Louis Howe (1871-1936)

Louis Howe was Franklin Roosevelt’s closest advisor from early in his political career and a key figure in launching the New Deal. After winning the 1932 presidential election, Roosevelt said, “there are two people in the United States, more than anybody else, who are responsible for the great victory. One is my old friend and associate, ‘Colonel’ Louis McHenry Howe, and the other is that splendid American, Jim Farley” (“Colonel” was a nickname, not a rank from military service). Later, the New York Times opined that Howe “probably wielded more influence over administration policies than ever did a member of the ‘brain trust.’” Yet Howe’s immense influence was belied by the diminutive figure he cut in person: shy, disheveled and chronically ill. Howe once described his own appearance as that of “a medieval gnome” [1].

Louis Howe was born on January 14, 1871, in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Civil War veteran Edward Porter Howe and Eliza Blake Ray. Young Louis did not enjoy good health and was prone to accidents. His parents thought he “could not handle the roughness of public school and enrolled him instead in the Temple Grove Seminary for young women in Saratoga Springs, New York.” Gradually, Howe’s fragile health improved. When he was 17, he began working for his father’s newspaper, The Sun, where he remained until the newspaper ended publication in 1900. Howe then worked as a freelancer until 1906, when he became a political reporter for the New York Herald [2].

In 1911, while covering politics for the Herald, Howe met Franklin Roosevelt, then a 29 year old New York state senator. The two quickly became friends, and Howe handled Roosevelt’s 1912 re-election campaign when the young politician became ill with typhoid fever (Roosevelt was re-elected). Leaving journalism behind, Howe accompanied Roosevelt on his political journey all the way to the White House, through both the good times (Assistant Secretary of the Navy, governor of New York) and the bad (Roosevelt’s failed vice presidential campaign in 1920 and his paralyzing illness in 1921) [3]. Howe also became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, helping her to “master public speaking and navigate the turf wars of New York politics” [4]. She later credited Howe as one of the most important influences on her personality and character [5].

Despite being remembered almost exclusively as a friend and political operative of the Roosevelts, Howe was a major influence on FDR’s policies. He was an ardent supporter of the New Deal programs and was especially keen on helping Americans get back to work. He played a key role in creating the Civilian Conservation Corps and expanding it to include World War I veterans [6]. Howe eagerly promoted the Civil Works Administration: “There will be clerical and accounting work for stenographers and bookkeepers… jobs can be found for surveyors, and mappers, and investigators in agriculture and all sorts of other things” [7]. Before the end of FDR’s first term, however, Howe became terminally ill with heart and lung problems. Yet even as he lay in an oxygen tent, he phoned relief administrator Harry Hopkins to discuss the launch of the WPA. A stunned Hopkins later said, “You could have knocked be over with a feather. Imagine his courage!” [8]. Some historians blame Roosevelt’s subsequent stumble over the Supreme Court ‘packing’ effort on the absence of Howe’s wise counsel.

Louis Howe died at the age of 65 on April 18, 1936, at the naval hospital in Washington, D.C. He was survived by his wife, Grace, son, Hartley Howe, and daughter, Mrs. Mark Baker of Urbana, Illinois [9]. Howe was beloved for his sense of humor and lack of ego, and “thousands stood in silence” as he was driven to his final resting place in Fall River, Massachusetts [10].

Sources: (1) “Aided Roosevelt In All His Offices,” New York Times, April 19, 1936. (2) “Louis McHenry Howe (1871-1936),” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University, http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/glossary/howe-louis.cfm, accessed February 18, 2016. (3) See note 1, and also “Louis McHenry Howe Papers, 1912-1936,” FDR Presidential Library and Museum, accessed February 18, 2016. (4) See note 2. (5) “Question: Who were the people who had the most influence on her life?” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Projects, George Washington University, http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/q-and-a/q13.cfm, accessed February 18, 2016. (6) “Louis M’H, Roosevelt Friend, Dies At Capital,” New York Times, April 19, 1936. (7) “Civil Works To Aid Jobless Teachers,” New York Times, November 20, 1933. (8) “Howe, in Oxygen Tent, Phones Work Relief Plea,” New York Times, April 2, 1935. (9) See note 6. (10) “Last Howe Tribute Paid By Roosevelt,” New York Times, April 23, 1936.

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