FDR on His Houseboat
The Larooco Log, 1924 - 1926
Karen Chase, Editor
(Excelsior/State University of
New York Press)
Franklin D. Roosevelt caught polio in the summer of 1921, just before a visit with his family on the island of Campobello. During the worst of his illness, he lost the use of all muscles from the waist down. Part of FDR's self-rehabilitation began with his purchase of a huge house boat. For three years, starting in the winter 1924, he and his pals went about on a 70-foot schooner, going through the inland waterways along the coast of Florida from Jacksonville to the Keys, and back again.

He and his friends would fish endlessly, play Parcheesi, cook, drink, and keep a running log of their times on the Larooco.

From the journal entries collected by Ms. Chase, we find that the main problem was the boat. And the sailors. The motors were unreliable; the houseboat was obviously ill-designed; and cables, winches and various motor parts managed to fall off, or get tangled up, or go out on strike. At night - - - this being the worse time for amateurs to navigate - - - they would involuntarily get lost and, often, beach the beast. Thunder-storms were a constant threat.

FDR had always been an enthusiastic sailor, but apparently this power boat buffaloed him and most of the others aboard. The log is filled with tales of mechanical and physical disasters and stories of Florida winter storms threatening to topple the craft.

§   §   §

These Larooco adventures went on for three years, from early in the year to March or April. Eleanor Roosevelt showed herself to be eminently wise by staying as far from the boat as she could. FDR, however, was intent on making these winter trips because he felt the warm salt waters of the coastal flats would produce a miracle "cure" for his paralysis, make it possible for him to walk again.

FDR taught himself to walk early on, but with the equipment available at the time, it was an awkward, painfully slow, ungainly walk. At times he would just topple over. This oversized houseboat was scarcely the ideal place for him to practice walking, so FDR would seat himself on the floor and pull himself about.

No one struggled more than he did in 1924 - 1926, to the point of abandoning his life and law practice in New York, sailing about for three or four months in the winter of each year, swimming constantly to develop his strength.

What is interesting to this reader was his willingness to involve his various friends in his personal rehabilitation. He shows no shame at being photographed full on, pictures that show the loss in muscular tone, the atrophy, the boniness of thighs and legs. There is no mention in the logs, but with FDR's paralysis, it is obvious that he needed help to get about in the Larooco. Friends have written of his ability to use his arms to swing himself down from a perch, and, using the flat of his hands, pull himself about on the floor, moving backwards, going from room to room, dragging his legs behind him, where he would then swing himself up onto a chair or bench or bed.

And from FDR on His Houseboat, we learn that this always cheerful man had his limits. His constant companion on the Larooco was his secretary, Missy LeHand. She reported later that, "in spite of the general jolly mood on the boat,"

    It was noon before he could pull himself out of depression and greet his guests wearing his lighthearted façade.

By 1926, despite the good times fishing and telling lies to the others, FDR finally figured out that if he was to find a cure, it would not be on this antique craft with ancient motors and rank amateurs running it.

It was then that he bought the old Meriwether Springs spa in the hill country of northwest Georgia. From then on, he would give himself over to politics and, at the same time, build a formidable rehabilitation center for other polio patients.

As fate would have it, in the fall of 1926 a hurricane hit the Florida coast, threw the Larooco three miles from its anchorage, up into the Florida scrub country, destroying the beast completely.

§   §   §

Ms. Chase has chosen to fill the book with photographs taken by the participants, but also of other important figures of the day, drawn from newspapers and magazines of the period. She pulls short phrases and quotes from the notebooks of the Larooco, and the last sixty pages in the book are full reproductions of the log.

It is too bad that the writers of these are no longer with us so we could scold them in person about their writing abilities. I would say that almost 90% of the script of these logs is indecipherable, which is too bad. What little we can read makes it tempting, filled as it is with the usual juvenile humor that infiltrates such ventures. The first page gives a hint of what is to follow,

of the
house boat
being a
more or less
Truthful Account
of what happened
for the
very young.

This is followed by the "Those Laroo Blues:"

    The "Blue Laroo" had a doughty crew
    When she sailed for My-am-eye.
    Her mast was tall, but her draught was small,
    Though her cargo was gin and rye . . .

February 22, 1925, is listed as "Birthington's Washday," but the rest of the page, alas, is practically indecipherable.

For those who are fascinated by the personality of FDR, the log may give clues of what he was able to fabricate to survive those days and nights. Losing the use of half of the body produces strains on the psyche, challenges even the most doughty soul to not give up, and - - - in his case - - - forced him to embark on a journey of rehabilitation which, in those days, had few guide-books to chart the way.

In succeeding years, modern rehabilitation techniques were being invented and put to test at the premier disability center of the world. That is, the one that Roosevelt built and financed at Warm Springs.

Most disabled in those days were hidden away in back rooms, away from the world, subject to pity and a suggestion that they might be responsible for their physical failings. FDR broke that mold and - - - with his supreme faith in himself, and his way of solving problems (personal, national, international) - - - built an eminent new world for the disabled.

There was, as always, his winning optimism and good humor. In preparing this review, I spent several hours poring over the many photographs of FDR to be found at Google Images. So many are of a man of eminent good cheer, even glee, forcing those around him, no matter how obtuse, to at least essay a smile.

It's this good humor (and infectious charm) that kept him going, kept him afloat. Like his leaky, half-invalided barge, there must have been times when he thought that perhaps, the good ship might sink, taking all lives with it. That he survived these trips with people who were in no way prepared to deal with the realities bespeaks volumes about his spirit.

It was that ineffable part of his personality, the one that made it possible for him to survive, but - - - at the same time - - - intrigue those around him to go along with such improbable adventures. Like going about in the Larooco, just off the coast of the still quite primitive state of Florida, loaded with gin and rye (despite our nation's heavy-handed prohibition) - - - praising "Birthington's Washday;" letting the good times roll.

And afterwards, there was his more improbable journey to become governor of New York. Then, and even more improbably, president of the United States.

Ms. Chase's charming volume brought to mind another fine book, Hugh Gallagher's FDR's Splendid Deception. One of my favorite parts tells of a day late in the 1930s, when Roosevelt was, finally, safely ensconced in the White House.

A visitor is awaiting his return. He can hear, in the distance, Roosevelt in his open car, just arriving at the White House gates. He is telling the usual fisherman's story about their just-concluded outing, an afternoon's jaunt on the Potomac.

FDR was explaining that he had caught but one fish, a little one, a very little one - - - and he had christened it the "Hamilton Fish."

That this great man could joke, and joke so merrily, about one of his most perfervid enemies, a particularly sour-faced one who was sitting in judgment on him, daily, there in the House of Representatives.

It was FDR's obvious good humor that always set him apart: his ability to view others with a spirit of good will . . . including even the most miserly of men.

--- L. W. Milam
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