Excerpted from FDR’s Funeral Train, by Robert Klara
Over the course of his life, Franklin Delano Roosevelt journeyed to Warm Springs, Georgia, more than forty times. So enamored was he with the place and its recuperative waters that he spent most of his fortune to open a clinic there to treat fellow polio sufferers. FDR was at Warm Springs when he collapsed at his desk on April 12, 1945. His sudden death and the ascension of Harry S. Truman to the presidency is well-documented, as Robert Klara, a New York City–based editor and FDR aficionado, learned. Far less chronicled, though, was the tale of the funeral train that embarked from Warm Springs and passed through Atlanta and Washington, D.C., on the way to the thirty-second president’s final resting place in Hyde Park, New York. Klara’s year of research led to a book, FDR’s Funeral Train, released to coincide with the sixty-fifth anniversary of FDR’s death this month. The book explores the intrigue and scheming that occurred on that train as it made its way north, through depots and small towns, past a nation that was inconsolable in its grief. On board was not just FDR’s widow, Eleanor, but Washington power brokers (and one Soviet spy) who were quietly maneuvering a historic transfer of power at a time when the world was at war.
“It was a public event in that tens of thousands of people saw the train,” Klara says. “But for all that awareness, there was almost no awareness of what was going on onboard the train. In many ways this was one of the best-known railroad journeys in twentieth-century American history, yet it’s all but forgotten now.”
Atlanta is the “anchor for the story,” says Klara, forty-one. “Atlanta was where POTUS, the presidential train, was kept. When the presidential train became the funeral train, they added a sleeper and the best engines. And the locals were proud that Roosevelt had chosen Warm Springs as his retreat. He was very friendly with everyone. The fact that he died there was felt more acutely than in New York. We like to lay claim to FDR because of Hyde Park, but Warm Springs was the center of his heart.”
In the following excerpt from Klara’s book, FDR arrives at Warm Springs for the final time.
In the afternoon of March 30, following the overnight trip from Washington, POTUS had rounded the tight bend at Warm Springs, eighty-four miles south of Atlanta. The town perched along a branch line so insignificant it resembled a piece of lint on the Southern Railway’s sprawling route map. Long before the clang of the locomotive’s brass bell could be heard, a distant plume of smoke over the treetops announced the train’s approach. POTUS’s engineer touched the throttle gently to summon the steam needed to nudge the overweight Magellan up the slight grade by the depot. The ten cars rumbled through, slowing up until the train’s tail was even with the road crossing. Then the brakes gripped the wheels tight. A mighty hiss followed as the reservoirs spat their pressurized air into the dirt. FDR had arrived in the sleepy Georgia hamlet for the forty-first time. It was Good Friday.
Here, in the yard beside the station, there was plenty of room for bystanders. For locals, the president’s arrival was always a special occasion, familiar as it had become. Helped to his Pullman’s vestibule, FDR would never fail to doff his fedora and smile at his assembled “neighbors,” a term Roosevelt essentially applied to everyone inside the Georgia state line. But today it would be different. It was a ghost’s face that appeared in the shadow of the Magellan’s open doorway. Regulars in the crowd could tell right away that something was wrong.
Pushed in his wheelchair toward the waiting automobiles, Roosevelt joggled like a rag doll, and as Mike Reilly lifted him into the car, he landed like a wet sandbag. The Secret Service chief, who’d grown accustomed to the president summoning the tremendous strength he had built up in his shoulders to literally vault from wheelchair to automobile, was disturbed.
Reilly deposited the president into the car’s seat—not the passenger one, but the driver’s. Roosevelt kept his royal-blue 1938 Ford coupe permanently garaged down in Warm Springs (its Georgia plates read “F.D.R.1”). FDR soaked the carburetor with gasoline and the little car took off, roaring up the road lined with wild violets and dogwoods, the Secret Service car hot on his tail. Watching him fly up the hill, some in the crowd felt a sense of relief. The president had looked frail, but he was the same road demon he’d always been.
