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15 July 2006. The New York Times real estate Streetscapes column by Christopher Gray describes the history of 34 East 62nd Street.

14 July 2006

The building at 34 East 62nd Street housing the ROOM/Club was destroyed in a gas explosion on July 10, 2006, reportedly set off by the building owner to spite his divorced wife. The New York Times cited the article below in its report on the explosion and Joseph Persico used it in Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage:

Information on the building: http://eyeball-series.org/34e62/34e62-birdseye.htm


New York History
Quarterly Journal of New York State Hstorical Association
Volume LXII, Number 3, July 1981
Cooperstown, New York 1981

[Pages 307-322.]

The Roosevelt-Astor Espionage Ring

By JEFFERY M. DORWART

The little-known story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's spies, who were often effective and always high in the social register. Jeffery Dorwart teaches history at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, and is writing a book on Naval Intelligence between the world wars.

FROM THE BEGINNING, the names Roosevelt and Astor symbolized New York history. Both families traced their roots to colonial times, prospered through local real estate transactions, moved in exclusive society circles and maintained homesteads along the banks of the historic Hudson River. The Roosevelt farm at Hyde Park stood a short distance to the south of the Astor estate at Rhinebeck, and these Dutchess County gentry formed close associations and considered themselves part of the same intimate little group. During the early part of the twentieth century Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his neighbor William Vincent Astor promised to perpetuate these earlier ties and maintain family connections. But the warm friendship and special relationship between the two men in the decade before the second world war developed outside the natural course of affairs and in an unexpected and mysterious manner.1

1. Kenneth S. Davis, FDR, The Beckoning of Destiny. 1882-1928: A History (New York, 1972), pp. 33-34.

FDR's relationship with Vincent Astor developed slowly. Eight years Astor's senior, Roosevelt pursued a career in New York politics and then went to Washington in 1913 as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in Woodrow Wilson's administrations. The previous year, Astor's father, John Jacob Astor IV, died suddenly in the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic, forcing the young man to leave Harvard and manage his father's multimillion-dollar estate. Astor and Roosevelt met briefly during World War I to discuss organization of a Naval Reserve Force composed of yachts and powerboats, but then Astor went to sea on convoy duty while Franklin remained at his desk in Washington. Not until Roosevelt's crippling polio attack in 1921 did the two Hudson River aristocrats begin to visit each other regularly, especially since FDR sought relief for his paralyzed limbs in Astor's heated indoor swimming pool at Rhinebeck.2

2. Frank Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Apprenticeship (Boston, 1952), p. 296; Elhott Roosevelt, ed., F.D.R.: His Personal Letters. 1928-45 (3 vols.; New York, 1950), I: 33-34; Dictionary of American Biography, supplement 6 (New York, 1980), pp. 23-24.
[Poor quality image omitted]

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, center, with Vincent Astor, left, and James Roosevelt aboard Astor's yacht, the Nourmahal, at Jacksonville, Florida in 1934. Wide World Photos.

As Roosevelt convalesced quietly, leaving his political fortunes in the hands of hard-working private secretary Louis Howe and wife Eleanor, an active Vincent Astor moved to the forefront of New York's fast-paced society world. Wealth meant to Astor not only sleek yachts, powerful motor cars and his own airplane, but also vigorous participation in social reforms, scientific explorations and in groups advocating strong American air and maritime services. The latter interests brought Astor together with a select group of like-minded New Yorkers such as the Long Island Roosevelts -- Kermit and Theodore Jr., naturalist C. Suydam Cutting, world explorer and journalist Marshall Field III, philanthropists Duncan Stewart Ellsworth and Barklie Mckee Henry, mining expert Oliver Dwight Filley, Wall Street lawyer Henry G. Gray, airplane engine inventor Charles Lanier Lawrence, banker Robert Gordon McKay and stockbrokers Grafton Howland Pyne and Kenneth Schley.

