felt that she succeeded. Ernest Hemingway, invited to dinner at the White House in 1937, said that the food was the worst he’d ever eaten. “We had a rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad and a cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer,” he wrote to his mother-in-law. He added that he now understood why the journalist Martha Gellhorn, a friend of Eleanor’s who was also invited that night (and whom Hemingway married three years later), ate three sandwiches at the Newark airport while they were waiting for their flight. She dined with the Roosevelts frequently and told him that everybody in Washington knew the rule—when you’re invited to the White House, eat before you go.

“Much has been said about the bad food at the Roosevelt White House, and all of it is true,” wrote Lillian Rogers Parks, a White House maid for thirty-two years, who in 1981 published a sharp-eyed memoir of life in the Roosevelt household. Parks was fond of the President and the First Lady, but she couldn’t bear the officious Mrs. Nesbitt like most observers, she blamed the housekeeper for the terrible state of the White House cuisine. “Of course Henrietta did not personally do the cooking,” Parks acknowledged, “but she stood over the cooks, making sure that each dish was overcooked or undercooked or ruined one way or another.” This may explain why Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, identified the main course of a Cabinet dinner as “ordinary roast mutton,” when the official menu for the occasion specified leg of lamb. Presumably, it had been roasted beyond recognition. Senator Hiram Johnson, who came for dinner and a movie, was so charmed by F.D.R. and Eleanor that he insisted the food didn’t matter but he recorded it anyway, or thought he did. “We had a very indifferent chowder first, then some mutton served in slices already cut and which had become almost cold, with peas that were none too palatable, a salad of little substance and worse dressing, lemon pie, and coffee,” he wrote to his son. In fact, he had been served several of Hibben’s recipes (clam chowder, barbecued lamb, and a Maryland chess-cake tart), but Mrs. Nesbitt had apparently ravaged them. The Washington Post poked fun at a state dinner so dowdy it featured sweet-potato casserole with marshmallows, and an anonymous reporter described the food at a press luncheon as “abominable” (shrimp Newburg in patty shells and a prune Bavarian cream).

Mrs. Nesbitt’s notes and menus, which survive at the Library of Congress, show the same dishes plodding numbly across the calendar week after week, especially at lunchtime. Broiled kidneys on toast, chipped beef on toast, shrimp wiggle on toast, curried eggs on toast creamed chicken, creamed beef, creamed celery, creamed finnan haddie broiled sweetbreads, braised sweetbreads, creamed sweetbreads, creamed sweetbreads and mushrooms—“I have been getting sweetbreads about six times a week,” the President finally complained in a note to Eleanor. Once, according to Lillian Parks, Eleanor mentioned that they were getting hundreds of requests for White House recipes. Parks recalled, “Laughing, FDR said she ought to send some of Henrietta Nesbitt’s recipes for brains and sweetbreads—that would certainly dry up requests for recipes in a hurry.”

“I’ll trade you one note of loving maternal encouragement for a bag of corn chips.”

For dinner, Mrs. Nesbitt generally served chops, roasts, or fish, but she often added one of the salads that had long been a hallmark of American cooking at its most delirious. Her Bobotee Salad was a mixture of cold rice, bananas, almonds, chicory, and curry powder, in a French dressing laced with Worcestershire sauce. “Sometimes we used pineapple cut in lengthwise sticks and rolled lightly in crushed peppermint candy as an opener for the meal,” she wrote in “The Presidential Cookbook,” a collection of her White House recipes. “Pear salad was a great favorite. . . . For that we riced cream cheese, added a mite of heavy cream, chopped chives, candied ginger or nuts, and poured this over the pear halves on lettuce. We either used the green minted canned pears or colored the mayonnaise green.”

To give Mrs. Nesbitt her due, she said that she was “scared half to death” when she first saw the White House, on Inauguration Day. She had been keeping house for her own family for years, but had no training in hotel management or formal cooking. Nonetheless, Eleanor had appeared at her door after the election and cheerfully offered her the job. Barbara Haber, in her essay “Home Cooking in the FDR White House,” pointed out that the First Lady-to-be wasn’t looking for a professional she just wanted somebody with whom she felt comfortable. The two women had known each other for years in Hyde Park, where they went to the same church and worked for the League of Women Voters. When Mrs. Nesbitt’s husband lost his job during the Depression, Eleanor hired her to supply the Roosevelts with homemade bread and cakes. Eleanor didn’t mind that her housekeeper was inexperienced. Mrs. Nesbitt shared her politics and her work ethic, and served her with single-minded loyalty.

