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New Year’s Eve with the Roosevelts

For most of us, New Year’s Eve means watching the ball drop in Times Square on TV. For a lucky few, it may mean a fun party. For Abraham Sirkin, December 31st, 1941 was spent at the White House, ringing in the New Year with President and Mrs. Roosevelt. Invited to the White House by the First Lady, Sirkin had the opportunity to rub elbows with a few political officials and FDR himself, who understandably was not in a very jovial mood. Sirkin was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in May 1997.

“Why don’t you come over after dinner to the White House?”

SIRKIN: I was drafted [into the National Guard in April, 1941] and sent off to Fort Dix. After a week of this very busy mind-numbing time, I was sent off to Fort Jackson, South Carolina….

During my training…I was very impressed with Norman Corwin’s wartime radio dramas. So I drafted one and an acquaintance who was Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Post said, “Why don’t you send it to Eleanor Roosevelt?” He said she sometimes helps individuals get over bureaucratic problems.” So I put it in an envelope with a note saying this might be of interest to somebody in the war effort in Washington.

Shortly thereafter I got a note from her saying she had sent it over to Archibald MacLeish, Head of the Office of Facts and Figures….

I got a little note from him saying thank you very much; it was interesting….When I came to Washington on leave during Christmas-New Year’s time, this fellow on the Post said, “Well, why don’t you give [Eleanor] a ring? She likes to see all kinds of people in whom she takes an interest.” So I called her office and they said, “Come to tea.” This was December 31, three weeks after the war started….

So I went and had tea. She had three other people there. One was Morris Ernst, a well-known lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. One was an African-American lady who was a very prominent social worker. I didn’t say very much. I listened to all these interesting people.

She may have asked me a question, I don’t remember. Then we broke up and I was about to go back to my hotel, which was nearby, the Roger Smith Hotel. She asked me where Iwas going and could she give me a lift in her car. En route, she said, “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?” I said, “Nothing,” and she said, “Well, why don’t you come over after dinner to the White House?”

So about 10 o’clock, I showed up at the gate….

I went into the room that was filled with people and Mrs. Roosevelt greeted me and I was goggle-eyed. I saw the President in his chair, I think it was a wheelchair, and I recognized Harry Hopkins and Secretary of the Treasury, Morgenthau, and a fellow I knew in my college days. He was at City College, Joe Lash. He later became her biographer. He was the only person I knew there. One other young person there was the daughter of Secretary and Mrs. Morgenthau.

As I came in I was gawking at the scene. Mrs. Roosevelt was trying to introduce me to a couple of other guests, two elderly Unitarian clergymen from Massachusetts…but I was just staring at everybody and she elbowed me in the ribs to pay attention. Recently, when I went to see the statue of her at the Memorial, I could still feel her elbow in my ribs, saying ‘Pay attention.’

I remember I spent most of the evening hanging around with Joe Lash and I asked a few questions of Harry Hopkins. I realized later, I didn’t know it at the time, that in another part of the White House Churchill was there, and he had been at dinner, but he was with his own people for New Year’s Eve. So I didn’t see any of those people. I just heard about it later.

But, as midnight approached I happened to find myself standing alone next to the President. He was sitting in a chair twiddling the dials on the radio and listening to the noise in Times Square of the crowd waiting for the lighted ball to come down. He turned to me. I had been introduced to him but he didn’t have the faintest idea who I was, just one of Eleanor’s friends. Since no one else was around, he just expressed himself to me with a frown….

This was just three weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Philippines were going under and I suppose he was getting periodic reports that weren’t very good. We were abandoning Manila and here were all these people screaming and yelling in Times Square.

He turned to me as I happened to be standing nearby and expressed his displeasure. “Why do these people have to make all this noise just because it’s a new year?” I got the impression he felt that way about any new year but especially at this time. He was deploring the fact that people make all this screaming noise when there are obviously very serious things going on….

I was reading complaints about this new statue of a serious looking President in the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, but that is the way I remember him that evening. Some people want his statue with a cigarette and triumphant grin. There was no triumphant grin on his face that night.