Saturday, June 30, 2012

Splendid deceptions: William Shatner and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On March 1st, 1945 something quite extraordinary happened. But you wouldn't have known it from watching the contemporary newsreels, including the one above. US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, looking frail and gaunt and with just over a month left before he would pass away, had just returned from what would be his final overseas trip.

At the start of FDR's Address to the US Congress on the Yalta Conference (WWII was coming to an end and the Allies were attempting to chart a way forward), FDR said something so unexpected that one could almost forgive the newsreels for not mentioning it as it would have invariably overshadowed the story they wished to report on. So what happened? This extract from a PBS documentary about America's 32nd president shows the start of the Address:

"I hope that you will pardon me for this unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say, but I know that you will realize that it makes it a lot easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs; and also because of the fact that I have just completed a fourteen-thousand-mile trip."

As the documentary notes, FDR had never openly and publicly spoken of his disability before (even privately, he rarely spoke of it), and especially not in such a major public setting as a Presidential Address to Congress. Rather, Roosevelt's entire professional life after being crippled by (what was likely but not certainly) polio in 1921 at the age of thirty-nine, was based upon a complex and extraordinary campaign of splendid deception. And that, FDR's Splendid Deception (required reading at the WSSTS), is the name of a fascinating book on this very subject by author Hugh Gregory Gallagher, which details the determined efforts made by Roosevelt to appear to be able to walk normally in public.

For those of us interested in Bill Shatner's toupological deceptions, FDR's story provides several profound, moving and even inspiring insights. Of course - and we stress this as strongly as we possibly can - Bill Shatner's baldness and FDR's paraplegia cannot be compared in terms of their seriousness and any attempt to do so would be utterly callous and deeply insensitive to the disabled. But what we can compare is the decision by these two men to conceal, with considerable effort, their inadequacies as measured against the human norm. They both believed firmly that such deceptions were necessary in order to prevent them from being marginalized or even shunned by society.

Necessary (and risky) illusions - FDR and William Shatner.

Here is an extract from a History Channel documentary on FDR, which details some of his splendid deceptions:

The young Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to be president as much as the young William Shatner wanted to be an actor. Growing up in an aristocratic New England household and sharing the surname of the much beloved former president Teddy Roosevelt, he sought to emulate the iconic path chosen by his famous distant cousin: New York legislature, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, vice-President and then President.

A young and able-bodied Franklin Roosevelt, before illness struck.

But part way through this journey, while vacationing at Campobello Island in Canada, just off the coast of Maine, FDR got sick after a physically exerting vacation day of swimming and hiking (and even putting out a fire) with his children. He went upstairs to bed, his body seized up, and FDR never walked again. Seemingly, his whole career and life in any meaningful sense was over.

But that's not what happened. Privilege and the Roosevelt name counted for much (at this time, "cripples" or "invalids" were often viewed as less than human and sent to sanatoriums), but tenacity and savvy would play a far greater role. At first, FDR dedicated a number of years to the futile hope of walking again. He spent much time at a spa called Warm Springs in Georgia, and eventually even turned the place into a fully-fledged resort for treating polio victims (polio was at the time more commonly known as the far more derogatory-sounding "infantile paralysis").

FDR helps other "polios" at Warm Springs.

It is through this struggle and burgeoning compassion for others, even wife Eleanor later conceded, that led FDR to gain the real mettle and character required to be president.

In the ensuing years, an entirely untrue myth was born, carefully nurtured by FDR, his wife and his political assistant Louis Howe: FDR had been terribly afflicted by polio, but he was "recovering", "improving"; the effects of the disease were being reversed - he was getting better and would certainly walk again.

FDR in 1924 "getting better".

In 1924, FDR appeared at his first major comeback event, the Democratic presidential convention to make a speech nominating candidate Al Smith. In Splendid Deception, author Gallagher notes:

From the very first, Roosevelt was determined not to be seen in a wheelchair unless absolutely necessary, and not be lifted up stairs in full view of the public [...] He and [son] James arrived early each day in order to get to their seats before the arrival of the other delegates [...] At the door, Roosevelt's braces would be locked, and he would be pulled up to a standing position. With James on one arm and a crutch on another, he would slowly make his way down the aisle.

It was risky. One slip, trip and subsequent fall and FDR's comeback would come to a crushing and humiliating end. But he pulled it off...

Four years later, he visited the Democratic convention again (Smith didn't win the nomination in '24; he did in '28 but lost the general election), but by this time he had mastered - after considerable training - the illusion of appearing to walk without the need for crutches.

