Calvin Coolidge, by reputation the quietest of presidents, quietly passed away on January 5, 1933 – 80 years ago this Saturday. In last year’s post on this date, I quoted one of his biographers on the events of that morning. The following quote is how Mrs. Coolidge’s biographer tells it:
Mrs. Coolidge returned from her morning’s shopping shortly after noon on January 5, 1933. The Beeches [the Coolidge's house in Northampton] was coated in ice. The trees were gaunt with winter hoar. She went upstairs to summon her husband for lunch and found that he was dead. He lay on his back in his shirt sleeves in his dressing-room and his face had a peaceful expression. She knelt beside him and saw at once that he was gone. She ran down to the landing and called to Harry Ross, Mr. Coolidge’s secretary: “My husband is dead.” [...]
Calvin Coolidge had drawn many headlines in his lifetime, but none more dramatic or unexpected than the eight-column streamers that told the world he had succumbed to a coronary thrombosis. He was sixty years old when he died – with as little fuss as he had lived. Mrs. Coolidge thought the end had come as he walked to his combined dressing-room and bathroom to shave before luncheon. He had complained for several days of indigestion but this was more or less a chronic condition with him and she did not attach any special importance to it.
He had risen as usual at seven that day. They had breakfasted together and at half past eight he had gone to his office. John Bukosky [Coolidge's driver] could not remember anything unusual afterward about his demeanor. He had merely commented on the state of the road as they drove along. He finished his letters soon after ten o’clock and told Harry Ross that he wished to go home. His secretary was under the impression then that he was not feeling well. Grace was leaving to do her shopping when he returned. He asked her if she did not wish the car. “No,” she said. “It’s such a nice day I’d rather walk than ride.” These were the last words they exchanged. He lingered in the library for a time, fitting a few pieces into the George Washington jigsaw puzzle that lay on a table. He spoke about Plymouth to Ross, mentioning the hay fever that had bothered him there in July and the partridge shooting that he had enjoyed later in the year. He went to the kitchen for a glass of water and he called downstairs to Bukosky, who was in the cellar. Then he went to his room while Harry Ross continued his work in the library, unaware of what was happening upstairs.
(from “Grace Coolidge and her era”, Ishbel Ross, 1962)
The end could not have come as a complete surprise to those around him. All through the preceding year, Coolidge had repeatedly complained of asthma, indigestion, and bronchitis. He was continually bothered by his throat and his bad breathing, and he tired rapidly. He also felt considerable anguish over the state of the nation, and felt the pressure to help his party during the 1932 campaign. The accounts of people he spoke with during the final weeks of his life all emphasize how worn out and burned out the former president felt. In my own view, it must have been extremely distressing to him to see the cornerstone achievements of his Presidency -rising prosperity, and the reduction of the debt- be shattered and reversed by the events of 1929 and beyond.
On a very personal note, his friend and associate Bruce Barton said in a commemorative radio broadcast on the night of Coolidge’s death: “There was a very lovable side to Calvin Coolidge. He was unique. God broke the pattern when he was formed. There never has been any one like him in the White House. There never can be.”