Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,478

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,478


This is the grave of Louis Howe.

Born in 1871 in Indianapolis, Howe grew up very wealthy, at least at first. His father was a big businessman. But Louis was a very sickly kid who nearly died several times as a child. He had severe asthma and only grew to five feet tall, which even in the late 19th century was very short for a man. Then the wealth ran out. His father was all caught up in the extremely questionable ethics of investing in the early 1870s and he lost his shirt in the Panic of 1873. The family moved to Saratoga Springs, New York, where they had family, and his father eventually ran and then bought a small Democratic newspaper in that town. Louis wanted to go to college but between the still dicey health and the also dicey financial situation of the family, he did not and worked for his father’s paper instead.

Well, things remained tough for awhile. He married a rich woman, but then mortgaged the house his in-laws gave them as a present in order to save the paper, but it didn’t work and now they didn’t have either. He worked as a freelancer for the New York Herald and had some success there, including getting the first exclusive interview with Theodore Roosevelt after he ascended to the presidency in 1901 when William McKinley was assassinated. He tried writing fiction, but wasn’t any good at it. By 1905, he was managing a hotel in Saratoga Springs. He was in his mid-30s and really nothing was going on.

What changed Howe’s life was his willingness to be a hack for the New York Democratic Party, a machine-based party if there ever was one. The Herald hired him on occasion to cover the state legislature in Albany and as such, he got to know the state’s most powerful Democrats. Initially, Howe’s role was to be the anti-Tammany hack, specifically to make sure William Randolph Hearst did not become governor with Tammany’s support, and he was under the thumb of Thomas Mott Osborne, the prison reformer who also hated the machine. But Osborne fired Howe in 1909 as the latter moved away from him. This is somewhat interesting, in that not only was Osborne a reformer, but he also had a homosexual relationship he thought was clandestine, but no one else thought it was clandestine, plus he had a tendency to travel around in badly fitting costumes to hide himself. Well, this made him a nonviable contender and Howe, now very interested in politics, began to cast around for a more powerful patron.

This brought Howe to a young man named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Howe and Roosevelt bonded over their anti-Tammany beliefs. In 1912, FDR was running for reelection for the state senate when he came down with typhoid fever (FDR was very unlucky with health!). He hired Howe to manage the rest of the campaign since he was bedridden. Howe did a bang up job with it, especially rallying the rural vote to him and FDR’s victory than it was when he was the one on the trail. Howe definitely had his new patron and he rode that for the rest of his life.

When Woodrow Wilson hired Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Howe came along as his chief of staff. Howe knew literally nothing about the issue (FDR really didn’t either) but he worked his butt off and became as much of an expert as a guy from upstate New York whose experience on the water probably consisted of fishing could be. Howe helped FDR build up his network of supporters not only in New York but around the nation. FDR definitely had the ambition of his distant relative Theodore, no doubt about that. Howe was very good in talking to unions too and he helped Roosevelt figure out labor. As we would later come to find, FDR needed labor and labor needed FDR and that relationship worked out for both, to say the least. Howe tried to slow down FDR’s insatiable ambition so that he wouldn’t run for things before he was ready. He also tried to stop FDR’s chasing of women, including his affair with Eleanor’s secretary Lucy Mercer, which nearly caused a divorce that would ended his political ambitions and thus Howe’s rise too.

Howe told FDR to make a deal with Tammany, which allowed him to be named VP on the 1920 Democratic ticket. Warren Harding crushed James Cox that year, but still, FDR was now at least a sort of nationally known figure. Howe was with FDR in Maine when the latter came down with polio. Roosevelt was effectively completely reliant on Howe in the months after this, including sending out bullshit letters to the media that FDR would have no permanent effects and then convincing Roosevelt not only to continue in politics despite his disability but to give the 1924 speech to nominate Al Smith at the DNC, in order to show his strength.

When FDR became governor in 1928, Howe stayed in New York City to build up Roosevelt’s support down there for his already planned 1932 presidential run. Of course, the Great Depression and Herbert Hoover’s utterly inept response did all the groundwork needed without Howe. But the bigger thing was making sure it was Roosevelt and not Al Smith heading the ticket.

After FDR went to the White House, Howe became Secretary to the President, which is the precursor to today’s role of Chief of Staff. He was a powerful one too. He had policy influence as well, working hard in the administration to push the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the early New Deal. He became close to Eleanor too. She was highly reticent to get involved with politics in her early years, but Howe helped her learn to speak to reporters and control the narrative. They became quite good friends. He would tell her that in a decade he could make her president too. Maybe he could have. She later credited him with making her a political actor and finding her voice in public life.

However, Howe had one big problem–chain smoking. It will surprise no one that this would put him in the grave. He never gave up his job, but he spent most of the years between 1934 and 1936 in the hospital, giving orders by telephone and certainly not resting like his doctors wanted. FDR, reading the writing on the wall, began to rely on others of course and by the end, Howe was something of a figurehead. Howe died in 1936, at the age of 65. FDR gave him a state funeral.

Louis Howe is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, Fall River, Massachusetts. I assume this is about his wife’s family since I don’t see any other connection to Fall River here.

If you would like this series to visit other FDR insiders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Adolph Berle is in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and James Warburg is in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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