PICKENS — Local author and journalist Kathryn Smith brought a little bit of history to life at the Pickens Rotary Club on Wednesday, coming in character as the subject of her new biography, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand.
“I thought you might like to know a little bit about me, the first woman private secretary to a United States President,” Smith began, trading in her natural Southern accent for a Boston one. “My grandparents came over during the potato famine in 1840 from Ireland, so I’m second-generation Irish American.”
LeHand’s grandfather was killed in a freak accident at a construction site and her grandmother never remarried making her father somewhat of a rarity, said Smith: An only child in an Irish Catholic home.
As a child, Missy moved with her family to the Boston area and attended Somerville public schools where she graduated high school, passed the Civil Service exam and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1917.
Eventually, LeHand became a secretary with FDR’s vice presidential campaign when he ran on a ticket with James M. Cox against Warren G. Harding and Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge, Smith said.
“That was not a good year for Democrats,” sighed Smith in character. “Harding looked like a president, but that was about as far as it went and if he hadn’t died in office, he most likely would have gone down as the worst president in history … until now, of course.”
When Roosevelt did take the White House 1932, LeHand went with him serving as his personal secretary — what nowadays would be considered Chief of Staff.
“She was a woman ahead of her time,” said Smith, dropping out of character after an impressive 20-minute performance. “And a woman whose story was fascinating and needed to be told.”
Smith had worked as a daily newspaper reporter and editor and has been the book columnist for the Anderson Independent Mail for 20 years, according to her biography. But rather than a professional interest in LeHand, it was a much more personal one that drew her to the subject: cancer.
“I was 44, I had two children, the youngest was 11, and I was just terrified I was going to die — which is not uncommon when you find out you have cancer,” said Smith. “I was watching PBS one night, it was the American Experience, the one on FDR and I found his recovery from polio so inspiring and his words ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ became my mantra. That’s what pulled me through that depression and getting on with the treatment and going forward.”
Smith said she became very involved with Rotary’s PolioPlus campaign as a way to “pay FDR back” for his inspiring words but in the course of learning about polio and reading about Roosevelt, it was another name that kept popping up over and over: Missy LeHand.
“I thought ‘What a fabulous woman, what a fabulous life. She lived at The White House, she worked for my hero, gee — I’d like to be Missy.’ I wanted to read a book about her but discovered no one had ever written one,” said Smith. “So, as a journalist, I just decided to write one myself.”
Missy died in 1944 at the age of 47 following a stroke. President Roosevelt’s words “She was utterly selfless in her devotion to duty” were carved on her headstone at Mount Auburn Cemetery.
According to LeHand’s great-niece Jane Scarbrough, to this day, the Roosevelt family pays for the upkeep of her grave.
The gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the untold story of the partnership that defined a presidency by Kathryn Smith was published in September 2016 and is available in hardback, paperback and as an e-book on Amazon.com and at bookstores nationwide.
Reach Kasie Strickland at 864-855-0355.