The illusion of a careless stroll was in fact a well-rehearsed and extraordinarily demanding affair.

He would hold onto the the arm of his son with one hand and hold a simple cane in the other. Once again, heavy metal braces were locked in place on his legs. The son would be advised to smile and look relaxed at all times, and FDR presented the same facade of relaxed abandon. As far as the assembled crowds were concerned, FDR was back!

FDR in 1928. He would soon become governor of New York and, four years later, President of the United States.

Splendid Deception again:

In this posture he could "walk" although in a curious toddling manner, hitching up first one leg with the aid of muscles along the side of his trunk, then placing his weight upon that leg, then using the muscles along his other side, and hitching the other leg forward - first one side and then the other, and so on and so on. He was able to do this because his arms served him in precisely the same way as crutches. His right arm transmitted the weight of his body through the index finger along the full length of the cane to the floor. His left arm, leaning on his son's arm, similarly took the weight off his body.

In the crowded commotion of events such as the Democratic convention, and with FDR partially surrounded by an entourage, all but the closest-standing people would have any idea that something was not quite as it appeared to be.

Note the onlookers to the right. So close, yet do even they know what is going on to the left?

Here are two clips from the PBS documentary showing this extraordinary feat - the second section showing the walk at FDR's famous inauguration in early 1933, the single greatest test of the illusion that he would ever face:

In 1932, as the Great Depression swept across America, a crippled man was elected to repair a crippled nation. A man whose regimen of endless experimentation (mostly involving swimming exercises at Warm Springs) to at first beat and then at least overcome the effects of a debilitating tragedy then took the very same approach of action, action and more action in his efforts to fight the Depression. This analogy could not be more striking.

FDR "stands" as he takes the presidential oath before promising "action, and action now". He also famously notes that "...The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Note the use of the word "paralyzing".

As president, FDR benefited in the illusion of mobility with help from the Secret Service (much as Bill Shatner would benefit from being a professional actor surrounded by hair and makeup people). Splendid Deception again:

FDR speaking at a podium carefully and firmly bolted to the ground.

When Roosevelt left the White House, his excursions were very carefully planned by the Secret Service. The White House imposed certain rules, which were always obeyed. For example, the president was never lifted in public. If it was necessary to lift him out of the car, this was done in the privacy of a garage or behind a temporary plywood screen constructed for the purpose. He was never seen in public seated in a wheelchair. Either he appeared standing, leaning on the arm of an aide, or he was seated in an ordinary chair [or in a car]. He required that the chair be solid enough to support his full weight as he pushed himself up to a standing position. Speakers' podiums had to be solid and bolted to the floor. Once, in the 1932 campaign, this was not done, and the podium and the candidate crashed to the floor. Although reporters were present, the incident was not mentioned in the press nor were pictures taken of his fall, although it was seen by photographers.

"No movies of me getting out of the machine, boys," are FDR's once-spoken gentle-sounding words to reporters in 1928. From then on, remarkably, the press observed this "unspoken code followed by the White House photography corps," as Gallagher writes, adding:

If, as happened once or twice, one of its members tried to sneak a picture of the President in his [wheel]chair, one or another of the older photographers would "accidentally" knock the camera to the ground or otherwise block the picture. Should the President himself notice someone in the crowd violating the interdiction, he would point the offender out and the Secret Service would move in, seize the camera, and expose the film.

And, as Gallagher also writes, if FDR did fall in public, the Secret Service were trained to instantly encircle him. To all but the closest onlookers, it would merely appear that the President had been momentarily surrounded by a crowd of over-enthusiastic well-wishers before emerging upright as before.

A rare photograph of FDR with his leg braces easily visible around his shoes.

None of this would be remotely possible by any stretch of the imagination today. But the nature of the times is partially what made it so. FDR had assumed the presidency with America not only on the brink economically, but with many (witnessing events in Europe) wondering if even democracy itself was a failed idea. Were they really going to call the guy tasked with the unenviable job of reversing this nightmare an invalid? For a great majority of poor Americans, FDR was a heroic and deeply beloved figure. Many - as crazy as it seems - would just choose not to see that awkward stumble or hobble as he visited their town. And even if they did, it simply wasn't considered good manners to discuss it with anyone else. So just how many people knew that their president was in fact unable to walk? Here is a segment from the aforementioned PBS documentary, which looks at this very question:

Of course, in today's television and Internet age, such splendid deception would not have stood a chance at working. And yet, how many people really know that Bill Shatner wears a toupee versus those that have no idea, or just suspect? Even with today's instant inter-connectivity and access to information, illusions can still be maintained...

What might a simple YouTube clip of Roosevelt stumbling somewhere (given the precarious nature of the endeavor, considerably more likely than Bill Shatner's toupee falling off in public) have done to his political image? What about a clip shot by someone on a cellphone of FDR in his braces struggling to get into his car even without the drama of a fall or a trip? A million views? Ten? The president is a cripple. Huge scoop. He's lying, deceiving us, maybe he even has a deep-seated hatred of able-bodied people! How might today's political discourse have handled this issue? Likely, and sadly, we probably wouldn't have even gotten to that point.

Cartoons of the time always depicted a strong a man who could walk, and fight to bring America back from the brink economically (and later defeat the Nazis and the Japanese).

Neither of these scenarios were entirely truthful, but the societies of the time evidently wanted them to be...

Political opponents and enemies mostly did not dare try to make FDR's disability an issue either, at least not too overtly (note the cane):

Anti-FDR cartoon.

And even the Nazis (likely because their view of eugenics would have been undermined by acknowledging a less-than-perfect human could become US president) mostly dared not go there as noted by this interesting article examining this very issue:

Nazi cartoon of FDR - imperialist, yes; cripple, no...

But the article notes that there were exceptions:

One graphic statement was made by Mussolini on the occasion of a speech by Roosevelt that Italy's fascist leader especially disliked: "Never in the course of history has a nation been guided by a paralytic. There have been bald kings, fat kings, handsome and even stupid kings, but never kings who, in order to go to the bathroom and the dinner table, had to be supported by other men."

And, as has been noted by numerous books and documentaries alike, only two photographs of FDR in a wheelchair have ever been located - and neither was published during the president's lifetime.

FDR in 1941 - one of only two photos of the US president photographed in a wheelchair.

Thus the illusion was maintained throughout Roosevelt's life just as he wanted. He died while in office on April 12th, 1945 at the beginning of his fourth term (this was before US presidents were limited to two four year terms). After his death, those close to Roosevelt spoke openly of FDR's disability in a way which was simply not done during his life. Would FDR have been happy to see photos of him in a wheelchair released? Or does our interest in an iconic public figure; our need as humans to learn the stories of those whom we revere, trump such considerations? We think the latter has and always will be true. No complete picture of FDR is possible without fully understanding his disability.

We would suggest that FDR and Bill Shatner share much in common in terms of their complex personalities. For those of us accustomed to Bill Shatner's occasional clever toupological wordplay, FDR's response to a reporter's question as chronicled in Splendid Deception will have a very familiar ring:

...FDR did not want the public to be aware that he was still confined to a wheelchair. Sometimes he was really quite deceptive in reply to direct questions. For example, in answer to a newspaper editor who had charged that Roosevelt was still wheelchair bound, FDR said, "As a matter of fact, I don't use a wheelchair at all except a little kitchen chair on wheels to get about my room while dressing...and solely for the purpose of saving time."

That kitchen chair was actually his custom-built wheelchair.

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.

In spite of their mutually outwardly optimistic and highly energetic natures, both FDR and Bill Shatner also share that somewhat impenetrable exterior. Descriptions of FDR are remarkably similar in this sense. Even those closest to him found it almost impossible to get below that Victorian upbringing in which troubles were simply not discussed, lest someone create an unnecessary "fuss". There was cheeriness, jocularity and warmth, and Americans across the country truly felt as if the President was talking to them with his reassuring fireside chats. As noted by this article:

At Roosevelt's funeral in 1945, as the funeral cortege was making its way through the streets of Washington, D.C., there was an old man weeping. Someone asked: Did you know the President? Old man replied: No, I didn't know him; but he knew me.

But just who was the real FDR? What made him tick? He never truly spoke or wrote about himself in this way. And thus to this day, no-one really knows.

The same is surely true of Bill Shatner too. We read his books, watch his jokey talk show appearances, listen to that same story about Leonard Nimoy's bike and yet still are left to wonder: who is he really?

Bill Shatner's Yalta Address to Congress-style moment: "I just envy the hair..."

In Splendid Deception, the author writes of FDR's personality:

FDR had been a withdrawn child, fairly shy with strangers, personable and charming but always somehow distant. He had no great friends in whom he confided, no bosom buddies, no intimates. [...] If Roosevelt ever spoke to anyone of his illness and the resulting paralysis, it would have been [to Eleanor or assistant Howe] but according to Eleanor he did not do so. There is no record of his ever having discussed it with anyone.

The word "anyone" is emphasized in the book.

According to his mother he never spoke of it to her [...] This illustrates how total and resolute were FDR's defences. [...] FDR refused to acknowledge unpleasant facts. They were simply avoided, dismissed or denied. They were certainly not discussed either in public or in private. [...] FDR insisted on good cheer at all times, no matter how difficult. There would be no complaints no matter how great the pain.

Young Franklin with his mother Sara.

And crucially, Gallagher also quotes FDR's wife Eleanor as saying after his death: "You know that he has never said that he could not walk."

Perhaps in some of this we can find the roots (no pun intended) of why Bill Shatner will never truly say that he has no hair. In his world, such things are simply not done.

Years after Roosevelt's death a controversy related to his disability erupted over a memorial to the president built in Washington, D.C. and opened in 1997. A bronze statue of a sitting FDR covered in a cape obscured any sense that Roosevelt was disabled. In response to protests by disabled groups, the statue was altered to add barely visible casters (wheels) to the back. Then in 2001, disability activists raised the money to have another statue installed at the site - this time overtly showing FDR in a wheelchair.

With the latter, FDR was now permanently visible to the public in a manner in which the late president never wished to be seen. There is obviously room for debate on the merits of that decision. Would a statue of a bald Bill Shatner be the right or wrong way to remember and honor him?

Just what would be fitting?

Like FDR, Bill Shatner came to prominence at an extraordinary time. His portrayal of Captain Kirk during the 1960s served to fill a crucial and critical gap between the assassinated president John F. Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the Moon in May 1961 and the event itself on July 20th, 1969 (by which time Star Trek had already been cancelled).

Propping up a crucial gap during the 1960s...

The fact that Bill Shatner's Captain Kirk wore a toupee, similarly to the fact that FDR could not walk, was necessarily overlooked by the public; as far as they were concerned, their heroes were to remain flawless.

Great risks were taken in maintaining the illusion of hair.

Since January 30th, 1882, we in this world of ours have lived continuously and without interruption alongside either FDR or Bill Shatner (and briefly, from 1931-1945, both). The vision, willful self-deception or not, that one could walk and the other has hair has given us remarkable strength as human beings to try to tackle some of the world's most pressing problems. But conversely, the incessant need of a few to look behind the curtains has also given humanity crucial wisdom. Maybe one day the FDR-Shatner era will be defined as the birth of the age in which we could both know and still believe at the same time. In movies, that is called suspension of disbelief...

Perhaps several years after his death (which hopefully won't be for many years yet) the full story of Bill Shatner will fully be told, too. Friends and family will openly discuss the toupee and its significance, toupless pictures will finally be released and the full enigma of this inspiring, energetic and complex individual will begin to be explained.

The book Shatner's Splendid Deception has yet to be written, but maybe one day it will be. Until then, perhaps you have a very elderly grandparent of great-grandparent who remembers FDR. If you can, ask them what they knew or did not know about the American president's disability back in the day. And in so doing, help keep the links that form the chain of our continuing human experience alive. One day, many years from now, you may be asked the same kind of questions about William Shatner's toupee...


  1. Excellent analysis! In addition to being a Shatner fan, I've been fascinated by FDR for nearly 30 years, and have read nearly every book on him, including Gallagher's.

    I've seen FDR portrayed on film by actors including Ralph Bellamy, Edward Hermann, Jon Voight, john Lithgow, Joseph Sommers, David Ogden Steirs, and others. Appallingly few have been able to properly replicate the "walk" Roosevelt taught himself.

    The best footage of FDR's post-paralysis walk I've seen was shown on a documentary "Fame in the 20th Century". The angle was from above and one could see exactly how he pulled it off.

  2. Profoundly insightful, as ever.

  3. The horizontal toupee line

  4. "Bill Shatner's baldness and FDR's quadriplegia cannot be compared..."

    Was Roosevelt truly a quadriplegic? Maybe a paraplegic instead, as he did have use of his arms.

    1. You're absolutely right, adidas. We've corrected. Thanks! -ST

  5. Thankyou to Zainin999 who has posted some new Shatner videos of 'Psalms' on YouTube. OMG WTF was in the minds of the creators of these programs. Completely surreal.

  6. The Shat-FDR parallel you are attempting to draw is tenuous at best. Actually since I'm on this blog, I should probably say "thin". If history has taught us anything (don't you love that hackneyed line?) is that great organizations fall when they stray from their core values. This is a defining moment for the ShatToup blog. Do they keep a laser like focus on hair or do they delve into side project like history or poetry? While the latter are worthy pursuits, there are millions of others addressing them. ShatToup- do what you do best. Rush in where angels fear to thread! (STVI,shatnerian monologue) You are the only source of toupological information we have! A shimmer of shinning light in a sea of darkness. Keep the prime directive and remember a Toup divided against itself cannot stand!

  7. actually "sea of baldness" would have been funnier. wish I could edit.

  8. "laser hair comb focus" now that I think about it.

  9. There's also a parallel between JFK's Addison's disease cover-up and Shatner's splendid deception, especially as they were contemporaneous.

  10. Shats own real syrupJuly 21, 2012 at 8:42 PM

    Hi shattoup: sorry for sounding disrespectful, but we have waited rather a long time, for an update! It seems to be getting longer and longer. But I trust, that you will come back, with a real hum dinger of a post.

  11. A well written, informative, and insightful read as usual.

    I would be interested in learning what the then contemporary view was of Shatner's hair piece. Like FDR, was it mentioned? did people REALLY not know?

    Of course, we of today know much about Shatner's toupe wearing. But like FDR's contemporary's, how much was suspected by the general public of the mid to late 1960's concerning Shatner's need to conceal his baldness?

    In the years since TOS has left the air, the American public has become more educated and aware of hair piece technology (and limitations).

    One assumes that back then the reply of the lay person when confronted with the fact of Shatner's toupee wearing would have been "but I can SEE hair growing right out of his head!".

    I think this topic is an unexplored avenue-- it would be a mistake to lump today's view and a mid 1960's view and say it was similar.

    Just some thoughts.


  12. Hal, it was commonly known that FDR had suffered from polio. Remember, when he was stricken in 1921, he was already a well known public figure - having been the Democratic vice Presidential nominee in 1920. He was chosen primarily based on his looks (this was the first Presidential election where women would be voting) and his name. In the 1920s, photos showing FDR's withered legs were published in various newspapers as he tried to drum-up support for Warm Springs. The press painted a rosy picture to make it seem that FDR had managed to regain most of his mobility. As an elderly friend once said to me: I didn't know he needed a wheelchair. I thought he just had a LIMP.

    The press silence on FDR's paralysis was not universal: Time magazine made several references to his wheelchair during his lifetime, and to his "lame" legs.

  13. The picture of Kirk in a parade(?). Would you please tell us what event it was? Where? And on what occasion?

    Do you have all of the Shatner's pix of that event? Who is sitting opposite to him? There's no way Nimoy would dress as Spock. Is it Kelley as McCoy?

  14. For anyone who still has any illusions about FDR, read Amity Shlaes' "The Forgotten Man", and learn what an utter maniac the man was.

    1. Warren SummerfieldFebruary 7, 2013 at 5:40 AM

      no thanks. Not so gullible to believe her lies

  15. another JTI toupee:

    this might make for a good caption type of pic:

  16. 60 years in showbusiness and not one single photogrpah of Shatner without his wig. I'd say Shatner has surpassed FDR's splendid deception by quite some considerable estimation. I'm wondering if Shatner's impenetrable personality has been carefully contrived by him on the basis of toupee trickery. That is to say, we see the "hair" but we don't see the man in any meaningful sense (or common sense), thus the illusion is maintained.

  17. Excellent article. How about the Jim Kirk parade picture?

  18. To add to the pantheon of great conspiracy theories that continue to intrigue mankind, there now comes perhaps the greatest one of all. Forget the conspiracy theory that (believe it or not) yoga is a form of satanic worship, forget any New World Order conspiracy theories, forget the creation of diseases conspiracy theory and forget (if you can) even the conspiracy theory that dinosaurs were involved in building the pyramids. Nope, the real conspiracy theory that mankind should be totally fixated on now is, what happened to Bill's Star Trek TOS toups and could their disappearance have coincided with the launch of Apollo 11 and, in-turn, Man's first steps on the Moon in July 1969 (six months or so after shooting on Turnabout Intruder wrapped)? Is it possible that Bill's ST toups were deposited at the landing site of the Lunar Module by Neil Armstrong with an accompanying message "Space, the final frontier.." as a means of communicating with other intelligent life?