Franklin D. Roosevelt, insurance salesman?
While the future 32nd president of the United States didn't hawk policies, he did spend most of the 1920s working for a Maryland-based insurance company. After his failed attempt to get elected vice president in 1920, the position allowed him to mine the political and financial contacts he would need when he next ran for public office.
Now, the wooden desk that FDR worked at during his eight-year stint as a business executive is being donated to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum in New York's Hudson Valley.
"This desk is what FDR used to maintain his public connections," said Bob Clark, supervisory archivist at the FDR presidential library in Hyde Park, 75 miles north of New York City. "We're delighted to have it."
The 300-pound walnut executive desk, made around 1920, is owned by Zurich American Insurance Co., based near Chicago. The company, a subsidiary of Switzerland-based Zurich Financial Services Group, is donating the desk to the FDR library as part of the company's commemoration of 100 years of doing business in America.
Roosevelt's employment with a company later purchased by Zurich is a lesser-known but still important segment of his pre-White House days, according to a business history expert.
"He was able to make the connections between all the players," said Bruce Weindruch, founder and CEO of The History Factory, a Virginia-based consulting firm that worked with Zurich on the FDR desk project.
The desk nearly got lost in the shuffle of a corporate office move in the mid-1980s, when the Fidelity and Deposit Co. of Baltimore was relocating its Manhattan operations. The New York staff asked an executive at the company's Baltimore headquarters what they should do with one of the old desks, since the new offices had no room for clunky vintage furniture.
The executive had the desk shipped to his Baltimore office.
According to Zurich officials, not long after the desk arrived, the executive attended a retirement luncheon for a longtime employee of the company's Manhattan clerical staff. The executive was informed by the retiree and one of her contemporaries that the old desk he had was in fact the same one FDR used. Later, another company executive had a plaque placed on an inside panel identifying the desk as FDR's during his tenure with Fidelity and Deposit from 1921 to 1928.
It was Baltimore newspaper publisher and Fidelity and Deposit executive Van Lear Black who hired Roosevelt to work for the insurance company, hoping the former assistant secretary of the Navy would use his contacts to boost business. After losing the 1920 election as Democratic presidential candidate James Cox's running mate, Roosevelt was on the company payroll Jan. 1, 1921.
"Van Lear Black thought he'd be a good vice president in charge of the New York City office because he had good connections," said the FDR library's Clark, "and he'd essentially serve as a rainmaker for the company."
Roosevelt contracted polio just months after he was hired to run the Manhattan office, which specialized in insuring government and corporate contracts. His well-known story of striving to overcome the resulting paralysis of his lower body overshadows his career as a businessman, Weindruch said. He said FDR's office job at 120 Broadway helped him deal with his daily physical challenges.
"It was a very important part of his rehabilitation," he said.
With Fidelity and Deposit involved in insuring major commercial and municipal infrastructure projects, Roosevelt was able to attract business through his contacts in military, industrial and governmental circles, Clark and Weindruch said.
It apparently worked. According to Weindruch, the company's surety business in Manhattan underwrote $10.2 million in policies in 1923, up from $7 million the previous year.
Roosevelt resigned from the company after his election in 1928 to the first of two consecutive two-year terms as governor of New York. Later, as president, FDR used his experience in the business world to launch the major infrastructure projects that were a key component of his administration's New Deal, Weindruch said.
"He took that playbook right out of the F and D years," he said.
Weindruch's company helped Zurich put together an exhibit featuring the FDR desk at the company's North American headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill. The desk will be on display until this spring, when it will be shipped to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Home National Historic Site in Hyde Park, N.Y., which includes the FDR presidential library and museum.