The Gatekeeper by Kathryn Smith a Book Signing

09/25/2016 - 13:00
09/25/2016 - 15:00

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt considered his savvy personal secretary, Marguerite Alice “Missy” LeHand, one of the most vital, and certainly one of the most loyal, members of his inner circle. He often remarked that Missy was “my conscience.” Missy worked with FDR for more than twenty years, starting from his first failed Vice Presidential campaign in 1920, through his time as governor of New York, and for almost a decade in the White House. Yet while hundreds of books have chronicled FDR’s four historic terms in office, as he steered the country through the Great Depression and World War II, Missy has literally been relegated to the footnotes of history…until now.

Far more than a secretary, Missy fulfilled the crucial duties of Chief of Staff (long before the position was formally created), and she was a persuasive voice in policy decisions and appointment recommendations. She was also FDR’s confidante, his support when he contracted polio, and his close friend. Journalist Kathryn Smith finally tells Missy LeHand’s story in The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency (Touchstone Hardcover, September 6, 2016; $28.00; ISBN 9781501114960).

People in Washington, D.C., knew one indisputable truth: if you wanted to get to FDR, you had to go through Missy. She helped set his busy schedule, she lived in the White House with him and his family, and a word from her could get you in the door (or bar you from the president’s presence forever). From her humble beginnings in working class Boston, Missy remade herself into a worldly and glamourous figure who moved in the inner circles of power in the Roosevelt administration, and who even appeared on the cover of Time in 1934. However, she faded out of the public eye after suffering a debilitating stroke at the age of just 44, and was even more overlooked after her death three years later. What little has been written about her since is all too often wrong, dismissing her as a love-starved secretary at best, or an in-house mistress at worst. There has never even been a book about her life—until now.

Author Kathryn Smith had unprecedented access to original source materials kept lovingly, but largely untouched, by Missy’s heirs for generations. The Missy LeHand Collection is currently on offer by the noted New York dealer in historical and literary archives, Glenn Horowitz. The LeHand Collection represents the final opportunity to acquire the papers of such a central and prominent figure in the life of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Her extensive research uncovered crucial missing details that redrew Missy’s portrait, including the truth about her long relationship with William Christian Bullitt, the American ambassador to France in the early days of World War II, and the permanent heart damage she sustained as a teenager from a bout with rheumatic fever that ultimately took her life. One particularly notable discovery is a home movie of FDR, taken by Missy in the polio rehabilitation facility in Warm Springs, Georgia. Because of the veil of secrecy at the time around Roosevelt’s paralysis, there have only ever been four photographs that showed FDR in his wheelchair: in The Gatekeeper you will find the fifth, a still from Missy’s home movie.

The Gatekeeper is a lively, beautifully rendered biography that reads like a novel. Here is a sample of some of the revelatory insights, which Smith can discuss in an interview:

· Missy was not only the de facto chief of staff—making her the only woman to hold that position ever – she was also a constant messenger between the often at-odds FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. Ever discreet, she managed to maintain a close relationship with both of them.

· Why it’s unlikely that Missy and the President had a romantic relationship—at least not the sort often surmised by historians.

· Why FDR divided half the income of his estate equally between Missy and Eleanor, and how he and Eleanor paid for all of Missy’s medical expenses in the years leading up to her death.

· How, on September 1, 1939, Missy became the White House staff member sent to wake up FDR with the fateful news that Germany had invaded Poland and started World War II.

Kathryn Smith is a journalist and writer. She spent decades writing for daily newspapers and has been the book columnist for the Anderson Independent Mail for twenty years. She has been involved through Rotary International in the worldwide effort to eradicate polio, called PolioPlus, and she has lectured and spoken on FDR’s leadership in that arena. Smith is also the author of A Necessary War, an oral history of World War II told by living veterans and civilians.

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