Roosevelt, who had been raised on a Hyde Park estate with its own farm and fine cooks, knew the taste of excellent food and missed it badly. He didn’t expect luxuries when the nation was in economic crisis, but he would have loved a decent fried egg and a cup of drinkable coffee. Mrs. Nesbitt finally gave him a coffeemaker so that he could brew his own, but this was a rare victory in a long series of skirmishes. He made it clear that he disliked broccoli Mrs. Nesbitt served it anyway. He ordered hot coffee for himself and a few guests Mrs. Nesbitt sent up iced tea. He asked for canned white asparagus one day when he was sick Mrs. Nesbitt insisted it wasn’t available. (A secretary darted out and came back with ten cans.) Everyone, including the press, knew how he felt about Mrs. Nesbitt’s meals. “Same Menu Four Days Palls on Roosevelt,” the Times announced in 1937, after the President had objected to a long run of liver and string beans. Eleanor told Mrs. Nesbitt not to fret, and explained that the President was merely “in a tizzy” from working too hard. He didn’t really mind the food, the two women agreed the pressures of his office were getting to him. “When he said ‘The vegetables are watery,’ and ‘I’m sick of liver and beans,’ these were figures of speech,” Mrs. Nesbitt insisted in a memoir. “But the newspapers didn’t understand that.”

No matter how annoyed he became, F.D.R. never asked Eleanor to fire the housekeeper. He had given the First Lady full control over the domestic side of the White House, and kept his word. She approved the menus that Mrs. Nesbitt brought upstairs each morning, and ate with a gracious smile whatever was put in front of her even when guests were desperately fiddling with their Ham Hawaiian. In 1941, after Roosevelt’s mother died, he attempted a small insurrection and brought down her cook from Hyde Park, Mary Campbell, to prepare meals for him in a tiny top-floor kitchen. But Mrs. Nesbitt hated relinquishing control over the food, and complained that Campbell’s cooking was too rich for the President. One of Roosevelt’s last requests to the kitchen was that Mrs. Nesbitt put chicken à la king on the menu for the fourth inaugural luncheon. He probably knew it was hopeless. She substituted chicken salad.

Eleanor had never wanted to live in the White House. She may have been the only liberal Democrat who was sorry when Roosevelt won, though she would have been far sorrier—for his sake and for the country’s—if he had lost. But the most precious thing she owned in 1932 was the independent life she had been assembling for the previous fifteen years or so, and she didn’t want to give it up. In 1918, as a straitlaced, insecure thirty-three-year-old wife who didn’t fully trust her pleasure-loving husband, she had discovered that he was having an affair with her former social secretary, Lucy Mercer. The betrayal sent her into a swamp of grief and self-doubt. Joseph Lash, a confidant of Eleanor’s for many years, said that her despair was so profound she was unable to take Communion, a devastating symptom of personal breakdown for a deeply religious woman. Although they had five young children, Eleanor offered a divorce, but Roosevelt resisted, in part because the scandal would have ended his political career. He promised that he would never see Lucy Mercer again. He and Eleanor stayed together, both hoping the damage could be repaired, but she protected herself by keeping a staunch physical and emotional distance between them. She recoiled if Roosevelt so much as tried to give her a hug.

What saved her from a dry and dutiful future was work—“the best way to pull oneself out of the depths,” she wrote to a friend years later. An array of progressive causes engaged her strong instinct for social justice, and the pace demanded by a heavy schedule was addictive. At the White House, dreading the idea of pouring tea for the next four or eight years, she transformed a largely ceremonial office into the most frenetic and influential career ever associated with the title of First Lady. It wasn’t the same as being a political force in her own right, but it got her through three-plus terms as a wife. Meanwhile, both she and F.D.R. appear to have channelled their deepest emotions away from the marriage. F.D.R. had made a pet of his adoring secretary, Missy LeHand he also secretly continued to see Lucy Mercer Rutherford. Eleanor had her own intimate friendships—precisely how intimate is unknown—with a reporter, Lorena Hickok, and a bodyguard, Earl Miller. During those years, the Roosevelts had separate bedrooms and social lives, took separate vacations, ate most of their meals apart, and built their own Hyde Park cottages as getaways. “They had the most separate relationship I have ever seen between man and wife,” J. B. West, a White House usher, wrote. “And the most equal.” Blanche Wiesen Cook, who is currently at work on the third volume of her masterly biography of Eleanor, has called Mrs. Nesbitt “ER’s revenge.”