“When I’m worn out,” Roosevelt had told his doctors in 1928, “I’ll come back to Warm Springs. In a few days I’ll be like new again.” FDR had uttered those words when his bid for the New York governor’s mansion signaled the start of his political career and the end of his efforts to rehabilitate his legs. Yet Roosevelt had called it right: Warm Springs—a gone-to-seed Victorian resort he’d discovered in 1924 and purchased outright two years later—did somehow always make him new again.
Though Roosevelt’s first dip in the property’s thermal waters had imbued only a fleeting sense of buoyancy to his shrunken legs, something about the place with its pine-scented air possessed the power to restore the rest of him. His Wall Street friends scoffed when Roosevelt parted with two-thirds of his personal fortune to incorporate Warm Springs as a foundation and open it as a treatment center for polio victims. They didn’t understand that the dividends FDR had in mind would not be paid in cash.
After buying the land, Roosevelt selected a hilltop near Georgia Hall, the property’s old hotel, and raised a simple cottage of white clapboard. Hanging from a chain over the cottage’s front door was a ship’s lantern, lit only when the president was in residence. FDR had insisted on a simple, rustic decor of hook rugs and knotty-pine furniture. Measuring fifty-four feet at its widest point, the cabin was shorter than the Pullman car that would bring him there. Roosevelt adored the place.
Elizabeth Shoumatoff, Russian-born portraitist of America’s aristocracy, saw the president seated in the back of his parked limousine outside a corner drugstore in Greenville, and her heart sank. The ebullient man she’d painted at the White House in the spring of 1943 could not possibly be the pale, diminished one before her now, the evening of April 9, eleven days into his vacation in Georgia. Though the night air was warm, Roosevelt had wrapped himself in his heavy Navy cape. He was sipping a Coca-Cola, doing his best to smile. The Russian gazed at the man she had just traveled hundreds of miles to paint a second time. “How,” Shoumatoff thought, “can I make a portrait of such a sick man?” Lucy Rutherfurd had been responsible for setting up the whole thing, but if Shoumatoff blamed her longtime friend for her predicament, she also knew the importance of Lucy’s being here—of their both being here. “He is thin and frail,” Rutherfurd had warned, weeks earlier. “But there is something about his face that shows more the way he looked when he was young.”
No woman would have known better. The youthful, handsome countenance of Franklin Roosevelt had been etched into the mind of Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd from their first meeting, when he was the newly minted assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy and his wife needed an appointments secretary.
During the winter of 1914, the Roosevelts were new to Washington and overwhelmed by the social demands that went with Franklin’s title, so they were grateful for the young, polished, and well-connected Lucy Mercer. Her easy laugh and statuesque beauty charmed the Roosevelt children—but charmed their father even more. It is not certain exactly when the romantic affair began, but by September of 1918, it met its abrupt end. With World War I winding down in Europe, Franklin had returned home, ill with pneumonia, from an inspection tour of the front lines in France. Unpacking his trunks, Eleanor discovered a hidden cache of love letters from Lucy. Though she had suspected her husband’s duplicity for some time, Eleanor was devastated by the evidence that proved it. She later wrote that at that moment, “the bottom dropped out of my own particular world.”
Divorce—viewed in those days with nearly as much disdain as adultery—was the remedy Eleanor had initially demanded. But the social shame of marital dissolution would not only have meant the end of FDR’s burgeoning political career, it would have cost him his inheritance, as his mother, Sara Delano, had made icily clear. So from 1918 onward, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt remained husband and wife on paper and for the sake of press photographers. The secret terms that permitted FDR to keep both his public career and his solvency included his agreeing never to see Lucy Mercer again.
Mercer went on to marry the rich but elderly Winthrop Rutherfurd, and Franklin, who would never again share a bed with his wife, had gone on to attain the White House. But Mrs. Rutherfurd and the president had never quite gotten around to severing their ties. There were limousines that mysteriously arrived to bring Lucy to Roosevelt’s inaugurals, phone calls discreetly routed through the White House switchboard.
