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Fala, the Presidential Dog
How a special little dog made America’s house his home

Arguably the most important dog in World War II never saw combat; in fact, he was one of the breeds deemed unfit for duty by virtue of his stubby legs and long coat. But he was also of a breed that had been considered suitable for a gentleman to keep in town since the mid-19th century, and in President Roosevelt he met the perfect human companion.

Roosevelt’s cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, brought a small six-month-old black puppy, a gift from Katharine Davies, to the White House on November 10, 1940, just after Roosevelt’s historic third victory. Suckley had already trained the Terrier, named Big Boy, to sit, roll over and jump in exchange for food, and those seem to have remained his only tricks. Charm he doubtless learned from the dog-loving Roosevelt, who had long desired a canine companion in the White House after his big dogs were deemed safer in Hyde Park than in Washington, where they might have threatened government employees and diplomats, as his distant cousin Teddy’s had a quarter of a century earlier. Roosevelt renamed the Scottie Murray the Outlaw of Falahill, after an ancestral Scottish rogue, and soon shortened that to Fala.

The dog became Roosevelt’s inseparable companion, according to Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book on Eleanor and Franklin during the war years, No Ordinary Time. He slept in a chair at the foot of the bed, camped out in the study, and traveled around the country and various parts of the world. Around the White House and even on the road, Fala often served as a herald for the president. Goodwin reported that while Roosevelt toured the Midwest and South in 1943, Suckley tended Fala on his walks from the president’s private train car, the Ferdinand Magellan, and crowds actually watched for the dog. His appearance alone seemed to give many people a sense of security, because it was a sign that Roosevelt was on the move, present and vital, watching over the country and them. Although most Americans were unaware of the extent of Roosevelt’s paralysis, he could not walk freely among them, so in a sense Fala, although on a scale much smaller but oddly more intimate than that of the indefatigable Eleanor, was a physical projection of Roosevelt into the world, another small element in the illusion of vigor.

The dog was spoiled from the start. Shortly after joining the White House, he was hospitalized for digestive problems, due, it was said, to a surfeit of rich snacks from the White House staff, not to mention the Roosevelts and their many guests. After Fala’s return, Goodwin said Roosevelt decreed that no one but he could feed the dog, to prevent a relapse and obesity, but the edict must have been largely honored in the breach, for other reports reveal that Eleanor fed Fala cake when he performed, and in the fall of 1942 a movie crew making a film of his life as the “first dog” seduced him with bacon, which made him sick. The crew was not banned as a result. Roosevelt did use “feeding time” and Fala in general as a way to choreograph his entry to meetings—imagine the reaction of dignitaries kept waiting for Fala.

On October 15, 1944, at the height of Roosevelt’s final presidential campaign, John Crider wrote in the New York Times that “what is difficult for some folks to understand is that Fala is no longer just a dog; he is a personage.” Fala, he explained, attended international conferences, wrote letters, greeted guests, and had an “official biographer in the person of Miss Margaret Suckley.” A visitor to the White House on at least one occasion saw the door open, heard the steward announce “the President of the United States,” and watched Fala enter the room, tail wagging. Fala was friendly toward everyone, Crider said, without adding that the trait is invaluable in a politician. Many of the thousands of letters Fala received involved requests for his services as a stud—politely couched, of course—for the writer’s dog. Although Fala’s attendants rejected all such requests, in late January 1945, Suckley did mate him successfully with her Scottish Terrier Buttons. But there was no postcoital bliss; the two fought so viciously afterward that both ended up in the veterinary hospital for sutures.

Often perched on the backseat of the president’s open car, by Roosevelt’s shoulder, Fala campaigned in cities around the county. He was aboard the Prince of Wales when Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941, bringing the United States closer to open war. At the first Quebec Conference, on August 17, 1943, Fala rode in an open car with a Secret Service agent, right behind the car carrying Roosevelt and Canada’s governor general and just ahead of the one with Churchill and Canada’s prime minister, W.L. Mackenzie-King. The following summer, Roosevelt and Fala traveled by train and ship to Honolulu and on their return, stopped at the Aleutians, secured just the year before. Fala then attended, less visibly, the second Quebec Conference, where Roosevelt and Churchill discussed the future of Germany, whose defeat was clearly in sight.

