My Dinner at the White House
A remembrance from an earlier administration
I never dreamed of having dinner with the President. But in October 1942, there I was--just out of college, and in the White House for dinner with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. It was because of Mrs. Roosevelt’s fabled interest in and support of idealistic young people that I found myself at that table, along with two of my Vassar College classmates.
Nine months earlier, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the three of us had heard President Roosevelt’s ringing denunciation of “the day that will live in infamy.” During the days and weeks that followed, we college seniors talked endlessly about ways that we could help to win the war on the “home front.” The whole country was mobilizing for war, and we wanted to find a way to reach people and help them understand what we were fighting for. Finally, our plan took shape. We wanted to go to an average American community, encourage cooperation in support of our armed forces and, in addition, build support for the ideals of freedom and democracy for which the war was being fought.
We wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt describing what we wanted to do. We had been so inspired by her when she spoke at Vassar. The college was close to the Roosevelts’ home in Hyde Park, New York--but speaking with young people was something Mrs. Roosevelt loved to do, and the spoke to students throughout the country. Amazingly, we received a letter from the First Lady. She was excited about our ideas, and advised us to approach the Department of Agriculture. She explained that the department was one of the few that had developed and maintained relationships with a network of small communities.
Her advice opened doors. We contacted the Department of Agriculture, and had a meeting with two representatives who knew exactly what to do. They suggested we go to Ames, Iowa, the center of the department’s involvement in the state. We packed our bags and drove out to Ames, and had a wonderful meeting with two people there. They understood our dream of organizing a small community. They felt that Iowa had strong local organizations that represented every segment of society. Clarion, a town of about 3,000 people in the center of the state, perfectly embodied this strength, which would help our plan succeed.
After graduation that spring, we set out for Clarion, where we spent three months putting our plan into action. We started a summer day camp as a way to introduce ourselves and make money to support our work. We met with members of the many churches and organizations there, and were able to start a community council to start coordinating activities for the war effort, and to work on local issues.
Flush with the success of that experience, we came back to Washington, and got in touch with Mrs. Roosevelt again. We hoped that she might offer support to us in replicating the plan in other communities. I remember the thrill of being asked to meet with her in the Red Room. We met there, sitting on little couches, surrounded by deep-red walls, holding delicate teacups in our hands. And then, at the end of our conversation, her words: “Franklin should know what you girls have done. Can you come to dinner?”
Attending dinner at the White House meant wearing a long evening gown in those days. I had one, but it was at my mother’s apartment in New York. I phoned my mother, for whom I had to repeat the story several times--both because of my excitement and her disbelief (had I really said the White House?), and she agreed to mail the dress special delivery. But when the day of the dinner came, the dress had not arrived. Luckily we were able to locate the package and have it delivered it in time for dinner.
Like three Cinderellas in a carriage, or rather a car, we rolled past the guard into the White House driveway and were ushered to a first floor parlor where cocktails were being served. Knees knocking, we attempted small talk with the other guests, who included Dean Landis, head of the Civil Defense Agency, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, Elinor Morgenthau, wife of the Secretary of the Treasury, and friends of the Roosevelts from Nebraska. In a short while, Mrs. Roosevelt joined us, after which we moved into an informal dining room next door.
The President was already seated at an oval table--not at its head, but in the center. Mrs. Roosevelt sat opposite him. Hand-lettered place cards in beautiful calligraphy indicated where the rest of us were to sit. I don’t recall being able to say a word during dinner, or being able to eat much, either. I was mesmerized by the President, by his larger-than-life presence, his expressive face and voice, the easy charm that seemed to deny the weight of his responsibilities. My trance was broken by Mrs. Roosevelt: “Franklin, these girls have done something very interesting this summer.”
On cue, we took turns telling our tale. How we’d been the stimulus for cooperation by the town’s citizens on an array of “victory” projects. How we’d pointed to a “new and better world” in the making. But the President’s greatest interest seemed to be in the summer day camp we’d started, partly to make friends in the community. We’d taught the children to swim in the community pool, we told him; he sparkled at that. He loved swimming, which he had taken up to build his strength after contracting polio. (Perhaps he was reminded of swimming in the mineral springs at Warm Springs, Georgia, which he had transformed into a rehabilitation center for other polio patients.) Beaming his celebrated countenance, he jokingly asked us, “Did you drown any of them?” I was shocked at this glimpse of another side of him--someone whose teasing remarks could carry a sting. But the moment passed.
After dinner, we talked for several hours with Mrs. Roosevelt about other projects we might undertake. We didn’t save the world, but to this day I hold in my heart the memory of a supremely gracious and generous-hearted First Lady, and the impact, close-up, of the most brilliant smile in the free world.
Barbara (center) with Eleanor Roosevelt after Mrs. Roosevelt spoke with students at Vassar College, c. 1941.