Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Picnic That Won the War

The 1939 “hot dog summit” between Franklin Roosevelt and England’s King George VI in Hyde Park is the subject of a new movie, Hyde Park on the Hudson. PLUS: The history of Wilderstein, Daisy Suckley’s family home in Rhinebeck

The most famous hot dogs in history were served at a picnic, right here in the Hudson Valley, on June 11, 1939. What made them famous was not their culinary excellence. It was their diplomatic significance. These hot dogs helped save the Western world from the Nazis.

The world-renowned weiners were dished up at a party in Hyde Park hosted by Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt (aka the President and First Lady of the United States). Their guests included a well-known British family, the Windsors (aka King George VI and Queen Elizabeth). The royal couple had never before sampled frankfurters, and found them, at first, confounding. “How do you eat this?” the queen whispered to her host. Ignoring Roosevelt’s advice, she decided to use a knife and fork; her husband, however, consumed his the American way. By all accounts, they enjoyed the tubular treats.

The picnic and the events surrounding it were momentous in a number of ways. This was the first time a reigning British monarch had ever set foot on U.S. soil. It came at a time when Europe was on the brink of war. Given these facts, the timing of the al fresco gathering was no mere accident.

- Advertisement -

At that time, U.S. foreign policy was isolationist. Relations with our cousins across the pond were cold and distant at best. “There was still much anti-British sentiment and anger at dragging us into World War I,” says Dr. David B. Woolner, associate professor of history at Marist College and a senior fellow and resident historian at the Roosevelt Institute. But Britain needed our help. FDR wanted to provide that assistance, but first had to persuade the public that it was both a good idea and that the Brits were worthy. “With this new war, the debate over U.S. intervention was intense. It was a very critical time in relations between Britain and the U.S.,” Woolner says.

Political genius that he was, FDR invited the royal couple to a picnic at his place.

white house telegramA thank-you telegram from Roosevelt regarding the visit to Hyde Park. The president expresses the “extreme pleasure” he felt about the trip

“Simple Country Life at Hyde Park”

In 1938, Roosevelt learned that the king and queen were planning to visit Canada — the first monarchal visit there as well — to try to rebuild royal esteem in the wake of the abdication of Edward VIII. (See The King’s Speech, if you haven’t already.) He wrote to the king almost immediately. His letter, dated September 17, 1938 and delivered by Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, stated:

“I think it would be an excellent thing for Anglo-American relations if you could visit the United States… It occurs to me… that you both might like three or four days of very simple country life at Hyde Park — with no formal entertainments and an opportunity to get a bit of rest and relaxation.”

- Partner Content -

In the king’s reply, written on Balmoral Castle stationery and dated October 8, 1938, he accepted the invitation, adding: “I can assure you that the pleasure, which it would in any case give to us personally, would be greatly enhanced by the thought that it was contributing in any way to the cordiality of the relations between our two countries.”

Diplomacy is written between the lines. And FDR, a master of the art, planned not only to meet with the king and queen but to present them as “regular people” to the American public. What better way than with a little summer repast, al fresco, at Top Cottage?

“It’s fascinating because, when you look at the correspondence, FDR doesn’t want him to come to Washington,” Woolner says. “He’s more interested in them coming to Hyde Park. There is no suggestion of formality, no state dinner. He wanted the public to see the ‘essential democracy’ of the royals.”

The State Department, however, quashed that idea, and FDR acquiesced to a formal visit befitting a head of state. “But he put his own touch on things in a brilliant fashion,” Woolner says. The royals sailed to Mt. Vernon to visit George Washington’s home. They laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, significantly a World War I casualty, at Arlington National Cemetery. They stopped by a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, a work-relief camp for victims of the Depression, in Virginia. They attended a music program at the White House replete with folk music, Negro spirituals, and cowboy songs. And then they visited the World’s Fair in New York City. “It was all about portraying those essential qualities of U.S. democracy,” Woolner says, and letting the public catch a glimpse of the king and queen in the midst of it.

Hot Dogs and Beer

The capper, though, was the picnic. FDR planned every last detail, including the hot dogs — much to the horror of his proper mother, Sara — and inviting gardeners, cooks, and other staffers to dine with the king and queen. “You can still meet people today whose relatives were there at the picnic,” Woolner says.

- Advertisement -

Another attendee was Daisy Suckley. FDR’s distant cousin has since become known as his “Closest Companion,” as illustrated in Geoffrey C. Ward’s book of that title. At the time, their relationship seemed simply professional; she worked in his library and did some secretarial tasks for him. But after her death, letters were discovered that revealed they were extremely intimate emotionally; FDR unburdened himself to her as he could to almost no one else.

