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FDR's Funeral Train: A Betrayed Widow, a Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance.

FDR's Funeral Train: A Betrayed Widow, a Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance, by Robert Klara, Palgrave Macmillan, 272 pages, $27.


When Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, the shock was greater than anything most Americans had experienced in their lives besides the deaths of close relatives. FDR's name, image, and voice had been a part of everyday life for 12 years. His disappearance was bewildering and frightening.

Love him or hate him, Roosevelt had been the fatherly figure at the helm of state during the direst economic crisis the nation had ever experienced. Then he put steel in the spine of a nation stunned and bewildered by the disaster of Pearl Harbor, promising "we will gain the inevitable triumph--so help us God."

The depth of feeling his death aroused, and the sorrow that surrounded the train bearing his body to the capital and finally to the banks of the Hudson River, is recalled and captured by Robert Klara in FDR's Funeral Train. This slim volume recreates vividly a sense of what America was like in 1945 and puts us aboard the melancholy train.

Looking forward to the end of the war and his role in the establishment of the United Nations in the approaching summer, Roosevelt was a sick and exhausted man when he rode in his special rail car, Ferdinand Magellan, to Warm Springs, Georgia. As Klara relates, Roosevelt had spent much of his personal wealth acquiring the spa that became a place of refuge and recreation for his fellow polio sufferers, and his most beloved personal retreat.

Roosevelt spent the morning of April 12, 1945, in his pleasant little cottage posing for an oil portrait and chatting with female friends, including Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, his lover from three decades past. His affair with Mercer had nearly destroyed his marriage. Shocked and hurt by the betrayal, his wife, Eleanor, shunned intimate relations with him ever after. The fact that Roosevelt had revived his relationship with Mercer was a secret guarded almost as closely as the Manhattan Project. So, when Roosevelt collapsed from a massive stroke and died that day, there was a frantic effort to get Rutherfurd as far away from the scene as possible. With Madame Elizabeth Shoumatoff, the portrait painter, behind the wheel, Rutherfurd endured a nightmarish overnight ride home, overcome with grief for Roosevelt. Meanwhile, White House staffers scrambled to make arrangements for the funeral train, which Klara recounts in exhaustive detail.

These were the final, brilliant years of passenger railroading's golden era in the United States. The railways had style. Ferdinand Magellan was one of a series of railcars built in the 1920s as rolling mini-residences for the rich and powerful. It was different, however. In 1942, with the wartime security of the president a matter of increasing concern, the car was sent back to the Pullman Company's manufacturing shops in South Chicago for a complete upgrade.

The result was a combination rolling fortress and executive mansion. The car was fully plated in armor. The windows were replaced with three-inch bulletproof glass. The inside was furnished with drapery, sofas, and chairs in shades of rust, green, and blue. A dining room contained a full presidential china service stored in felt-lined drawers. A discreet elevator could lift Roosevelt in his wheelchair from the ground outside into the car without being easily observed by passersby. There was a presidential bedroom along with three other staterooms, luxurious restrooms (with cigar holders), and an oak-paneled conference room that also served as a rolling Oval Office. The renovated car weighed a staggering 142 tons. Any train including it would need two big locomotives to pull it over a hill.

As part of the funeral train, the Ferdinand Magellan was to be the residence of the Roosevelt family, including Eleanor, who occupied FDR's stateroom. When President Harry Truman joined the train after funeral services in the White House, he traveled in the Roald Amundsen, an unarmored but scarcely less plush car. The flag-draped coffin traveled in the Conneaut, accompanied by a round-the-clock honor guard. The bier upon which it rested was built high so crowds along the tracks could see it.

Pulled by steam locomotives, the train had to stop along the way for water and fuel. At each stop, crowds of historic proportions assembled to bear silent witness. Beyond the cities, all but the most remote stretches of the line from Atlanta to Union Station in Washington, DC, were lined with citizens paying respects. All ages and races mingled as they lined the tracks, looked down from overpass bridges, and watched from highways, at all hours of day and night. The train moved at a stately 30 miles per hour, the chuffing of its steam engine and the slow clacking of the wheel trucks imparting, Klara observes, a dignified accompaniment to the mournful spectacle.

There is, of course, more to the story than the nuts and bolts of railroad lore. Human dramas played out on the train. One is the story of Eleanor's fury upon learning that Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd had been with her husband in his final moments and that it was Eleanor's own daughter Alice who had facilitated that and other meetings between her father and his old love. Readers may be surprised to learn that a reputed Soviet spy traveled with the funeral party.

This is a volume that will enhance any FDR bookshelf. It is extremely well-researched and offers a plethora of facts and anecdotes about the Roosevelt funeral that bring this chapter of history into full and fascinating focus.

--Brian John Murphy

Fairfield, Connecticut
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Author:Murphy, Brian John
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Aug 1, 2010
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