That secret stop at Adak Island in the Aleutians set in train a series of events that led to Fala’s finest moment, a speech that opened and arguably ended the 1944 presidential election. In a speech to the Teamster’s Union in Washington, D.C., Roosevelt cut loose with this salvo: “These Republicans have not been content with attacks on me, my wife or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.” The comments on Fala had brought down the house and everyone listening on the radio. Although some pundits attempted to keep the election close, it was clear that Roosevelt and Fala had turned the tide, exposing the pettiness of the Republican campaign, making a mockery of Dewey and his minions.

In the wake of what became known as the Fala Speech, the Scottie became an icon as well as a “personage.” At a White House Conference on Rural Education that drew 200 educators to the East Room on October 5, Austin R. Meadows of Alabama abruptly laid aside his text in mid-speech and said, “The folks back home really only wanted me to say hello to Fala.” After 15 minutes, Fala appeared, accompanied by a steward who gave Eleanor a plate with pieces of sponge cake while the educators scattered chairs, clapped, laughed and squealed with delight. “A group of dignified school officials had suddenly become a bunch of care-free high school kids,” the New York Times reported. Fala ignored Eleanor until he got a snort of the cake, and then came running. He rolled over and stood up on his legs to beg, but the floor proved too slick for him to jump successfully.

Roosevelt received 53.5 percent of the popular vote, for 432 electoral votes, a smashing victory that Fala, apparently upset by the election night crowd at Hyde Park, did not greet with his usual aplomb. Roosevelt did not live to experience the greater victory in war. He died on April 12, a month before Germany’s surrender and four months before the atomic bombs forced Japan’s capitulation and ushered in a new age. Fala went briefly to live with Suckley, as Roosevelt had requested before his death, but she soon returned him to Eleanor, who enjoyed his company and ultimately took in one of his grandsons to be his companion in old age. The two lived at Val-Kill, the cottage on the Hyde Park estate she had donated to the government, and Fala appeared periodically in the news. He was present when dignitaries like the victorious Eisenhower and the imperious Charles de Gaulle visited Hyde Park to lay wreaths on Roosevelt’s grave.

In July 1946, Eleanor, the great champion of equal rights and integration, traveling with her dog in the grand American tradition, found herself at a Portland, Maine, hotel that refused to let her keep Fala in her room. She promptly canceled the reservation and spent the night in a “tourist cabin.” That bit of Fala and Eleanor lore capped the front-page New York Times obituary announcing the death on April 5, 1952, of “the rakish little black Scotty who sat in on the making of history …” Euthanized just shy of his twelfth birthday, and of the seventh anniversary of Roosevelt’s death, Fala was buried in an unmarked grave in the Hyde Park rose garden at the feet of his “master and constant companion for five years.”

The language underscored Fala’s particular and general significance. Despite people and establishments who refused to welcome dogs, they had made the transition, like America itself, from the country and the yard to the city and the home. They had become not just dogs but personages, and their masters and mistresses were “companions.” Fala was an exceptional dog, of course, and the dog wars are not over to this day. People continue to abuse and abandon their animals and to breed dogs to satisfy their own vanity or to make profit. But a shift in perception, long underway, had become fixed in the collective psyche, as surely as America had changed from a predominately rural society through the Depression to an urban and suburbanizing society after World War II.

 

Extracted and adapted from A Dog’s History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent by Mark Derr; published by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. © 2004 by Mark Derr. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 28: Fall 2004
Mark Derr is the author of A Dog's History of America, Dog's Best Friend, The Frontiersman: The Real Life and Many Legends of Davy Crockett, Some Kind of Paradise, and numerous articles on science, environment and transportation

Photographs courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library

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