The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, And The Untold Story Of The Partnership That Defined A Presidency by Kathryn Smith. Published by Touchstone. 368 pages. $16.99 retail.
Until now, Marguerite Alice “Missy” LeHand (1896-1944) has been something of an enigmatic and ill-defined historical personality, standing as she did in the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt, arguably the most important American politician of the 20th century and at a pivotal period in world history that encompassed both the Great Depression and World War II.
That situation has been completely rectified with the publication of The Gatekeeper, an assiduously researched and eminently readable biography of LeHand by Kathryn Smith, author of the nonfiction World War II oral history A Necessary War. Thanks to Smith, LeHand’s proper place in history has been appropriately recognized. During Roosevelt’s presidency, LeHand functioned essentially as White House chief of staff, the first woman to do so.
The author is currently on a promotional tour for The Gatekeeper, which has already (and deservedly) received high praise from reviewers. Smith will appear at readings and book signings at Main Street Books in Davidson on June 27, at Page 158 Books in Wake Forest on June 28, and Scuppernong Books in Greensboro on June 29.
LeHand’s brief but remarkable life, which is conveyed in extremely detailed terms in The Gatekeeper, has been described by some as a “consort” to Roosevelt and by others, more memorably, as “the Swiss Army Knife of the White House.” To get to FDR, one had to get through Missy first – and she was a most protective “gatekeeper.”
Loyal and diligent, yet unafraid to speak her mind. LeHand was clearly a trusted friend and adviser, but was she romantically linked to FDR? Elliott Roosevelt certainly stated as much in his memoir, and the 2012 film Hyde Park on Hudson (in which Elizabeth Marvel played Missy) hinted strongly in that direction.
Smith, however, disputes that assertion. She doesn’t eliminate the possibility but offers a persuasive case against. This does not mean, however, that FDR didn’t have extramarital relationships. Indeed, LeHand enjoyed the trust of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, sometimes acting as a go-between when the two weren’t on the best of terms.
The unmarried LeHand enjoyed romantic relationships with Earl Miller, a (much-younger) police officer and one of FDR’s bodyguards when he was governor of New York, and with Bill Bullitt, the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union (1933 to 1936) and then ambassador to France (1936 to 1940), although she and Bullitt broke things off shortly before Bullitt and Roosevelt had a falling-out.
Born in upstate New York in 1896, LeHand first crossed paths with FDR when she worked on his vice-presidential campaign in 1920, in which he ran with James M. Cox and was soundly defeated by the Warren Harding/Calvin Coolidge ticket. She stayed on as his private secretary and their friendship was further solidified when Roosevelt contracted polio. Having suffered from a debilitating bout of rheumatic fever as a youngster, LeHand became even more simpatico with her employer (and friend).
Smith is a lifelong admirer of FDR, and although he understandably looms large in the pages of The Gatekeeper, Smith deftly keeps LeHand at the forefront. Given the tumult of that point in time, she could conceivably fade into the background, even of her own biography. But that isn’t the case here. Actually, the book sheds some fresh insight into Roosevelt’s life and presidency precisely because it is told from the perspective of another character.
Another reason LeHand’s legacy has been much overlooked is that she predeceased FDR. Not unlike the President, her health was perennially precarious, and like Roosevelt’s, was exacerbated by the pressures of the presidency, particularly as World War II approached. Roosevelt was widely considered a casualty of the conflict, and a strong argument could be made that LeHand was, as well.
LeHand suffered a stroke in June 1941 and never fully recovered, although she was kept on the payroll and her medical bills paid until her death, which occurred July 31, 1944, shortly after Roosevelt accepted the nomination for his fourth term in office. Roosevelt would himself die in April 1945, only a month after the cargo ship SS Marguerite LeHand was christened. To this day, the Roosevelt family maintains her gravesite in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts.
Now, thanks to Kathryn Smith and The Gatekeeper, Missy LeHand gets the credit and respect that have long been overdue.
Want to go …?
Kathryn Smith, author of The Gatekeeper, will appear for a reading and book signing noon Tuesday, June 27 at Main Street Books, 126 S. Main Street, Davidson. For more information, call 704.892.6841 or visit http://www.mainstreetbooksdavidson.com/. Smith will appear 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 28 at Page 158 Books, 317 E. Roosevelt Ave., Wake Forest. For more information, call 919.435.1843 or visit http://www.page158books.com/. Smith will appear 7 pm Thursday, June 29 at at Scuppernong Books, 304 S. Elm St., Greensboro. For more information, call 336.763.1919 or visit http://www.scuppernongbooks.com/.
For more information about the book The Gatekeeper, visit http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Gatekeeper/Kathryn-Smith/9781501114977.