Friday, February 5, 2010

Roosevelt, Bankruptcy and the Scary Side of Preservation

The NY Times recently published an article about the ongoing battle to secure the papers of one of FDR’s last secretaries, Grace Tully, for the Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Grace Tully began working for Roosevelt in 1929 when he was governor of New York, and served as his personal secretary from 1941 until his death in 1945. Her papers, which include photographs, official correspondence and handwritten notes, was left to her estate upon her death. Conrad M. Black, now serving time in a Florida prison for a fraud, bought the papers from her estate in 2001. His company, which at the time owned The Chicago-Sun Times, bought the papers from a rare-book dealer for an estimated $8 million. He was collecting the largest amount of FDR papers still in private hands for an FDR biography he planned to write. (“Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom,” published in 2003).
In recent years, Black attempted to auction the papers off at Christies but was stopped when the government accused Black of selling documents which belonged to the National Archives. (The National Archives oversees Presidential Libraries) Still with me?  Since then, the papers have been stored at the Roosevelt Presidential Library, which all parties seem to think will be their eventual home. However, since the ownership of the papers is still being worked out, archivists and researchers have been forbidden to open the sealed boxes to explore what appraisers have called “very, very valuable papers.” I’m not sure how Cynthia Koch, the head of the Roosevelt Presidential Library, can stand having those priceless items so close and yet so far. If it were me, I’d be in there in the middle of the night with a flashlight Watergate style dying to find out what the secretary’s papers could tell us about such an extraordinary time in our nation’s history. Real nerd stuff. Maybe there are revelations in that collection which could confound, complicate, or confirm our understanding of FDR. Who knows? Only time will tell…

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