We all recognize Franklin Delano Roosevelt. First inaugurated in 1933, President Roosevelt not only led the United States through the worst economic downturn in the industrialized world but also oversaw most of World War 2, the deadliest war in human history. On April 12, 1945, only 82 days into his fourth term, FDR would pass away due to a cerebral hemorrhage. But what were the last days of Roosevelt’s life and how does that relate to his last photograph? In this article, we will dive into the last photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Flashback: The Promised Portrait
To begin, I want to go back to 1937 and focus on a very specific character. Her name is Elizabeth Shoumatoff, an immigrant from Kharkiv, Ukraine, and an experienced water painter known for her portraits of the Fords, Firestones, and other rich families of the time. During 1937, Elizabeth Shoumatoff would meet Lucy Mercer Rutherford, a long-time friend and former mistress of President Roosevelt.
Shoumatoff and Rutherford would then talk, in which Rutherford would encourage Shoumatoff to create a portrait of Roosevelt, saying “You should really paint the President. He has such a remarkable face. There is no painting of him that gives his true expression. I think you could do a wonderful portrait, and he would be such an interesting person to paint! Would you do a portrait of him if it was arranged?”
Despite being a bit hesitant to paint a portrait of Roosevelt, due to their differing political views, Shoumatoff agreed to meet with Roosevelt. The two would become fast friends and a small portrait of Roosevelt would be made in 1943.
The Final Photo
In 1945 Lucy Rutherford would encourage Shoumatoff to create another portrait of Roosevelt. Shoumatoff and Rutherford would both travel to Warm Springs, Georgia in early April. Before she started working on the painting, she asked her assistant, Nicholas Robbins, to take a photograph. According to Shoumatoff’s memoir, “At twelve o’clock on the eleventh, I came in for my painting. The President was most cooperative as usual and agreed to be photographed first. I had one pose taken with the cape and another without, just an extra picture for myself.”
Looking at the deep, dark circles around his eyes and the wrinkles on his face, we see a weary, almost sickly President Roosevelt in the photograph. Although he was in high spirits during his final days, his health situation had not improved. Throughout Roosevelt’s terms, he had struggled with Polio and went to great lengths to hide his disability. Many political opponents had criticized his health, but due to his active campaign, he managed to handily win reelection in 1944. However, there were some things he couldn’t hide. For example, when addressing Congress in March 1945, he was so weak that he had to address Congress sitting down. His failing health would be a warning for the events to come the next day.
His Last Day
April 12th, 1945 was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last day and it started like any other. President Roosevelt was signing official paperwork at Warm Springs, Georgia while chatting with cousins and friends, including Shoumatoff. In the afternoon, Shoumatoff was painting Roosevelt’s portrait and according to her memoir, Shoumatoff noted his “exceptionally good color”. There would be a barbeque later in the afternoon, so Roosevelt told Shoumatoff that they only had 15 more minutes. It was then that Roosevelt exhibited strange jerking movements before eventually losing consciousness.
There was some confusion about the last moments of his life. His cousin had said his last words were “I have a terrific headache.” However, Shoumatoff had said in her memoir that, “At one point the President glanced up and said, ‘We have fifteen minutes more to work.’ As I remember, these were the last words he uttered. Suddenly he raised his hand and passed it over his forehead several times in a strange jerky way, without emitting a sound, his head bent slightly forward. I never heard him say anything about a headache as was reported by others who weren’t there.” Regardless of these details, President Roosevelt would pass away a few hours later due to a brain hemorrhage.
Despite trying to hide his condition from the public, his health problems would eventually catch up with him. Taking everything into consideration, the final photograph captures a man who has endured stress from both health issues and the struggles of leading the nation. Although just a simple photograph, a picture can say a thousand words.