Spring 2015

Remembering My Grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt. (She was a perilous driver!)

Commemorative years are times for celebration and reflection. This year, the 80th anniversary of the WPA, founded April 8, 1935, we celebrate the signature program of the New Deal with a party at California Historical Society.  We find the roots of the New Deal in the Gilded Age—a time not unlike our own. As we approach the 70th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s death, on April 12, 1945, we talk with John Roosevelt Boettiger about his childhood at The White House and later, living with his grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt.  We reflect on the promise of the U.N., nourished by both FDR and Mrs. Roosevelt, and brought to life 70 years ago, on June 26, 1945. Historic events converged amidst towering redwoods at Muir Woods, where, on May 19, 1945, hundreds of U.N. delegates gathered to honor the late president.

The Living New Deal regards these times as both formative and vital to our national identity. Our mission is to keep them, and the ideals they stand for, alive in the minds of Americans today. We welcome your support.

In this Issue:

The World in Muir Woods

U.N. delegates honored the late president at Muir Woods.

FDR Memorial Service
U.N. delegates honored the late president at Muir Woods.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Save the Redwoods League

A brass plaque set amidst a towering grove of ancient redwoods at Muir Woods commemorates a gathering there on May 19, 1945.

On that day, seventy years ago, hundreds gathered to honor the memory of President Franklin Roosevelt, who had died a few weeks before, on April 12. They included delegates from around the world who were in San Francisco to craft the Charter for the newly established United Nations. FDR had been the U.N.’s chief advocate.

FDR’s cousin, Theodore, as president, had enshrined Muir Woods as a national monument some forty years earlier. FDR himself had a passion for conservation and a deep knowledge of forestry. One of his first acts as president was to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps, whose enrollees planted nearly 3 billion trees and constructed more than 800 parks nationwide.

The closing speaker at the memorial service was Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., U.S. Secretary of State: “These great redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument are the most enduring of all trees,” he said. “They are as timeless and as strong as the ideals and faith of Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

The U.N. Charter was signed in San Francisco on June 26, 1945.

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Erasing the United Nations

World War II interrupted, postponed, and ultimately altered what became the last New Deal art project. Artist Anton Refregier embarked on his monumental mural cycle for San Francisco’s Main Post Office in 1946. He began with a study of a heroic, solitary California Indian, and—27 panels and 18 months later—culminated with thesigning the United Nations Charter at that city’s Veterans Memorial Building.

The signing of the U.N. Charter. Mural by Anton Refregier

War and Peace
The signing of the U.N. Charter. Mural by Anton Refregier
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

That event is depicted in a triptych terminating in the post office’s long lobby in which Refregier’s also depicted the horrors of the recent war, multiracial representatives gathered to end war, and Franklin Roosevelt’s face bridging the two. Almost immediately after Roosevelt’s death, reaction set in even as Refregier was still painting.

Refregier had used a photograph of FDR taken after the president’s return from signing the peace treaty at Yalta. “It is a tired, sensitive, and completely beautiful face,” he wrote, “one expressing Roosevelt to me.” He wanted that face to act as a bridge between war and peace and to dedicate the mural cycle to the man “who lives in the heart and minds of the people,” and whose ultimate plan for an international mediating body would, many hoped, end war forever. Hiroshima had demonstrated that the next world war would be the world’s last.

But Refregier’s new bosses in Washington ordered him to delete FDR’s portrait. After resisting the order for seven months, the artist capitulated by replacing the face with a family group representing the Four Freedoms, which Roosevelt had enunciated in his 1941 State of the Union address. Freedom of speech and religion, FDR insisted, must be added to freedom from fear and from want everywhere in the world.

Regregier’s personal papers indicate that he understood the larger implications of the order to remove FDR’s face from this very public building. “The fight was lost[s1] !… The [political] climate was changing. It was necessary to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence and Peace… in order to see the American people on [to] the Cold War.” When Congressmen sought to destroy the murals in 1953, Refregier wrote, “the attack is part of reaction’s drive to destroy the significance of the 1945 U.N. Conference in San Francisco.”

Refregier was not wide of the mark. Although the signing of the U.N. Charter was one of the outstanding events in San Francisco’s history, it is largely forgotten today.

Virginia Gildersleeve, the Dean of Barnard College who attended the conference and who crafted the opening to the charter’s preamble based on that of the United States Constitution, said in her memoirs that Roosevelt’s sudden death “lay like a black shadow over all the world and particularly over the small nations who had pinned their hopes on him.”

As war becomes perpetual in the 21st century, we should remember that under that black shadow, the nations of the world once gathered to abolish it in his memory.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

My Grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt
A Conversation with John Roosevelt Boettiger and Susan Ives

This conversation took place on March 21, 2015 at John’s home in Mill Valley, California.

