Lum: The Roosevelts

Su Lum

On the afternoon of April 12, 1945, when I was 8, I heard a special bulletin on the radio saying that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died. I remember running down the stairs to tell my family. My mother turned on the downstairs radio, hoping that I either had misheard or was pulling a prank.

A horrible war was going on. We had ration stamps for gasoline and food and had to pull the black shades on the windows every evening. Sometimes sirens went off and we sat in dread until the “all clear” siren sounded. Now the president was dead.

Gran, the resident grandmother who was easily unhinged, went into hysterics.

Although there is always a Civil War pentimento behind all of Ken Burns’ specials (the echo of the haunting music, the testimonial format), his productions are uniformly excellent, and “The Roosevelts” was no exception.

I was fascinated by the history of Teddy and World War I. My grandmothers and my parents lived through both wars as well as the Great Depression, so I was trying to follow the progress of history through their eyes.

My father was 18 when Teddy Roosevelt died in 1919. If he had been born a few years earlier, he might have fought in World War I himself. By the next world war, he was too old and — he was a cryptographer — too valuable at home to be conscripted. So many interlocking silver threads hold our lives together.

When the 14-hour TV special got to FDR, it was more familiar territory. When I was a kid, the whole country lived in fear of polio, the crippling disease that mostly attacked children but took the legs out from under FDR when he was an adult.

Watching the program, I was amazed that FDR could carry off the myth and the non-myth simultaneously. Everybody knew — hell, even I knew it — that he had gotten polio and couldn’t walk.

It was a brilliant subterfuge. We all knew it, and no one denied it, but no photographs were published of FDR being carried or propped up, so we also were able to believe that he was totally strong and capable and if he couldn’t walk on earth he could surely walk on water.

And never was a word published about his affairs, just as it was never publicized that the press secretly called JFK “the president erect.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was considered a huge heroine in my family. She had loomed large all my life until her death in 1962, the year my daughter Skye was born. A little modern dental work might have changed the course of history; if Eleanor had been beautiful, she might not have been taken seriously.

One thing that bothered me about the Roosevelt special was the expunging of FDR’s smoking habit. FDR was a chain-smoker who was hardly ever seen without his ubiquitous cigarette in its extra-long holder. Hunter S. Thompson had nothing on FDR in the smoking department.

Similarly, his cohort Winston Churchill was always holding a lit cigar. It boggles the mind that Burns was able to clip, cut or skillfully select film frames that belied those images. You’d think — if you didn’t know better — that neither FDR nor Churchill ever touched the stuff.

In the final hours of the show, when FDR was dying, he was shown holding his trademark cigarette. Perhaps there was an absence of footage without it, or perhaps it was a subliminal message that smoking kills.

Either way, one wonders what else may have been omitted or soft-pedaled.

Su Lum is a longtime local who, despite this quibble, enjoyed the show. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at