For most, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand isn’t a well-recognized name from American history. But as former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s private secretary for 21 years, LeHand was one of the most influential players in the Roosevelt White House, serving as both a confidant and trusted advisor.
However, in the decades since FDR held power, LeHand’s place in political history has largely been forgotten. Many contemporary historians have cast her aside as a lovelorn secretary or even a mistress to Roosevelt, consequently overlooking her role in his administration.
Kathryn Smith, a former editor at the Anderson Independent-Mail and author of “The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency,” is trying to rectify that oversight. Published in September 2016 and soon available in paperback, “The Gatekeeper” is the first book to closely examine LeHand’s life and work.
In reading about Roosevelt over the years — an interest that Smith says stemmed from her grandfather’s fascination with FDR — the writer’s curiosity was piqued when she noticed how LeHand’s name kept appearing in books.
“I thought, ‘She must have had such an interesting life, working for one of the most important political figures of the 20th century,’” Smith says.
After discovering that a contemporary work on LeHand had never been written, Smith took on the project herself.
What she found was that LeHand had not only been a treasured companion to Roosevelt for years but she exercised significant power.
“The only other women — besides first ladies — who have wielded as much influence over a president since Missy were Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser and secretary of state for George W. Bush, and Barack Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett,” writes Smith. “In everything but name, she was FDR’s chief of staff — for the job title was not used by a president until Dwight Eisenhower adopted it to suit his sense of military structure.”
Throughout her research, Smith unearthed new information about LeHand’s professional and personal relationship with Roosevelt, her friendly rapport with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the scope of her vast responsibilities and sway in the White House.
Among several significant discoveries in Smith’s research were medical records that provided further insight into the severity and long-term effects of chronic heart damage LeHand had sustained from a bout of rheumatic fever as a teenager. The debilitating condition helped shape her bond with Roosevelt, who was permanently paralyzed from the waist down after contracting polio, and later contributed to a severe stroke in 1941 that ended her time in the White House.
Additionally, Smith found a series of letters between LeHand and William Christian Bullitt Jr., an American diplomat with whom she had a romantic relationship throughout the Roosevelt administration, though the two never married.
“The letters are interesting because they helped me know her voice,” Smith says. “By the time I got to the letters, I knew the timeline of her life, so I could plug in the date and understand what was going on in her life.”
The extensive correspondence between the pair also poked holes in the long-held belief that LeHand and Roosevelt were romantically involved. Smith remains unconvinced this was the case.
Smith also connected with two of LeHand’s great-nieces, Barbara Jacques and Jane Scarbrough, who had saved many relics from LeHand’s life, including “photos, letters, scrapbooks, and memorabilia” — sources that proved to be invaluable.
“Finding her family opened a new vista of research that hadn’t been opened before,” she says.
Smith hopes “The Gatekeeper” will lead to a more nuanced view of LeHand as a significant figure in the history of American politics.
“She really broke a lot of glass ceilings, as we call them now, in the ’30s. And she needs to have credit for that,” Smith says. “She did it in a quiet, unobtrusive way, but she needs to be recognized.”
Kathryn Smith: Sunday Sit Down Supper
Sunday, June 25, 7–10 p.m.
M. Judson Booksellers
Click here for info