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Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency
Table of Contents
About The Book
Widely considered the first—and only—female presidential chief of staff, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand was the right-hand woman to Franklin Delano Roosevelt—both personally and professionally—for more than twenty years. Although her official title as personal secretary was relatively humble, her power and influence were unparalleled. Everyone in the White House knew one truth: If you wanted access to Franklin, you had to get through Missy. She was one of his most trusted advisors, affording her a unique perspective on the president that no one else could claim, and she was deeply admired and respected by Eleanor Roosevelt.
With unprecedented access to Missy’s family and original source materials, journalist Kathryn Smith tells the “fascinating” (Publishers Weekly) and forgotten story of the intelligent, loyal, and clever woman who had a front-row seat to history in the making. The Gatekeeper is a thoughtful, revealing unsung-hero story about a woman ahead of her time, the true weight of her responsibility, and the tumultuous era in which she lived—and a long overdue tribute to one of the most important female figures in American history.
Reading Group Guide
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Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal secretary for more than twenty years, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand was one of his most trusted advisors and the gatekeeper to the Oval Office. Widely considered the first (and only) female presidential chief of staff, she has largely been ignored or misrepresented by historians and filmmakers. Now, in the first biography about LeHand, journalist Kathryn Smith shares the full story of Missy’s unique place in political history. Drawing on original, never-before-seen source materials and interviews with LeHand’s family, Smith presents a thoughtful, revealing portrait of this remarkable woman and a fresh perspective on Roosevelt’s presidency.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How much did you know about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency before reading The Gatekeeper? Has seeing Roosevelt from Missy’s perspective altered your opinion of him as a president and as a man? How so? Did anything you learned surprise you?
2. “The seminal event of young Missy’s life was illness” (page 17). How did developing rheumatic fever as a teenager alter the course of Missy’s life? In what ways did her experiences as a “cardiac cripple” strengthen her bond with Roosevelt?
3. Missy was employed by Roosevelt for more than a decade before he became president, and she was his closest companion for a time after he contracted polio. How did their early years together lay the foundation for her role in his administration?
4. Why did Roosevelt declare, “Missy is my conscience” (page 9)? In what ways was Missy most influential in the Roosevelt administration, including in regard to the New Deal? How did her Catholicism and her working-class background come into play?
5. In The Gatekeeper, the author shares commentary from Missy’s colleagues and acquaintances. How was Missy viewed by her contemporaries? What does her correspondence with Bill Bullitt reveal about her professional and personal lives and how the two sometimes intertwined?
6. Missy was described as a “Jill-of-All-Trades” in The Saturday Evening Post (page 201). What made Missy so successful at her job? Which skills and attributes were most essential?
7. Discuss Missy’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt. In what ways was she an important figure in Eleanor’s life? Would Eleanor have been able to accomplish all that she did as first lady without Missy? Why or why not?
8. “Eleanor spoke openly and caustically, Missy privately and diplomatically” (page 189). Discuss the different styles Eleanor and Missy used in dealing with Roosevelt. Which approach was more effective? Why?
9. A contemporary newspaper columnist in 1937 stated about Missy: “Superficially the most modern of modern women, she actually is like the old-fashioned wife and mother, sacrificing herself on the altar of duty and service. For her work has taken the place of husband and children and her office is her home” (page 202). Do you consider Missy to have been modern or old-fashioned? Was it fair to say that she was sacrificing herself? Discuss whether or not the term “office wife,” popularized at the time by novelist Faith Baldwin, is an apt description of Missy.
10. There has been speculation among historians about whether Roosevelt and Missy were ever lovers. What is your conclusion based on the information presented in The Gatekeeper? Would it matter if they had an affair? Why or why not?
11. Missy was well known to the public during her day, regularly featured in leading newspapers and magazines. Why do you suppose her role in Roosevelt’s presidency has been largely ignored by historians? In general, why are women often marginalized in history, or their successes downplayed?
12. How has the political landscape in the U.S. changed since Roosevelt’s presidency? Consider such topics as corruption, the role of the media, and the length and nature of presidential campaigns. Where might Missy fit into politics today?
