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Friday, 4 November 2011

Fala Is Under the Table


FDR seated on the porch at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, New York. Fala is under the table
: photo by Margaret Suckley, 2 June 1941 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

As a city child dwelling in a tiny apartment, I had little familiarity with animals. That is, all animals with more than two legs. The two-legged ones, as the nuns explained at school, were the only worthy objects of awareness, as they had been fashioned in the Image of God -- unless, that is, they were German or Japanese; there was, after all, that inconvenient World War still lingering in the backdrop.

Later on, in high school, it was explained by a Dominican priest, in a biology class, that the qualitative difference between humans and all other beings -- the ones, that is, lacking souls -- was most vividly illustrated by the instance of avian creatures; which, as was explained, excreted waste matter through their mouths; this information of course seemed arresting in the extreme; there remains even now the frozen memory image of the frog ovaries, floating in the formaldehyde jar; the acrid aroma of the formaldehyde; and the geometrical arrangement of the metal frames in the classroom windows through which God, even at that moment, was sending His Light, as this revelation was disclosed.

Those window frames were employed by another priest, the geometry teacher, to illustrate the theories of Euclid. But as illustrative as they were, they were never to be touched. A prohibition rooted in good cause; in one moment of free-form intra-class jostling, during a teacher's absence from the classroom, one of the windows had been detached from its hinges, and plummeted thirty feet down to the pavement below, where a student, properly attired in his school uniform (sweater, tie), happened to be standing; and only God knows if he ever knew what hit him, as the falling window sliced his brain in half.

But to get back to the subject at hand. The non-human living creatures recalled now from childhood encounters, and summoned to the dispassionate sessions of remembrance, were mostly bugs. These had evidently not been made in the Image of God, so that one could impunity stub them to an abrupt demise on the city sidewalks. Often they would appear to attempt to elude this fate, for example by dashing into the cracks between sections of sidewalk. This added degree of difficulty raised the business of stubbing them out from mere idle play to something approaching the level of art. In the environment under discussion, that was not, admittedly, a department in which the bar of attainment had been set at a particularly elevated level; but best always to begin with modest goals in any endeavour.

There were in this picture, as might be guessed, no pets. Well, those goldfish in the glass bowl on top of the refrigerator. Their fate, to swim in circles endlessly, with a great view of the cooling coils. Until, that is, after the first week or so of their residence, one became inconsistent in the duty of sprinkling small flakes of "fish food" into their bowl, from a small tin. Until one morning: goldfish corpses floating.

And then, perish the memory, those poor turtles in the shoe box. With American flags on their backs. The horror. It's almost a relief to recall that a similar negligence swiftly resulted in their passing.

This memory spiral is descending toward circles that probably do not bear revisiting... let us therefore abbreviate it.

Thankfully the development of the distressing animal-phobic symptom-set was interrupted dramatically by a single event, the gift of a 78 rpm RCA Victor recording of The Story of Fala. The actor John Garfield narrated. A wonderfully moving record it seemed, then. Shocking discovery: dogs are probably wonderful creatures.

I had had little experience of dogs. An aunt who dwelt outside the city had married a dog-lover. Once, at their home, another gift: a carefully wrapped package containing a clothbound volume, bearing on its dust jacket a picture of a huntsman and his dog and the cover, and the title: The Story of a Dog. Upon being opened, however, it was revealed to be a faux book: the pages had been cut away, and out leapt a rubber hot dog on a spring coil. Cruelty, magic, devastation.

But enough about all that. Because, now, as if by magic, voilà, Fala is here. He's just under the table. Look hard and you'll see him.

Fala rolls over for his supper in the White House study
: photographer unknown, 1943 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

President Roosevelt in his wheelchair on the porch at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, New York, with Ruthie Bie and Fala
: photographer unknown, 1943 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

FDR at a picnic on "Sunset Hill" near Pine Plains, New York. Fala is four months old. The doll next to the president is a handmade shaker doll made by Mary Garretson of Rhinebeck, New York
: photographer unknown, 8 August 1940 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

Fala photographing the photographers at the White House: photographer unknown, April 1942 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

Franklin D. Roosevelt's dog Fala, listening on the radio to the president's campaign to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America: photo by Associated Press, 23 September 1944

...the president took added pleasure in the arrival of a new puppy named Fala, a gift from his cousin Margaret Suckley. He had longed for a puppy for years, he told his cousin as he lifted the little Scottish terrier into his arms, but Eleanor did not consider the White House a proper place to bring up a dog. Roosevelt had had pets before, but Fala became his friend in a way no other pet had been. Fala accompanied the president everywhere, eating his meals in Roosevelt's study, sleeping in a chair at the foot of his bed. Within a few weeks of his arrival, the puppy was sent to the hospital with a serious intestinal disturbance. He had discovered the White House kitchen, and everyone was feeding him. When he came home, Roosevelt issued a stern order to the entire White House staff: 'Not even one crumb will be fed to Fala except by the President.' From then on, Fala was in perfect health.

