There's nothing like an old scandal. From the prologue of Benjamin Welles's biography of his father, Sumner Welles: FDR's Global Strategist:
On a sweltering September afternoon in 1940, Sumner Welles, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Under Secretary of State and lifelong friend, boarded the presidential train at Washington's Union Station. Tall, imposing and immaculately dressed, Welles was then at the peak of a brilliant career. A veteran diplomat and linguist, he had conceived and carried out for FDR, among other responsibilities, the Good Neighbor policy—arguably the high-water mark of U.S.-Latin American relations since the founding of the republic.
Age forty-eight—ten years younger than FDR—he, too, had attended Groton and Harvard. The Welles and Roosevelt families had long been close, and, as a twelve-year-old, Welles had served as a page at Franklin's wedding to Eleanor. Later FDR had sponsored his entry into the diplomatic service, had followed his career closely and, after taking office in 1932, had named Welles Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America. Ever since, FDR had come to rely on Welles's quick mind, tireless energy and compendious knowledge of foreign affairs. In 1940 many thought Welles the likely successor to Cordell Hull, FDR's elderly and chronically ill Secretary of State.
Few, however—and least of all Welles—would have suspected that the next thirty-six hours would start unraveling his career and generate a scandal that Roosevelt would struggle to suppress for the next three years.
Weeks earlier, Roosevelt's choice of the liberal Henry Wallace as his running mate for a third-term bid had affronted Hull and other Southern conservatives. His choice of Wallace and his decision to run for a third term had left the Democrats in disarray. As a political gesture, FDR asked the cabinet members to attend the funeral of the recently deceased House Speaker William Bankhead at his birthplace, Jasper, Alabama. "It was a very hot, uncomfortable journey," remembered Attorney General Robert H. Jackson. "It would not have been undertaken by the President, at that time, if it hadn't been for the campaign situation."Larry Tye, in his Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, notes that unwanted propositions were an occupational hazard for Pullman porters. Sometimes I think American racism exists just to maintain the fetish charge among our ruling classes.
The President's train pulled out of Washington's Union Station on Monday, September 16, at 5 P.M., carrying FDR and his cabinet members or their deputies. Hull had pleaded illness so Welles, representing him, was assigned a sleeping compartment in the car between the President's at the rear and the dining car. On one side was Navy Under Secretary James V. Forrestal; on the other, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. Others aboard included Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Federal Works Administrator John M. Carmody and Wallace. The train reached Jasper early Tuesday afternoon in ninety-degree heat.
After changing into funeral attire, the President and cabinet members drove to the small First Methodist Church where 65,000 visitors, drawn by FDR's presence, gathered outside. Immediately after the service, the President and his party returned to the train which was soon clacking and swaying back to Washington. The next few hours would alter Welles's life.
Bone-weary, he began drinking in the dining car with colleagues. By 2 A.M. he was drunk. By then, all but Carmody and Wallace had gone to bed. Welles rambled on about his mission to Europe for FDR earlier that year and, according to Wallace, praised the Pope and Mussolini. By 4 A.M., as the train neared Roanoke, Virginia, Wallace and Carmody retired, leaving Welles alone. After lurching and staggering to his compartment, he rang for coffee and the sleepy Pullman staff roused itself to serve him.
The first porter to appear, John Stone, a respected black veteran of the Pullman service, was allegedly offered money for immoral acts. Refusing politely but firmly, Stone returned to the dining car and recounted the incident to his colleagues. Other porters subsequently answered Welles's calls and later reported "indirect" advances. The news soon reached the ears of W. F. Kush, the dining car manager; W. A. Brooks, a conductor; and D. J. Geohagen, a Pullman inspector. Luther Thomas, the Southern Railway's special assistant for security, alerted Dale Whiteside, chief of the President's Secret Service detail.
Whiteside ordered a porter to take Welles coffee and leave the compartment door open while he and Thomas waited in the corridor nearby. They were unable to hear the conversation, and, at this point, Welles suddenly emerged. Seeing Whiteside, he exclaimed: "What is Whiteside doing in this car?" He reentered his compartment, slammed the door and left the train without further incident on its arrival at the Union Station that afternoon. It was September 18, seven weeks before the 1940 election.
Thomas ordered the railway employees to say nothing, except to the proper authorities, and to put nothing in writing. Reports were to be solely oral. Possibly no one would believe that a senior government official in his right mind—least of all the patrician Under Secretary of State—would solicit Pullman porters on a train carrying the President, the cabinet, the Secret Service and railway officials. Welles, of course, had not been in his right mind. A railway flag man told the FBI later that the "tall, well-dressed, dignified man of about 45," whom he did not know, appeared "doped or highly intoxicated."
Fate, however, had caught up with Welles at the wrong time and wrong place. Within weeks the story would reach the ears of his fanatic rival, William Christian Bullitt, FDR's ambassador to France, who, over the next three years, would spare neither time, nor trouble, nor expense to destroy Welles—and ironically, himself in the process.
The Pure Product of America: And homophobia!
That too. Incidentally, the late Speaker Bankhead's daughter was the actress Tallulah Bankhead, about whom much can be said. We have remarkably timid celebrities nowadays.