13. It has been seventy-five years since Missy worked in the White House. In the ensuing decades, what has changed for women both in and out of politics? What has stayed essentially the same? What can present-day women learn from Missy?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Missy was a frequent traveler, both accompanying the president and on her own. Take a road trip and visit one of the many places across the country with Missy connections, such as Washington, D.C.; Hyde Park, N.Y., home to the Roosevelt family; Somerville, Mass., where she grew up; Warm Springs, Ga., the locale of the Little White House; the Florida Keys for a relaxing sail; or Los Angeles to tour film studios and learn about moviemaking. Willing to venture further afield? Head to Paris, where you can have a “Missy Day” like author Kathryn Smith (page 278).
2. A passionate film buff, Missy bought her own motion picture camera and made home movies. Have book club members make their own short videos and host a “film festival” along with your discussion of The Gatekeeper.
3. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., was the first U.S. presidential library, an idea devised by Roosevelt and Missy. Visit www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu for Roosevelt family facts, information on the era, historic photographs, and more.
4. Visit www.kathrynsmithwords.com, as well as Missy’s very own Facebook page at www.facebook.com/margueritelehand for photos, anecdotes, and book news.
A Conversation with Kathryn Smith
You mention in the Afterword that you first caught a glimpse of Missy while reading a book about Roosevelt’s presidency. What was it that piqued your interest in Missy and made you want to learn more about her?
I have been interested in FDR ever since I was a child and my grandfather told me about how his life was made better by the New Deal. The more I read about Roosevelt, the more I noticed his “right-hand woman,” Missy, and wondered about her. What a fascinating life she must have had, I thought. I’d love to read her biography! When I discovered no one had ever written a book about her, I decided to write one myself.
Why do you suppose Missy has been portrayed—by filmmakers but also by historians—as a lovelorn secretary or a possible mistress rather than a valuable and trusted advisor to Roosevelt?
It’s hard to say. Possibly because it’s easier to pigeonhole her that way. Maybe because Eleanor Roosevelt is such a dominant personality that it’s hard to think of another woman in FDR’s circle who was a politically astute advisor. I think also that once the story line about Missy as mistress was established in the 1970s by FDR’s son Elliott Roosevelt, other writers seemed to just pick it up and embellish it.
Tell us about the research process and some of the original materials you uncovered. Which discovery was the most significant in telling Missy’s story?
The biggest early discovery was Missy’s medical record from her time as a patient at Warm Springs in 1941–42. It included a full health history, and I realized for the first time the devastating impact of her rheumatic fever episode had had on her life. When I saw that her 1927 “breakdown” was physiological rather than psychological, I realized she had been unfairly characterized as emotionally fragile. It turned everything written about her upside down. The second big breakthrough was connecting with Missy’s great-nieces, who had so much fascinating material that had not been seen before. They were very, very generous in sharing it.
You logged thousands of miles tracing Missy’s footsteps, including visits to Hyde Park, Warm Springs, Somerville, and Paris. Of the places you visited, which one was the most memorable for you? Where did you most feel Missy’s presence?
Definitely Warm Springs. I started my research there and returned several times. Missy loved Warm Springs, and I definitely felt her presence at the Little White House and Dowdell’s Knob. I think she and FDR were at their happiest and most relaxed in Warm Springs, and they took such satisfaction in the work they did for polio survivors.
Who are some of the notable “Missy fans” you’ve met while researching, writing, and promoting The Gatekeeper?
Certainly the most important to me was Dr. Steven Lomazow, coauthor of FDR’s Deadly Secret. He was enormously helpful in my research. I was introduced to him via email by historian Frank Costigliola, whose writing about FDR’s inner circle gave rare credit to Missy as an advisor. Other fans included Robert Clark, who was chief archivist at the FDR Library when I began my research, and later Paul Sparrow, who is director of the library. Of course, anyone can become a Missy fan by following her Facebook page!
Roosevelt took counsel from Eleanor and Missy—the first woman to hold the job of private secretary to a president—and he also appointed the first female cabinet secretary. How unusual was it for a president to have women in his inner circle? Was Roosevelt progressive in that regard?
I think he was extremely progressive. Frances Perkins, the labor secretary, was one of his most valuable cabinet members, and there were other women in positions of note, including assistant secretary of the treasury. He listened to what women had to say, and valued their advice. Perhaps that began because of the respect he had for his mother, who was a very strong personality, to say the least!