On the morning of April 12, Roosevelt slept late and awakened with a headache but looked good to [FDR’s cardiologist] Dr. [Howard G.] Bruenn, who decided to go for a swim with Mike Reilly, Toi Bachelder, and Grace Tully [FDR’s secretary] in the foundation’s pool, two miles down the road. That left the president in the company of his cousins Daisy Suckley and Polly Delano, his correspondence secretary William Hassett, the painter Shoumatoff, her assistant [Nicholas] Robbins, and, sitting nearby in quiet admiration, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd.
FDR picked a spot near the French doors that opened onto the patio, where he sat in his favorite leather chair with a card table pulled up to it so he could work. Within the next hour, Elizabeth Shoumatoff had already completed the handsome face of the president, his thoughtful eyes staring intently into the viewer’s and yet somehow also deep into some unknowable distance within and beyond. Altering the facts in a way only painters can, Shoumatoff also removed at least ten years with her brush. Yet she agonized to replicate one detail of the man before her. A glorious ruddiness had spread over the president’s face only minutes before, chasing away the pallor that had hollowed his cheeks. Such vigor in that color; Shoumatoff summoned all her talent to capture it. She never suspected that the rosy hues washing over the president’s face were in fact a sign that one of the blood vessels in his brain was about to break.
It was 1 p.m. Down at Georgia Hall, a picnic in the president’s honor was in the offing. A great kettle of Brunswick stew—Roosevelt’s favorite—had been hoisted onto the coals. In the Little White House, Polly walked into the kitchen to put some water in a bowl of roses. Shoumatoff’s brush pecked at the canvas. Suckley looked up from her crocheting.
The president seemed to be fumbling for something, his hands flitting about his head, as if waving away a moth that was not there. Suckley rose and walked over to him. “Have you dropped your cigarette?” she asked. Roosevelt turned and looked at her. His furrowed forehead was knitted with pain and yet he addressed her with a tired, apologetic smile. “I have,” the president began, his hand reaching tentatively behind him, “a terrific pain in the back of my head.”
And then he slumped forward.
Though FDR would linger, unconscious, for another two and a half hours, it was all essentially over in that instant. Everything that followed—from camphor passed under the president’s nose, to Dr. Bruenn’s frantic injections of papaverine and amyl nitrate, to the summoning of Dr. James E. Paullin, a heart specialist who sped down from
Atlanta just to plunge an adrenaline syringe into Roosevelt’s heart—all of it was to have no effect. Later, Dr. Bruenn likened the hemorrhage to “getting hit by a train.”
In the minutes before Roosevelt expired, a sense of helplessness, of inevitability, crept like a phantom through the rooms of the cabin. The rasping of FDR’s incapacitated lungs made it clear to everyone that the end was upon him and that there would be no bargaining with it. Grace Tully abandoned herself to silent prayer; Hassett pointlessly studied his watch; the doctors around the bed stood still as oaks. Yet at that moment, as Roosevelt lay in extremis, a purple cyanosis clawing its way across his skin, Polly Delano rose, dialed the White House, and calmly related to Eleanor that Franklin had suffered “a fainting spell” but that “there is no cause for you to upset yourself.”
It was an absurd understatement. Polly, the president’s son Elliott later said, was playing for time—time to make sure that Lucy Rutherfurd was clear of the place, all evidence of her presence expunged, and everyone settled with sanitized recollections for the First Lady when she arrived.
On Roosevelt’s death certificate, file no. 7594 with the Georgia Department of Public Health, beneath the entry on line 10 for Usual Occupation—“President of the United States of America”—the cause of death appears as cerebral hemorrhage with a contributory cause of arteriosclerosis, duration two and one-half years. Line 23 lists the time of death as 3:35 p.m.
As word of Roosevelt’s death spread, most found the shock immobilizing, but the news caused some others to move quickly—some from a sense of duty; others, for personal motives.