The usual organizations such as the Knickerbocker and New York Yacht Clubs were not appropriate to these interests. Astor and his friends required a retreat where they could gather in private to discuss current political, financial and international topics. Thus in 1927 they formed a secret society called The ROOM, which met monthly in a nondescript apartment at 34 East 62nd Street in New York City, complete with unlisted telephone and mail drop. The ROOM's founders kept the existence of their little gathering from everyone except a few select friends. New membership was restricted to men who shared all the attributes and ideas of the original organizers, including banker Winthrop W. Aldrich, reformist Judge Frederic Kernochan, philanthropist William Rhinelander Stewart, Assistant Secretary of War for Air F. Trubee Davison, Andrew Mellon's son-in-law and sometime diplomat David K. E. Bruce, national tennis champion Reginald Fincke, Dr. Eugene Hillhouse Pool of Columbia University Medical School, publisher Nelson Doubleday, archaeologist Clarence L. Hay and Kermit's close English friend, Captain H. Nugent Head of the Fourth Hussars, a frequent visitor to his wealthy wife's New York family.3

3. Other ROOM members included businessman George Fisher Baker Jr., Canadian-born banker Beverley Bogert, Cutting's stepson James Cox Brady, Wall Street attorney Frederick I. Carver, stockbrokers George C. and Louis C. Clark, Kermit's nephew W. Sheffield Cowles, coal mine owner Charles E. Dunlap, philanthropist Barklie McKee Henry, stockbrokers Frederick Strong Moseley Jr. and Kenneth B. Schley and attorney George G. Zabriskie. The Room folder, Kermit Roosevelt Papers, box III, Library of Congress.

At their monthly meetings, ROOM members gathered for dinner and conversation. When members returned from their continual series of world travels, they reported observations to The ROOM. "It is hoped to learn from Suydam [Cutting] what he has been doing in China," Kermit noted before one session. Occasionally a special guest such as polar explorer Commander Richard E. Byrd would be invited to discuss his experiences. The visit to The ROOM of British author and veteran intelligence officer Somerset Maugham evoked the most enthusiasm, because many members had themselves worked for Allied intelligence during the first world war. Cutting, Filley, Hay and probably Aldrich, Astor and Doubleday had intelligence backgrounds, and Stewart served in the United States Office of Naval Intelligence during the late war. Indeed, the entire atmosphere surrounding The ROOM resembled that of an intelligence office, albeit in an informal and somewhat romanticized manner. Actually, only Astor continued to collect data for the United States government during his many ocean cruises on his private yacht, and The ROOM existed as little more than a self-satisfying study group to exchange information with other members. Yet in 1932 a catalyst appeared to unify and set into action this group of powerful men. Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for president.4

4. K. Roosevelt memorandum to ROOM members, July 19, 1929, box III, Kermit Roosevelt Papers; Kermit to Bunny Head, Nov. 12, 1935, box 53, Kermit Roosevelt Papers.

Though never attached formally to The ROOM, FDR knew every member well through Groton, Harvard and New York society, business and political connections. In addition, during the campaign and first years of his presidency, Roosevelt became an intimate comrade of four of The ROOM's most influential members -- Astor, Kermit Roosevelt, Stewart and Judge Kernochan. The bond was forged aboard Astor's magnificent motor yacht, the Nourmahal, where the four adventurers, often accompanied by sportsman George St. George and several other cronies, spent long hours drinking, gambling, fishing, "frumping" and pursuing amorous adventure. Astor, Kernochan and Stewart were with Roosevelt in Miami in February 1932 when an assassin narrowly missed killing the president-elect. After this incident, FDR and his three companions returned to the Nourmahal for rest, the first of many such escapes from the burdens of office during the early years of his presidency. "This is the only place I can get away from people, telephones and uniforms," Roosevelt wrote a friend in 1934.5

5. Vincent Astor to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Sept. 26, 1934, Astor to Roosevelt, April 30, 1935, President's Secretary's File 116 (Vincent Astor), Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, hereafter cited as PSF 116, Roosevelt Library; FOR to Judge Kernochan, March 9, 1933, President's Personal File 71 (Frederic Kernochan), Roosevelt Library; Raymond Moley, The First New Deal (New York, 1966), p. 66; FDR Personal Letters, I: 394.

The seafaring comrades grew very close. "Vincent is a dear and perfect host," Franklin assured his mother in February 1933. Kernochan, Astor and even the Republican Roosevelt, Kermit, were more effusive in their affection for the charming president. Moved by FDR's gift of a pair of engraved sleeve links, Astor expressed his love and gratitude to Franklin. "Someday, and some how, I am hoping that my chance may come to show how much I appreciate your thoughtfulness of me," Vincent wrote his favorite shipmate. As a token of his feelings, Astor sent Roosevelt a new Chris Crafts catalogue, urging him to select any yacht, which Astor would purchase for him. Kermit simply gave Franklin a copy of his very favorite spy story in the "Clubfoot Series." Kernochan was the most emotional, promising that he would do anything for Roosevelt. "Anything from the hardships of a trip on the Nourmahal to any information you may want and that I am in a position to give," the influential judge wrote FDR in March 1933.6

6. Roosevelt to Mrs. James Roosevelt, Feb. 6, 1933, FDR Personal Letters, I: 327-28; Astor to Roosevelt, 1934, PSF 116, Roosevelt Library; Kermit Roosevelt to FDR, Jan. 18, 1934, PPF 1224 (Kermit Roosevelt), Roosevelt Library; Kernochan to Roosevelt, March 1, 1933 and Dec. 24, 1933, PPF 71, Roosevelt Library.

Undoubtedly Kernochan realized that information was the one thing Roosevelt always wanted and needed, and one of his favorite methods for gathering data was employment of confidential agents who reported to him personally and privately. The world of secret agents, intelligence and espionage had long thrilled FDR. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the world war, he had dabbled in naval espionage, personally recommending and selecting his friends for duty as reserve intelligence officers in the Office of Naval Intelligence. As president, Roosevelt revived this interest in intelligence, believing that in the increasingly hostile environment of world economic depression and rising dictatorships he must have secret sources of information beyond that provided by official government agencies. Thus, he encouraged diplomats such as William Bullitt in Europe and Fred Morris Dearing in Latin America to bypass regular State Department channels and report confidential data directly to him, while urging Washington journalist John Franklin Carter to provide inside information about Roosevelt's own bureaucracy, a service which led to Carter's eventual employment as head of a secret White House intelligence unit. Astor, Kernochan and the rest of The ROOM membership fit this pattern, and Roosevelt determined to tap this source of confidential financial, mercantile and international news and information.7

7. For Roosevelt's early intelligence interest, see Jeffery M. Dorwart, The Office of Naval Intelligence: The Birth of America's First Intelligence Agency, 1865-1918 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1979), 104ff; for Carter, see PSF 122 (John Franklin Carter), Roosevelt Library; Orville A. Bullitt, ed., For the President, Personal and Secret; Correspondence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and William C. Bullitt (Boston, 1972); for Dearing, see Edgar B. Nixon, ed., Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs, 1933-1937 (3 vols.; Cambridge, 1969).

From the start, Astor served as the intermediary, forwarding intelligence directly to FDR at least as early as 1933. Most early data concerned general conditions in the Caribbean and Panama Canal Zone, but in 1936 Fred Dearing wrote Roosevelt from his post in Peru that Astor planned to cruise off the Pacific coast of Latin America. "I understand that Vincent Astor is going back to the Galapagos Islands again with a few visitors, but I expect he might pick up some scraps of information for you while he is there." Though anxious to have Astor check rumors that Japanese ships were surveying the Galapagos to locate a site for an advanced base, Roosevelt was more concerned to learn what the Japanese were doing on their far distant islands in the South Pacific held since World War I as League of Nations mandates. Conveniently, Astor and Kermit Roosevelt planned a scientific expedition to the Marshall Islands as a cover for other investigations.