During the last week of December (1941), twenty-six nations at war with the Axis had negotiated a declaration of unity and purpose. The document, entitled 'A Declaration by the United Nations' ... was signed in the president's study at 10 p.m. As the invited guests gathered round, Eleanor's friend, Mrs. Charles Hamlin, recalled, 'It was as quiet as a church in the study -- not a whisper, the only sound came from Fala who was stretched out sleeping heavily -- oblivious of the momentous happenings.'

-- from Doris Kearns Goodwin: No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (1994)

The Secret Service reported that, try as they might to keep the President's trips secret, two things invariably gave away his presence. The first was the construction of the ramps that his wheelchair required. The second was his Scotty dog, Fala, who often traveled with him. Fala, like any other dog, would insist upon being taken for a walk when the train came to a stop. The sight of a closed train standing at a siding, heavily guarded by military sentries, as a Secret Service agent walked a little Scotty dog was a dead giveaway to any American of the 1940s. Fala was as much a celebrity and as well known as any other member of the President's circle. It is no wonder that the Secret Service code name for him was 'The Informer.' They could eliminate the ramp with an on-board elevator, but they could do nothing about Fala.

-- from Hugh Gregory Gallagher: FDR's Splendid Deception (1985)

Fred D. Fair was the president's porter on the Ferdinand Magellan, the presidential Pullman rail car. 'I served him his meals, made his bed. We would serve the president highballs before dinner. Before the meal, I would fix Fala's food. He would never go into the dining room until you called him. We'd serve him in there. But you couldn't serve Fala yourself, oh no. You had to hand it to the president, and he'd feed Fala out of his hand. Many times, I remember dignitaries and other important folks waiting for their supper until Mr. Roosevelt finished feeding Fala.'

-- from Remembering Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Washington Post)

These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress had out and out concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him -- at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars- --his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself -- such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.

-- Campaign Dinner Address of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America, Washington. D.C.., 23 September 1944 from The Presidential Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944.

Fala Facts

BORN: April 7, 1940

DIED: April 5, 1952, and was buried in the Rose Garden next to the sun dial near his master on April 7, 1952

In April of 1945, President Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Georgia. Fala attended the funeral. He went to live with Mrs. Roosevelt at Val-Kill. He never really adjusted to the loss of his master. Even so, Val-Kill was in the country. It was a great place to run, play, chase squirrels, and even cats sometimes. She brought his grandson, Tamas McFala to live at Val-Kill, too, and be Fala's playmate. Sometimes they would run off together and get into trouble. They came home hours later covered with burrs and mud. By the end of such a busy day, he was an exhausted dog. Sometimes he slept on his back with his feet in the air.

He was so popular that he received thousands of letters from people. He even needed to have a secretary appointed to him to answer his mail. One letter dated August 5, 1947, was from a poodle named Abigail. Fala chased a skunk once, which was very unpleasant for everyone. The poodle scolded Fala for not acting with more intelligence and dignity. Abigail hoped that Fala would never, ever let that unfortunate incident be repeated.

-- Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library


TC said...

Defending Fala was no laughing matter: The Fala Address, 23 September 1944.

And by the by, as history is not a subject given much time these days, perhaps it should be noted that FDR was once the President of the US -- a job not fit for a dog, in any era -- and that in that role he was confronted by some of the same problems the country is faced with today; and that his policies in addressing these problems got on the nerves of the money interests; and that his response was: 31 October 1936: FDR: "I welcome their hatred".

ACravan said...

