Quiet passing of a president

January 5 is a day of remembrance for fans and admirers of Calvin Coolidge, for it was on this day in 1933 that the former president unexpectedly passed away; he was only 60 years old. Here is how William Allen White describes the events of that day in “A Puritan in Babylon”:

It was a fine day, an open winter day, January 5, 1933, in Northampton. Calvin Coolidge rose, went about his daily chores, neglected to shave before breakfast. Breakfast usually punctilious – was on the tick of the tock. And at nine o’clock he went downtown to his office. He stayed there for a time, perhaps an hour, doing odd jobs, attending to the routine of his office work and business duties, then he rose and said casually to his associate that he was not feeling very well and that he thought he would go home. Just that.

At home he sat down for a while, apparently reading. Mrs. Coolidge had gone into downtown for her morning’s shopping. Some casual errand attracted him to the basement. He went down, passed the man of all work there with a brusque “Good morning, Robert,” and climbed the two flights of stairs up to his bedroom. At noon he remembered he had not shaved and went upstairs, took off his coat, got out his shaving tools and then – no one knows exactly what happened. When Mrs. Coolidge came in she called cheerfully to him as was her wont, but when there was no answer she went to the second floor to put away her wraps and there, face downward on the floor she found his lifeless body. He who had lived aloof, died alone.

RIP, Calvin Coolidge 1872 – 1933

Best laid plans

Cover of Col. Starling's memoirs

In the memoirs of Col. Edmund W Starling, there is a most poignant episode that illustrates how very much Calvin Coolidge looked forward to his retirement from the presidency. The story, while difficult or impossible to corroborate, has an authentic ring to it, and it is true that Coolidge and Starling got along very well. Starling recounts how Coolidge phoned him late on the night before the Hoover inauguration on March 4, 1929 – Starling had been busy all day with the security arrangements. The two of them had talked previously about Starling leaving the Secret Service and coming to work for (and travel with), and Coolidge wanted to talk over their plans. “How about starting now? Let’s get a map up here and mark out our trip.” In a room that had already been stripped bare of everything but the bed, the two chairs, and a small, low table at the foot of the bed. The two co-conspirators began mapping out the route from Northampton – first, to the Brule River, for trout fishing, then on to the State Game Lodge in the Black Hills, where Coolidge had loved to vacation. Starling continued, “Glacier National Park ought to be next. We’ll go to Shelby, Montana, to get there. Then we can go to the salmon country in Washington and Oregon.” “I want to get some of those salmon,” Coolidge put in. “Then we’ll go down the Redwood Trail and up to Yosemite. They have rainbow trout there as big as your leg.”

The First Lady came in softly, looking over Starling’s shoulder for a look at the map. “That’s going to be a wonderful trip,” she said. “Promise you’ll bring me back something.” Starling recalls that her face had a soft, almost ethereal loveliness. “She’s glad to be getting out of here,” he thought. “And so is he.” According to Starling’s memoirs, it was 2:30 when he bid the president goodnight.

Having seen the Coolidges off on the train to Northampton following the inaugural, Starling began to serve Coolidge’s successor Herbert Hoover but didn’t warm to the man. Somehow the planned trip with Coolidge never came to pass, and one morning in January 1933 the clerk at the Willard Hotel where Starling roomed handed him a letter postmarked “Northampton, Massachusetts, January 2, 8:30 p.m., 1933.” It was from Calvin Coolidge. Starling noted that the writing seemed less firm than usual. The letter read:

Dear Colonel Starling:We have heard you were in Kentucky. I suppose it is your annual visit. No doubt you found it was very lovely. Nevertheless I venture to offer the greetings of the season and hope the change did you good. A card came from someone I suppose was the lame paper boy at the corner. Please thank him. I do not have his address. I find I am more and more worn out. I am sorry for anyone in office these days. Yours, Calvin Coolidge.

The next afternoon the papers carried the news of his death. As Starling recounts:

I left the following morning for Northampton. When I arrived at the Coolidge residence, The Beeches, I met Ted Clark, the little fellow’s [Starlings nickname for Coolidge] private secretary, and Frank Stearns. I told them I had come as a friend, not as advance man for the President. As we were talking Mrs. Coolidge called downstairs and said, “Don’t I hear Colonel Starling’s voice? Please tell him to come upstairs!” She met me with arms outstretched. Putting her head on my shoulder she wept. “Oh, why didn’t I write you to come and live with us?” she said. “I shall never forgive myself for not writing and letting you know how much he needed you. He wanted you so much, but he always said, “The President comes first. I am only a private citizen.” But if I had written to you and you had come this would not have happened.” (end quote)

 

Calvin Coolidge, July 4th, 1872 – January 5th, 1933

On this, the 78th anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s passing, I hope I am permitted to post here the beautiful text “In the Green Mountain Country” by Clarence Day, original copyright 1934, Yale University Press. It is (to me, at least) a very moving account of the last morning of president Coolidge’s life and the subsequent funeral. Make sure you read on after the cut…and make sure you take a moment to remember Calvin Coolidge, his life and accomplishments, today.

In the Green Mountain Country

By Clarence Day

He got up at seven as usual, and he and his wife had breakfast together.  At half past eight he went to his office in the town.  His old friend and partner was already there when he entered.  They were both early risers.  They spoke with each other for a moment and then he went to his desk.

He was not feeling quite well.  He said nothing about it.  He had no idea that this was his last day of life.

There were a number of letters and other matters for him to go over and settle.  He went to work methodically at them.  He disliked to leave things undone.  All his life he had attended to his duties, large or small, systematically.  He was a sound, seasoned New Englander of sixty, and he had accomplished a lot.

By ten o’clock he had finished.  He still wasn’t feeling any better.  He said to his secretary, “Mr. Ross, I guess we’ll go to the house.”

They motored back together through the streets and under the bare, spreading trees, till they came to the beeches and elms that surrounded his home.  He had lived in half of a two-family house most of his life, but it had no grounds around it, and when he was fifty-eight he had moved; “so the doggies can have a place to play,”  he had said.

His wife was out—she had gone down town on foot to do some shopping.  He and his secretary went to the library.  He toyed with a jigsaw puzzle a moment.  They spoke of the partridge hunting they had had in October, and of the hay fever that had bothered him in July—a “pollen attack” he called it.  He made little of it.  He had been lucky—he had had very few illness.

As they sat there talking he said he was thirsty.  The cook and maid were at hand and so was Mr. Ross, but he didn’t like to be waited on—he went to the kitchen and got a glass of water himself.  He heard the gardener in the cellar and he went down there to say something to him.  The gardener was the last man he spoke to.  When people asked him later what his employer had said he couldn’t remember.  He told them that it was something about the house or the grounds, and that it had not seemed important—to him.

Leaving the gardener this man went upstairs to his bedroom.  He took off his coat and waistcoat to shave, but sank to the floor.  He was dead.

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