We’re pleased to report that our old pal Robert Klara–a.k.a. Trainjotting columnist “Engine Bob”–has his new book out today. FDR’s Funeral Train: A Betrayed Widow, a Soviet Spy, and a Presidency in the Balance looks at the train carrying the body of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to its final resting place upstate at Hyde Park. The train passed through the tri-state area while most of us slept. While FDR was dead, other passengers–including President Truman, the Supreme Court justices, perhaps a KGB spy–were very much alive. Klara digs into the classified files to find out what went on on that historic train.
FDR’s Funeral Train is published by Palgrave MacMillan and is out today. I hear Barnes and Noble is placing the book prominently near its front doors today in New York; you can also grab a copy on Amazon for $18.
Klara is a pal, so I’m biased. But he’s one of the most engaging writers you’ll ever read. Our Q&A with him is below.
Trainjotting: Dozens of books have been done about FDR. What does yours offer that the others don’t?
Robert Klara: Most of the FDR books out there are biographies—and where these works end, mine begins. My predecessors apparently took the view that, once FDR was gone, his story naturally concludes. But I disagree. In fact, what unfolded immediately after FDR’s death were three of the most frightening, moving, precarious, and politically complicated days in the history of this country—and also very much a part of FDR’s personal story, too.
It took three days to bring Roosevelt’s body from Warm Springs, Georgia (where FDR had been vacationing at his mountaintop cabin) to Hyde Park, New York, where he was buried on the grounds of his boyhood home. This 1,050-mile journey was a literal measure of the man: Not only did tens of thousands of Americans wait by the side of the train tracks to pay their respects to Roosevelt (whose body lay in a flag-draped casket visible through the windows of the funeral train’s rear Pullman), his interment train carried pretty much the entire U.S. government aboard.
Imagine something like this happening today (it never would): One dead president and one live one, both of their families, the Cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the diplomatic corps, leaders of both houses of Congress and the nine Justices of the Supreme Court—all of them boarding a single conveyance to take a trip together and doing it amid a global armed conflict. It was an altogether foolhardy idea—but it was also the greatest showing of respect for a president that this country has ever managed.
Can you imagine what sort of intrigue would take place aboard that train? Can you imagine the job that the Secret Service and the U.S. military would have protecting that train? Well, you don’t have to imagine any of it, because it all actually happened in April of 1945. That’s what my book is about.
TJ: You’ve got a train in the title of your book. What role does the train play?
RK: The train is the literal setting for most of the book, but there are really two trains involved. There’s the funeral train that the American public saw from the outside as its citizenry held trackside vigils in nine states. But there’s also the inside of the train—and this was the angle that most interested me. Because most everything about the train was classified as top-secret, the journalists aboard wrote very little about what took place behind all the drawn shades. And indeed, few books get into much detail about the doings aboard. My book is the first, so far as I know, to tell the full story—which includes tales of betrayal, espionage, rumors of an imposter’s body, and the atomic bomb.
TJ: Reportedly there’s a hidden platform under Grand Central that was used by FDR. Does that appear in the book?
RK: No, it doesn’t—but I’ve got a good reason: A living FDR used that platform, but his funeral train did not.
You’re speaking of Track 61, a small platform beneath the hotel serviced directly by a freight elevator, but abandoned since WWII. Current scholarship makes clear that the platform was not used anywhere near as much as the lore surrounding it suggests. The first famous person to avail himself of the secret entrance was General John J. Pershing, who visited the hotel in 1938.
FDR used the platform only once. It was during a campaign trip to New York City on October 21, 1944. He was driven by motorcade to the Waldorf that evening and delivered a speech to the Foreign Policy Association. Afterwards, his entourage took the freight elevator down to Track 61, where FDR boarded the Ferdinand Magellan—his private, armored Pullman car—and left for Hyde Park.
The Magellan figures large in my book, for it was part of the funeral train’s consist, accommodating Eleanor Roosevelt. But the Waldorf platform is part of the living FDR’s story. I hope another writer will do this part of it justice one day.
TJ: What was the most compelling thing to come out of your reporting? Wasn’t some of the material confidential, which is typical of presidential stuff?
RK: Well, nearly everything concerning FDR’s movements during the war was classified, but most of these documents entered the public domain in the years afterwards. That doesn’t mean they were all easy to find, though. Many were at the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, but I had to file Freedom of Information Law requests with the Department of Homeland Security and Secret Service to get some of the papers. And, incredibly, the letters I was sent indicated that some of the documentation is still classified to this day.
The most compelling part of the story, to me, is the possibility of Harry Truman discussing the atomic bomb while aboard the funeral train—and I spend a good portion of the book making a case for that. But my favorite part, personally, concerned all the rumors that the body lying in FDR’s coffin was not FDR’s. At the time of the funeral train’s run, thousands of Americans were convinced that Roosevelt was not dead and that an imposter’s body and been substituted in his casket. The rumors were, of course, utter delusion—but it was a great deal of fun investigating them in order to disprove them.
TJ: What would FDR think of having a big NYC highway named after him? And why is there always traffic on the southbound side at 116th Street?
RK: Hey, these are supposed to be train questions! Well, my guess is that FDR would have happily lent his name to any road—so long as good, union labor was used to construct it. But I should mention that Roosevelt was very much alive when much of the highway in question was finished (FDR cut the ribbon at the Triborough’s opening in 1936.) But what’s today the FDR Drive was called the East River Drive back then. Like so many other infrastructural projects in NYC at the time, the thoroughfare was built by Robert Moses—one of the few men whom FDR truly disliked, and the feeling was mutual. But when FDR died (and his death spurred a naming frenzy around the country) even Moses couldn’t stand in the way of the movement to name the highway after Roosevelt.
Had he somehow been honored with that kind of commemoration when he was alive, however, FDR probably would have chaired the opening like the master statesman he was—being gracious, humble, and then cracking a joke. (In my head, it goes like this: “I finished building a dam in Nevada but they named it after Hoover—so I am pleased to accept the honor of placing my name on this fine road in New York.” I can almost hear it.)
As far as the traffic question goes, you’re talking to a man who hasn’t driven a car in a decade, but my guess is that there’s southbound backup at 116th Street because Exit 16 is a southbound exit only—and remember, it’s the first exit after the Triborough Bridge interchange and the messy junction with I-278. So my guess is that everybody cooking southbound off the Triborough and anxious to turn off into Manhattan picks this exit, so you get a clot of traffic.
My advice: Take the train.