Camera Rolls: 102:23-26
Sound Rolls: 14-15
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Margaret Hoover Brigham , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on June 27, 1990 , for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Mrs. Brigham, let's start out by, well, can you tell me your recollections of the 1929 inauguration?
It was a very wet day. I remember the parade. We were sitting in a long, low building, people all sitting in a row. I must have gotten bored because I was changing from one lap to another, being not quite three years old. There was one lap that was kind of fun. It wasn't very deep. The gentleman who owned it would let me sit up on his lap and then he'd straighten out his legs and I would slide down. My mother, I think, was a little horrified. It turned out later that it was William Howard Taft, and I think he was quite portly, shall we say, and didn't have a very deep lap. The other lap I seemed to like was a gentleman that was quite opposite in lap, but he had a chest full of medals, and those were fascinating. I later learned that it was General Pershing. I guess I wasn't that interested in what was going on outside the building. I'd gotten bored with that, so the laps were more entertaining.
Do you remember seeing your grandfather during this time?
- During the inauguration? No, I just remember that little vignette.
Here's a question about your grandfather as Secretary of Commerce. In your opinion, was he a good Secretary of Commerce?
I don't know. I think that was really almost before my time. I think commerce, business, and big business was just starting to really become a very viable thing, and I'm quite sure that with his organization capabilities he brought some order to the chaos that might have been ensuing. But I'm not a business person so I don't know that part of the history.
Your grandfather was the first man on television. Why would he be chosen for that sort of thing?
I suppose because, I don't know when the first television was. When was that?
Twenty-seven. I guess because the Secretary of Commerce at that time was the one who licensed communications, perhaps the predecessor of the FCC. Is that correct? That would have been in his department.
Can you give me your, just tell me what your grandfather was like as a person?
That's a tall order. [laughs] I'd have to do it from two angles, one as a small child and growing up as a person and as a family member. He wasn't gruff, he just didn't talk too much to people. He'd rather listen. He always referred to me as "Child." Even when I was grown up and married and had children I was still "Child." I don't think he called the rest of his grandchildren "Child." I was "Child." We had a lot of unspoken companionship. He loved to go on walks in the morning. He always took a brisk walk before breakfast, and I used to love to go along when we were out in California or east. I didn't talk with him very much. It was just nice being together. I do know that if other people came along with him there'd be conversation, but I would imagine that most of the conversation was on the part of the other person. He was a listener, and he was digesting everything that was being said and thinking all the time. As a person, he did not like sham. He did not like pretense, fussiness, a lot of verbiage. If you were to make a report to him he wanted it all on one page so that he could just scan right down it and get the meat out of it. Time to him was very precious, and he filled it, and he didn't want other people to waste it.
Well, let me come at you with another question. He didn't sleep much, did he? He didn't seem to need it.
He would probably go to bed about ten or ten-thirty or eleven, depending whether there were guests or not. But many a time if I couldn't sleep, and this would be at the Waldorf when I was in college, I would come down and maybe I couldn't sleep either, things had been kind of exciting, and I'd come into the living room and he'd be in there, working away at his desk. Maybe it was three o'clock in the morning, and I would come in and maybe play a game of solitaire on the rug, and he'd look up over his glasses at me and kind of go, "Hmph." Then he'd go back to work at his desk and we might be there for an hour together, wouldn't say a single word to each other, but it was companionable. Then we'd both go back, and he'd go back to bed and go to sleep again, and I would do the same. He didn't seem to need much time to recharge those batteries. I don't ever remember seeing him tired. His sense of energy was fantastic. He could fool you, let's say, with people around and sitting on the couch. People would be talking very animatedly, and he would have his pipe in his hand, and sitting there like this with his pipe nodding and grunting. He wasn't missing a thing. He wouldn't say much. People would be talking back and forth, but if he had a story to tell he was a marvelous storyteller. He would get the gist of a story out in the most wry humor. He had a lovely wry humor, and he'd end it up by going "hmph" at you. It was one of his mannerisms. "You agree? Hmph." [laughs]
Can I interrupt you? What was his idea of teamwork? How did he approach his job in terms of running the presidency?
I don't know about running the presidency, but I think his pattern all through his life was to—he was very quick, first of all, to see what a structure of a situation was, and therefore what it needed to be an ongoing thing, and then he was very good at picking the right person to do the job and letting them do it, and encouraging them to do it. He wasn't exerting his ego over the top of them at any time. He would encourage that person to blossom and do his best, and I think that's one of the reasons why there was such tremendous loyalty to him. He never tried to play down a person if a person was really doing his best or doing the proper job. You had the feeling of "This is great, we're a team." I think that was part of the basis of the tremendous loyalty to him.
