His Secret Life

<i> John Lukacs is the author, most recently, of "The Hitler of History" and "A Thread of Years."</i>

History does not repeat itself, but historical circumstances do. Cary T. Grayson was a fairly unqualified physician (he had his degree from a diploma-mill medical school) who endeared himself to President Woodrow Wilson when he introduced Edith Bolling Galt to the widowed president, who then took the big, blossoming beauty for his second wife. Soon after that, Wilson made Grayson a rear admiral. When Wilson was struck down by stroke, Grayson lied about it to the public and governed Wilson in accord with Mrs. Wilson, whom some people called the “Presidentress.”

A protege of Grayson was Ross T. McIntire, who became Roosevelt’s presidential physician in 1933. As the medical historian Dr. Bert E. Park wrote: “One incompetent physician recommended another.” McIntire too became a rear admiral. During the next 12 years, he lied about Roosevelt’s condition to the public, to journalists, to the president’s family, to the president. When, a year after Roosevelt’s death, McIntire wrote his memoirs, his collaborator was journalist George Creel, another dubious leftover from the Wilson administration, the chief of American propaganda, in 1917. McIntire recalled in his memoir that at Quebec in September 1944, Roosevelt watched a motion picture about Wilson. When the film reached the point at which Wilson collapsed with a stroke, Roosevelt’s cardiologist Howard G. Bruenn heard the president mutter: “By God, that’s not going to happen to me!” Well it did, with a difference: Wilson lived on as a vegetable for more than four years; when Roosevelt suffered his massive hemorrhage, he died.

In April 1945, that tragic blow was presented to the American people as a sudden bolt from the blue. It should not have been. In September 1944, indeed on the night when the Wilson film was shown to him, Roosevelt’s blood pressure climbed to 240 / 130, twice as high as normal (120 / 80), a condition more than sufficient to unleash a massive stroke at any moment. His blood pressure was monitored by Bruenn who is, in a way, the quiet hero of “The Dying President,” written by one of the finest American historians, Robert H. Ferrell. Hundreds, if not thousands, of books about FDR exist. This is one of the most important, and telling, works about him.

One of the few people who saw a change in Roosevelt’s condition as early as 1943 was Winston Churchill. That winter Roosevelt was getting more and more tired. In early 1944, McIntire misdiagnosed his discomfort as bronchitis and gallbladder trouble. The turning point came a few weeks later. McIntire felt compelled to take Roosevelt to Bethesda, where Bruenn was introduced to him. “At the end of the examination Bruenn diagnosed hypertension, hypertensive heart disease, cardiac failure and--the sole instance in which Admiral McIntire was correct--acute bronchitis.” Heart failure, Bruenn said; the president’s condition was “God-awful.” Against McIntire’s inclination, Bruenn prescribed digitalis, which was then administered to Roosevelt for the rest of his life, a little more than a year, during which Bruenn stood by him.


In sum, the president was seriously ill. This was not told to the American people, which, though unjustifiable, may have been understandable--perhaps. It was not told by successive generations of historians either. Roosevelt’s hospital and medical charts, which McIntire had kept since 1933, disappeared. But Bruenn’s own daily records exist. In 1970, he summed them up in an article in a medical Journal, Annals of Internal Medicine. Twenty-five years later, Bruenn’s diary was deposited in the presidential library at Hyde Park. Shortly before his death, Bruenn gave three interviews, one of them to Ferrell. The first book to treat Roosevelt’s illness and year of dying dependent on the Bruenn article was “FDR’s Last Year,” written in a breezy style by journalist Jim Bishop in 1974. It was, by and large, ignored by historians. (Ferrell: “It needs redoing.”) About the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Home Front in World War Two,” Ferrell is charitably restrained: “Needs less nostalgia, more reality.”

March 1944 to April 1945 was not only the last year of Roosevelt’s life. It was also the last year of the greatest war and of D-Day and of his fourth election and of Yalta. Yet: “A charitable estimate of the time he spent each day doing the public business was four hours, and was closer to one or two. His mind was unaffected; his problem was an inability to concentrate for long periods. . . . He was, and it is saddening to say for such a great historical figure, in no condition to govern the Republic.” Many years later Bruenn said that if he had been asked about a fourth term, he would have said “impossible, medically.” Often the president stayed in bed until almost noon; in the afternoon he took a two-hour nap; he took long, very long, vacations. During one of these (in August), he had a serious angina attack, “proof positive that he had coronary disease,” Bruenn noted.

Roosevelt hardly saw his vice president, Harry Truman, and told him little or nothing about the big issues. In August 1944, Roosevelt invited Truman to lunch at the White House. Truman then told his friend Harry Vaughan that he was seriously concerned: “I had no idea he was in such a feeble condition. . . . It doesn’t seem to be any mental lapse of any kind, but physically he’s just going to pieces.” (The photographer for Life magazine took their picture, sitting on the porch: Roosevelt looked in the best of health. So much for the historical value of photography.) McIntire told the press that Roosevelt’s condition was “excellent for a man of his age” and, again, “excellent in all respects.” Yet the president’s dear and devoted cousin, Daisy Suckley, who stayed with him during his last year, wrote in November that “he looks 10 years older than last year, to me--of course [I] wouldn’t confess that to anyone, least of all to him, but he knows it himself.” By early December, the blood pressure reading was 260 / 150: (Ferrell: “Appalling.”) Returning from Yalta, Roosevelt said that he desired only to “sleep and sleep and sleep.” Two months later God granted him his wish.

The question now arises: Is this painstaking and exceptionally researched book a revelation? It is, but it is also much more than that. It is concise, sparklingly well-written, bearing the marks of a master historian. The short sketches of statements concerning men and women other than the dying president are sharp and telling: “The truth was that Eleanor Roosevelt was insensitive to her husband’s rapidly declining health” (as Bruenn said, "[T]he president’s wife gave her husband no attention”). Their reciprocal alienation may explain this, but it surely is contrary to the smarmy and sentimental nonsense about the Great Couple During the War.


Another merit of Ferrell’s historianship--indeed, of his character--is his unwillingness to support Roosevelt’s critics to the effect that at Yalta, a sick man gave much away to Stalin. But he is critical of Roosevelt for withholding knowledge of his illness from everyone: “He not merely disguised it, he suppressed it.” That is true. It had something to do with Roosevelt’s customary politic deviousness and also with his vanity. He was neither ready nor willing to retire from the presidency after 11 years and four triumphant elections. Unwillingness, rather than inability, to think about unpleasant things was a main mark of Roosevelt’s character and of his statesmanship throughout. He was, as most American presidents, surely in the 20th century, an elective monarch. And the giant country worked and roared on, winning the war, becoming the greatest power the world had ever seen, with a president who worked but two hours a day and desired to sleep and sleep and sleep. There may be a moral in this.