Ferman White, a foreman for the Southern Railway, clocked off his shift at Atlanta’s sprawling North Avenue Yards around 4:30 p.m. On his way home, White decided to stop and buy some groceries. It was in the store that he learned the news, and he raced to the nearest phone. White had one thought on his mind as he called the roundhouse. It was a piece of knowledge that few men in Atlanta possessed and one that White guarded closely. On a layup track in the yards, a special train—the president’s train—had been parked for two weeks. It would not, White knew, stay parked for long now. Charles Craft, another foreman, picked up the phone.
“Charley,” White shouted into the receiver. “We’ll need two light Pacific [engines]. What you got in sight?”
“The 1262 and 1337 are on the cinder pit,” Craft answered.
“Get them going,” White said.
On the other side of Atlanta, a little after 7:30 p.m., another phone rang. This one was at the home of a man named Fred Patterson. Patterson, funeral director to Atlanta’s elite, had spent the afternoon playing golf, and it was on the green that he’d learned about the president’s death. Now, back at his house, Patterson was just about to light up a cigar and settle down with the newspaper when he heard the telephone. The voice on the other end belonged to Dr. James Paullin, who was calling from Warm Springs. As the cardiologist spoke, it became clear to Patterson that he would not be reading the news that night; he would be playing a part in it. President Roosevelt had already been dead four hours. The funeral train would be leaving in the morning. Patterson was needed quickly.
After Patterson had finished his phone call with Paullin, he drove to the H.M. Patterson & Son funeral chapel in Atlanta’s Spring Hill neighborhood. There was plenty to do. His first task was to call Hassett down at Warm Springs for as many details as he could obtain. Each presented a problem. Roosevelt’s height—six feet three inches—severely narrowed the choices among Patterson’s stock of coffins. But the more pressing issue was metal. Wartime shortages had meant that steel and bronze coffins had been replaced by composites with names like Eternalite and Mineralite. Plastic and cloth-covered models had even begun appearing in funeral homes across the country. But Patterson knew that no one would stand for the President of the United States to be buried in a container made of something called Permalith. Hassett had told him about a copper-lined mahogany casket that Roosevelt had picked out for his mother’s funeral four years earlier and suggested that a similar model might be appropriate. Patterson had just purchased a mahogany coffin that was the right size, but of course it had no copper.
Then he remembered: He did have a National Seamless Copper Deposit model—solid copper, bronze finish, and an interior lined in velvet. It was an expensive and beautiful piece. (Also, critically, it measured six feet six inches.) If posterity was to matter—and to Roosevelt, it did—the copper casket was the only choice.
United Press man Merriman Smith would recall the twelve hours beginning with Hassett’s late-afternoon announcement of Roosevelt’s death as a “nightmare, a horrible, discordant symphony of people shouting for telephones, automobiles racing along dusty clay roads, the clatter of telegraph instruments and typewriters.” Up in D.C., Steve Early [FDR’s press secretary] had been clear that the Boss wouldn’t have wanted the cottage swarming with reporters, so the entire world would hear a story told by only three men.
“Warm Springs, Ga., April 12—(UP)—Death today removed Franklin Delano Roosevelt from a war-torn world and left peace-expectant millions shocked and stunned,” Smith’s lead story would read. “Death gave the 63-year-old President of the United States short notice.” Smith wrote all night. He wrote, he said, until he swore another word could not issue from his typewriter. And then, of course, he wrote some more.
Meanwhile, the newsmen not lucky enough to be among Steve Early’s chosen three haunted the periphery of the compound. Having acted on the assumption that the First Lady would travel to Warm Springs by train, journalists besieged the little station. When word came, after midnight, that Mrs. Roosevelt would not be arriving by train but had in fact already touched down in a military plane and was ensconced in the Little White House, the reporters knew there would be no story until the morning when the train left.
The newsmen moved like the dispossessed toward Georgia Hall. Here were men accustomed to life on the underside of the clock; to the front seats of cars or the hard benches of police precincts serving as beds while they waited for announcements that may or may not be news; men for whom a candy bar produced from a back pocket often stood in for dinner. So it came as a particular surprise to enter a Victorian hotel and find a banquet laid out on white tablecloths—just for them.