Do you have any personal recollections of life with your grandfather at the White House?
Well, we lived on the third floor, my brother and I, during the year when I was five and my father was ill, and therefore we were at the White House. We lived up on the third floor. Now that isn't even the family quarters. That's way up high. So we were incorporated into the family doings at convenient times. We didn't know whether they were convenient or not. They seemed to work out all right. In the afternoon, late afternoon Kosta Boris, Granddaddy's valet, would come find me and we would walk over to the office and wait in the cabinet room. Sometimes it would be a little longer than Boris had estimated that Granddaddy would be through, so Boris would get underneath and table and pretend he was a bear roaring, just to amuse me, keep me from making too much noise or getting in the way. And then when Granddaddy came out he and I would walk back over to the family quarters together.
Now you were often used as a device to get your grandfather to get away from work, because he worked so intensely. Could you describe that situation?
Well, I'm afraid I wasn't aware that I was being used. I wasn't aware of that at all.
Do you remember ever having to do that? I'm trying to get you to describe being sent in.
No, I don't think so.
So you don't remember?
Now your grandfather would often help out people and then conceal the fact that he helped them. I'm wondering, why did he do that? Most politicians would take credit wherever they could.
My grandmother was the same way. You know, they evolved out of the Victorian times when anyone who had some things and they were easy, and there were those that were in want, it was the quiet, nice thing to do. The ego did not play a part in it. I think they speak of "Don't hide your light under a bushel," but at the same time you don't want to go out and let the world know that you are being righteous. I mean, it just wasn't seemly. It wasn't Godly, and proprietary...
Maybe we could start that again. They would often give help and not take any credit for it. Why?
Their egos didn't need it. Nowadays, well, he wasn't a politician, and to me one of the measures of a politician or characteristics of a politician is how much he needs to be bolstered all the time by public recognition of good deeds. Well my grandmother and grandfather were Quakers, and it just was a normal thing to do good deeds, but you shouldn't call attention to it.
That's great. Thank you.
Could you describe your grandfather's work ethic, what he believed about work?
Work was a privilege, not a necessity. It was a privilege. You're asking these questions, you know, from a different angle than...I'm not rolling right.
Your grandfather didn't fit very well with the Old Guard Republican Party. Why was that?
The Old Guard Republican Party, I think, I wasn't really much aware of those things, was made of money. Money was already there. It was power and personal ego, but that wasn't his approach to things. His approach to life was "There are so many things that need to be done, and there should be doing, not sitting." I don't think his mind ever stopped working. Probably while he was asleep it was still working, because he'd get up in the middle of the night, you know, and come in and write down his thoughts and then go back to bed again. He was incredible that way. If you were walking along on the street or something he might be looking down at the pavement, but he was thinking. His mind never stopped: how to do this, what was the reason for that? What would be a better way to do something? Who would benefit the best by this? It was a very positive, constructive approach to life.
Oh, I'm sorry. That was perfect.
Can you describe Rapidan?
Oh, very much so, because just about a month ago I was back and got a real chance to see it again. It's kind of amazing the change from being when you're about three and a half feet tall, and bridges and streams and everything looked very, very big. Then you go back as a grown-up and everything's all different proportions, but it was lovely. I caught my first fish there, in the pool outside the President's Cabin, and my grandfather was instructing me how to fish. I was about five years old at that time, and I was just heartbroken because he took the fish and he put it back in again. It was his favorite big trout out of the pool there. I do remember that, just being absolutely dumbfounded that I couldn't keep—everyone else got to keep their fish and pan fry them, and it was a big occasion. Mine just got taken off real quick and put back in again. I was heartbroken. The other thing I remember is the first time I rode a horse. My grandmother and grandfather had come back from a ride, and they had been accompanied by Marines, and you don't think of Marines being on horseback, but the Marines were responsible for the general being of the camp. There was a very handsome, I understand he was a Lieutenant on a horse and they lifted me up just to have a light ride, you know. I didn't want to get down. I thought that was greatest thing that ever happened, and I've been horse-crazy ever since.
Now pictures with your grandfather, he's dressed in suit and coat and tie. Why did he dress like that, even when he was fishing?