“They had a hook-and-eye relationship, they understood each other perfectly,” says Cynthia Owen Philip of Rhinecliff, the author of Wilderstein and the Suckleys (Black Dome Press, $17.95). Did they also have a physical relationship? “Who knows what they did,” says Philip, who was a friend of Suckley. “It would not be spoken about in those days. But he took a photograph of her on a tiger rug, which he kept in the Oval Office, and she took one of the few pictures ever taken of him in his wheelchair.”

“The public has a hard time understanding this, but both FDR and Eleanor had their own circle of friends,” Woolner adds. “They tended to relax with others, and had more of a policy relationship, much like the Clintons today. Daisy was part of his circle. People also don’t understand how they could be emotionally intimate but not physically intimate. She loved FDR, but so did a number of other women. He was incredibly charismatic. What’s most important about Daisy is that, through her diary and correspondence, we have almost the only picture of the private FDR. She was someone he could express his most intimate feelings to.”

Suckley was two tables away from the head table at the picnic. She didn’t think it was such a big deal. “I saw them bring a silver dish with two little hot dogs on it to the king and queen. But I was not near enough to see whether they ate them. It’s all so silly,” she said at the 50th anniversary of the event, when she was 98.

The New York Times didn’t think it was so silly. The next day’s front page read:

And He Drinks Beer With Them — Uses Own Camera to Snap Guests Photographing Him
HYDE PARK, N. Y., June 11. — King George VI ate his first hot dog, was chauffeured by the President of the United States, and turned his own hand motion-picture camera against his photographers at a typical Roosevelt picnic party today.

Historians have come to realize this event was a very big deal indeed. Three months after the picnic, England declared war on Germany. Roosevelt was able to convince Congress, and the American people, to take steps to aid the British while still maintaining American neutrality. “There has been greater recognition over the past 20 years about the importance of this visit,” Woolner says. “It was an enormous PR success for both governments. I think a genuine warmth emerged between FDR and the king, and it marks a significant turning point in Anglo-American relations.”

Thanks, in no small part, to hot dogs.


bill murray hyde park on the hudson moviePhotographs courtesy of Focus Features

Carl Spackler, Defender of Freedom?

When the new movie Hyde Park on Hudson opens on December 7, millions will learn about the historic royal visit of 1939 and the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Daisy Suckley. She is played by Laura Linney. He is played by Bill Murray.

Yes, that Bill Murray. The same actor who portrays Carl Spackler, the gopher-killing, Dalai Lama-caddying, Masters-dreaming, demented groundskeeper in Caddyshack. Cinderella story. Out of nowhere. I had to laugh. Could that really work?

Dr. David B. Woolner, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, thinks so. “There are certain qualities of Murray that fit FDR’s personality,” he says, “his wry sense of humor, his ability to enjoy things even in the midst of a great deal of stress.”

bill murray hyde park on the hudson movie

Indeed, one scene in the trailer depicts Murray-as-FDR chauffeuring the terrified king and queen at breakneck speed up the steep and twisting roads of his estate in his famous blue Ford Roadster, driving with his hand controls and waving his cigarette holder, looking not unlike another character Murray played, journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Woolner hasn’t seen the film, but “those who have seen it told me they take some artistic license, particularly with his relationships with the women in his life, including Daisy Suckley,” he says. “They imply — or more than imply — that the relationship was physical, but there is no actual evidence to prove that one way or the other.”

Nevertheless, he is looking forward to seeing the film. “I’m pleased to see the drama of Anglo-American relations. It could have gone terribly wrong if the public had reacted differently, but it was handled brilliantly by Roosevelt and the royal family.”

So they got that going for them. Which is nice.

wildersteinWilderstein, the former home of Daisy Suckley. See the gallery below to view more photos of the mansion’s interior, correspondence between the president and the king, and still shots from the new movie

Photograph by Gregory J. Sokaris

Victorian Vanguard

One of the Valley’s architectural gems was the lifelong home of Daisy suckley, FDR’s close companion

This month’s release of Hyde Park on Hudson will no doubt spark nationwide interest in the life of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. But those who wish to learn more about Franklin Roosevelt’s distant cousin — and close confidante — need look no further than Wilderstein, the Suckley family’s grand Victorian residence in Rhinebeck, which was Daisy’s home for most of her long life.

