Franklin Roosevelt’s longtime loyal personal secretary earns a much-needed, balanced portrait.
Although the boss and his devoted factotum were often thrown together intimately over 20 years to tackle his correspondence and brainstorm on speeches and personnel, they were probably not lovers, asserts FDR historian, journalist, and native Georgian Smith (A Necessary War, 2013) in her lively study. A daughter of working-class Boston Catholic parents, Missy LeHand (1898-1944) was an ambitious, high school–educated, trained secretary when, in 1920, FDR’s campaign chairman, Charles McCarthy, brought her into his circle. Even before his first election to New York State governor in 1928, LeHand proved her skill and devotion as FDR’s law secretary and right arm during the years “adrift” after he was stricken by polio. Moreover, while his wife, Eleanor, detested the role of hostess, LeHand was adept and polished, even garnering publicity as the president’s “Super-Secretary” and best dressed among the capital’s women. Through thick and thin, uncomplaining about being on call in his residence for late-night working (whether in Georgia or the White House), LeHand became part of the indispensable White House “secretariat,” including other core members Louis Howe, Steve Early, and Marvin McIntyre. Smith describes LeHand’s job for FDR as chief of staff, when the term was not yet used. Yet with so few women in such high-end jobs, LeHand suffered the inevitable sexism and presumed blurring of duties, as Smith makes very clear. She noted the eclipse of her reputation after her death, thanks to disparaging portraits by the president’s son Elliott in his memoir, An Untold Story (1973), among others. The effects of childhood rheumatic fever and the untold stress of these hardworking years eventually caught up with her in 1941, when she was struck by a massive stroke and removed from the lofty heights of power.
A marvelous portrait of a professional woman ahead of her time whose relationship with FDR sheds new light on his personality and decisions.