Tuesday, May 5, 2015

WOODIN | 13. His Tragic Last Months (Updated Mar. 17, 2016)

Secretary Woodin and FDR, 1933.
The Pecora Committee did great work bringing public opinion on the side of reform of the financial markets.

The Glass-Steagall Act and the Securities and Exchange Act would not have passed so easily in 1933 were it not for Ferdinand Pecora's work in bringing forth revelations of the kinds of activities that created the Crash of 1929.

The Pecora Committee's Collateral Damage

Unfortunately, the Pecora Committee created collateral damage. In early May there was an enthusiastic endorsement of Treasury Secretary Woodin's work in calming the bank panics in the cover story on him in Time Magazine in early May.

But by the end of the month the Pecora Committee's revelations were in every newspaper in the nation. J. P. Morgan sold stocks below the market price in the late 1920s to people on his "Preferred List". Those people included Calvin Coolidge. They also included FDR's own Treasury Secretary, Will Woodin.

For Woodin it was a huge embarrassment. To the chorus of criticism from the right - fellow Republicans attacking him for joining the administration of "traitor to his class" FDR, Woodin now faced criticism from the left - Democrats pillorying him for enriching himself at the hands of J. P. Morgan through special opportunities via Morgan's Preferred List.

To his great credit, FDR stood by his friend Woodin solidly throughout this period. So did FDR's cabinet. However, FDR's Vice President, former speaker John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner, urged Woodin to resign.

[To Come: This is the only chapter in the book that is too short. Needs more detail on Woodin's illness, his doctor, reactions of his family, reactions of Democrats and Republicans. Lots of clippings available about his death. Need to summarize, comment. Letters to and from FDR. His death in New York on May 5, 1934 with his wife Nan and daughter Mary (Perky) Miner by his bedside. Need a survey of the many obits. Condolence notes. This chapter does not require any more archival research and is therefore not a priority.]

Woodin and FDR - Last Letters

At the FDR Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., I found what appear to be the last letters between Will Woodin and FDR, in 1934.

[PHOTO CAPTION January 17, 1934. Woodin was recuperating at his son William H. Woodin Jr.'s home in Tucson, Ariz. He sent a letter to FDR from there.]

By this time Will Woodin had left office. Dean Acheson would have been his natural successor, but - as I understand the dynamics - he resisted too vigorously FDR's going off the gold standard.

Instead, Henry Morgenthau was selected, as a safe Treasury Secretary.

FDR wanted Treasury to be more powerful than the Federal Reserve System, but not more powerful than the White House.

Note that Woodin addresses FDR as "Governor"- their little joke, since Woodin worked for FDR when he was Governor of New York and the appellation brought back those days. Sometimes Woodin called FDR "Frank". Woodin was always addressed by FDR as "Will" and so signs himself.

His last paragraph picks up the theme of Congress being in the way of progress. He says to FDR:
Everything seems to be going wonderfully thru out the country and I don't see how the Congress can stop you. I don't see how you do it. Will write again soon. 
[PHOTO CAPTION January 22, 1934. FDR responds from the White House. He writes to celebrate Woodin's seeming improvement.] 
He says how much his friends miss him - the Cabinet and the "old crowd" - i.e., I take it, the people in New York State who got FDR elected.

FDR then moves on to the "banking bill". This bill was enacted within ten days, as the Gold Reserve Act.

It made it a criminal offense for a private citizen to own gold. All gold is owned by the U.S. Treasury, except for businesses that need it for industrial or dental uses, or collectors of rare coins.

The Act devalues the dollar. The value of gold is raised in dollar terms from $20.67 per troy ounce to $35 per troy ounce.

The world value of the dollar as measured in gold was thereby cut nearly in half.

All U.S. gold was entrusted to the U.S. Treasury, including gold and gold certificates in the hands of the Federal Reserve System.

The official Federal Reserve History describes the new law as emasculating the Fed's control over monetary policy until the 1970s. (The right of private citizens to own gold was restored in 1975.)

If that is how the law was perceived by the Fed, that was precisely FDR's intent.

In the letter to Woodin, FDR says that the Fed sees itself as "a central bank", whereas FDR does not. He describes the Fed as an institution with "comparative decentralization" that is subject to "a strong Treasury Department".

A supremely confident FDR shows a certain disdain at this time for the Congress that had distressed f him and Woodin in 1933. "Congress will pass the bill all right. The sooner the better." FDR was right on the mark this time, despite the revolutionary nature of the Gold Reserve Act. FDR was in the catbird seat and on the devaluation question I think history supports FDR's action as what was needed to spur the economy.
February 27, 1934. Still recuperating in Tucson, Woodin writes to FDR again. Woodin  has now given up talking about policy. The devaluation of gold is what his friends were all afraid of and he is probably happy not to be in the hot seat on that issue.

He is focused on the risky surgical operations that are ahead of him. 
I really believe the sooner I have this thing cut out or burned out the better for me. The whole thing must come from the rt tonsil so out she goes.
Woodin's descendants believe that he had a "strep throat" that would have been cleared up today by antibiotics. This letter suggests that "this thing" is not an infection, but a growth.