The hotel’s manager spoke over the din: “The president and his party were to have attended a barbecue here at 5 p.m.,” he said. “We had the food all prepared. You may eat it if you are hungry, for it will only go to waste. It’s on the house.”
Dave Snell of the Atlanta Constitution found a seat and set his plate before him. He looked around, listening to the conversations in earshot. Men of the ink trades tend to maintain exteriors of iron. The job demands it. To go soft is to cause your colleagues to lose respect for you. And yet, Snell was to write later of the talk at those tables, despite the “same jargon, the same outward irreverence, there is a mist in many eyes.” It was usual for newsmen on third watch to ease the boredom with drink. Tonight, not a drop of alcohol was in sight.
Sunrise spread over the foundation grounds as a cool breeze came in from the west. The sky was the color of topaz on the day the Boss would leave Warm Springs for good. The air carried the intoxicating scents of brook water, weeds, and the red earth as the temperature climbed toward a comfortable 83 degrees. Inexplicably, as has happened so many times before and since, a great tragedy had been blessed with the backdrop of perfect weather.
By nine that morning, the population of Warm Springs—608 souls, according to the 1940 Census—had grown fivefold. Three thousand soldiers had arrived during the night. In number, they were sufficient to assemble a formal marching column for the cortege and still leave 2,000 paratroopers available to line both sides of the route all the way to the train station. The 99th Infantry Ground Forces and the 267th Army Ground Forces had both contributed musicians to the band that led the procession. Following them was a color guard assembled from the young men of Fort Benning’s infantry school—twenty-eight miles down the road, near Columbus, Georgia—who’d come in full ceremonial dress, carrying streamers and Springfield rifles.
The proceedings must have looked as rehearsed as if they had been planned for months. The truth was that FDR had died so unexpectedly and so far from Washington’s apparatus of protocol that the Army brass simply improvised. Things went wrong. Someone misplaced the ceremonial flag, forcing Patterson to order the Stars and Stripes flying from a nearby flagpole pulled down and spread across the coffin’s lid. The horse-drawn caisson that was to have taken the body to the train station never arrived, and here again Patterson stepped forward with a solution.
Parked by the Little White House was the undertaker’s Cadillac S&S limousine hearse. The long black car glinted in the sunlight like a slab of buffed onyx. With its triple bands of fender chrome and green-curtained windows, it was a car befitting a president; in a wonder of coincidence, it even bore the coachbuilder’s model name “Statesman.”
The copper casket slid down the rollers in the back and the men closed the car’s heavy rear door behind it. One of Patterson’s men got behind the Cadillac’s steering wheel while another assistant slipped into the passenger’s seat. The V-8 engine cleared its throat and turned over. The enormous hearse inched forward, falling in line behind the band and the color guard. Patterson and the other morticians drove ahead of the hearse in the lead car. Following the hearse came a sedan carrying Eleanor Roosevelt, Grace Tully, [Polly] Delano, and Daisy Suckley. Lying at the ladies’ feet was Fala [FDR’s dog], “knowing that something was wrong,” claimed the New York Times.
In all his years of visiting Warm Springs, Roosevelt had never left without stopping at Georgia Hall first, where he could say goodbye to its hundred or more patients. Now, at Eleanor Roosevelt’s behest, the hearse detoured into the circular drive, pausing before the hall’s white columns where scores of children, confined to wheelchairs and locked into leg braces, stared. One of them was Jay Fribourg, who could only clench his teeth to keep from sobbing as a reporter approached. “I loved him so much,” Fribourg said. He was thirteen years old.
Up in their locomotives, engineers Allgood and Wolford adhered to their orders—“run slow, run silent”—and kept the iron horses under tight leash. The enormous driving rods cranked no faster than 25 miles per hour. At this rate, it would take twenty-three hours to reach Union Station in Washington. Originally, the Southern Railway had been tempted to shotgun POTUS into D.C. in twelve hours, running orders that would have pushed the locomotives to just over 60 mph.