Astor made elaborate preparations, including establishment of a recognition code word for the Nourmahal, tie in with the United States Navy radio network and a briefing by Director of Naval Intelligence Ralston S. Holmes. "Admiral Holmes (O.N.I.) told me he believed the Japs had a lot of Radio stations in the islands," Astor advised FDR. "I should think that it would be interesting to know their exact location," and "Nourmahal has a Radio Direction Finder."8

8. Astor to Roosevelt, Jan. 7, 1933, PPF 40 (Vincent Astor), Roosevelt Library; Dearing to FDR, March 10, 1936, in Nixon, ed., Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs, III: 242; Astor to Roosevelt, n.d., PSF 116, Roosevelt Library.
[Poor quality image omitted]

President Roosevelt aboard the Nourmahal in 1935. Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

In early 1938 Astor sent a lengthy report to the president reviewing his voyage with Kermit to the South Pacific. "On my return, I shall of course make a proper report to O.N.I.," he explained. "However in the remote possibility of trouble between now and then, you might consider the following conclusions of mine concerning the Marshall Islands worth forwarding to Naval Operations & O.N.I." In his message to the president, Astor admitted that when the Japanese refused to grant permission to land he had become a bit of a coward and had left the area. However, through intercepted radio messages and interviews with British intelligence people on the nearby Gilbert and Ellice Islands he had gathered some important data. Astor observed that Eniwetok, not Jaluit or Wotje, seemed to be the principal Japanese naval base, since large docks, fuel stores and ships had been observed there for several years. Bikini Atoll, Astor confided, abounded in suspicious activity and was off-limits to local natives. In addition, Roosevelt's man had learned that trucks and tractors worked to clear an air strip on Wotje, while six Japanese submarines lurked in a nearby lagoon. Astor performed one valuable service by correcting the common impression in Washington that Japan had fortified the Marshall Islands, insisting that the concrete platforms on one island comprised floors for warehouses not emplacements for guns. "I feel moderately certain that there are none [forts] in the Marshalls," he wrote FDR.9

9. Astor to Roosevelt, n.d., PSF 116, Roosevelt Library; Astor left for the South Seas cruise on Nourmahal in February 1938, New York Times. Feb. 20, 1938, part II: 8.

Although Astor apologized for the obvious limitations of his intelligence report on the Japanese mandates, he received encouragement to continue his espionage service. The outbreak of European war in September 1939 made such work more urgent, and Roosevelt worried that the fighting threatened to spill into the Western Hemisphere and endanger American interests. But an ardently isolationist public and Congress as well as a series of restrictive neutrality laws prevented any overt measures to protect the national security or to prepare for war. The president became desperate to discover ways to counteract foreign aggression, subversion and espionage without alienating the isolationists. Astor and his ROOM provided one possible method to get around this dilemma. Composed of world travellers, important bankers and the directors of some of New York's most important cable companies and international business houses, all intensely loyal and personally obligated to FDR, The ROOM seemed the ideal semi-official and highly confidential agency to carry out clandestine operations for the president.

Now code-named The CLUB, Astor's ROOM focused first on collecting information from New York's leading bank, the Chase National, directed by ROOM regular Winthrop Aldrich. "Tomorrow, I am starting to work on the banks, using the Chase as the Guinea Pig," Astor explained to Roosevelt. "Espionage and Sabotage need money, and that has to pass through the banks at one stage or another. What we need is to have them volunteer information, and not merely to allow themselves to be tapped, -- when asked." Of particular interest was the account of Amtorg Corporation, the thinly disguised cover for Soviet espionage in the United States, and Astor forwarded to FDR details of Amtorg's transactions. The Chase Bank connection led to one unexpected and exciting possibility as well. "The Japanese Ambassador called on Winthrop Aldrich, Chairman of the Board of the Chase National last Monday," Astor informed the president, and "stated that his government is still exceedingly interested in the Chase Bank organizing & sending to Japan a commission, under the bank's guidance, for the purpose of studying present economic conditions in Japan." Astor called this a heavensent opportunity to pack the mission with agents briefed carefully by the Office of Naval Intelligence. "It seems to me that such a commission might be of great value to us in obtaining valuable information, provided that certain individual members were wisely chosen and adequately educated in advance as to what to look for."10

