FDR and his houseboat: The log of the Larooco, 1924-1926

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During the Roaring Twenties, a politically ambitious young man who had been crippled by polio bought a houseboat so he could cruise the warm waters of the Florida Keys and try to cure his damaged legs. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was stricken with the disease in 1921, at the age of 39, he withdrew from public life. He spent three winters aboard his houseboat, from 1924 to 1926. While on the boat, he kept a log in longhand in a three-ring binder, writing in it almost every day. Sometimes he used black ink, sometimes turquoise, pages full of playfulness.

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Roosevelt had always loved boats and water. When he was 5, in his first letter to his mother, he enclosed his drawing of sailboats.

One night in August 1921, 34 years after he mailed that letter, he was struck by polio. Roosevelt never walked again.

On August 28, The New York Times found it newsworthy to report his illness, though not its exact nature and seriousness.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Better

Franklin D. Roosevelt, former Assistant Secretary of the United States Navy, who had been seriously ill at his Summer home at Campobello, N.B., is recovering slowly. He caught a heavy cold and was threatened with pneumonia. Mrs. Roosevelt and their children are with him.

From then on, FDR tried treatment after treatment in his quest to walk again.

Two years later, filled with hopes of healing, he rented a houseboat called the Weona and spent a month and a half in the Florida waters, fishing, relaxing and entertaining guests. From the boat, he wrote his mother, Sara, “This warmth and exercise is doing lots of good,” and said his visiting guests “are great fun to have on board in this somewhat negligee existence. All wander around in pyjamas, nighties and bathing suits!”

For FDR’s health, his wife, Eleanor, felt compelled to visit the boat, but she disliked the blithe atmosphere. “I tried fishing but had no skill and no luck; when we anchored at night and the wind blew, it all seemed eerie and menacing to me.” She left the Weona after a few days.

Louis Howe’s colorful painting for the log, with its dedication to Ananias and Sapphira, the patron saints of lying fishermen.

In the summer of 1923, Roosevelt traveled from his home in New York to vacation with Louis Howe, his close political adviser, at Howe’s cottage on Horseneck Beach in Massachusetts. Missy LeHand, FDR’s assistant, stayed there too, taking care of correspondence. At the beach, Roosevelt tried out new regimens for his legs, working with a well?known neurologist, Dr. William McDonald, who had developed a strenuous course of treatment. FDR jokingly said that if he ever became president, the doctor would be the first visitor to the White House. Occasionally when Howe brought him breakfast, he said, “This is to make you strong. I will see that you become President of the United States.”

Sometimes Roosevelt went to the dunes in an old bathing suit, found a secluded spot and crawled on his hands and knees over the hot sand until he was worn out. Back at the cottage, Howe would fix drinks for the two of them.

Picture FDR sipping a martini and discussing politics, having just crawled across the beach. He didn’t mind crawling because he could do that himself. What he hated was for others to have to carry him from place to place.

One day that summer, his old college friend John Lawrence stopped by the Howe cottage for a visit. He and his wife had been guests on the Weona the winter before. There at Horseneck Beach, the men hatched a plan to buy a houseboat of their own for the coming winter months.

FDR began the search. “What I am looking for is a boat that is fairly low in the water so that I can easily drop overboard and crawl back on deck.” In the fall, he found “a real bargain” on Long Island in New York. He wrote to Lawrence, “The owner is apparently up against it financially, and must sell quick!”

The two bought the houseboat, named Roamer, for $3,750. Her length overall was 71 feet. She was 19 feet in the beam and drew 3.6 feet. Her hull was about 15 years old and was planked with cypress. She had two 35-horsepower engines.

About renaming the boat, FDR wrote to Lawrence, “It has been suggested that we call her the Larose or the Rosela, both of which are euphonious and illustrate the new partnership of Lawrence, Roosevelt and Co.” Lawrence replied, “How would you like LAROOCO (Lawrence Roosevelt Co.). The double O and seven letters have usually been typical of good luck in yachts.” And so the Roamer became the Larooco.

For three winters, FDR lived on the Larooco, fishing and swimming and sunbathing, entertaining friends, drinking and playing games, but most of all, tending to his body so that he might walk again.

What follows is FDR’s Larooco log. The entries concentrate on the usual subjects of nautical logs — weather, route, fish caught, broken engines, guests, meals. I’ve interspersed them with notes and illustrations concerning people aboard the boat or events in the world outside the Larooco, a world in which FDR would play such a decisive role not too many years later. Scattered throughout are uncaptioned snapshots taken during the Larooco cruises.

The Miami Herald takes note of FDR’s presence, calling him “just folks,” playing the way “just folks play, refurbishing furniture aboard his yacht.”

For the most part, Roosevelt used initials in the entries to indicate someone’s identity, but for the sake of clarity, I’ve substituted the full names wherever possible. In some entries, in order to make the log more approachable, I have condensed or omitted sentences, changed their order, and laid Roosevelt’s words out in the form of poems, but the words are all his own. My purpose was to make the text sonorous as well as draw the reader in. These edited entries contain almost no punctuation. All the entries that contain full punctuation are FDR’s words untouched.

