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.