We're SO with you here. I've always been surprised when people (including both religious teachers and instructors in secular subjects) pushed human/non-human life distinctions as though their own souls depended on it, as if this distinction was some sort of existential linch-pin. One of our most vivid memories is of a day in the late 1970s when Caroline and I were living in a studio apartment at 227 East 83rd Street in Manhattan. Because of the never-ending Second Avenue subway construction project, we suffered an enormous cockroach migration into our home. Caroline armed herself with a super-lethal spray and single-handedly (I was banished from the field of battle; she was very, very motivated) removed the infestation. Later that evening and the following morning we discussed the fact that there was a palpable absence of energy, of souls, in our home. Fala's a beautiful little dog. During our Andy's recuperation period (tomorrow marks two weeks from surgery), we've been constantly super-close to and focused on dog nature. Of course they're all individuals. But relative to most people I know (and have known), I think they tend to be a better class of human. Curtis

Nin Andrews said...

Having grown up on a farm, it is hard to imagine a life without animals, bugs, snakes, a bazillion bugs,etc...

I always thought the animals were more spiritual than the humans.

And it's hard to imagine a president standing up to money interests . . .

TC said...

History reveals animals to be superior to humans in almost every respect, not least the spiritual.

Left to their own devices animals will creep, crawl and amble about as they please, completely off the radar of the monied interests.

FDR's devotion to Fala was the subject of derision in some quarters.

Harry S. Truman, who would never escape the shadow of his predecessor, was rumoured to have said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Among legendary dog-loving heads of state, FDR perhaps ranks beneath only Charles II of England.

Pepys' Diary for 25 May 1660 heralds the Restoration with a mention of the returning monarch's notorious canine indulgence.
"About noon (though the brigantine that Beale made was there ready to carry him) yet he would go in my Lord’s barge with the two Dukes. Our Captain steered, and my Lord went along bare with him. I went, and Mr. Mansell , and one of the King’s footmen, with a dog that the King loved (which shit the boat, which made us laugh, and me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are)..."

Scandal was given, in the view of some -- though others were amused -- by the royal permission that dogs be allowed to bring forth pups in court, in full view of all in attendance.

Charles favoured spaniels. They were continually being stolen from him. In the “Mercurius Publicus,” June 28-July 5, 1660, there appeared the following advertisement, probably composed by the King himself: “We must call upon you again for a Black Dog between a greyhound and a spaniel, no white about him, onely a streak on his brest, and his tayl a little bobbed. It is His Majesties own Dog, and doubtless was stoln, for the dog was not born nor bred in England, and would never forsake His master. Whoesoever findes him may acquaint any at Whitehal for the Dog was better known at Court, than those who stole him. Will they never leave robbing his Majesty! Must he not keep a Dog? This dog’s place (though better than some imagine) is the only place which nobody offers to beg.”

Some years later, Alexander Pope produced these lines for the collar of the king’s favourite spaniel:

I am his majesty’s dog at Kew.
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

A breed of spaniels was named after Charles (The Cavalier Spaniel).

On one occasion of the King's arrival at Salisbury, an eager Cavalier pressed forward to see him, and in his eagerness came so close to the door of the royal coach that the monarch had to caution him, as the coach was full of little black spaniels.

The undaunted loyalist however persisted, and was bit on the finger by one of the spaniels.

He cried out in pain:

"God bless your Majesty, but God damn your dogs!"

Elmo St. Rose said...

beautiful post....for those and the
poets who haven't studied history...the disintegration of
society was in the air and FDR kept
the country together...when the
barbarism was beginning to reign
in Asia and Europe and the toll of
the various isms communism, nazism,
shintoism 100 million dead by 1945

The parallels are there for today
for those of us who thought America
could never fall depending on the choices made...

FDR was a leader and I'm not sure
we have one now...
Let me ask the question this way:
Is rap music conducive to higher
What are the odds that a girl who
is pregnant and unwed before the
age of 20 will live in poverty...
Where has socialism actually
The best book on utopias...Nathaniel Hawthorne's
The Blithedale Romance....which
reminds me of my communal experience...and I haven't seen
a Billy Jack movie in years

FDR saved America and western
civilization(he had some help from

The hippies did lighten things up
for awhile...and watching the OCCUPY people in the streets I just
wonder if they have read history...
the simplistic proposition of sharing the wealth led to the
deaths of 10's of millions in the
20th century....on the other hand
the excessive easy money on wall
street and also inside the Washington beltway needs justice.

Also I'm glad to see TC take up a dog's life because I thought he
was only a cat person.

TC said...


You are the medicine man, and yours the memories and experience and insight and independence: everything this country is crying out for at this moment.

You're needed where you are but it would be swell to wake up one morning in Hog Heaven, to a waking dream of Elmo the Healer in the Casa Blanca, with a low-slung hound-dog under the table.