Log Entries 1924

Rules For Log Book Scribes

I. This Log Book must be entirely accurate and truthful. In putting down weights and numbers of fish, however, the following tables may be used.

Weights.

2 oz. make—1 log book pound

5 log book pounds make —“a large fish”

2 “large fish” make —“A record day’s catch”

Measures.

2 inches make —1 log book foot

2 log book feet make—“Big as a whale”

Anything above “whale” size may be described as an “Icthyosaurus”

(Note — In describing fish that got away, all these measures may be doubled — it is also permitted, when over 30 seconds are required to pull in a fish to say “After half an hour’s hard fighting—.”

II. The poetically inclined are warned that LAROOCO does not rhyme with Morocco. Also the combinations “knows I felt” to rhyme with Roosevelt and “Saw hence” to rhyme with Lawrence are not permitted.

III. Verbatim reports of the private conversations of the chief engineer with his carburetor must be represented only thus – “x ! ! x ! — ? ? X ! —.”

IV. All references to “community life” must be written in code.

V. The leaves of this Log are made to be easily removed. All frank opinions as to the character, habits and general personality of one’s shipmates written after a 3 days’ nor’wester and no fish will be so removed.

Saturday, February 2

A shoreside excursion with guests from Larooco.

At Jacksonville, Florida, FDR went on board and put Larooco in commission.

Sailing?master Robert S. Morris and Mrs. Morris spent the day getting provisions, and the trunks, etc. were duly unpacked, fishing gear stowed and Library of World’s Worst Literature placed on shelves.

Sunday, February 3

Gave all hands opportunity to go to Church. No takers. Hence left dock at 11:30 a.m. proceeding down to St. John’s River, about 18 miles, thence South into Canal. Very narrow channel and little water. Most of the way a straight cut through pine lands. Moored to old piling at 5:30 p.m., 2 or 3 miles short of the Toll Chain. Pondered deeply over interior decorations (of boat — not self) — green or light blue — or both?

Monday, February 4

Marshy river

Strong headwind

Anchored at St. Augustine

Hard rain late afternoon

Delicious oysters and whitefish

New leaks in cabin and my stateroom

Tuesday, February 5

Yesterday when approaching town

we saw flags at half mast —

President Wilson died

Sunday morning

Wednesday, February 6

Underway at St. Augustine

south through drawbridge

Steering cable slipped

Blew sideways onto sand bar

Tide going out

Larooco soon high and dry

Maunsell, Missy and FDR

went fishing—one sea trout

Large flock of black skimmers

Flock of Greater Snow Goose

All hands played solitaire

Incoming tide lifted

Larooco clear

Thursday, February 7

FDR found warm waters therapeutic and went on to purchase Warm Springs, a spa retreat in Georgia, after the sale of Larooco.

Stopped by ship in Canal

Freight boat aground

Seven other boats

lined up

Wind had driven

the water out

Missy and FDR

in launch fishing

No luck

Painted ¾ of a chair —

booful blue

Saturday, February 9

Very cold night. Waited for N.E. wind to blow some more water into the ridiculous Canal. At 4 p.m. the freight boat got through, then the Lounger, then Larooco and the second boat back of us stuck. We were lucky to get ahead, but in a few minutes the port shaft hit a rock and bent. Tied up at the toll bridge 5 miles South.

Tuesday, February 12

Uneventful day

Engines recovered from pneumonia

Left Daytona

Kept on South

till we stuck in the mud

before the “Haul?Over”

Anchored for night

Much playing

solitaire and Parcheesi

Wednesday, February 13

Stopped at Haul?Over

for very superior eggs

Came into broad expanse

of Indian River

Kept on

A fine day’s run

Thursday, February 14

Yesterday Maunsell took a bath

Reason clothed in mystery

Now it develops that today

is his Birthday

Having no other gifts

I took a bath also

in his honor

It is a heavenly warm day

shirtsleeve weather

We painted two dining room chairs blue

Proceeded ever Southward

Anchored off Fort Pierce at 6 p.m.

Had cake and some flowers

for the Birthday dinner

This Indian River

is a wonderful body of water

stretching N. and S. for miles and separated by a narrow stretch of beach from the ocean

Shallow almost everywhere

Friday, February 15

A rough sketch of Larooco’s accommodations plan.

It is a wonderful hot day—we are getting to the nearest point to the Gulf Stream. At 3, while passing through Peck Lake we ran aground and stuck aft. Engines would not move her. Channel 50 feet wide. We got our hawser to a mangrove tree and by the united efforts of the engines and Mac in the motor boat and the Capt. and Maunsell and Roan on the windlass she came off in an hour. Passed through the lovely winding Lower Jupiter Narrows into Hobe Sound where we anchored for the night off the Olympia Beach Club.

Saturday, February 16

Left Olympia of the Very Mortals

at 9:30 and took our time

going aground two or three times

Reaching

Palm Beach

at 4

Maunsell ashore

for papers

and mail

Spent hours trying to find out

why the world continues to move on in our absence n

Excerpt from FDR On His Houseboat, by Karen Chase. Copyright © 2016 by Karen Chase. Reprinted by permission SUNY Press. All rights reserved.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue.