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L.l. And The President’s Missus

July 2024
3min read

In Freeport, Maine, diagonally across Main Street from L. L. Bean, stood the Patterson Block, a squat dark green building in which were located Cole’s Drug Store, and a gift shop called Ye Green T-Kettle. In 1933, the year I graduated from Freeport High School, Mr. Cole offered me a summer job as a soda jerk for a dollar a day. My classmates thought I was lucky.

From behind the soda fountain I could watch the comings and goings of the community. Since Bean’s mailorder business filled his building, he had located his salesroom in a small space at the rear of the third floor. To get there, a customer had to climb an open stairway on the outside of the building to a second-floor entrance and pass through the cutting room, redolent of leather and rubber, to an internal stairway to the third floor. Here arrows led through the sewing room and the shipping room and past a glass-enclosed office overlooking Main Street, where one could usually view Mr. Bean himself, a large, leonine man with a wide face, broad hands, and a booming voice.

One sultry August morning, when I was alone in the drugstore, I saw a Cadillac convertible with the top down pull into a parking space across the street. Bright chiffon scarves tied to the heads of the two women in the car flowed in the breeze. Behind them another sleek convertible took the next parking space. Two men dressed in solemn suits and shirts with starched collars jumped from the second car to assist the women.

The women moved to the sidewalk. They were dressed in skirts and what my mother called shirtwaists and wore flat-heeled shoes. One carried a clipboard and a small handbag. The other glanced briefly in a shop window before she turned to speak to her companion. It was Eleanor Roosevelt. I dashed to the street for a better look. They walked abreast toward Bean’s stairway, but Mrs. Roosevelt leaned forward as she moved so that she constantly had to look back at her friend with a movement that reminded me of a mother hen tucking a chick under her wing. Old Fred Ward, who worked at the drugstore, limped by without even recognizing her.

“Did you see who just drove into town?” I shouted. “Mrs. Roosevelt! “In 1933 Maine was not Roosevelt territory.

Someone had to be alerted. I felt like Paul Revere, but I was alone in the store and couldn’t leave. I flung open the door to Ye Green T-Kettle next door. “Did you see who just drove into town?” I shouted. Miss Strout, who had been my first-grade teacher and was now clerking as a summer job, was waiting on a customer. Miss Caldwell, the owner, was on her knees rearranging a display. She peered around the corner of the showcase. “Mrs. Roosevelt!” I proclaimed without waiting for an answer.

Miss Caldwell turned back to her chore. The message wasn’t for her. Nobody would waste his time bringing her such tidings. Miss Strout dismissed me with a look of disgust, an expression I remembered from earlier times.

“What do you expect me to do about it?” she asked.

“She just went up to Bean’s,” I went on excitedly.

“Who’s going to stop her?”

“She and Mr. Bean make a good pair, I would say,” the customer said. “He’s switched parties, you know.”

“Switched parties! That’s putting it mild,” Miss Strout retorted. “Ever since I can remember, he was chairman of the Republican Town Committee.”

“I can’t understand what he, of all people, sees in that Roosevelt,” Miss Caldwell called bitterly from the back of the store.

I saw a customer approaching the drugstore and hastened back. She had already heard that Mrs. Roosevelt was in town, and I was happy to verify.

“She’s driving her own car,” I revealed. “That’s it in front of the Post Office. I bet those two men in the other car are Secret Service.”

“More likely some of the gangsters who elected her husband.”

Another customer came in.

“Did you see Mrs. Roosevelt going up to Bean’s?” I asked, trying to keep my excitement intact.

“Guess not,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “What d’you suppose she’s up to in Freeport?”

“Probably on her way down to their summer place on the Bay of Fundy,” I suggested.

“If we’re lucky, that tide down there’ll come in and wash the whole tribe of them out to sea.” Both women laughed. In 1933 Maine was not Roosevelt territory.

More than a half hour later, Mr. Bean thrust his head out of the window in his office and shouted to the street below. “Hey, Bill,” he bellowed. After a pause he tried again. “Anybody seen Chief Bailey?”

“He’s over to Leighton’s garage, L.L.,” a boy’s voice answered from the street. “Want me to get him for you?”

“Sure thing,” boomed Mr. Bean. One of the Jordan boys tore around the corner. Almost immediately Chief Bailey appeared in the middle of the street.

“What’s the problem, Mr. Bean?”

“There you are, Bill. Good. The President’s missus is coming down. See that she gets out of town all right.”

The two women appeared on the landing at the head of the stairs. The Secret Service agents moved over and stood beside Mrs. Roosevelt’s car to open the door for her. By this time a small group had gathered, but no one approached her. She smiled at those who stared at her and walked to her car. The agents helped her into the driver’s seat and her companion in on the opposite side. She started the engine. Chief Bailey stopped traffic in all directions as she backed out into the street and headed north. The Secret Service followed at a discreet distance. —

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