Reporters and admirers often asked Eleanor what she and F.D.R. most enjoyed eating. She typically said scrambled eggs, which she had learned to make early in her marriage by practicing the ladylike ritual known as chafing-dish cookery. A butler carried a bowl of raw eggs and cream into the dining room, she poured the eggs into a chafing dish, and then stirred them gently as they heated. The rest of the meal—sausages, chicken à la king, salad, tipsy cake—came up from the kitchen, as usual. When people requested a Roosevelt recipe, she gave out the family’s version of kedgeree, an Anglo-Indian dish that originally included garlic, chilies, onions, and spices but had been reduced to a sober mixture of rice, cooked fish, and hard-boiled eggs by the time it reached American households. “Victuals to her are something to inject into the body as fuel to keep it going,” her son James wrote in a memoir and Eleanor rather liked being seen as a person who was above petty appetites, especially when she could imply that F.D.R. shared her asceticism. “I am sorry to tell you that my husband and I are very bad about food,” she wrote once in answer to a query. “I do not know of any particular dish which he likes unless it is wild duck.” It was close to an outright lie: Roosevelt liked wild duck, all right, but he also liked lobster, terrapin, good beef, heavy cream, caviar, cocktails, and all the other culinary insignia of his time and class. That was his sensual and fun-loving side, which made Eleanor nervous she didn’t intend to nourish it.

Eleanor had a food-loving side herself, but she rarely acknowledged it within the confines of the White House. One of the few genuinely introspective passages in her autobiography was prompted by the memory of how relieved she felt when she finally dropped the role of First Lady. “I think I lived those years very impersonally,” she wrote in “This I Remember.” “It was almost as though I had erected someone outside myself who was the President’s wife. I was lost somewhere deep down inside myself. That is the way I felt and worked until I left the White House.” It was “the President’s wife” who took charge of White House cuisine, and “the President’s wife” who allowed Mrs. Nesbitt to strip the food of character and pound it into submission. But when Eleanor was outside the White House—either travelling or back in private life after F.D.R.’s death—she was open to the pleasures of appetite.

Her letters and newspaper columns were studded with references to meals she relished—always away from home. “We went to a marvellous Chinese place for dinner & I think I ate too much!” she wrote to her daughter after a lecture in San Francisco, in 1940. Visiting Earl Miller at his house near Albany, she mentioned the satisfaction of baking biscuits, popovers, and applesauce cake for him. On a trip to Beirut in 1952, she had a “delicious Arab dinner” and tried her best to convey a sense of the food—“The lamb had a wonderful kind of rice and almonds as a base. The salad was leaves of lettuce with a chopped-up arrangement, the base of which was wholewheat.” In Paris, especially at her favorite Left Bank restaurant, Les Porqueralles, she reacted just the way other Americans did after the war. “There is one art practiced in this city that we do not treat with quite the same respect. That is the art of cooking and eating,” she wrote in her column, “My Day,” on November 5, 1948. “I am quite sure that if we knew how to cook as well as the French do, we could serve an even more superlative variety of dishes than we do now. We certainly have the necessary ingredients.” Two days earlier, Julia Child arrived in Le Havre to begin her blissful years in France. Her letters home were more rhapsodic than Eleanor’s column, but the sentiment was similar.

Eleanor died in 1962, too soon to march in Julia’s food revolution. It was one of the few revolutions she missed. But she showed up at an important precursor—a culinary turning point that was arguably closer to her heart than “The French Chef” would have been. In 1949, the first Pillsbury Bake-Off, a lavishly publicized event featuring a hundred homemakers working at top speed in a hundred model kitchens, was staged in a ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria. Today, the Bake-Off is restricted to shortcut cooking with packaged foods, but in its early years the contest honored the real thing—American domestic ingenuity, from scratch. What’s more, the winners left with cash, not sentimental effusions about home cooking.

This was Eleanor’s brand of feminism. She had always believed that activism on the home front counted just as much as activism in the streets, and she agreed to be the guest of honor when the Grand Prize was bestowed at the final ceremony. We don’t know whether she took home the recipe for Theadora Smafield’s victorious No-Knead Water-Rising Nut Twists, but a photographer captured the moment when Mrs. Smafield accepted a check for fifty thousand dollars. The most famous female political operative in the world was beaming in triumph at a good cook from Detroit. ♦


This is why Apollo 13 astronauts couldn’t just put their suits on to stay warm

Posted On April 29, 2020 15:49:35

Contrary to popular belief, space isn’t actually “cold” per se, at least not in the way often depicted in movies. Space is just mostly empty and all that nothing doesn’t have a temperature. For example, if you were in space without a space suit, the two ways you’d lose heat are just via evaporation of moisture on your skin, in your mouth, etc, and then much slower via radiating heat away, which would take a really long time. In fact, if you were in direct sunlight at around the Earth’s orbit distance from the Sun (1 AU), you’d find yourself overheating pretty quickly, likely with severe sunburns within a few minutes.