John is the grandson of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt

John Roosevelt Boettiger
John is the grandson of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt

John, who was the person that most influenced you?

There isn’t any doubt that it was my grandmother, my mother’s mother Eleanor Roosevelt. We grandchildren called her Grandmère. I think I learned my basic values from her—her attachment to her family, her devotion to human rights; her absorption with the United Nations; her affection for Israel.


What are your early memories of her?

I was very young, but I still remember Grandmère getting off an airplane in Seattle and coming to stay with us on Mercer Island. Later, while I was still a young child, my mother and I moved to the White House during WWII, but I hardly remember her from that time because she was gone so much—overseas, visiting bases in the Pacific, London or elsewhere.

My memories of her are more vivid from the years I was a student at Amherst College. My parents had gone to Iran for two or three years, so she said, as was her way, “Johnny, if you don’t have a home to go home to, you have mine. Come to New York City or to Hyde Park, wherever I am.” And I did.

What do you remember of those times?

Anna Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Boettiger, Jr., and Curtis Roosevelt.

On Grandmere’s lap
Anna Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Boettiger, Jr., and Curtis Roosevelt.  Source

There are so many memories…like when John Kennedy won the presidency from Richard Nixon and we watched it on television at her apartment on East 83rd Street, and when JFK visited her at her home in Hyde Park.

I can tell you she was sometimes a perilous driver. Her son, Franklin, Jr. owned Fiat dealerships in the Southeast—one of his many enterprises—and gave her a little Fiat sports car. She would talk animatedly while driving. At the end of her driveway onto Route 9G, for example, she would stop, look both ways, and continue talking, sometimes for a minute or more. Then she would take off without looking again. But to my knowledge, she never ran into anyone.

What do you remember of your grandfather?

Franklin D. Roosevelt III, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John Roosevelt Boettiger, Christmas 1939 at The White House.

FDR and grandchildren
Franklin D. Roosevelt III, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John Roosevelt Boettiger, Christmas 1939 at The White House.
Photo Credit: From the Archives: First Families Celebrate the Holidays at the White House

I was the only child living in the White House during the war years, and I would be invited into his bedroom in the morning when he was reading his newspapers. The papers would be scattered over his bed. Despite the fact that he was paralyzed from his hips down, his upper body was extraordinarily strong. He would pluck me up from the floor and we’d sit together on the bed reading the funny papers.

I remember swimming with him in the White House pool, and playing in the Oval Office—not during important conferences, but when he was working at his desk. His desk was full of wind-up toys that I play with on the floor. And I remember my sense of kinship with the White House guards. But it wasn’t all fun. I felt also a sense of puzzlement and loneliness with my dad gone and my mother inaccessible much of the time.

Talk a bit about your grandmother’s involvement in the United Nations.

President Truman appointed her as a member of the American delegation to the United Nations. She was naturally drawn to the realm of human rights. More than any other single person, I think, she was responsible for the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The only standing ovation that the General Assembly has ever offered anyone was for her when she presented the Declaration, and it was unanimously approved.

Could she have imagined the role the U.N. would play today?

My grandfather’s vision for the U.N.—and my grandmother’s nourishment of it—was that it would become principally an instrument for maintaining peace. The role the U.N., is playing today is diverse, and less vigorous than she would have wished, but I believe she would still be proud of it, and certainly working on its behalf if she were alive today.

Mrs. Roosevelt with SuitcaseThere’s a famous photograph of Mrs. Roosevelt walking toward a plane that’s parked on the tarmac, carrying her own suitcase.

I never actually saw her walking with her suitcase. But she didn’t like entourages. Of course, she would have them periodically, but she was very independent and liked to travel quietly and without a big fuss. It was her style.

Do you recall your grandmother advising you that you had a special role to play, or advice on how to live your life?

I don’t think she ever spoke in that way. She felt that if I was going to learn, better to learn by example. She surrounded me with her own magic.

The complete transcript can be found here.

John Roosevelt Boettiger is a retired professor of psychology and a member of the Living New Deal Advisory Board.

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age:
The New Deal in Context

FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932

FDR and farmers
FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932
Photo Credit: Farm Security Administration

The New Deal, arguably one of the forgotten eras of U.S. history, grew out of earlier, also largely erased reform efforts. The Grange Movement’s roots are in the mid-19th century when, after the Civil War, Midwestern farmers organized to oppose the monopolistic railroads and grain elevator companies that charged exorbitant rates to move their crops to market. At its peak, the Grange Movement had over 850,000 members in several states.

By the late 1800s the Farmers’ Alliance, another populist movement, fought back the robber barons. It grew to three million members, spreading the gospel of farmers’ co-ops, conservation, and mutual aid through a network of some 40,000 lecturers and organizers. The movement eventually led to the Populist Party, which garnered well over a million votes in the national election in 1892. Its platform included nationalizing the telegraph, telephone, and railroads, a graduated income tax, and “postal savings banks,” a solution often cited for today’s struggling postal service.

