Karen Chase, author of FDR on His Houseboat: The Larooco Log, 1924-1926, examines one of the lesser known periods of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s life, as he battled polio and retreated from public life to live onboard his houseboat.
During the Roaring Twenties, a politically ambitious young man who had been crippled by polio bought a houseboat so he could cruise the warm waters of the Florida Keys and try to cure his damaged legs. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was stricken with the disease in 1921, he withdrew from public life. He spent three winters aboard his houseboat, from 1924 to 1926. While FDR was sailing the Keys, the larger world was glittering. Charlie Chaplin, George Gershwin, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Gertrude Stein, Frida Kahlo, Martha Graham—all were flourishing in the 1920’s, but so were Joseph Stalin, Al Capone, and Hitler. The world went on as Roosevelt fished for mangrove snapper and drank martinis.
While on the boat, he kept a log in longhand in a three-ring binder, writing in it almost every day. Sometimes he used black ink, sometimes turquoise, pages full of playfulness.
Grog in midst of glorious sunset
which was almost as poetic in coloring
as Frances’ and Missy’s nighties
So he documented one jolly evening.
Or reporting on a broken motor:
Miami Engine doctor at work
Patient may respond to heroic treatment
A few years ago, I was working on my memoir, Polio Boulevard, a book about my own girlhood polio—a book in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt looms large. Piled on the floor near my desk were four fat navy tomes of his letters. His son Elliott had edited these volumes of his father’s personal correspondence in 1949, four years after Roosevelt’s death during his fourth term as president. Having FDR’s words near me was inspiring and comforting. One day, I picked up one of the books and began trolling around. Buried amidst the letters, I stumbled on Roosevelt’s nautical log. His humor and language were captivating as he wrote about the usual subjects of nautical logs—weather, route, fish caught, broken engines, guests, meals. I knew then that I had to share this little-known record from one of the least-understood periods of FDR’s life.
FDR on His Houseboat: The Larooco Log, 1924-1926 presents FDR’s log entries, interspersed with photographs from the tumultuous outer world, to form a kind of timeline between two arenas—one man’s small private life full of struggle and fun, juxtaposed with the large public sphere. This book gives us a side of FDR seldom seen before, revealing his wit, his penchant for practical jokes, and his zest for each day’s ordinary concerns in the context of his painful struggle to regain the use of his legs. The book also includes a facsimile of the original Larooco log.
A sailboat drawing by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Photo: Courtesy FDR on His Houseboat: The Larooco Log, 1924-1926)
One night in August 1921, 34 years after he mailed that letter—after he boated, after he fought a forest fire and swam with his children in the Bay of Fundy—he was struck by polio. Roosevelt never walked again.
From then on, FDR tried treatment after treatment in his quest to regain the use of his legs. In the summer of 1923, Roosevelt traveled from his home in New York to vacation with Louis Howe, his close political adviser, at Howe’s cottage on Horseneck Beach in Massachusetts. At the beach, Roosevelt tried out new regimens for his legs, working with a well-known neurologist who had developed a strenuous course of treatment.
Sometimes Roosevelt went to the dunes in an old bathing suit, found a secluded spot, and crawled on his hands and knees over the hot sand until he was worn out. Back at the cottage, Howe would fix drinks for the two of them. Picture FDR sipping a martini and discussing politics, having just crawled across the beach. He didn’t mind crawling because he could do that himself. What he hated was for others to have to carry him from place to place.
One day that summer, his old college friend John Lawrence stopped by the Howe cottage for a visit. There at Horseneck Beach, the men hatched a plan to buy a houseboat of their own for the coming winter months.
For three winters, FDR lived on the Larooco, fishing and swimming and sunbathing, entertaining friends, drinking and playing Parcheesi, but most of all tending to his body so that he might walk again.
About heading south to find a cure, he explained to one of his doctors:
You doctors have sure got imaginations! Have any of your people thought of distilling the remains of King Tut-ankh-amen? The serum might put new life into some of our mutual friends. In the meantime, I am going to Florida to let nature take its course – nothing like Old Mother Nature, anyway!
Roosevelt had been assistant secretary of the navy under Woodrow Wilson and had run unsuccessfully for vice-president in 1920. Although FDR was active—he knew no other way—these years aboard the Larooco were the most politically removed time of his life. When he was approached to reenter politics, he vowed that when he could walk without crutches, he would. Had he kept this vow, we would never have had the Roosevelt presidency.
During this period, the Roosevelts’ marriage was shifting. When FDR contracted polio, Eleanor ignored their estrangement, which had come about three years earlier when she learned of her husband’s affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. At that time, Eleanor offered him a divorce, which he refused, promising not to see Mercer again, but from then on, they never slept in the same bed. When he got sick, Eleanor chose to nurse him with undivided devotion, tending to all of his most basic needs.
The year after FDR bought the houseboat, he helped build a separate home for Eleanor and two of her friends, a couple she met when the three worked for the Women’s Division of the New York State Democratic Committee. Nancy Cook was a curly-haired, irreverent, dynamic woman in her thirties, and Marion Dickerman, seven years her junior, was an educator.
One summer day, Franklin and the three women were picnicking by the Fall Kill Creek, two miles from the main Roosevelt house in Hyde Park, New York. The women began to worry aloud that FDR’s mother would be closing the house up for the winter and they wouldn’t have a place to visit until the following spring.
“But aren’t you girls silly?” said Franklin, “This isn’t mother’s land. I bought this acreage myself . . .Why shouldn’t you three have a cottage here of your own, so you could come and go as you please?”
So began the building project of the “honeymoon cottage” as FDR called it. Both husband and wife created cozy, casual, independent living arrangements for themselves. As Eleanor was settling in to the new cottage, FDR was taking up winter residency on the Larooco.
Although Franklin and Eleanor spent little time together, they remained in constant communication, always aware of each other’s doings. While FDR was trying to come to terms both physically and psychologically with his being crippled, Eleanor was carving out an independent private and public course in navigating the world. They found a way to be apart and together that appeared to suit them both. One can only guess how large the toll of hurt.
Eleanor was a rare guest on the Larooco but disliked being on the boat. Missy LeHand, who had become FDR’s private secretary the year before he got polio, was the hostess on board. A capable, tall, black-haired, blue-eyed 26-year-old, she enjoyed the blithe atmosphere.
She reported, in spite of the general jolly mood on the boat, “It was noon before he could pull himself out of depression and greet his guests wearing his lighthearted façade.”
After FDR’s first winter on the houseboat, he was introduced to Warm Springs, a Georgia spa town. After the third winter, he was ready to say goodbye to the boat and plunge into the Warm Springs waters, which he felt were more likely to heal his legs. “The water put me where I am, and the water has to put me back,” he said.
Here his focus widened as he founded a rehabilitation center, working to heal not only his own stricken body but others paralyzed by polio.
To me, and to so many who had polio, Roosevelt is a heroic figure. Happening upon his unknown nautical log was thrilling. To have an opportunity to help his log find a place in the world was a tiny way to repay him for the inspiration he was to me and countless others.
Karen Chase is the author of FDR on His Houseboat: The Larooco Log, 1924-1926; Polio Boulevard: A Memoir; Land of Stone: Breaking Silence Through Poetry; as well as three volumes of poetry, Kazimierz Square, BEAR, and Jamali-Kamali: A Tale of Passion in Mughal India.