It was sad to learn that in the months leading up to Missy’s stroke (1941), Roosevelt had started shutting her out as he spent time with the crown princess of Norway, and for the first time Missy openly criticized the president. Why do you think their relationship began to deteriorate in this way? Do you think Missy would have stayed on as Roosevelt’s personal secretary if she hadn’t become ill?
I do believe she would have stayed with him. All relationships have their ups and downs, and I believe America’s entry into World War II would have gotten them back on the same page again. It seems that much of Missy’s disappointment in him was his failure to lead the country to recognize the need to join Britain in fighting the Axis Powers. After Pearl Harbor, everyone understood.
A compelling part of the book is the recounting of Roosevelt’s recovery after he contracted polio, a tough time through which Missy aided him. How have you personally been inspired by Roosevelt’s courage and fortitude?
When I was forty-three, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was so afraid of dying and leaving my children, then seventeen and eleven, without a mother. I cried all the time. One night I was watching The American Experience on PBS and the subject was FDR. I was so inspired by his story, and the words “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” became my mantra during treatment. I am happy to say I am cancer-free, seventeen years later. One of the things I did after recovering was establish a cancer charity in the city where I live so that I could help other survivors. I led it for eight years, and it is still going strong under my successor.
How has Missy’s family reacted to the book and to finally having her story told? What was it like to have her great-nieces join you at book appearances and interact with audience members?
They have been very pleased, I am happy to say. Barbara Jacques and Jane Scarbrough are marvelous women, so much fun to be around. We had a ball during the promotional tour, especially when they were wearing Missy’s gorgeous charm bracelets! All the women wanted to see them up close!
What would you say is Missy’s greatest legacy? What words of wisdom might Missy offer to women in politics today?
I hope, now that people know about her, it is her importance as Roosevelt’s advisor, one of the people who kept him grounded and in touch with “the forgotten man.” When Hillary Clinton talked about keeping her head down and working twice as hard as the men, I thought about Missy. That was certainly what she did. She might say, “When you don’t put yourself on a pedestal, no one can knock you off.”
For those who would like to know more about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, what further reading would you recommend?
Oh, goodness, it depends on how much they want to know. You can spend your whole life reading about the Roosevelts! My favorite one-volume biography of Franklin Roosevelt is Jean Edward Smith’s FDR. I also really like Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. For a better understanding of FDR’s comeback from polio, you can’t beat The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency by James Tobin. Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin probably provides the best portrait of their marriage, though Lash was a close friend of Eleanor’s and may have cut her more slack than other biographers.
What are you working on now? Are there any other women forgotten in history whose stories you’d like to tell?
Absolutely! I can spend the rest of my life resurrecting worthy women from the shadows of history. I have already begun researching some worthy subjects.
Kathryn speaks to book clubs and would love to call in to your next meeting. She will send an inscribed and signed bookplate to each member of your group who buys a copy of the book. Please contact her at www.kathrynsmithwords.com.
- Publisher: Atria Books (September 6, 2016)
- Length: 352 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501114984
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Raves and Reviews
"[A] fine biography....Ms. Smith has filled a small gap in Roosevelt historiography with this compelling personal story."
– The Wall Street Journal
"In The Gatekeeper, Kathryn Smith does full justice to the fascinating and heartbreaking life of Missy LeHand, who rose from a working-class background to become a close confidant and trusted adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt and one of the most influential figures in his administration. Although Missy’s total devotion to FDR made her indispensable to him, she sacrificed much in the process, including other personal relationships and, ultimately, her life. Thanks to Smith,she is — at long last — getting the recognition she deserves."
– Lynne Olson, author of Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941
"A much-needed, balanced...marvelous portrait of a professional woman ahead of her time whose relationship with FDR sheds new light on his personality and decisions."
– Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Highly readable....Smith's biography represents her subject perfectly."
– Washington Post
Kathryn Smith’s The Gatekeeper is a vivid, much-needed life of one of the least-known but most consequential figures in FDR’s immediate circle, Missy LeHand. Anyone interested in Roosevelt, the New Deal or the path toward global war will want to snap it up.
– Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of FDR
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