Newly Discovered Footage Offers Rare Glimpse of FDR Walking

Stricken with polio at the age of 39, Roosevelt did not like to be photographed as he struggled to walk

1935 White House Easter Egg Roll

After Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted polio and became a paraplegic at age 39, the future president of the United States devised his own method of “walking" with dogged persistence and grueling hard work. Relying on leg braces, a cane and the arm of his son or bodyguard, Roosevelt could swing his legs forward and move short distances without the help of his wheelchair.

But FDR worried about appearing vulnerable in the eyes of the American public. As 32nd president, he asked the press to refrain from photographing him as he walked or was transferred from his car. More persuasively, the Secret Service was deployed to stop people from taking pictures of Roosevelt as he struggled to move about. TIME reports that a 1946 White House photography corps survey confirmed that if the Secret Service caught a photog taking banned photographs they “had their cameras emptied, their films exposed to sunlight, or their plates smashed.”

So, as Michael E. Ruane reports for the Washington Post, researchers at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum were justifiably surprised to discover never-before-seen footage that captures Roosevelt walking during the 1935 White House Easter Egg Roll.

The silent 16mm film was taken by a Nevada rancher named Frederick Hill, who attended the Egg Roll with his wife, Marjorie and their two children. The Hills were among 51,391 guests who traipsed across the White House lawn that year, and Geoffrey C. Ward, a Roosevelt historian and trustee of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, writes that Secret Service agents likely did not notice Hill filming as FDR walked across the South Portico to address the crowd; if they had, they would have removed the film from Hill’s camera.

Hill’s footage shows Roosevelt walking slowly, gripping the arm of his personal bodyguard, Gus Gennerich, in one hand and leaning on his cane with the other. Behind him is his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, and her two nieces, 8-year-old Diane and 6-year-old Amy Roosevelt. When he reaches an iron railing overlooking the audience, the president holds onto the railing for support. He smiles, waves at the crowd and chats to Eleanor. Then Gennerich appears from behind a pillar to support Roosevelt as he walks, with his swinging gait, back inside the White House.

The clip of Roosevelt’s appearance is only around 30 seconds long, but Ward writes on the FDR Library’s website that the footage provides “the most vivid glimpse we’ve yet had of his gallant attempt to persuade the public that he was … vigorous enough to withstand the awful pressures of the presidency.” Researchers had previously known about other images of the former president walking, but these images were limited to “a handful of mostly private snapshots and a few feet of blurry amateur film,” according to Ward.

Hill’s grandson, Richard Hill, donated the footage to the library last December. “When I saw [it] … I gasped,” Paul Sparrow, the library’s director, tells Ruane of the Post. “I had never seen this footage before, and we had a sense that no one had ever seen this footage before.”

The clip sheds new light into the careful execution of FDR’s public appearances. The president arrives on the arm of Gennerich, who then steps back and ducks behind a pillar so he can’t be seen. Gennerich emerges once again when the Roosevelt is ready to leave.

And though walking was far from easy, Roosevelt appears in good spirits as he grins and waves at the crowd. FDR had “this amazing ability to look as if absolutely nothing was wrong,” Ward tells Ruane. “When you look at him, he looks like the most carefree man in the world.”

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