First chapter



1. Thanksgiving 1938





We have cherished and preserved our democracy.
President Roosevelt 1938 Thanksgiving proclamation




Warm Springs, Georgia
Lyman Hall was leaving the Little White House with a profound sadness. It was young Lyman’s curse to see behind the mask of people, and it was also why President Roosevelt employed him. Lyman knew what was in the heart of people; it was easy for him to understand what they thought. Years confined in beds and hospitals when he was a child had made Lyman very attune to other people’s misery. Somebody should give the President a dog1.
Yesterday, the President had been his boisterous self, looking forward to the traditional Thanksgiving lunch he loved to share with “his family,” the people of Warm Springs: neighbors, patients, doctors, architects, close friends. This morning, he had even taken Lyman on a tour with his car, astutely fitted with hand controls. Roosevelt had been benevolently smiling around and gesturing and driving like a fearless pirate. But when all was said and done, the Little White House was giving out its secret: the bed was too small and uncomfortable, the kitchen too rudimentary, the walls unadorned. Here there was a lack of feminine touches that said “solitude.” This President was a lonely man. Lyman saw it easily because he felt the same inside. He admired the man for his persistent optimism and enthusiasm; he wished he could conceal his own melancholy as well.
Lyman reflected on the Little White House. He thought that Eleanor2 did not really see the place as it was – somewhat pathetic – even though she had been here as recently as March. Lyman shook his head. Roosevelt was not really alone in Warm Springs. He came over with family and friends. This was a man who did not enjoy being alone, yet the loneliness persisted in the settings, even in the walls.
Eleanor was the kind of person who had decided for herself that happiness is not important, much less important than duty. It made her strong, but sometimes, although Lyman recognized that she was the most compassionate woman he knew, it blinded her.
The President often called Lyman “my cousin,” but of course they were not really related, except that they both had suffered from polio. If anything, Lyman was related to Eleanor’s mom, the beautiful Anna Hall, who was born in Georgia like Lyman himself. Lyman felt much closer to the Republicans than to the Democrats, but the President had not talked politics at all with him. Instead he had deployed his considerable charm and asked for his help. Well, politics mattered less than the country. If the President requested his help, he would be happy to serve.
The President liked to have envoys he trusted. Lyman was family. Lyman would help him to double-check an administration he did not always control the way he wanted.
So Lyman Hall, age 23 and just out of college, was on his way to Spain to report on the future distribution of power. According to observers the fascist side was winning. The International Brigade had just left Spain3 and Franco’s Nationalists were making steady and deadly progress. The President believed that by the time Lyman reached Spain the war would be over, so there was no risk, and above all, he reminded Lyman that he was not to put himself in any danger – Eleanor would not allow it.


Crolais near Lille, France
The tutor of Marine Leroy had no concept of what is suitable teaching to a 12-year-old; he treated her as an adult, and Marine loved him for it. In a household where she did not count, the hours spent with Mr. Delhaxe made her feel important.
Delhaxe was an old man who taught Latin, Greek and history to supplement his pension, but as a young man he had been a prestigious archeologist and a member of the French School of Athens, the first foreign institute of archeology in Greece. The old Mrs. Leroy did not miss an opportunity to impress her guests with his story. In the meantime, he was only allowed in the kitchen, never treated as a guest himself.
Every morning, Delhaxe and Marine spent hours in the big Leroys’ library. The old prof had always the same dark brown suit that looked one size too large. His pockets were deformed by accumulated trash: crayons, lost papers, several handkerchiefs, his tobacco.
The pipe he kept in hand the whole time; he only brandished it to point at her. He tapped it on the desk with impatience when she did not answer fast enough.
This morning he talked about iotacism, one of his favorite subjects. If you had told him that it was not a subject for such a young mind, he would have been indignant. What was more important than understanding how a language evolves in time? So here he was, explaining with enthusiasm how, in ancient Greek, the sounds ei and oi were progressively replaced by the sound i like in ski. “And how do we know that?” he asked triumphantly; “because people who made copies of manuscripts made mistakes, for instance in the New Testament.”
The New Testament? It is in Greek?”
Yes, of course, it was the universal language of the time, specially after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Languages follow conquests. Many people in Canada nowadays speak French, and many people in India speak English. You understand? So give me a definition of iotacism.”
Young Marine, who had heard it all many times before, summarized the answer:
An iotacism is a barbarism.”
The professor looked stunned and emitted a small, high-pitched laugh. “He, he, excellent!”
Most of the morning, though, was spent in conversations.
Now, Marine, suppose you become a cactus. What are the advantages of being a cactus?”
Do you think that Nero burned Rome, or was it just political propaganda? What are the facts?”
How would you define justice?”
After all that came the reward. They played a game, sometimes cards, sometimes chess, often a skit. Delhaxe was a fan of historical battles, so they had played Troy, Hannibal and Julius Caesar. Sometimes they played literary pieces. Delhaxe would be the old dog of Ulysses, who dies when he recognizes his master’s gone at war for many years. Ulysses also recognizes the old dog and tries to hide his tears. So Delhaxe, as a dog, would look extremely happy, then suffer a cardiac arrest and fall with his paws up while Marine would declaim the eulogy of the dog, praise his strength and his speed, and marvel at how good of a hunter he was. Or Marine would be Madame de la Fayette, who loves somebody she should not.
Today they played the battle of Trafalgar. The British fleet was represented by new matches, the French and Spanish fleets were represented by burned matches that Mr. Delhaxe carefully aligned along the spine of a book symbolizing the coast between Cadiz and Trafalgar.
Do you want to be Admiral Nelson or his adversary Villeneuve? If you want to be Nelson, you will have to die.”
Marine always delighted in playing Nelson. She loved to die even more than winning, falling on the ground, and calling the name of dear Lady Hamilton. Delhaxe, who thought that Napoleon was one of the worst mass murderers he knew of, played Villeneuve with gusto and ended up committing suicide. He fell on the floor and stabbed himself several times while emitting very unlikely dying sounds. The dead Nelson usually peaked out from the dead and snickered. Although the lesson included some naval strategy, it was mostly an allegory of method and preparedness against improvisation. Marine had to “think this through,” get her ships repaired, good food distributed, including lemon juice to prevent scurvy. She made sure every commander knew what to do. Delhaxe ran around like a fool, his hair tousled, and made last minute decisions (go this way, no, go that way, no, turn around) with no clear view of the battle and apparently with no plan at all.
In the end – and this was the best part – Marine had a lock of her hair cut for dear Lady Hamilton, and her body was preserved in brandy. This was represented by the professor throwing a slipcover over her. Delhaxe then pretended to carry the hair to Lady Hamilton herself, in this case the placid Yvonne who reigned in the kitchen.
Lady Hamilton,” he said, “this is a lock of hair of Admiral Nelson. I am afraid he is dead. Please do not faint!”
Wash your hands, both of you,” replied the noble woman, “and you will get some soup.”