10. Astor to Roosevelt, n.d., Astor to Roosevelt, Feb. 5, April 18 and 20, 1940, in PSF 116, Roosevelt Library.

Astor then exploited his position as director of the Western Union Cable Company by sending abbreviated excerpts from intercepted communications on to the president. "Some technically valuable information came from Japan, including the location of illuminating gas tanks," he noted, "but this would have been dull reading for you, and is now with O.N.I." Of more interest to Roosevelt were tidbits on pro-Nazi activities in Spain's embassies overseas, espionage efforts against the United States by foreign agents in Mexico City and graft among the Brazilian naval commission then visiting Washington to purchase weapons. Since federal statute forbade interception of international cables and tampering with the mails, Astor had to be careful. "In regard to the opening of diplomatic pouches in Bermuda and Trinidad," he confided to Roosevelt, "I have given my word never to tell anyone, -- with always you excepted."11

11. Astor to Roosevelt, n.d., [March 14, 1940?], PSF 116, Roosevelt Library.

Access to diplomatic pouches in the Caribbean pointed to Astor's increasingly intimate relations with British intelligence sources in New York City and in Bermuda, where he owned extensive property. Evasion of American neutrality by cooperating with the British in their war against the Nazis came easily to Astor and his organization. Every one of the old ROOM members held deep family, educational and emotional bonds to England and to English society and institutions. Ellis had studied at Eton, Morgan at Harrow and Milburn and Henry at Oxford, Reginald Fincke's daughter had married a British nobleman, while the Duke and Duchess of Windsor stayed at the Cuttings or Schleys when visiting the United States; and of course Vincent Astor represented the American branch of that famous English family. In World War I, Filley had flown with the Royal Flying Corps and Kermit Roosevelt had joined the British Army, and had reenlisted in 1939. More important, in numerous quiet ways The ROOM aided Britain's war effort. David Bruce directed American Red Cross relief in London, while Aldrich headed the British War Relief Society in America and funded a secret pilot-training program for British fliers in the United States.12

12. Knox to Roosevelt, May 27, 1940, PSF 82; see also PPF 7591, Roosevelt Library.

Astor's connection with British intelligence dated possibly from the first world war, but most certainly flowered during the late 1930s when he contacted British agents in the South Pacific and in the Bermuda Censorship Office, the latter probably providing the diplomatic mail interceptions which he forwarded to Roosevelt. In early 1940 Astor visited Sir James Paget and Walter Bell who directed the British Passport Control Office in Manhattan, the cover office for British intelligence operations in the United States. "Shortly after the club's' formation," Astor explained to Roosevelt, "it occurred to me that Paget and Bell might from time to time obtain leads useful to us." Apparently the British Passport Control Office fed Astor and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover information in early 1940, but the State Department found out and complained vigorously about this violation of United States neutrality. In response, the British government squeezed Paget and Bell, stopping the flow of information to Astor and Hoover. The FBI director complained to the State Department, while Astor urged FDR to intervene. "It is certainly a bit difficult to conduct an effective blitzkrieg of our own against malefactors when information becomes stymied in department files for six weeks." Facing a reelection battle in 1940 a cautious Roosevelt made no commitments and did not intercede on behalf of either Astor or Hoover.13

13. Astor to Roosevelt, April 18, and April 20, 1940, PSF 116, Roosevelt Library. Later Astor cooperated with Sir William Stephenson, Churchill's agent "Intrepid" when he assumed charge of British intelligence in America, see H. Montgomery Hyde, Room 3603: The Story of the British Intelligence Center in New York during World War II (New York, 1962), p. 99.

Roosevelt's lack of action was typical. For numerous political, diplomatic and constitutional reasons he wished to remain entirely behind the scenes. Astor's ring received no government funds, official directives or written instructions from Washington; it merely functioned as a voluntary and unofficial group. In the event that unneutral and illegal activities were revealed, it would be Astor and his friends, not the president, who would be responsible. Nevertheless, Roosevelt orchestrated his espionage ring's operations. Unquestionably, Astor received specific instructions orally since he dropped by the White House sevetal times and visited Hyde Park often. He also spoke to the president by telephone, but worried that the lines might be tapped. He had proceeded with one particularly sensitive mission without consulting the president, he explained to FDR, because "I didn't like to telephone you." In most cases, though, Astor discussed proposed projects with Roosevelt. When Hoover objected to placing an agent on board one ship, Astor told the president that he had warned the FBI director that "you wished it done, & to go ahead." Roosevelt's responsibility for communications intelligence was clearer still. "After your conversation over the wire on Monday afternoon," Astor advised the president, "we made arrangements to cover the radio spectrum in accordance with your wishes." A few months later, he informed Roosevelt that "in accordance with your instructions," he had prepared a summary of measures to guard war industry plants against sabotage and the Mexican border against infiltration by subversives.14