This all brings us to the topic of today — if space isn’t cold, why did the astronauts on Apollo 13 get so cold in their ship? And when things did get chilly, why didn’t they just put on their space suits to warm up?

To begin with, somewhat counterintuitively, the reason their ship got so cold so fast is precisely because it’s troublesome to get rid of heat on a space craft. With all the equipment on aboard the ship generating heat, as well as extra heat absorbed when the ship is in direct sunlight, this would normally see the astronauts baking inside the craft. To get around the problem, the ships were specifically designed to radiate heat away very quickly to compensate. Just in case this cooling happened too quickly, for instance when not in direct sunlight helping to heat things up, the ship was also equipped with heaters to keep the astronauts comfortable.

Apollo 13 launches from Kennedy Space Center.

Thus, during the Apollo 13 mission when all the equipment was off and they couldn’t spare power to run the heaters, they were left with a ship designed to radiate heat away relatively quickly, even when in sunlight, but nothing but their own bodies and sunlight generating heat. The net effect was that it got really cold inside the command module and LM.

This brings up the logical follow up question — when it got cold, why didn’t they just use their space suits to keep warm?

In search of a definitive answer, we discovered a variety of speculative explanations online, many of which get surprisingly technical and ultra specific, despite that nobody was using a definitive source and were simply speculating. Further, nowhere in any Apollo 13 transcripts we read does the idea of the astronauts in question donning their space suits to keep warm ever have appeared to have been suggested or brought up, despite the cold.

Unsatisfied with going with speculative explanations, we eventually resorted to mailing a letter to Fred Haise to get a more definitive answer, with, unfortunately no response.

Unwilling to give up, we continued to dig and finally managed to track down a May of 1970 LIFE magazine article in which all three astronauts gave their account of what happened during the Apollo 13 mission. A fascinating read, most notable to the topic at hand in that article is the following from Jim Lovell concerning the cold, which finally gave us the definitive answer we were looking for:

It’s also noteworthy here that in a separate interview, NASA engineer and man in charge of the spacecraft warning system during Apollo 13, Jerry Woodfill, stated that nobody on the ground was terribly concerned about the astronauts being cold or getting hypothermia. With what they were wearing and the temperature inside the spacecraft, they were cold, but not critically so, and everyone had much bigger problems to deal with.

Astronaut Fred W. Haise Jr., Apollo 13 lunar module pilot, participates in lunar surface simulation training at the Manned Spacecraft Center.

You see, as you might have already gleaned from the previous passage by Lovell, it turns out the otherwise phenomenal Apollo 13 film took some liberties and it was not, in fact, ever cold enough to do something like tap frozen hot dogs against the wall. In fact, according to that same LIFE magazine article, Jack Swigert stated, “Aquarius was a nice, warm 50 degrees.” He further went on to state that “It was 38 degrees in [the Odyssey] before reentry.” To translate for the rest of the world, that means it was about 10 degrees Celsius in Aquarius and about 3.8 degrees Celsius in the Odyssey. Cold, particularly in the Odyssey, but with what they were wearing, not unbearably so for two of the three crew members, especially when spending as much time as possible in the Aquarius.

As for the third, Fred Haise did have a lot of trouble with the cold, likely due to a fever owing to his urinary tract infection. He stated in his own account in that LIFE magazine interview:

  • Speaking of space suits and Hollywood myths, in movies you’ll often see humans exposed to the near vacuum of space doing things like suddenly exploding, instantly freezing in the supposedly extreme “cold” of space, etc. But, in fact, so long as you don’t try to hold your breath, which would result in your lungs rupturing and thus pretty well guaranteed that the incident will be fatal, what will actually happen is you’ll remain conscious for about 10-15 seconds. After that, you’ll be fine as long as you’re placed back in a pressurized environment within about 90 seconds. It’s even possible that some might be able to survive as much as 3 minutes, as chimpanzees are capable of this in such an environment without lasting detrimental effect. For significantly more detail on all this and how we know these numbers, check out our video How Long Can You Survive in Space Without a Space Suit?

This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.

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MIGHTY HISTORY

Who Is the Worst President in US History?

Who is the worst President in U.S. history?

No, regardless of polling data, the answer is not Barack Obama. Or even Jimmy Carter. Those guys are amateurs.

At the bottom of the list is probably Woodrow Wilson, who gave us both the income tax and the Federal Reserve. And he was a disgusting racist as well.

However, Wilson has some strong competition from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who advocated and implemented policies that exacerbated the bad policies of Herbert Hoover and thus deepened and lengthened the Great Depression.

Today we’re going to look at a new example of FDR’s destructive statism. Something so malicious that he may actually beat Wilson for the prize of being America’s worst Chief Executive.