But as the crewmen looked down from the hot, windy cabs of their engines, it was plain that the First Lady, in requesting the speed restriction, had been prescient; highballing would have been thoughtless—and dangerous—with so many people along the tracks. Dazed and somber, they stood at the crossings; they stood in the little depots and on weedy sidings; they stood in the middle of nowhere. So long as the funeral train would pass them, people seemed satisfied with any spot. They were, Grace Tully wrote later, “unmindful of heat or chill, sunlight or darkness.” As the train approached, many dropped to their knees. “The people did not wave,” Life magazine said. “They wept.”
Three hours out of Warm Springs, the funeral train swept into the lower city limits of Atlanta, bound for the Southern Railway’s station in the middle of Downtown. Atlanta’s Terminal Station, a magisterial castle of minarets and red-tile roofs, hadn’t seen crowds like these since its 1905 opening. Affording the best perch over the tracks that passed beneath, the Mitchell Street Bridge was a mass of people who spilled onto all the nearby thoroughfares—anyplace with a view, however obstructed, of the yards below. The curious also took up posts along the tracks throughout the city, which had ground to a halt in expectation of the train’s arrival. Theaters, jewelers, shoeshine stands—most every business had closed for the day.
At 1:32 local time, the crowd fell to a hush as engine No. 1262 hove into view. The locomotive’s bell swung high, its clapper striking a steady clang. The train wound its way through the web of shadows cast by buildings and passing over streets, coming to a halt at Track 10 with a blast of air from the brake valves. Just as the train was pulling in, a municipal trolley had started over the Mitchell Street Bridge. The motorman stopped immediately so his passengers could watch.
Some 20,000 Atlantans packed the terminal zone, but the soldiers trucked in from Camp Sibert allowed only about 100 down the stairs and onto the platform. They had come to provide security as much as pageantry: Each soldier clutched a bayonet in his white-gloved hands. Suffering the merciless Atlanta sun beneath steel helmets, the enlisted men—2,000 strong, many with overseas ribbons fluttering on their breasts—flanked the track like garden stakes.
A shrub-sized wreath of red roses and white gladiola appeared over the platform’s sea of fedoras. Arms passed it up to the Conneaut’s vestibule, and it was taken aboard. Steve Early stepped down to meet Mayor William B. Hartsfield, who presented the spray on behalf of the people of Atlanta. Then the men disappeared into the lounge car. Inside, Hartsfield positioned the flowers at the head of Roosevelt’s casket.
It was a practice that would continue at every stop up the line, where local officials would arrive trainside with an elaborate spray of lilies and roses, carnations, ribbon, and fern—a kind of botanical admission ticket that allowed them into the rolling sanctum of the Conneaut. By the time the train reached Washington, flowers could be seen overflowing into the stately old Pullman’s vestibule.
Presidential valet Arthur Prettyman, wearing his blue Navy dress uniform, saw his chance to give Fala some fresh air. It was warm and breezy in Atlanta that afternoon, and the little dog’s nails sounded on the Pullman’s metal trap stairs as the First Pet bounded down. But if FDR’s longtime aide—whose service as a chief petty officer had earned him the six gold stripes on his sleeves—hoped that the mayor and his floral tribute would keep the press distracted, he was wrong. Soon photographers’ flashbulbs were popping as Fala sniffed his way through a forest of ankles. “Fala Strolls Station Platform” would join the headlines in the following day’s Atlanta Constitution, which noted that the Scottie “wagged his tail in response to the sympathetic expressions of bystanders.”
Departing the Conneaut, Hartsfield made his way one car up to the Ferdinand Magellan. In his palm he secreted a single rosebud he’d pinched from the spray as a keepsake. As Hartsfield and Early walked in, Eleanor Roosevelt looked up. Grace Tully and her typist, Dorothy Brady, were seated alongside her. Otherwise, the car was empty and quiet, its curtains drawn tightly closed. Hartsfield stepped forward. “There are no words,” said the mayor, “to express how we feel.” The First Lady said graciously, “I understand.”