Woodin has been invited to the dinner honoring the first anniversary of the inauguration, and is sad not to be able to attend.

The second page is almost a farewell to FDR.

I leave here with fond and grateful memories of all your kind messages - telephone and letters – they have cheered me up a lot. You are the most wonderful and understanding man that ever lived. Always Devotedly your Will.

Woodin's farewell was prescient. He returned to New York City, was treated at the Eye and Ear Hospital and on May 3 was gone.

The letters that then followed from FDR were to Nan Woodin and to friends of Will Woodin who wrote to FDR.

There was a funeral service first at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Woodin's coffin was then transported by train to a commercial stop at Hazleton, Pa. and it was then transported by car for a burial service in Berwick, Pa.

Funeral in New York City

Charlie Miner says the cause of death would today be described as a strep throat, for which there was then no cure. However, Woodin had throat problems since he seas at college, and it might have been a cancer.

At Woodin's austere funeral service in the Fifth Ave. Presbyterian Church, the President, likewise challenged by illness, called Woodin “a martyr to public service.”

Funeral in Berwick

Woodin’s body is brought to Hazelton, Pa. by special train and from there is carried by car to the First Presbyterian Church in Berwick. Many flags along the streets are flown at half-mast. Hundreds view the body as it lies in state for 90 minutes. At the funeral service on Sunday May 6, 1934, only half those lined outside the church can get in - first those who have tickets and then the rest up to capacity. The remainder stand outside.

Before and after the service, Woodin's composition "The Unknown Soldier" is played by the organist Clark Fuller. There is no music during the 19-minute service, conducted by the Presbyterian pastor Rev. Dr. David M. Harrison. Methodist Rev. W. W. Sholl co-officiates with an introductory prayer. At the burial, "thousands" of people attend the four-minute committal service. His coffin is covered with daffodils and irises.

Bill Selden remembers Will's funeral.  Before my talk to the Berwick Historical Society at the Berwick Golf Club in April 2015, I received a  note from him. He later received a surprise award at the luncheon for sponsoring one of the rooms in the Jackson mansion, i.e., the Billiard Room.

Bill's note, which he has given me permission to publish, reports that he was born on March 25, 1921, so turned 94 last month. He grew up in the Borough of Staten Island, New York City until 1932, when he was 11 years old, so he was old enough to remember the first election of FDR.

Selden Sr. – 45 Years at ACF

His father, William H. Selden Sr., migrated in the reverse direction from William Woodin, moving with his family to Berwick from New York in 1932.

William Selden Sr. worked for ACF for 45 years, first at its NYC office on 30 Church Street starting in the early 1900s. In 1932, the year of FDR's election, he was transferred to the Berwick office of ACF, where he had the title Assistant Mechanical Engineer in charge of Estimating, although he never attended college.

Selden Sr. said, according to his son Bill: "Mr. Woodin was a fine man and a very capable executive of ACF."

Bill (Selden Jr.) meanwhile went to elementary school in Berwick and High School, then served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was 24 on V-J day. He went on to earn a doctorate in education and was named to the Academic Hall of Fame in Berwick.

His note provides the following memory of Will Woodin's death. I have added two parenthetical explanations to clarify that FDR did attend Woodin's prior funeral in New York City.
The day of the funeral in Berwick was Sunday. My father, my mother and I had dinner at the Hotel Berwick, which was then at the corner of Third and Market Streets in Berwick. Also at the hotel were most members of the President's Cabinet. The only one I recognized was James A. Farley, the Postmaster General. At that time there was talk that President Roosevelt would be attending Mr. Woodin's funeral [in Berwick]. However, at the last minute the President changed his mind. [FDR had already attended the funeral service for Woodin in New York.]
Condolence Notes

Many telegrams and letters are sent to Nan Woodin. A telegram from New York State Governor Herbert H. Lehman, FDR’s successor, reads in part as follows:
I know from my personal knowledge of the great sacrifices he [Will Woodin] made for the nation during the trying times of last year when disregarding his health he toiled ceaselessly to bring security to his country and fellow citizens (Columbia University Digital Collections, Lehman, 0979_0006).

Hoover: New Republic

Bill Selden Memories: Hand-written note to the author from Dr. Selden.

Berwick Service: Source for Berwick service and burial includes: East Hampton Star, May 10, 1934, 1, 8.

Book Outline
The outline of my Woodin biography is here. (I am looking for a publisher.) 
Links to ChaptersOutline  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13 14 15  App. A  App. B  Acknowledgments

Photos for the Chapter

Letter to Woodin from FDR

[PHOTO CAPTION January 22, 1934. FDR responds from the White House. He writes to celebrate Woodin's seeming improvement.]

Letters to FDR from Woodin, 1934

[PHOTO CAPTION January 17, 1934. Woodin was recuperating at his son William H. Woodin Jr.'s home in Tucson, Ariz. He sent a letter to FDR from there.]

Susan Schwartz's article in the Press-Enterprise:

FDR Library, Hyde Park, N.Y.

Dr. Bill Selden (seated) remembers the high regard his
Dad (who worked for ACF for 45 years) had for Will