Well, you've got to remember, they came up out of the Victorian Era of dress and propriety of dress, and you never saw any gentleman in anything but a coat and tie. They played tennis in a shirt and tie, you know, very properly. The ladies were always very well-dressed. Even the medicine ball, what they called Hooverball, they played on the White House lawn. The cabinet all played this for half an hour, real rough work, hard work, in full dress. It's a wonder to me, because if you know what medicine ball is, it's kind of rough. You can fall down catching this six pound ball and throwing it back again, and I understand there's film footage of this. I imagine it must be hysterical, because here were these very proper gentlemen all dressed appropriately for any occasion playing, it's much more difficult than volleyball. The ball is much heavier, and it's a rugged sport. It's a wonder they weren't covered in—
Can you tell me, why did your grandfather play medicine ball?
Dr. Joel Boone was the White House Physician, and he felt that the president's life is usually very sedentary, except for walking, and he felt that everybody needed some good exercise but they couldn't take too much time. They couldn't afford too much time, so he devised this game that utilized a six pound medicine ball, which is leather-covered and about the size of a volleyball. He devised this game that they could play hard for a half an hour, seven thirty in the morning every morning, weather permitting, that would use all the body and it really does. Recently I know Senator Hatfield has gotten together a team that plays medicine ball, Hooverball as they're calling it. In August, out at West Branch, they always have a tournament. More and more teams: we have one now. My youngest son is getting together some buddies of his, he's going to foster Hooverball. I tell you, we've set it up out in the back field here and it was hysterical. The girls can serve from mid-court, but the men have to serve from the base of the court.
I'm going to interrupt you there because actually I got what I wanted on the medicine ball so I was very happy.
During this time that your grandfather was president he had to make some really tough decisions because it was a very very difficult time in the country, and he was not wanting to give food and aid as a federal handout to people. A lot of people thought he was cruel and not caring. Do you think this is true?
Oh no. First of all, you have to remember that government was not very big in those days. It didn't have the resources or the funds to suddenly come to the rescue of so many people. When he did the food relief in Belgium and in Russia, feeding millions of people, that was all done through private enterprise, and he felt that that was the most economical way to handle something like that. He believed that bureaucracy and red tape would siphon off too much that was too valuable, that was needed at the end of things, not siphoned off in the middle by someone else. He felt that man's endeavors for himself were very important, that government should not be Big Brother. It was a concept that was quite prevalent at that time, up until suddenly everything was falling apart. He had seen and worked with many many people on things like that, and the response to something like that, he felt, would be good, would work. He didn't have time to—
As the country fell deeper and deeper into this economic crisis after the stock market crash, what was the White House like? Did you have any sense that this changed your grandfather's administration?
No, because as a child I wouldn't have had any way of knowing. A five-year-old child or a four-year-old child doesn't understand those kind of things. I think maybe I sensed a sadness. I sensed a tension that may not have been there before. I sensed a withdrawing...there wasn't the easiness, maybe. Preoccupation on the part of grown-ups around me, but I didn't know why or what.
Beautiful. Let's cut.
After the 1932 election the American voters turned away from your grandfather. You can talk in hindsight if you want, but what happened?
It wasn't just turning away. There was a lot of hate. I suppose they needed a fall guy. I think when you've been under great distress you want to put the blame somewhere, just to vent your frustrations and your anger at what's happened to you. I think it stunned him. He went to New York after Roosevelt's inauguration, hoping that maybe from there he'd be handy enough to assist in anything that he might be able to do. I don't remember that part because I was already out in California. I do remember going up to Palo Alto, to the House on the Hill as we called it, and I think really for the first time I was aware that he wasn't the bustling, busy, outgoing person that he'd been. He was very withdrawn. He would spend hours sitting playing Double Canfield, and I got to help. If I spotted a card he missed I got to help. Again, we didn't talk much. There was nothing to say, but it was a companionable feeling. Then things started to pick up. People started coming to see him and suddenly there were now people for breakfast, which had always been a sign that things were rolling. There were always guests for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The house was always busy with people coming and going, and the tempo picked up. He would have to look elsewhere in talking with others to find out what those factors were, but as a child you had the feeling that things were picking up. The aftermath of the hate lingered on for twenty or thirty years, and as family members we could sense it. It spread quite broadly across the family.
End of camera roll 25.
Your grandmother, she seemed to be an incredible woman. Can you give me your impressions of her during those years?
Well, she was, she was the one that as a child I remembered had the life and the varsity—
Lou Henry, I'm sorry, your grandmother tried to help him. How?
