Marguerite LeHand

Marguerite LeHand
LeHand at her desk in the White House, c. 1935
Personal Secretary to the President
In office
March 4, 1933 – June 1941
Appointed byFranklin D. Roosevelt
Succeeded byGrace Tully
Personal details
BornMarguerite Alice LeHand
(1896-09-13)September 13, 1896
Potsdam, New York
DiedJuly 31, 1944(1944-07-31) (aged 47)
Chelsea Naval Hospital, Massachusetts
Political partyDemocratic

Marguerite Alice "Missy" LeHand (September 13, 1896 – July 31, 1944) was private secretary to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) for 21 years. According to LeHand's biographer, Kathryn Smith, in "The Gatekeeper," she eventually functioned as White House chief of staff, the only woman in American history to do so.[1]

Born into a blue collar Irish-American family in upstate New York, LeHand studied secretarial science in high school, took a series of clerical jobs, and eventually began to work for the Franklin Roosevelt vice presidential campaign in New York. Following the Democrats' defeat, FDR's wife Eleanor invited her to join the family at their home in Hyde Park, New York to clean up the campaign correspondence. FDR subsequently hired LeHand to work for him on Wall Street, where he was the partner in a law firm and also worked for a bonding company.[2] After FDR was partially paralyzed in August 1921, LeHand became his daily companion and one of the main people to encourage him to return to politics, along with Eleanor and his political strategist, Louis McHenry Howe. She remained his secretary when he became Governor of New York in 1929 and when he became president in 1933, serving until a 1941 stroke left her partially paralyzed and barely able to speak. She moved to her sister's home in Somerville, Massachusetts and died after another stroke in 1944.

The exact nature of LeHand's relationship with FDR is debated by historians. It is generally accepted that their relationship contained a romantic element, though scholars remain divided on whether the pair had a sexual relationship. LeHand was romantically involved with William C. Bullitt Jr., U.S. ambassador to Russia and later France, from 1933 to 1940, but apparently never contemplated marriage to him. Her devotion to the Roosevelt family and dedication to her career were the most likely impediments to marriage, though she once asked a friend, "How could anyone ever come up to FDR?"[3]

Early life

LeHand was born in Potsdam, New York, to Daniel J. and Mary J. (née Graffin) LeHand, who were the children of Irish immigrants.[4] The parents began their family at age 16 with a son, also called Daniel, followed by Bernard, Anna and finally Marguerite, when they were in their 40s.[5] When she was a young child, the family relocated to Somerville, a working class suburb of Boston, where LeHand was struck by rheumatic fever at age fifteen. It permanently damaged her heart, causing episodes of atrial fibrillation and leading to her premature death.[6] Eleanor Roosevelt later stated that the disease had left her delicate and barred from strenuous exercise.[7] She graduated from Somerville High School in 1917, where she took secretarial courses in preparation for a career.[8] Although she never attended college, in 1937 Rosary College (now called Dominican University) recognized her professional achievements with an honorary Doctor of Laws, presented at the White House.[9]

After holding a variety of clerical positions in the Boston area and passing the Civil Service exam, she moved to Washington, D.C. in 1917 to briefly serve as a clerk at the Department of the Navy during the First World War.[9] FDR was serving as assistant secretary of the Navy then, but the two did not meet. At the recommendation of Charles McCarthy, Roosevelt's assistant at the Navy Department,[9] she became a secretary with FDR's vice presidential campaign three years later when he ran on a ticket with James M. Cox against Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, LeHand's work on the campaign and her clear personal devotion to FDR caught the eye of the Roosevelts.[10][11] In early 1921, FDR hired her as his personal secretary and she moved to New York, sleeping on the sofa of a cousin's home in the Bronx. Roosevelt biographer Jean Edward Smith described the young LeHand as "five feet, seven inches tall ... warm and attractive, with ink-blue eyes, black hair already turning gray, and an engaging throaty voice. She was also modest, well mannered, exceptionally capable, and thoroughly organized."[12]

She once described her early work with FDR thus:

The first thing for a private secretary to do is to study her employer. After I went to work for Mr. Roosevelt, for months I read carefully all the letters he dictated ... I learned what letters he wanted to see and which ones it was not necessary to show him ... I came to know exactly how Mr. Roosevelt would answer some of his letters, how he would couch his thoughts. When he discovered that I had learned these things it took a load off his shoulders, for instead of having to dictate the answers to many letters he could just say yes or no and I knew what to say and how to say it.[13]

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