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Historical Collection

He is also known as “Frank” during his Harvard years, FDR kept up quite a social whirl during his time at college. Franklin Roosevelt was a frequent correspondent with his parents during his Groton and Harvard years, often writing several times a week. His enthusiasm was infectious. As a senior at Groton, his son James wanted to go his own way and attend some other college. His father provisionally agreed, James later recalled, but then began talking “hypnotically” about the Crimson, the Fly Club, the Pudding, and his Harvard friendships. James became the fifteenth Roosevelt to enroll at Harvard; many more were to come. Love it he might, but Harvard did not always love him back. Then President Abbott Lawrence Lowell was rude to him when the Tercentenary exercises were being planned. When he first ran for president, a straw vote held by the Harvard Crimson showed a three-to-one preference for Herbert Hoover. 

FDR’s energetic campaigning and vibrant optimism raised the nation’s morale even as the depression worsened. In October Lippmann did a volte-face, advising his readers that he would “vote cheerfully for Governor Roosevelt.” Ted Roosevelt Jr., who had come of age in the White House and yearned to reclaim it, stuck to his Republican guns. He endorsed the reelection of Hoover and told his mother that he was “distinctly hopeful about November. Franklin is such poor stuff it seems improbable that he should be elected President.” In November Ted’s distant cousin carried all but six states and his alma mater. The electorate gave FDR 23 million votes to Hoover’s 16 million. Harvard students went strongly for Hoover, a Stanford grad, in the Crimson’s straw vote. Even Norman Thomas, making the second of six presidential bids as the candidate of the Socialist Party, outran FDR in five of the seven undergraduate Houses.

Harvard undergraduates not only failed to support him; they teased him. FDR was inaugurated on March 4, 1933. Within days he received a letter written on Lowell House stationery. It stated that the House committee, with the approval of House master Julian Coolidge and President Lowell, was seeking permission to designate a “heretofore unnamed carillon of Russian Bells, at present installed in the tower of our House” as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Bells. The bells were real. The rest was a hoax (see “The Conning of the President,” Harvard Magazine, March-April 1995, page 50). FDR wrote an appreciative note to Coolidge, who had been one of his teachers at Groton. Coolidge shot back an embarrassed “letter of humble apology” explaining that the letter was fraudulent.


Affably recalling the first class that Coolidge had taught at Groton, he went on to add, “You…announced to the class that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points-and then tried to draw one. All I can say is that I, too, have never been able to draw a straight line. I am sure you shared my joy when Einstein proved there ain’t no such thing as a straight line.” FDR, who had a taste for irony, may also have had in mind writer Elmer Davis’s pre-election assessment of him as “a man who thinks that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line but a corkscrew.”

The new president was the first to bank heavily on scholarly expertise. “The country is being run by a group of college professors,” groused West Virginia senator Henry Hatfield. “This Brain Trust is endeavoring to force socialism upon the American people.” The best-known brain-trusters in FDR’s inner circle were from Columbia, but Harvard was well represented. Professor Alvin Hansen was a principal architect of New Deal economics. Adolf A. Berle Jr. ’13, a former lecturer at the Business School, was the resident expert on corporate behavior. Law School professor Felix Frankfurter, LL.B. ’06, was an adviser of long standing. He turned down FDR’s invitation to serve as solicitor general, but became known as “a one-man recruiting agency for the New Deal.” FDR later named him to the Supreme Court. Among Frankfurter’s star recruits were Benjamin Cohen, S.J.D. ’16, and Thomas (“the Cork”) Corcoran, S.J.D. ’26, two of FDR’s most effective aides.