(b. 23 December 1907 in New York City; d. 13 August 1991 in Newport Beach, California), six-term Democratic congressman from the Twenty-sixth Congressional District of California, serving in the Eighty-fourth through Eighty-ninth Congresses (1955-1965).
Roosevelt was the second of the six children of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and (Anna) Eleanor Roosevelt. His father was the thirty-second president of the United States, serving from 1933 to 1945. His mother was a niece of Theodore Roosevelt and a distant cousin of her husband. She became a well known political activist and humanitarian.
Roosevelt was born in the first house his parents had all to themselves. He attended schools in New York and St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. He graduated from the Groton School in Massachusetts in 1926 and Harvard University in 1930, and then attended the Boston University Law School.
While still a junior at Harvard, Roosevelt managed his father’s presidential campaign in Massachusetts in 1932, when he reportedly made 200 speeches. Because of his distribution of federal patronage in the state following his father’s election to the presidency, Time magazine dubbed him the “czar of Massachusetts patronage.”
In 1930 Roosevelt began his business career as an insurance broker in Boston, where he organized Roosevelt & Sargent in 1935, earning as much as $250,000 per year during his early years in the business. He served as president of the company until January 1937. In 1936 Roosevelt set aside his business interests long enough to campaign for his father’s reelection to the presidency. He then joined the White House staff as a $6,000-per-year executive assistant, a move presaging his own political ambitions. In 1937 he was promoted to the position of secretary to his father, where he served in 1937 and 1938 as liaison between the president and heads of various federal agencies.
He worked in the motion picture business from November 1938 until November 1940 and was made a vice president of Samuel Goldwyn Inc. He produced the 1940 and 1941 films Pastor Hall and Poto’ Gold. (James Stewart, the star of Poto’ Gold, called it his worst movie.)
In November 1940 Roosevelt enlisted for active service as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps. He commanded a battalion in the Gilbert Islands in August 1942 and was awarded the Navy Cross for saving three men from drowning in heavy surf. He also fought at Guadalcanal and in 1943 was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry during a raid on Makin Atoll (Butaritari) in the Pacific. He served in the Solomon and Gilbert Islands and at Kiska in the Aleutian Islands. Roosevelt was promoted to colonel on 13 April 1944, was released from active duty in August 1945, and was promoted to brigadier general in the Marine Corps Reserve.
Following the war Roosevelt rejoined Roosevelt & Sargent as an executive vice president and opened an office in Los Angeles. In June 1946 he served as chairman of the board of Roosevelt & Haines, Inc., an insurance brokerage. He was also on the board of trustees of the American Center in Denver.
Continuing his interest in politics, in 1946 Roosevelt became chairman of the California Democratic Party, which then criticized him for political involvements that raised questions about his party loyalty. He lost his Democratic Party chairmanship for attempting to persuade General Dwight D. Eisenhower to oppose President Harry S. Truman for the 1948 Democratic presidential nomination. In Truman’s hotel room during a campaign stop in Los Angeles, the president reportedly told Roosevelt, “If your father knew what you are doing to me he would turn over in his grave.”
Roosevelt was selected as a delegate to the Democratic national conventions in 1948 and 1952. In 1950 he was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the governorship of California, challenging the incumbent governor Earl Warren. Four years after his defeat for the governorship of California he was elected to Congress, where he represented California’s Twenty-sixth District for the next eleven years.
While in Congress, in 1965 Roosevelt was defeated by Samuel Yorty in a nonpartisan primary for the office of mayor of Los Angeles. In August 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Roosevelt to be the United States representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNESCO). He resigned from Congress on 30 September 1965 to accept the position. In 1966 he was criticized for having become a board member of a mutual fund sponsored by the International Overseas Services Management Company, on the ground that this compromised his position with the United Nations. He resigned his United Nations post in December 1966 and became president of the International Overseas Services Management Company. This Switzerland-based company collapsed when several of its members were accused of fraud. The Securities and Exchange Commission dismissed a lawsuit against Roosevelt after he signed a 1973 court order pledging not to violate any securities laws. He admitted to no wrongdoing in the affair.
The independent Roosevelt lost additional support and credibility within his party in 1972 when he played a prominent role in the Democrats for Nixon movement. The same year he moved to Orange County and became a lecturer at the University of California, Irvine, and at Chapman College. He also worked as a business consultant and served on the Orange County Transportation Commission, where he was chairman in 1986. In 1984 he endorsed the California Republican governor Ronald Reagan for president.
In 1983 Roosevelt launched the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a well-funded nonprofit lobbying organization that sought to safeguard the social security benefits put in place by his father half a century earlier. The organization called itself an advocacy group for the elderly. In March 1987 Roosevelt traveled to Washington to defend his organization against charges that it used scare tactics to solicit millions of dollars by mail from the elderly and for sending mailings to elderly people that looked as though they were federal government correspondence.
Roosevelt published three books: Affectionately, F.D.R.: A Son’s Story of a Lonely Man (1959), coauthored with Sydney Shalett; My Parents: A Differing View (1976), coauthored with Bill Libby; and A Family Matter (1980), coauthored with Sam Toperoff. He was married four times. His first marriage to Betsey Cushing (daughter of the neurologist Harvey Cushing) on 4 June 1930 ended in divorce in March 1940. They had two children. His marriage to Romelle Theresa Schneider on 14 April 1941 ended in divorce in June 1955. They had three children. On 1 July 1956 he married Gladys Irene Owens, with whom he had one child. They were divorced in September 1969, and the following month, on 3 October 1969, he married Mary Lena Winskill, with whom he had one child.
The last surviving child of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, James Roosevelt died on 13 August 1991 at eighty-three years of age at his home in Corona del Mar, California, from complications resulting from a stroke and Parkinson’s disease. He is buried at the Pacific View Memorial Park in nearby Newport Beach. He was survived by his fourth wife.
Roosevelt had been honored in 1981 with the Humanitarian of the Year award by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and with the National Americanism Award of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
There are scores of articles and brief sketches of the life of Roosevelt in anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. A few of the representative items are in Who’s Who in America, 45th edition (1988-1989); The New York Times Biographical Service (Aug. 1991); Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1996 (1997); Time (8 July 1946); “Democrats in the Smoke-filled Room,” New Republic (12 July 1948); Crocker Coulson, “Geezer Sleaze,” New Republic (20 Apr. 1987). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times (both 14 Aug. 1991).
Norman E. Tutorow