Wilson, after all, may have given us the income tax. But Roosevelt actually proposed a top tax rate of 99.5 percent and then tried to impose a 100 percent tax rate via executive order! He was the American version of Francois Hollande.

These excerpts, from an article by Professor Burton Folsom of Hillsdale College, tell you everything you need to know.

“Under Hoover, the top rate was hiked from 24 to 63 percent. Under Roosevelt, the top rate was again raised—first to 79 percent and later to 90 percent. In 1941, in fact, Roosevelt proposed a 99.5 percent marginal rate on all incomes over $100,000. ‘Why not?’ he said when an adviser questioned him. After that proposal failed, Roosevelt issued an executive order to tax all income over $25,000 at the astonishing rate of 100 percent. Congress later repealed the order, but still allowed top incomes to be taxed at a marginal rate of 90 percent. … Elliott Roosevelt, the president’s son, conceded in 1975 that ‘my father may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution.’”

Note that FDR also began the odious practice of using the IRS as a political weapon, something that tragically still happens today.

For more detail about Roosevelt’s confiscatory tax policy, here are some blurbs from a 2011 CBS News report:

“When bombers struck on December 7, 1941, taxes were already high by historical standards. There were a dizzying 32 different tax brackets, starting at 10% and topping out at 79% on incomes over $1 million, 80% on incomes over $2 million, and 81% on income over $5 million. In April 1942, just a few short months after the attack, President Roosevelt proposed a 100% top rate. At a time of ‘grave national danger,’ he argued, ‘no American citizen ought to have a net income, after he has paid his taxes, of more than $25,000 a year.’ (That’s roughly $300,000 in today’s dollars). Roosevelt never got his 100% rate. However, the Revenue Act of 1942 raised top rates to 88% on incomes over $200,000. By 1944, the bottom rate had more than doubled to 23%, and the top rate reached an all-time high of 94%.”

And here are some excerpts from a column that sympathized with FDR’s money grab:

“FDR proposed a 100 percent top tax rate. … Roosevelt told Congress in April 1942, ‘no American citizen ought to have a net income, after he has paid his taxes, of more than $25,000 a year.’ That would be about $350,000 in today’s dollars. … lawmakers would quickly reject FDR’s plan. Four months later, Roosevelt tried again. He repeated his $25,000 ‘supertax’ income cap call in his Labor Day message. Congress shrugged that request off, too. FDR still didn’t back down. In early October, he issued an executive order that limited top corporate salaries to $25,000 after taxes. The move would ‘provide for greater equality in contributing to the war effort,’ Roosevelt declared. … lawmakers … ended up attaching a rider repealing the order to a bill … FDR tried and failed to get that rider axed, then let the bill with it become law without his signature.”

Regarding FDR’s infamous executive order, here are the relevant passages.

“In order to correct gross inequities … , the Director is authorized to take the necessary action, and to issue the appropriate regulations, so that, insofar as practicable no salary shall be authorized under Title III, Section 4, to the extent that it exceeds $25,000 after the payment of taxes allocable to the sum in excess of $25,000.”

And from the archives at the University of California Santa Barbara, here is what FDR wrote when Congress used a debt limit vote to slightly scale back the 100 percent tax rate.

First, from a letter on February 6, 1943.

“… there is a proposal before the Ways and Means Committee to amend the Public Debt Bill by adding a provision which in effect would nullify the Executive Order issued by me under the Act of Oct. 2, 1942 (price and wage control), limiting salaries to $25,000 net after taxes. … It is my earnest hope that the Public Debt Bill can be passed without the addition of amendments not related to the subject matter of the bill.”

And here are excerpts from another letter from FDR later that month.

“When the Act of October 2, 1942, was passed, it authorized me to adjust wages or salaries whenever I found it necessary ‘to correct gross inequities … .’ Pursuant to this authority, I issued an Executive Order in which, among other things, it was provided that in order to correct gross inequities and to provide for greater equality in contributing to the war effort no salary should be authorized to the extent that it exceeds $25,000 net after the payment of taxes.”

Even though Congress was overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats, there was resistance to FDR’s plan to confiscate all income.

“If the Congress does not approve the recommendation submitted by the Treasury last June that a flat 100 percent supertax be imposed on such excess incomes, then I hope the Congress will provide a minimum tax of 50 percent, with steeply graduated rates as high as 90 percent. … If taxes are levied which substantially accomplish the purpose I have indicated, either in a separate bill or in the general revenue bill you are considering, I shall immediately rescind the section of the Executive Order in question.”

And, sadly, Congress did approve much higher tax rates, not only on the so-called rich, but also on ordinary taxpayers.

