Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Picnic That Won the War, the Royal Visit, the Hot Dog Summit of 1939, and Hyde Park on the Hudson Movie

The 1939 “hot dog summit” between Franklin Roosevelt and England’s King George VI in Hyde Park is the subject of a new movie, Hyde Park on the Hudson. PLUS: The history of Wilderstein, Daisy Suckley’s family home in Rhinebeck

FDR (center foreground) is flanked by Queen Elizabeth and King George (left); his mother Sara and Eleanor Roosevelt are on the right. They are standing in from of St. James’ Church in Hyde Park

Photographs courtesy of FDR Presidential Library

(page 1 of 3)

The most famous hot dogs in history were served at a picnic, right here in the Hudson Valley, on June 11, 1939. What made them famous was not their culinary excellence. It was their diplomatic significance. These hot dogs helped save the Western world from the Nazis.

The world-renowned weiners were dished up at a party in Hyde Park hosted by Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt (aka the President and First Lady of the United States). Their guests included a well-known British family, the Windsors (aka King George VI and Queen Elizabeth). The royal couple had never before sampled frankfurters, and found them, at first, confounding. “How do you eat this?” the queen whispered to her host. Ignoring Roosevelt’s advice, she decided to use a knife and fork; her husband, however, consumed his the American way. By all accounts, they enjoyed the tubular treats.

The picnic and the events surrounding it were momentous in a number of ways. This was the first time a reigning British monarch had ever set foot on U.S. soil. It came at a time when Europe was on the brink of war. Given these facts, the timing of the al fresco gathering was no mere accident.

At that time, U.S. foreign policy was isolationist. Relations with our cousins across the pond were cold and distant at best. “There was still much anti-British sentiment and anger at dragging us into World War I,” says Dr. David B. Woolner, associate professor of history at Marist College and a senior fellow and resident historian at the Roosevelt Institute. But Britain needed our help. FDR wanted to provide that assistance, but first had to persuade the public that it was both a good idea and that the Brits were worthy. “With this new war, the debate over U.S. intervention was intense. It was a very critical time in relations between Britain and the U.S.,” Woolner says.

Political genius that he was, FDR invited the royal couple to a picnic at his place.

white house telegramA thank-you telegram from Roosevelt regarding the visit to Hyde Park. The president expresses the “extreme pleasure” he felt about the trip

“Simple country life at Hyde Park”

In 1938, Roosevelt learned that the king and queen were planning to visit Canada — the first monarchal visit there as well — to try to rebuild royal esteem in the wake of the abdication of Edward VIII. (See The King’s Speech, if you haven’t already.) He wrote to the king almost immediately. His letter, dated September 17, 1938 and delivered by Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, stated:

“I think it would be an excellent thing for Anglo-American relations if you could visit the United States... It occurs to me... that you both might like three or four days of very simple country life at Hyde Park — with no formal entertainments and an opportunity to get a bit of rest and relaxation.”

In the king’s reply, written on Balmoral Castle stationery and dated October 8, 1938, he accepted the invitation, adding: “I can assure you that the pleasure, which it would in any case give to us personally, would be greatly enhanced by the thought that it was contributing in any way to the cordiality of the relations between our two countries.”

Diplomacy is written between the lines. And FDR, a master of the art, planned not only to meet with the king and queen but to present them as “regular people” to the American public. What better way than with a little summer repast, al fresco, at Top Cottage?

“It’s fascinating because, when you look at the correspondence, FDR doesn’t want him to come to Washington,” Woolner says. “He’s more interested in them coming to Hyde Park. There is no suggestion of formality, no state dinner. He wanted the public to see the ‘essential democracy’ of the royals.”

The State Department, however, quashed that idea, and FDR acquiesced to a formal visit befitting a head of state. “But he put his own touch on things in a brilliant fashion,” Woolner says. The royals sailed to Mt. Vernon to visit George Washington’s home. They laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, significantly a World War I casualty, at Arlington National Cemetery. They stopped by a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, a work-relief camp for victims of the Depression, in Virginia. They attended a music program at the White House replete with folk music, Negro spirituals, and cowboy songs. And then they visited the World’s Fair in New York City. “It was all about portraying those essential qualities of U.S. democracy,” Woolner says, and letting the public catch a glimpse of the king and queen in the midst of it.

Hot dogs and beer

The capper, though, was the picnic. FDR planned every last detail, including the hot dogs — much to the horror of his proper mother, Sara — and inviting gardeners, cooks, and other staffers to dine with the king and queen. “You can still meet people today whose relatives were there at the picnic,” Woolner says.

Another attendee was Daisy Suckley. FDR’s distant cousin has since become known as his “Closest Companion,” as illustrated in Geoffrey C. Ward’s book of that title. At the time, their relationship seemed simply professional; she worked in his library and did some secretarial tasks for him. But after her death, letters were discovered that revealed they were extremely intimate emotionally; FDR unburdened himself to her as he could to almost no one else.

“They had a hook-and-eye relationship, they understood each other perfectly,” says Cynthia Owen Philip of Rhinecliff, the author of Wilderstein and the Suckleys (Black Dome Press, $17.95). Did they also have a physical relationship? “Who knows what they did,” says Philip, who was a friend of Suckley. “It would not be spoken about in those days. But he took a photograph of her on a tiger rug, which he kept in the Oval Office, and she took one of the few pictures ever taken of him in his wheelchair.”

“The public has a hard time understanding this, but both FDR and Eleanor had their own circle of friends,” Woolner adds. “They tended to relax with others, and had more of a policy relationship, much like the Clintons today. Daisy was part of his circle. People also don’t understand how they could be emotionally intimate but not physically intimate. She loved FDR, but so did a number of other women. He was incredibly charismatic. What’s most important about Daisy is that, through her diary and correspondence, we have almost the only picture of the private FDR. She was someone he could express his most intimate feelings to.”

Suckley was two tables away from the head table at the picnic. She didn’t think it was such a big deal. “I saw them bring a silver dish with two little hot dogs on it to the king and queen. But I was not near enough to see whether they ate them. It’s all so silly,” she said at the 50th anniversary of the event, when she was 98.

The New York Times didn’t think it was so silly. The next day’s front page read:

And He Drinks Beer With Them — Uses Own Camera to Snap Guests Photographing Him
HYDE PARK, N. Y., June 11. — King George VI ate his first hot dog, was chauffeured by the President of the United States, and turned his own hand motion-picture camera against his photographers at a typical Roosevelt picnic party today.

Historians have come to realize this event was a very big deal indeed. Three months after the picnic, England declared war on Germany. Roosevelt was able to convince Congress, and the American people, to take steps to aid the British while still maintaining American neutrality. “There has been greater recognition over the past 20 years about the importance of this visit,” Woolner says. “It was an enormous PR success for both governments. I think a genuine warmth emerged between FDR and the king, and it marks a significant turning point in Anglo-American relations.”

Thanks, in no small part, to hot dogs.

Next page: Bill Murray stars as Franklin Roosevelt in Hyde Park on the Hudson


Photographs from The Picnic That Won the War, the Royal Visit, the Hot Dog Summit of 1939, and Hyde Park on the Hudson Movie

Edit Module