14. Astor to Roosevelt, n.d., Vincent Astor Memorandum, Oct. 20, 1939; Astor to Roosevelt, June 7, 1940, all in PSF 116, Roosevelt Library.

By June 1940, however, Astor required official recognition and presidential support in order to continue his operations. He begged Roosevelt to listen. "When you return to Washington, I do hope that I shall have a chance to come down and talk with you for a little while about the 'club,' which I am up to my neck in; and also about the suggested Chase Bank mission to Japan." Astor was especially concerned about the views of the Navy Department, since both the Office of Naval Intelligence and its very active Third Naval District intelligence office in New York resented his free-lance intelligence work. The Navy considered Astor a volunteer intelligence officer and expected him to follow regular channels. Finally in June, the department called him to Washington for an explanation of his mysterious activities. "Maybe I shall need you to protect me from a firing squad!" Astor wrote to his friend in the White House.15

15. Astor to Roosevelt, April 20, 1940; Astor to Roosevelt, June 25, 1940; Astor to Missy LeHand, May 14, 1940, all in PSF 116, Roosevelt Library.

At this critical juncture in world events, with France defeated and England in danger of invasion, Roosevelt required Astor's services more than ever. Consequently he gave his secret agent an official nod on June 26 in a memorandum to Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark. "I simply wanted to let you know that I have requested him to coordinate the Intelligence work in the New York Area, and, of course, want him given every assistance," Roosevelt instructed Stark. "Among other things, I would like to have great weight given his recommendation on the selection of candidates because of his wide knowledge of men and affairs in connection with general Intelligence work."16

16. Roosevelt Memorandum for Admiral Stark, June 26, 1940, PPF 40 and Roosevelt to Stark, June 26, 1940, Official File 18x (Naval Intelligence), Roosevelt Library.

Astor wanted an even more formal arrangement. In February 1941 he told Adolf A. Berle, State Department intelligence liaison and another of Roosevelt's confidants, that he desired to become a coordinator of intelligence. Several weeks later, Berle met again with Astor and the two discussed the current confused and amateur status of United States intelligence. After the meeting Berle noted that Astor "means well" and his "instincts are right, but somehow seem blunted. . . ." Then on March 8, Berle attended a conference with FDR, Astor and the new Director of Naval Intelligence, Captain Alan G. Kirk, at which the president appointed his old shipmate as the Area Controller for the New York Area. "I think he will be really useful, there," Berle admitted.17

17. Diary entries, Feb. 7,1941, roll 2, frames 1132-3; Feb. 25,1941, roll 2, frame 1179; March 8, 1941, roll 2, frame 1197; in the Adolf A. Berle diary, Roosevelt Library.
[Poor quality image omitted]

Roosevelt and Astor at flag-draped table, aboard the Nourmahal, 1935. Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

Captain Kirk sent a secret memorandum on March 28 to the commandant of the Third Naval District outlining the presidential directive regarding Astor's new title as intelligence controller for New York. According to Kirk, Astor would remain on inactive duty but receive a desk and clerical assistance in the District Intelligence Office at 50 Church Street, New York City. The intelligence director warned that no one should know about Astor's duties except the district commandant, his chief of staff and the district intelligence officer. Though operating from a naval office and receiving instructions from the Office of Naval Intelligence, Astor held powers to control all local intelligence functions undertaken by the Military Intelligence Division of the U.S. Army, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Justice and State Departments and liaison with other information-gathering agencies. There were limits, however. "The coordination exercised by the Area Controller will not be concerned with investigations of civil or criminal cases or of disciplinary action in the cases of military or naval personnel, unless such cases involve subversive (sabotage or espionage) activities in which there is a conflict of interest as between any of the four interested Departments."18

18. "Clarification Agreement between the State, War, Navy and Justice Departments and Commander Vincent Astor, U.S. Naval Reserve, Concerning the Presidential Directive Regarding the Area Controller for the New York Area," in Kirk to Commandant, Third Naval District, March 28, 1941, PPF 40, Roosevelt Library.

