When one thinks of a gun toting Roosevelt the instant image in just about everyone’s mind is that of Theodore Roosevelt dropping a Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone or a rhinoceros in the Lado region of British Uganda.
But there were two branches of the famous New York presidential family tree. Theodore’s Republican set lived in Oyster Bay on Long Island Sound while Franklin’s clique of equally patrician Democrats abided at Hyde Park along the Hudson at Hyde Park.
Yet, in spite of distance and political leanings, the two were closely connected. TR’s niece, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, married her father’s fifth cousin, Franklin, on Saint Patrick’s Day 1905. Uncle Theodore, then the 26th President of the United States, stood in for Eleanor’s deceased father and gave her hand in marriage, to Franklin who would one day become the 32rd President. TR quipped, “It is a good thing to keep the name in the family.” Had he been clairvoyant he might have added the Presidency to his remark.
Franklin’s political life mirrored TR’s. Both held the offices of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, and President of the United States. TR had been Vice President, but FDR missed out on that opportunity when James Cox and Roosevelt were soundly defeated by Harding and Coolidge in 1920.
While on a 1918 trip to France to inspect US Navy facilities FDR met Earl Miller, the Navy’s middle weight boxing champion, who was assigned as his escort. Ten years later, as Governor of New York, FDR appointed Miller, now a sergeant in the New York State Police, as wife Eleanor’s driver/bodyguard.
Besides insuring her safety, the athletic Miller also gave Eleanor lessons in swimming, tennis, horseback riding and pistol shooting. It was Miller’s belief that she should be able to handle a pistol if the need arose.
To that end he gave her a .22 Smith & Wesson Outdoorsman revolver on her 49th birthday. The round topped framed revolver had a blue finish, a six inch barrel with an adjustable rear sight and partridge front sight, and checkered walnut grips. It was nestled in green velvet in a brown leatherette covered hard case along with a screwdriver and cleaning rod. Attached to the lid of the case was a silver plate engraved “OCT. 11, 1933 / May your aims always be perfect / EARL”.The pistol, now a historical artifact, was sold to a private collector in 2014 for $50,600.
Miller then spent considerable time with Roosevelt teaching her safe firearm handling and marksmanship. Mrs. Roosevelt became a good shot and often carried the pistol in the glove compartment of her car, especially when driving alone.
The dutiful Roosevelt also immediately obtained a pistol permit, probably no problem for the governor’s wife. The original permit lapsed as her husband moved up the political totem pole and on to the White House. However, in 1957, now living back in New York, she renewed it and that document is preserved in the Hyde Park archives.
In mid June of 1939 the First Family entertained King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Hyde Parkduring the first visit of a reigning British monarch to the United States. As historically significant as that event was it was overshadowed because,famously, the President served the Royal Couple hot dogs at a Hyde Park picnic. The choice of the decidedly plebian hot dog for a state luncheon, even though it was served on a silver platter, became a newsworthy event greatly out of proportion to its size. It was not widely noted that the menu also included other typical American dishes such as Virginia ham, turkey, and strawberry shortcake all washed down with coffee, beer, and soft drinks.
It must be noted the Queen, who had never seen the noble tube steak before, asked how to eat it. Roosevelt replied, “Very simple. Push it into your mouth and keep pushing it until it is all gone.” The Queen demurred, politely ignored Roosevelt’s advice, and preserved her dignity by using a knife and fork.
There is little doubt that the First Lady and the Queen did not discuss Mrs. Roosevelt’s marksmanship skills but, in short order, the Queen found herself following Mrs. Roosevelt’s lead.
Soon after the Royal Couple returned home England’s emaciated and outmoded defense forces found themselves at war with the modern war machine that was Nazi Germany.Frightened of being kidnapped by Nazi parachutists the Queen learned to shoot a pistol in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. She reasoned that if she was going to be captured a Fallschirmjägeror two would pay a high price for the honor. The Queen practiced on rats flushed out of Buckingham Palace’s cellars by the tremors of Nazi bombs falling nearby. The ironic symbolism of the Queen learning how to shoot Nazis by taking practice pot shots at scurrying vermin is not lost.
These two widely respected and revered women of the 20th Century immeasurably helped their handicapped husbands lead the Allies to victory in World War II. Mrs. Roosevelt became the polio stricken President’s eyes, ears, and legs and the Queen helped King George overcome his debilitating stammer.
In this day and age the fact that the wives of two of the most powerful men in the world both felt the need to take up pistol shooting for protection of self and family is something to ponder.