Indeed, this was early evidence that tax hikes on the rich basically serve as a precedent for higher burdens on the middle class, something that bears keeping in mind when considering other tax proposals (or, tongue in cheek, the Barack Obama flat tax).

Let’s close by considering why FDR pushed a confiscatory tax rate. Unlike modern leftists, he did have the excuse of fighting World War II.

But if that was his main goal, surely it was a mistake to push the top tax rate far beyond the revenue-maximizing level.

That hurt the economy and resulted in less money to fight Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

So what motivated Roosevelt? According to Burton and Anita Folsom, it was all about class warfare.

“Why ‘soak the rich’ for 100 percent of their income (more or less) when they already face rates of 90 percent in both income and corporate taxes? He knew that rich people would shelter their income in foreign investments, tax-exempt bonds, or collectibles if tax rates were confiscatory. In fact, he saw it happen during his early New Deal years. When he raised the top rate to 79 percent in 1935, the revenue into the federal government from income taxes that year was less than half of what it was six years earlier when the top rate was 24 percent. … First, FDR, as a progressive, believed … that ‘swollen fortunes’ needed to be taxed at punitive rates to redistribute wealth. In fact, as we can see, redistributing wealth was more important to FDR than increasing it. … Second, high taxes on the rich provided excellent cover for his having made the income tax a mass tax. How could a steelworker in Pittsburgh, for example, refuse to pay a new 24 percent tax when his rich factory owner had to pay more than 90 percent? Third, and possibly most important, class warfare was the major campaign strategy for FDR during his whole presidency. He believed he won votes when he attacked the rich.”

In other words, FDR’s goal was fomenting resentment rather than collecting revenue.

And there are leftists today who still have that attitude.

Daniel J. Mitchell is a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy at the Cato Institute. Mitchell is a strong advocate of a flat tax and international tax competition.


Mr. Churchill in the White House

On December 13, 1941, six days after the “infamy” of Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill boarded the battleship Duke of York bound for America—and the White House. The British prime minister did not return to London until January 17, 1942, and this wartime visit to confer with President Franklin Roosevelt established Churchill’s own “special relationship” with the Executive Mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He was no longer alone, and his darkest hours had become history.

Before the United States entered World War II, the two leaders had exchanged over 200 messages (telegrams, letters, or phone calls) and met for four days in Newfoundland during August 1941. Churchill, who had become prime minister on May 10, 1940, as war in Europe escalated, desperately sought greater American involvement, while Roosevelt remained cautious yet helpful.

President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill give a joint press conference on December 23, 1941 in the Oval Office.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Everything changed on December 8 with the declaration of war by Congress. That day Roosevelt wired Churchill: “Today all of us are in the same boat . . . and it is a ship which will not and cannot be sunk.” 1 Churchill immediately began making travel plans to Washington, even though Roosevelt worried about his future guest’s safety on the Atlantic crossing. Protected by three destroyers and weathering gale-force winds, the Duke of York arrived at Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia on December 22—with the president meeting the prime minister at a Washington airfield shortly thereafter.

How concerned was Roosevelt that there might be a leak about Churchill’s voyage? First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt remembered being told by her husband “that we would be having some guests visit us” that December. “He told me that I could not know who was coming, nor how many, but I must be prepared to have them stay over Christmas,” she wrote years later in The Atlantic. “He added as an afterthought that I must see to it that we had good champagne and brandy in the house and plenty of whiskey.” 2

President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill preside over the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on December 24, 1941. Each leader gave a speech from the South Portico.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Once he was safely inside the White House, news of Churchill’s visit prompted banner headlines in newspapers around the world, and radio stations interrupted their broadcasts to announce his arrival. The two comrades in arms lost no time settling down for the first of many long discussions to plan military operations. Thus began the first of the prime minister’s five sojourns on American soil for consultations with FDR about the course of the war and its aftermath. The two leaders spent 113 days together between 1941 and 1945, and Churchill stayed at the White House on four different occasions. He also traveled with Roosevelt to the presidential retreat in Maryland (then called Shangri-La and today Camp David), as well as to Roosevelt’s beloved home in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Having Churchill as a guest in the Rose Bedroom of the White House meant that the president and his staff adapted to Churchillian ways. The Monroe Room on the Second Floor was converted into a map room to display the movement of troops and ships. His personal secretaries set up workspaces in the Lincoln Study. The visitor did much of his work—dictation of correspondence, reports, and speeches—after dinner and into the early morning hours. A self-described “tardy riser,” he liked to lounge in bed reading newspapers and catching up on affairs until lunchtime, and following that meal usually retired to his suite for an afternoon nap. But when the sun went down, he came alive for long conversations with his host or for composing his endless stream of documents.