Instead of improving Astor's situation, though, Kirk's directive complicated matters. As an official, Astor confronted all the bureaucratic power struggles and internal intrigues accompanying organized intelligence business. No longer could he remain an aloof, independent operator, enjoying special relations with the president but unconstrained by any formal position in the government. Moreover, FDR became more cautious about seeing his old friend, fearing that isolationist forces might connect Astor with espionage service for the administration. Astor assured the president that his position remained secure, but at the same time realized the dangers that might accompany any revelation. This concern surfaced when he learned that another secret agent named Wallace Phillips, who boasted of access to a $100,000 navy department secret intelligence account, was roaming about New York City looking at FBI, MID and ONI files. Astor warned Roosevelt of possible repercussions. "Here is a situation which I do not feel justified in keeping from you, for if it went wrong I believe it could result in a real scandal and be just what the isolationists would like." When Franklin failed to show the proper concern, Astor asked if he could drive up to Hyde Park for a five-minute meeting with the president, who was resting at his Dutchess County estate. Not only was Phillips interfering in Astor's business, he had also told everyone that he was a special friend of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt. What was even worse for Astor, Phillips was "a social climber."19

19. Astor to Roosevelt, April 20, 1941, and similar complaints to DNI Kirk, 22 April 1941, PSF 116, Roosevelt Library.

By this time, Roosevelt seemed less interested in local intelligence squabbles than in finding a coordinator of overall strategic information for the United States government in the face of collapsing British resistance to the Nazis in North Africa and the Mediterranean. Overlooking Astor, FDR appointed his law school friend and world war hero, Colonel William I. Donovan, to coordinate a central office of strategic information, the forerunner of the World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS). "Wild Bill" Donovan was far more aggressive than Astor, and in a recent special intelligence trip for the president to England and the Middle East had displayed an unusual grasp of the larger strategic and intelligence questions. In any case, during the summer of 1941 Astor suffered from stomach problems which led to hospitalization in October, and he was in no condition to assume such responsibilities. Perhaps Astor took pride in the fact that Donovan, who had often played squash with Kermit Roosevelt and other ROOM members, hired David Bruce to head his London operation.20

20. See Corey Ford, Donovan of OSS (Boston: 1970), pp. 111-12; R. Harris Smith, OSS: The Secret History of America's First Central Intelligence Agency (Berkeley, CA, 1972), p. 164; Minnie Astor to Roosevelt, Oct. 30, 1941, PSF 116, Roosevelt Library.

By the time Astor recovered from his abdominal operation and returned to his office in late 1941, he had nearly lost touch with the rapidly changing intelligence situation in New York. Most confusing was the presence of White House investigator John Franklin Carter in the city to check up on Astor, though their meeting on December 5 was cordial. "We also agreed as to future lines of cooperation and I arranged immediately to establish contact between him and the man who really heads my work in his area," Carter reported to Roosevelt. But two days later the entire nation was shaken by the surprise Japanese air strike on Pearl Harbor. Almost at once Astor and Carter clashed over the delimitation of wartime intelligence responsibilities in the New York area. Equipped with $94,000 from the president's war emergency fund for special investigative work and holding sweeping but ill-defined powers to centralize counter-espionage, Carter attempted to discredit Astor and take over the New York operation. On December 11 he phoned the White House, complaining that Astor had become very distressed and suspicious about the entire problem of investigation. Characteristically, Roosevelt allowed his two loyal subordinates to thrash out their own differences.21

21. "Report on Talk with Vincent Astor, Dec. 5, 1941," PSF 122; GGT Memorandum for the president, Dec. 1 J, 1941, PSF 116; Harold D. Smith Memorandum, Oct. 16,1941 and Berle Memorandum July 29,1941, both in PPF 5325 (John Franklin Carter); Roosevelt Memorandum for Jack Carter, Dec. 29, 1941, PSF 122, Roosevelt Library.

