Who was Harry Hopkins?
By David Roll
He was a spectral figure in the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Slightly sinister. A ramshackle character, but boyishly attractive. Gaunt, pauper-thin. Full of nervous energy, fueled by caffeine and Lucky Strikes.
Hopkins was an experienced social worker, an in-your-face New Deal reformer. Yet he sought the company of the rich and well born. He was a gambler, a bettor on horses, cards, and the time of day. Between his second and third marriages he dated glamorous women — movie stars, actresses and fashionistas.
It was said that he had a mind like a razor, a tongue like a skinning knife. A New Yorker profile described him as a purveyor of wit and anecdote. He loved to tell the story of the time President Roosevelt wheeled himself into Winston Churchill’s bedroom unannounced. It was when the prime minister was staying at the White House. Churchill had just emerged from his afternoon bath, stark naked and gleaming pink. The president apologized and started to withdraw. “Think nothing of it,” Churchill said. “The Prime Minister has nothing to hide from the President of the United States.” Whether true or not, Hopkins dined out on this story for years.
On the evening of 10 May 1940 — a year and a half before the United States entered the Second World War — Roosevelt and Hopkins had just finished dinner. They were in the Oval Study on the second floor of the White House. As usual, they were gossiping and enjoying each other’s jokes and stories. Hopkins was forty-nine; the president was fifty-seven. They had known one another for a decade; Hopkins had run several of Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies that put millions of Americans to work on public works and infrastructure projects. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had consoled Harry following the death of his second wife, Barbara, in 1937. The first lady was the surrogate mother of Hopkins’s daughter, Diana, age seven. Hopkins had become part of the Roosevelt family. He was Roosevelt’s closest advisor and friend.
The president sensed that Harry was not feeling well. He knew that Hopkins had had more than half of his stomach removed due to cancer and was suffering from malnutrition and weakeness in his legs. Roosevelt insisted that his friend spend the night.
Hopkins was the man who came to dinner and never left. For most of the next three-and-one-half years Harry would live in the Lincoln suite a few doors down the hall from the Roosevelts and his daughter would live on the third floor near the Sky Parlor. Without any particular portfolio or title, Hopkins conducted business for the president from a card table and a telephone in his bedroom.
During those years, as the United States was drawn into the maelstrom of the Second World War, Harry Hopkins would devote his life to helping the president prepare for and win the war. He would shortly form a lifelong friendship with Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine. He would even earn a measure of respect and a degree of trust from Joseph Stalin, the brutal dictator of the Soviet Union. He would play a critical role, arguably the critical role, in establishing and preserving America’s alliance with Great Britain and the Soviet Union that won the war.
Harry Hopkins was the pectin and the glue. He understood that victory depended on holding together a three-party coalition: Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt. This would be his single-minded focus throughout the war years. Churchill was awed by Hopkins’s ability to focus; he often addressed him as “Lord Root of the Matter.”
Much of Hopkins’s success was due to social savvy, what psychologists call emotional intelligence or practical intelligence. He knew how to read people and situations, and how to use that natural talent to influence decisions and actions. He usually knew when to speak and when to remain silent. Whether it was at a wartime conference, alone with Roosevelt, or a private meeting with Stalin, when Hopkins chose to speak, his words were measured to achieve effect.
At a dinner in London with the leaders of the British press during the Blitz, when Britain stood alone, Hopkins’s words gave the press barons the sense that though America was not yet in the war, she was marching beside them. One of the journalists who was there wrote, “We were happy men all; our confidence and our courage had been stimulated by a contact which Shakespeare, in Henry the V, had a phrase, ‘a little touch of Harry in the night.’”
Hopkins’s touch was not little nor was it light. To Stalin, Hopkins spoke po dushe (according to the soul). Churchill saw Hopkins as a “crumbling lighthouse from which there shown beams that led great fleets to harbour.” To Roosevelt, he gave his life, “asking for nothing except to serve.” They were the “happy few.” And Hopkins had made himself one of them.
David Roll is the author of The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler. He is a partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP and founder of Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation, a public interest organization that provides pro bono legal services to social entrepreneurs around the world. He was awarded the Purpose Prize Fellowship by Civic Ventures in 2009.