In her book, On My Own (1958), Eleanor Roosevelt registered some displeasure with Churchill’s long-established routine. “They could talk for hours after dinner on any number of subjects,” she observed. “My husband, however, was so burdened with work that it was a terrible strain on him to sit up late at night with Mr. Churchill after working until 1 or 2 A.M. and then have to be at his desk early the next day while his guest stayed in his room until 11 A.M.” 3 Some memoirs detailing Roosevelt’s presidency mention that that he often needed time to recover from Churchill’s visits.

Both figures were outsized political personalities with immense confidence in themselves and what they were doing. Though Churchill was eight years older than Roosevelt, the prime minister understood that the president served as both head of state and head of government—and that Roosevelt had occupied this dual position since early 1933. Recognizing these realities, as well as America’s much larger population and capacity for resources, the prime minister tended to defer to Roosevelt, despite differences of opinion that occurred, particularly in the later years of the war. Interestingly and despite trips abroad to Casablanca, Tehran, and Yalta, Roosevelt never visited Britain as president. Churchill, whose mother was an American, kept crossing the Atlantic for conferences at the White House and elsewhere.

Diana Hopkins, daughter of advisor Harry Hopkins, stands beside Mr. Churchill with President Roosevelt's dog Fala in January 1942.

The White House Historical Association

The first visit from late December 1941 through early January 1942 was not only the longest but also the one that aroused the most curiosity and public interest. On December 23, Roosevelt and Churchill held a joint press conference. The next day the pair participated in the annual lighting of the National Christmas tree. On Christmas Day, they attended morning church services—and ended a round of White House events with a 90-minute discussion in Churchill’s suite. On December 26, the prime minister addressed a joint meeting of Congress, the first of three times (between 1941 and 1952) that he spoke to members of both the House of Representatives and Senate.

The evening after his speech at the Capitol, Churchill experienced what he called “a dull pain over my heart.” During an examination the following day, his doctor Sir Charles Wilson, later named Lord Moran, found that the “symptoms were those of coronary insufficiency,” a diagnosis he didn’t share with his patient. 4 Though Wilson suggested slowing down, Churchill kept to his busy schedule and headed to Ottawa for a speech to the Canadian Parliament on December 30. In his diary, published as Churchill in 1966, Lord Moran uses the phrase “heart attack” to describe the incident. 5 Medical professionals who have more recently studied Churchill’s records dispute that assessment.

Besides his public activities and a succession of planning meetings with Roosevelt and his war council, Churchill supplied a constant flow of reports and memoranda back to government officials in London. One update he wired to Clement Attlee, the deputy leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal, on January 3, 1942 is revealing in its description of what it was like to reside and work in the White House. Each page of the prime minister’s account—now available in the National Archives outside London—is marked with a warning in red: “HUSH—MOST SECRET.”

“We live here as a big family in the greatest intimacy and informality, and I have formed the very highest regard and admiration for the President,” Churchill said. “His breadth of view, resolution and his loyalty to the Common Cause are beyond all praise.” 6 Churchill’s opinion of the congenial domesticity is probably confirmed most dramatically by repeating an anecdote involving the president and his guest. In The Grand Alliance (1950), the third of six volumes comprising Churchill’s historical memoir, The Second World War, he notes that Roosevelt made a middle-of-the-night decision to call the Allies fighting the Axis countries the “United Nations” rather than the “Associated Powers.” In the prime minister’s account, “The President was wheeled in to me on the morning of January 1. I got out of my bath, and agreed to the draft.” 7

President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill fishing at the presidential retreat, Shangri-La in May 1943. This retreat is known today as Camp David.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Roosevelt’s recollection of what actually happened is somewhat more colorful. In F.D.R., My Boss (1949), his personal secretary Grace Tully remarked that the president later informed her about the incident, “You know, Grace, I just happened to think of it now. He’s pink and white all over.” 8

Margaret (Daisy) Suckley, a distant relative and confidante of President Roosevelt, corroborated the story. In her diary, published as Closest Companion (1995), Suckley says the president “called to W.S.C. & in the door leading to the bathroom appeared W.S.C.: a ‘pink cherub’ [FDR said] drying himself with a towel, & without a stitch on!” 9

Though Churchill denied ever uttering the quip often attributed to him during the encounter—“You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to conceal from you” 10 —the prime minister did, indeed, report to King George VI after his return later that January: “Sir, I believe I am the only man in the world who has received the head of a nation without any clothes on.” 11

The extended White House stay as the war began nurtured a personal bond between Churchill and Roosevelt. The president, in fact, sent a “Dear Winston” letter in March 1942 that included this advice: “I know you will keep up your optimism and your grand driving force, but I know you will not mind if I tell you that you ought to take a leaf out of my notebook. Once a month I go to Hyde Park for four days, crawl into a hole and pull the hole in after me. I am called on the telephone only if something of really great importance occurs.” 12

Churchill, however, relished action to the point of being somewhat of a daredevil and made more than two dozen trips abroad for meetings or battlefield visits during the war. But his time in Washington was special and sometimes quite out of the ordinary.