After Pearl Harbor, Astor tried to maintain his intimate relationship with Franklin. Several times during late 1941 and early 1942 he visited Hyde Park or the White House to talk about the war with his friend, especially about steps to protect the Atlantic seaboard and shipping lanes against marauding German V-boats. Even before American entry into the fighting, though, the former intimacy had disappeared, bred partly by Astor's waning enthusiasm for the later New Deal politics but also because a harassed Roosevelt simply could not find the time to slip away for a cruise on the Nourmahal. Other shipmates were gone as well. Kernochan had died in 1937. Two years later, Kermit had enlisted in the British armed forces, and died in Alaska in 1943 while working for Army intelligence. The war scattered other ROOM members also, with Cutting, Field, McKay, and Bruce pursuing wartime intelligence duties with the Army's Military Intelligence Division or the OSS. For Astor the war meant anti-submarine and convoy routing duty in the headquarters of the Eastern Sea Frontier at 90 Church Street; his position as intelligence controller lost any relevance. In August 1944 he admitted that "an Area Controller in New York honestly isn't needed any more," and asked Roosevelt to release him from the job so that he could go to sea. "Within the next day or two, therefore, I shall once more become a bore and call you up with a view to getting a final clearance from the President," Astor wrote presidential secretary Grace Tully. "Even though I know he must be tired from his long trip, maybe he would give me a couple of minutes or if it were easier for him, you could send me a line or a wire. . . as evidence of the fact that the President is willing to let me now cease my Intelligence activities." Thus in this sad, almost apologetic letter, Astor severed the last lingering ties binding together the Roosevelt-Astor espionage ring.22

22. Memorandum for the president, March 26, 1942; Astor to Roosevelt, July 16, 1942; Astor to Grace Tully, Aug. 14, 1944, all in PSF 116, Roosevelt Library.


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Associated Press Captions.
[Image]

The palatial yacht "Nourmahal," owned by New York financier and real estate magnate Vincent Astor, is pictured upon its arrival at Miami Beach, Fla., January 22, 1930. Astor himself is expected to arrive later in the month for a cruise through southern waters. (AP Photo)

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Vincent Astor, heir to the fortune of New York real estate magnate John Jacob Astor, and his bride Mary "Minnie" Cushing relax aboard the ocean liner Santa Paula as it leaves New York for Bermuda, November 22, 1940. (AP Photo)

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Seated in the first row of the grandstands, Commander Vincent Astor attends the commisioning of Floyd Bennett Field as a U.S. Naval Air Station, in Brooklyn, New York, June 2, 1941. Astor is flanked by his wife Mary "Minnie" Cushing Astor, left, Mrs. Adolphus Andrews, wife of the commandant of the Third Naval District, second from right, and Mrs. Floyd Bennet, right, widow of the naval aviator for whom the field is named. (AP Photo)

[Image]

Philanthropist Brooke Astor stands before a portrait of her late husband, Vincent Astor, in her Park Avenue apartment in New York City, March 15, 1992. Astor celebrates her 90th birthday this month. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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Visiting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, center, sits with John Foster Dulles, left, secretary of state-designate; Bernard Baruch, second from right; and Winthrop W. Aldrich, ambassador-designate to the Court of St. James, in the Baruch home in New York on Jan. 6, 1953. Churchill is slated to confer with President-elect Dwight Eisenhower on Jan. 7, and will meet Pres. Harry Truman on Jan. 8 in Washinton. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)

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David K.E. Bruce, a retired Maryland businessman, is nominated by U.S. President Kennedy to be the new Ambassador to Great Britain, on February 21, 1965, in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo)

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U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt poses for a photograph with his wife Edith and his children, Ethel, Theodore Jr., Kermit, Archibald, and Quentin, at his Oyster Bay, Long Island home in 1907. (AP Photo)

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This is a 1950 photo of Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and a one-time high Central Intelligence Agency official. (AP Photo) [Son of Kermit at left.]