As the Farmers Alliance waned at the end of the century, muckrakers exposed Gilded Age injustice and corruption. Teddy Roosevelt won the presidency as a “trustbuster.” His successor, Woodrow Wilson, oversaw passage of the progressive income tax.

Following World War I, Wall Street went off the speculative deep end, bringing on the Great Depression. FDR’s New Deal revived many ideas of the early Progressives, including those of FDR’s cousin, Teddy.

Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Labor’s gains in the 1930s came out of FDR’s push for legislation requiring collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act in 1935 gave workers the right to organize, providing a counterbalance to corporate power. Empowered, unions pressed for the progressive reforms that raised the standard of living for the middle class and provided some economic security to the elderly, disabled, and poor.  Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were Grange members, and supported creation of a cooperative farm loan association to limit foreclosures. FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944 posited that all humans have inherent economic rights.

The country’s turn to the Right in the 1980s and neoliberal austerity ever since gave tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the needy. Free market economics unleashed deregulation and moved to privatize the public sector. Union membership has fallen precipitously—thanks in part to so-called “right-to-work-laws.”

Graduation Day protest

Student Debt
Graduation Day protest
Photo Credit: Nation of Change

There are signs of resistance. The American Postal Workers Union has formed Grand Alliance Save our Public Postal Service. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, local activists, and city governments have sued the U.S. Postal Service over the sale of historic post offices to private developers. And millions of young people saddled with student debt are beginning to demand relief.

As history has shown, these are how reform movements start, and how Americans can come together again to address the biggest wealth gap since the Gilded Age.

Harvey Smith is an advisor to the Living New Deal.

Recovering the Lost Art of the New Deal

Helen Lundeberg's three murals in the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall were completed in 1942 and have not been seen since the 1970s.

Patriotic Hall mural
Helen Lundeberg’s three murals in the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall were completed in 1942 and have not been seen since the 1970s.
Photo Credit: LA County Arts Commission

The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), Federal Art Project (FAP), Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts— Depression-era programs that put artists to work nationwide— sparked a Renaissance in American art. These New Deal agencies commissioned thousands of murals, sculptures, paintings, carvings, mosaics, and more. Many of these works adorned the public domain.

The city of Los Angeles was richly endowed with New Deal artworks. Several, such as the statue of Florence Nightingale by David Edstrom in Lincoln Park, and Helen Lundeberg’s monumental, 240-foot-long mural, “History of Transportation” in Inglewood, have recently been restored to their former glory thanks to private and public benefactors.

There are, however, a startling number of Los Angeles’s New Deal artworks that have gone missing. The exact number is unknown, but could range from several dozen to well over a hundred.

Jason Herron's 1937 sculpture, Modern Youth, was presumed lost for decades when a Belmont High School employee noticed it in the school's basement. Today, it stands in the school’s foyer.

Modern Youth
Jason Herron’s 1937 sculpture, Modern Youth, was presumed lost for decades when a Belmont High School employee noticed it in the school’s basement. Today, it stands in the school’s foyer.
Photo Credit: Charles Epting

Recently, a coterie of New Deal enthusiasts formed Rediscovering WPA LA and established a website, rediscoveringwpala.com. The impetus for the effort was the rediscovery of Jason Herron’s 1937 “Modern Youth” sculpture at Belmont High School. Officially listed as stolen by the Smithsonian Institution, the statue had actually been hidden away in the school’s basement for decades until a school employee stumbled upon it a few years ago.

Undoubtedly, other public artworks have met a similar fate—murals rolled up and forgotten; sculptures and paintings that were removed to storage that never reemerged.

Rediscovering WPA LA is trying to determine the fate of Los Angeles’s long-lost federal art. Scouring county records, newspapers, and other sources, they came up with a comprehensive list of the New Deal art commissioned in Los Angeles County. They pared the list to a kind of “Ten Most Wanted”—those artworks having cultural or historic significance and a strong chance of being recovered—and posted them online.

The goal is to find and return these pieces to public prominence. Any tips and financial support in this endeavor would be much appreciated!

Charles Epting is the author of Orange County Pioneers: Oral Histories from the Works Progress Administration, available now from the History Press.

Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal

Most analysts of the conservative revolution begin with the aftermath of the failed Goldwater presidential campaign. Kim Phillips-Fein goes further back: to the reaction of some American businessmen to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. If Invisible Hands’ subtitle leads you to… read more

And the Winners are . . .

FDR delivering one of his fireside chats.

The 2023 New Deal Book Award

The winning titles and authors have been announced. The 2023 Award, with a prize of $1,000, will be presented at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library June 22, 2024.