The role of First Lady is a very, very difficult one. In some cases the First Lady has been very much in the background. In other cases they've had a flag or banner to carry. My grandmother's interest was, of course, principally I think the Girl Scouts. She loved the outdoors. She loved nature. As a young girl she'd been quite a tomboy. She had no brothers. She had a sister, and her father used to take her on long hikes and pack trips and things like that. She was very much of an outdoor person. She'd lived all over the world with my grandfather, had to make a feeling of home wherever they lived as quickly as possible, so she would always take with her little articles, pictures, or little do-dads or something that she could quickly put down wherever they were so it seemed like home. She had a great sense, a great feeling of roots, so that you weren't just going from one country to another rootless. She had a lot of energy.
When he lost the election, what did she do?
Well, they still had the house at S Street in Washington, and she had to close that up, I think, finally. But she couldn't wait to go back to Palo Alto, the house that she had built in Palo Alto on the Stanford campus. I think that she really finally felt at home. That was home. She had been trying all their lives to have "home", and that was really their home. She was finally having a chance to be home. I think she was delighted. He was at sixes and sevens but she was delighted. Of course she could sense all that was going on. You've got to remember that she was a mining engineer too, one of the first woman mining engineers. She was a very well-educated person. She and my grandfather together had, I can't think...
Let's cut for a second.
What's the word I'm looking for?
What I'm trying to get at is—
De Re Metallica. It was the famous mining book.
It was Latin.
What I was trying to get at before with that question was, you had said she tried to cheer him up, and I think she must have had that role a lot during those years.
Well, he was the quiet one, she was the outgoing one. I mean, they complimented each other.
So, given the strains in the White House, that there's this tremendous economic problem that's developed, how did the two people work together?
Well, I imagine that his preoccupation with the world and its problems made him almost dour, because he was doing so much thinking and trying to figure out. Her role was to keep things moving, to keep a sense of reality, a sense of beauty, and practical. She was one of the, I think I'm correct in that she was the first First Lady to invite a member of the black races to the White House.
She was, well, nowadays I would say she was an original women's lib. She did not feel any constraints that she was less than anybody else. She'd never put anybody down, but she was a very fully developed human being.
Now neither of them would have put anybody down, would they?
No, I don't think so.
It wasn't Christian.
What was your philosophy, what was your grandfather's philosophy about giving aid to people?
It was a Christian philosophy. You know he read the Bible, knew the Bible thoroughly. It was something that he didn't make any show of reading or quoting or anything. You'll find it all through his work. His Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, his Biblical references, they always seemed never as though they had ben brought in by their toenails to make a point. They seemed to fall naturally, because he beliefs were very Christian, so they just would come automatically.
Now, he believed what about people, in terms of how they should conduct their lives? They shouldn't be asking for a handout. What did he believe people should be doing?
The Quakers, you know, believe "There is that of God in every man", and therefore it doesn't matter how little or how great you are. There is that of God in every man, and it should be revered. And that's all behind giving aid and helping and loving. You don't do it by making a big show. It's just the outreach of one heart to another.
When people, people were demanding aid, they were demanding, "Give me a handout." Your grandfather said, "That'll destroy you. That'll destroy something about you."
Don't make me answer that now, because it did. I mean, ever since that time the answer to everything is "Let's go to Washington," or "Let's go to Harrisburg" or "Let's go to Boston." I can remember being on the library board here in Chester County, and the Democrats were great. "Let's get money from Harrisburg and buy this and buy that," you know. And I said. "Look, some day you're going to have to stop passing the buck." This is because I was always amused at Truman's "The Buck Stops Here." How ironic that was, bless his heart. We still are in the habit of saying, "Oh, let's go to Washington." He thought that once you do not rely, and cannot rely on your own self, and asking help only when things have gotten too great for you. Self-reliance to him was a very essential part of the growth of the human soul.
Can we get that on film?
You should have gotten it. [laughs]
So what was his philosophy about that aid, about people's self-reliance?
He believed that the growth of a person's soul comes from within, and you only should ask for help when things have gotten too big for you. And then you help each other, just like the old communities. They took care of their own. Even today the Amish take care of their own. It's only when things get to such a cataclysmic proportion that then you have to go to the next entity outside of yourself for help. But he felt that the soul's growth depended on your self-reliance and pride in your self-reliance, and once you start giving up and asking aid from someone else, you've given up the fight. You've given up the reason to live.
I'm done with the filming part.
[Production note: after the interview, Mrs. Brigham, granddaughter of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover, read aloud letters written by Lou Henry Hoover about President Hoover, his career in helping people, and his entrance into politics.]