Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Bookshelf Made by FDR, Woodworker

by Stephen J. Gertz

A homemade, portable wooden bookshelf made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32d President of the United States, in 1925 will be auctioned at Boomsbury-NY, on Wednesday, December 8, 2010. It is estimated at $3,500 - $4,500.

Made for Marguerite A. LeHand ("Missy"), FDR's companion, personal secretary, and hostess in Eleanor's absence, and carved with her initials and, below, his - "FDR 1925" - it was, apparently, a practical gift for her while the two traveled together during most of 1925, a small (50.5H x 49.5W x 19.5D cm), convenient, on-the-go bookcase. Roosevelt and Missy spent long hours on trains, traveling between Hyde Park, Manhattan,  Warm Springs, and his houseboat in Florida.

FDR had been a hobbyist woodworker in childhood. In 1921, when he contracted polio and remained at Hyde Park, the family estate in Duchess County, New York, to recover, he returned to it to fruitfully pass the time and cope with the physical challenges of his infirmity. Eleven years later an article appearing in Craftsman magazine in 1932, stated "Mrs. Roosevelt is not the only woodworking fan in her family.  Her husband, Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, follows it as his hobby to give him relaxation from his strenuous days in the state house at Albany, New York."

Bloomsbury, in their catalog note, hesitates to declare it as definitively FDR's creation: "this piece was made by FDR or perhaps a local craftsman in Hyde Park."

But there were no skilled craftsmen in Hyde Park; it was a farming community with, perhaps, a handyman for repairs and light projects. There was, however, one skilled woodworker close to Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Cross.

In 1925,  Eleanor, Marion Dickerman, and Cross built Val-Kill, a stone cottage on the Roosevelt property that the three shared. A furniture designer as well as a woodworker, Cross made all the furnishings, each of which was monogrammed EMN - the ladies' initials. 

This bookshelf, however, was not wrought with the fine woodworking skill that Cross possessed. And it is highly unlikely that FDR would commission a local to create what was a gift to a close companion with their initials carved into it; there's an intimacy to it that strongly suggests that this was strictly between the two of them. And, significantly,  this bookshelf is small and simple enough that it would not have been an unwieldy endeavor for one  confined to a wheelchair; he could have easily made it, and with much free time at his disposal and his own skill,  why would he not? Those carved initials? If the bookshelf had been commissioned by  FDR the builder would have wrought them with greater skill; they are fairly crude.

Yet the possibility exists that it was made by another and only signed by FDR.

The last piece of strong, circumstantial evidence that FDR indeed made this bookshelf himself, I believe, nails it. During 1925, Eleanor, Nancy Cross and Marion Dickerson established a woodworking shop at Val-Kill to employ the local farmers and teach thier children a craft after the harvest and before Spring. The women had to recruit skilled craftsmen from around the country and Europe as teachers and builders: there were none in the area. In 1926, the woodworking shop at Val-Kill became Val-Kill Industries, creating and selling furniture in the Early American style. FDR had a complete woodworking shop at his disposal.

Provenance on the bookcase is solid: the former property of Anna K. McGowan, Hyde Park, NY; Edgar McGowan was caretaker of the Roosevelt family estate at Campobello Island. It seems likely that they were related to one another.

Images courtesy of Bloomsbury.

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