By David Kurlander
Last Wednesday, 18-year-old pop music sensation Olivia Rodrigo appeared at a White House press briefing to encourage teens to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. “I’m in awe of the work President Biden and Dr. Fauci have done and was happy to help lend my support to this important initiative,” Rodrigo said at the briefing. Rodrigo’s appearance highlighted the relationship between cultural actors and politics, which Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman explored in depth in “Culture Wars,” their most recent episode of Now & Then. “[Culture] can really alter the way you think about yourself, your world, your nation,” Joanne said at the start of the episode. Eighty years ago, a group of actors, singers, and comedians partnered with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for just this type of cultural mission: to fight polio.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio as a 39-year-old in 1921. He was only a year removed from a failed vice-presidential run with Democratic presidential candidate James M. Cox, and he was paralyzed from the waist down. In 1924, during a long search for relief, he headed to the mineral-rich Warms Spring Spa in Georgia. Within days, he felt the impact of the resort and found that he was able to move his right leg for the first time since the onset of his disease. In 1926, Roosevelt bought Warm Springs outright for $200,000, about 2/3 of his entire personal wealth. Over the next two years, he turned the resort into a nonprofit foundation and therapeutic center, the first treatment facility devoted exclusively to combating polio.
Roosevelt oversaw the Warm Springs Foundation until his successful campaign for New York Governor in 1928. The timing of his departure from day-to-day management of Warm Springs was not ideal. As Roosevelt took office in Albany, his foundation felt the pains of the worsening Great Depression, with contributions plummeting from $369,000 in 1929 to $30,000 in 1932.
Amid the near collapse of his foundation, Roosevelt was elected the 33rd President of the United States in November 1932. Over the next year, as he introduced his New Deal programs to fight the Depression, Roosevelt also drafted a coterie of public relations operators to improve Warm Springs’ receipts. Keith Morgan, a powerful New York insurance salesman, led the effort. Morgan in turn brought on Carl Byoir, an advertising magnate, and Henry Doherty, who ran the massive public utilities company Cities Services.
FDR had long celebrated his birthday in elaborate ways. Around the time he contracted polio, he presented twenty close political allies with golden initialed cufflinks. The “Cuff Link Gang” reconvened for a themed party and a poker night on FDR’s birthday each year.
With FDR’s flamboyant birthday customs in mind, his PR men suggested that he throw a massive “Birthday Ball” to benefit Warm Springs. In late 1933—only a few months before Roosevelt’s January 30th, 1934 birthday—Roosevelt told them, “If my birthday will be of any help, take it.” Byoir went into high gear, traveling the country with famed one-eyed aviator Wiley Post, who had recently become the first solo pilot to circumnavigate the globe. The duo helped to set up 6,000 local Warm Springs fundraisers and auxiliary Roosevelt birthday parties.
For the main event, hosted at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, Broadway impresario George M. Cohan performed a new Roosevelt anthem for the 6,000 attendees: “What a lucky day for the U.S.A. / What a man—how he leads the way.” Many of the balls pumped in Roosevelt’s birthday message at 11:30PM: “It is with a humble and thankful heart that I accept this tribute through me to the stricken ones of our great national family…I bid you good night on what is to me the happiest birthday I’ve ever known.” The collective events raised more than $1 million for Warm Springs.
The Birthday Balls grew in the following years, increasingly looping in Hollywood fixtures to help generate donations. In 1936, movie stars Jean Harlow, Robert Taylor, and Ginger Rogers accompanied First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arm-in-arm to each of the Birthday Balls in Washington.
In 1937, Byoir, arguably the most pivotal Birthday Ball advisor, resigned amid Roosevelt’s attempts to pack the Supreme Court. That November, Roosevelt responded by widening out the charity beyond Warm Springs and directing funds to a new national nonprofit, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
Cultural leaders immediately responded. In January 1938, a week before the fifth Birthday Ball, Eddie Cantor, the former vaudeville star and slapstick film staple who was then one of the top-paid actors in the world, came up with a new idea: asking for dime contributions from across the country. He called the initiative “The March of Dimes,” a play on the popular Time Inc. newsreel political roundup “The March of Time.” Cantor wired the New York Times to explain his brainchild: “Nearly everyone can send in a dime, or several dimes. It is a small amount and the plan might seem insignificant. However, it only takes ten dimes to make a dollar and if a million people send only one dime each, the total will be $100,000.”
Over the next few days, Cantor’s appeal opened the floodgates. Ira T. Smith, the head of the White House mail room, said “The Government of the United States darned near stopped functioning because we couldn’t clear away enough dimes.” By the time that Roosevelt’s birthday rolled around on January 30th, 1938, the White House had received 2,680,000 dimes.
The 1938 galas in Washington also reached a new fever pitch, with both a coterie of celebrities and notable government figures taking expanded roles. After the Shoreham Hotel ball, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover even offered a guided tour of the Department of Justice. Roosevelt capped the night off with another radio address: “We can only estimate the actual count by counting the mail bags. In all the envelopes are dimes and quarters and even dollar bills, gifts from grown-ups and children—mostly from children—who want to help other children to get well.”
Cantor’s March of Dimes initiative expanded so fast in the following years that it soon became the official name for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. In 1941, the drive played a central role in developing an improved iron lung for children suffering from the disease. The organization also provided significant grants to Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the two figures most responsible for the polio vaccine.
Beyond the celebrity participation in the March of Dimes, culture would continue to play a role in the eradication of polio. In 1956, a young Elvis Presley received the Salk vaccine on the Ed Sullivan Show, sending vaccination rates skyrocketing.
We are again seeing the ways in which politicians attempt to draft cultural figures to fight national health battles. Only time will tell whether Rodrigo and her contemporaries have the same kind of impact as the cultural polio fighters of the Roosevelt age.
Much of the information in this piece comes from David M. Oshinky’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 book Polio: An American Story.
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