Although not as easily recognized as names like Livingston and Astor, the Suckley (pronounced SOOK-lee) family was “very much a part of the ‘Hudson River Aristocracy,’” says Gregory J. Sokaris, executive director of Wilderstein Historic Site. In the late 18th century, patriarch George Suckley earned a tidy fortune in the export trade, which was eventually passed down to his children, one of whom was Daisy’s grandfather, Thomas Holy Suckley. In 1852, Thomas purchased about 30 acres on a bluff above the Hudson and built a modest home; the family christened the estate Wilderstein, or “wild man’s rock,” after a stone carving by a 17th-century Native American was found on the property.

In 1888, George’s son Robert (Daisy’s father) inherited the property and house. Dissatisfied with the original Italianate structure, Robert hired Poughkeepsie architect Arnout Cannon Jr. to remodel the house in the then-fashionable Queen Anne style. Cannon reconfigured the entire first floor; expanded the verandah, added a porte cochere and — most noticeably — an impressive five-story circular tower, whose large windows offer panoramic views of the river and the Catskills.

Joseph Burr Tiffany — a cousin of renowned decorative artist Louis Comfort Tiffany — was hired to design the interior. Each of the rooms had a different architectural theme; the walls of the entrance hall, for example, were covered in quarter-sawn oak paneling and tooled Florentine leather, creating a dark atmosphere that, says Sokaris, the Victorians found “romantic.” Other embellishments included stencilled walls, elaborately decorated plaster ceilings and stained glass windows throughout the main floor.

daisy suckley and fdrDaisey Suckley sits alongside FDR for a Hudson River cruise aboard the USS Potomac in 1937

Photograph courtesy of Black Dome Press

Wilderstein’s landscape was designed by Calvert Vaux, one of the creators of New York’s Central Park. The traditional Romantic layout included an intersecting series of roads, walking paths, and trails shaded by ornamental trees and shrubbery; two gazebos and benches marked the spots with the best views of the Hudson. A proponent of technological advancement, Robert even built his own power plant on the property; in 1891, Wilderstein became one of the first private houses in the nation to have electric lights.

Both inside and out, Robert Suckley had spared no expense in creating a dramatic mansion befitting his family’s social station. “Quite honestly,” Sokaris admits, “he probably overspent.” Unfortunately, Suckley’s deep pockets were soon significantly depleted. “The family fortune disappeared shortly after Wilderstein was finished,” says Sokaris. “There were several financial panics in the late 1800s, and the Great Depression hit hard. But most significantly, Daisy’s brother Henry — the one most poised to take over the family fortune and administration of the estate — died in 1917.” In 1921, Robert himself passed away, and Daisy slowly took over his role as head of the household. While her other siblings moved to Europe or married and settled elsewhere, she continued to live at Wilderstein until her death in 1991 at age 100.

For the greater part of a century, however, the house was left virtually untouched. By the 1990s, it was in desperate shape: the roof was leaking, the tooled leather in the foyer was peeling away from the wall, and black smoke from the fireplace covered the stencilled library ceiling. A grassroots effort to give the estate designation as a historic site gained traction in that decade, and in 1994 the Wilderstein Preservation received a grant to restore and paint the tower. In the succeeding 18 years, extensive restorations have been made throughout the building, and to the grounds as well. A visitor today can see the mansion essentially as it appeared in the 1890s — right down to the furniture, china, and family photographs (one of which is Daisy’s rare shot of FDR in a wheelchair). “One of the strengths of Wilderstein is the collection,” says Sokaris. “The family saved everything. We have almost too much stuff.” Of the main rooms on the first floor, only the white and gold salon has yet to be refurbished. The room’s faded paint and torn silk damask wall covering “speaks to the ‘genteel poverty’ that was characteristic of many of these estates on the Hudson River,” Sokaris explains. “The family lived here year-round, and while they had a lot of the trappings of wealth, they also had many of the same problems that people are experiencing in this economy. And I think people connect with that.”

Hollywood’s current interest in Daisy Suckley “is going to be good for us,” Sokaris believes. Visiting Wilderstein is “a really nice way to spend an afternoon. The landscape and views are beautiful, and the architecture is unique. People don’t know what to expect when they come here, and they’re blown away by the experience. I hope they will tour the house and say, ‘Wow! That was really cool!’”

Related: Discover the Secret Lab in Tuxedo Park


Our Digital Partners

Learn how to become a digital partner ...

Our Excellence in Nursing Awards take place on May 1!

Our Best of Hudson Valley ballot is open through March 31!

Unveiled: A Boutique Bridal Brunch is February 25!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.