In the past, even the great were satisfied with so much less

That's the Little White House itself in the background. The building in the foreground contains servant's quarters.

That cottage in the background is the Little White House. The building in the foreground contains servant’s quarters.

That headline sounds a bit like the kind of judgmental cliche you hear from your cranky old grandpa, like, “Why back in my day, we didn’t have your fancy-schmancy devices, and we liked it!”

But actually, this is about a realization I’ve come to over time regarding the way things were in a time before my time, based on physical evidence I’ve encountered.

Over the weekend, my wife and I drove our twin granddaughters to their summer camp in Warm Springs, Ga. That place name is redolent with history, so we weren’t going to go all that way without seeing the “Little White House,” where FDR stayed when he went there for the waters, and where he set up institutions for helping people with all sorts of handicaps.wheelchair

I highly recommend going to see it, and the nice little museum the state of Georgia has put next to it, with all sorts of artifacts such as a couple of FDR’s modified cars, a special wheelchair to use at the pool, hats, canes, cigarette holders, and lots of stories not only about the Roosevelts, but of regular folks who lived through those extraordinary times.

Of course I went into grandfather mode, pointing out things that I hoped would help our little girls understand that time. At one point, I called them over to a photograph of Roosevelt seated at a dinner next to a young boy (possibly another polio victim) and flashing him that great FDR grin. And I told the girls this was what FDR did for the whole country — he rose above all the setbacks and suffering of his own life, and put extraordinary energy into keeping everyone else’s spirits up. (If only I had a small fraction of that strength of character!)

Another exhibit helped me drive that point home — a small kitchen set up with period appliances (I explained to them what an icebox was), including a modest little radio that was playing one of the president’s Fireside Chats.

Anyway, once again, I recommend it.

But I wanted to share an impression I personally gained from what I saw. It was in the truly tiny “Little White House” itself. I couldn’t help thinking, This was the favored retreat of this great, patrician man who held the fate of the world in his hands? Few upper-middle-class types today, much less someone with the stature of a Roosevelt (were there any such people today) would be satisfied with this as a second home, based on what I see down on our coast.

The point was driven home when I saw the room, and the bed, in which he died. The room could barely contain the tiny single bed in which he lay. There was hardly enough space to walk past it. The bed itself reminds me of the twin beds that my brother and I slept in when I was about 8.

And this was not an anomaly. Since Hobcaw Barony is a client of ADCO’s, I’ve had occasion to visit Bernard Baruch’s house there, preserved much as it was when he lived there. It has its nods to grandeur, to be sure, some of the rooms containing some very fine things. But I was struck by the smallness, the dumpiness even, of the beds and rooms where FDR and Winston Churchill slept when they were visiting the great man.

Yes, these were vacation homes, and those who owned and visited them were no doubt deliberately embracing a certain ethic of “roughing it.”

But it still strikes me as amazing, when I consider the kinds of accommodations that so many people expect as the norm today.

And it made me think even better of the people who went before us, and shaped the world in which we live…

FDR's bed

12 thoughts on “In the past, even the great were satisfied with so much less

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, as I said, FDR was very much a patrician. He was, after all, a Roosevelt.

      Which is why it’s so remarkable that he was happy to spend his (relative) downtime in such humble surroundings. Middle-class people today usually prefer more posh accommodations…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        To make a broader point…

        I was impressed looking at the cool cars FDR drove, that thanks to his wealth and position he was able to have specially modified so he could drive them without his legs. (See the exhibit below.)

        But you ever take a close look at even a very NICE car from that era? All hard, bare steel that looks really crudely made — like something out of Steampunk — to a modern eye. Even a very plain, basic, low-budget car today is much, much cushier, softer, more padded, with far more smoothly-operating mechanisms, than anything seen back then.

        I look at those things and am strongly struck by the softness and comfort we take for granted…


      2. Bryan Caskey

        Everyone knows FDR and his cousin Teddy. Picking either of them as your favorite Roosevelt would be easy, but it would earn you the disdain of Barry from Hi-Fidelity because they’re so obvious.

        Chronically underrated is Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. His resume for your consideration:

        – Eldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt
        – Commanded men in combat in WWI, surviving direct fire and gas attacks (received the DSC)
        – Helped to found the American Legion
        – Assistant Secretary of the Navy (sort a tradition for Roosevelt boys at this point)
        – Executive with Doubleday (publishing) and American Express
        – Returned to active duty for WWWII
        – Oldest man to hit the beaches in the Normandy Invasion at 56 years of age (in the first wave at Utah Beach)
        – Only General to land by sea with the first wave of troops on D-Day;
        – posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day

        Yeah…definitely my favorite Roosevelt.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          But seriously, as much as I admire Teddy père et fils, FDR’s probably my fave.

          Part of it is his incredible courage and self-discipline, never, EVER letting the country see anything get him down — in the face of the Great Depression, the most horrendous war in human history, and his own severe physical limitations.

          I’m just in awe, largely because personally, I’m such a whiner. If I don’t feel good, everybody knows it. The pillow I used under my head at the hotel in Georgia Sunday night wasn’t exactly what I was used to, so all the way home I complained about the stiffness and ache down my right arm, and how I hadn’t slept well…

          FDR would have grinned through that, through 100 times that, and counted himself lucky. From the time polio struck him, he never had a day as good as I had yesterday, but he made it his business to grin and cheer up the entire country, 24/7….

  1. Margaret Pridgen (Maggie)

    Brad (and Lynn, of course) — you would enjoy reading “The Gatekeeper” by Kathryn Smith, former EPE at the Anderson Independent. It is a fascinating biography of Marguerite (Missy) LeHand, FDR’s executive secretary who actually functioned as his Chief of Staff. Lots of good behind the scenes stuff. It’s coming out in paperback next week.

  2. Chris Larsen

    On par with Warm Springs, President Truman’s escape in Key West, Florida is another example of simple and plain living. Truman & FDR treated themselves as if they were blue-colored working stiffs. Well worth a visit.


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