Once news broke that Mr. Churchill was residing at the White House, he began receiving fan mail from across the United States. This letter, addressed to "Churchill the Magnificent," was sent from Boston, Massachusetts during his extended visit of 1941-1942.

Robert Schmuhl, Sir John Martin Papers, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge

In the memoirs of the prime minister’s chief military assistant, General Hastings Ismay relates what happened in September 1943 during Churchill’s fourth visit to the White House. “The President had to go to Hyde Park before Churchill finished all that he wanted to do,” Ismay notes. “On leaving, he said, in so many words, ‘Winston, please treat the White House as your home. Invite anyone you like to any meals, and do not hesitate to summon any of my advisers with whom you wish to confer at any time you wish.” 13

Churchill seized the opportunity, later stopping at Hyde Park to report what he’d done. Ismay’s comment on Churchill’s decision to continue to conduct business at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue without the president in residence is striking: “I wonder if, in all history, there has ever existed between the war leaders of two allied nations, a relationship so intimate as that revealed by this episode.” 14

When Churchill became prime minister for a second time in 1951, he made trips to the United States on three different occasions—in 1952, 1953, and 1954. For the last one, the then-79-year-old leader wrote President Dwight Eisenhower, “My dear Friend,” proposing to “stay four or five days . . . at the [British] Embassy.” 15 Eisenhower, who had served as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II and worked closely with Churchill, came up with a different plan, which he expressed in an incomplete sentence: “Am desirous that you stay with me . . . at the White House.” 16 From the morning of June 25 until the afternoon of June 29, the prime minister engaged in his usual round of meetings, conversations, and meals with American officials. Despite being increasingly frail, the guest valued his return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, wiring Eisenhower, “We have many pleasant and enduring memories of our visit to the White House.” 17

Five years later (in May 1959), President Eisenhower welcomed Britain’s most prominent statesman—and still an incumbent member of Parliament—back to Washington for yet another White House stay. Ike even took Churchill, a student of the American Civil War, to his farm in Gettysburg via helicopter to show him the nearly century-old battlefield from the air. Describing Churchill’s departure at the end of this stay, John Eisenhower, the president’s son and a noted historian, remarked that the years and several strokes had taken their toll on Britain’s bulldog. But he still commanded respectful attention: “When he left the White House after the visit, the entire presidential staff poured out to the northwest gate to send him off in his limousine, the members viewing him half in affection and half in awe.” 18

President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill pose with the Chiefs of Staff in May 1943. This photograph was taken in the garden outside the West Wing, known today as the Rose Garden.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

That affection and awe only increased during Churchill’s final years. President John F. Kennedy considered Churchill a hero and invited him to return to the White House a few months after the young president’s inauguration in 1961. By that point such a journey was impossible and the offer was politely declined. Yet, two years later at a White House ceremony, Kennedy awarded Churchill honorary American citizenship, the first time a native of another country was so recognized by an Act of Congress. In his remarks, Kennedy, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, praised the honoree’s ways with words: “In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone . . . he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” 19

Even though Churchill could not make the journey to Washington, he composed a statement that his son, Randolph, read. In the eight-volume collection of Churchill’s “complete speeches”—8,917 pages in total—this address is the final one, and it combines both personal and historical reflections. “In this century of storm and tragedy,” he wrote, “I contemplate with high satisfaction the constant factor of the interwoven and upward progress of our peoples. Our comradeship and our brotherhood in war were unexampled. We stood together, and because of that fact the free world now stands.” 20

Churchill died on January 24, 1965, and Eisenhower traveled to London for the state funeral. In his tribute, he called his friend a “soldier, statesman, and citizen that two great countries were proud to claim as their own. Among all the things so written or spoken, there will ring out through all the centuries one incontestable refrain: Here was a champion of freedom.” 21 Freedom’s champion felt right at home in America, and the phrase he coined in 1944 to describe the enduring alliance between the United Kingdom and United States—“a special relationship”—also characterized his own personal association with the White House.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden are greeted by President Dwight Eisenhower, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and Vice-President Richard Nixon beneath the North Portico on June 25, 1954.

Thomas J. O'Halloran, Library of Congress

Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at the University of Notre Dame. He recently served as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford, where he worked on his forthcoming book, Mr. Churchill in the White House.