An Informal Supper with FDR

Robert Hopkins

I had been in the U.S. Army at Fort Dix, N.J., for five weeks of basic training when I got my first twenty-four-hour pass. I arranged to spend it with my father, Harry Hopkins, who was President Roosevelt's close advisor and lived at the White House. I was a buck private in those pre-war days, and received just $21.00 a month. With only $1.50 in my pocket, I hitchhiked to Washington in the pouring rain, arriving drenched to the skin several hours later.This was not my first visit to the White House. I had been there several times before for weekends and holidays, having first met the President five years earlier. Dad was waiting for me in the Lincoln bedroom, which served as his living quarters and his office in the White House. Observing my bedraggled state, he ordered me to remove my wet uniform and take a hot bath. He gave my uniform to Arthur Prettyman, the President's valet, and asked him to iron it dry. As I soaked in the tub, I told him of my experiences in the army so far, where the tough first sergeant seemed to take special delight in assigning me to garbage detail, kitchen police, and fireman and guard duty, in addition to the drilling, marching, and other duties related to basic training. I rarely met his exacting standard when it came to making my bunk, so he retaliated by "gigging" all 120 men in my barracks, depriving me and them of weekend passes. After a period of tension, they came to my aid and instructed me in making my bunk so the top blanket was as taut as a drum head.My father looked thin and drawn. He had been operated on for cancer in 1938, when three-quarters of his stomach was removed. The operation was a success, but he never regained the weight he lost. I was concerned about his health, but he assured me that he was all right. He said he was having difficulty assimilating nourishment from his food and had to give himself injections every day.He told me that Mrs. Roosevelt was away on a trip, but that we would be having cocktails and supper with the President as soon as I got dressed.The President greeted me cordially in the oval study on the second floor just down the hall from Dad's room. With him was his secretary, Missy Lehand. My father and I completed the group. As the President mixed up a shaker full of dry martinis and served them to us, he asked me about army life. I told him much the same story I had told my father.The President regaled us with one story after another, all told with great gusto during the cocktail hour and supper. He said that Henry Morganthau, Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury, had visited him that afternoon and expressed his concern for the President's safety in view of the war in Europe. As head of the Secret Service, Morganthau was responsible for protecting the President, and he proposed putting antiaircraft batteries on the roof of the White House. The President told him he had no intention of turning the White House into an armed camp. "If you want to protect the President," he said, "you can put antiaircraft guns on the roof of the Treasury."The President, my father, and Missy worked so closely together every day that they shared a special kind of intimacy, and there was much laughter in that relaxed atmosphere.Suddenly, I realized it was well past midnight, and I had to get back to Fort Dix before reveille. I knew I couldn't reach the fort if I hitchhiked at that hour, so I asked my father if he would lend me five dollars so I could take the bus back. He said he didn't have it. The President then said, "I'll lend it to you." I protested, but he insisted. I thanked him and promised to repay him right after payday. Then, taking a card from the table next to him, he said, "Let me give you this in case you don't arrive in time for reveille." The card bore the seal of the President of the United States, embossed in gold. On it he wrote:

November 30, 1941

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
Private Robert Hopkins is to be excused from reveille because he has been in consultation with the Commander-in-Chief.Franklin D. RooseveltI thanked him for this and for such a special evening with him. Before leaving, I asked him when he and my father would be taking a vacation, as I was concerned about Dad's health."We'll take a vacation as soon as the aircraft strike is settled in California and the Japanese situation is resolved."I knew about the strike at the aircraft factories, but I was unaware of any Japanese problem.One week later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Robert Hopkins is president of the Harry Hopkins Institute in Washington, D.C. and author of Sean's Legacy: An Awakening to AIDS (Triumph, 1996).