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Sculpting T.R.

July 2024
9min read

In December, 1968, we printed “A Dakota Boyhood,” a warm, sensitive appreciation of childhood taken from an unpublished autobiography of the popular American sculptor James Earle Fraser. Fraser, the designer of our familiar buffalo nickel, died in 1953. His autobiography was discovered among his papers, subsequently presented to Syracuse University.

As well as reminiscing about his boyhood, Fraser also wrote in his autobiography about his work and his subjects. One of the most intriguing of those subjects was President Theodore Roosevelt, who had picked Fraser in a somewhat circuitous way to do his portrait. Fraser had worked as assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens when that famous sculptor was at the peak of his career. When Roosevelt, in 1904, wanted a portrait bust done for the Capitol, he asked Saint-Gaudens to sculpt it. But Saint-Gaudens was ill, and he recommended his ex-assistant in his stead. Fraser, then twenty-eight, was honored, elated, and a bit awed. As this account will show, it was an experience he would never forget.

In a few days I received a letter from President Theodore Roosevelt, from the White House, asking me if I would make the portrait. I replied that I would be delighted to do it, and an appointment was made to see the President. I was to see him at nine o’clock in the evening. What a great thrill it was for me to go to the White House at the request of the President. I waited a few minutes in the great hall, and soon the President came running downstairs. I had previously written to him saying that I would like to take one or two measurements so that I could make a start on the portrait to save his time. I wanted also to get a preliminary glimpse of the President. When he came down the stairs and greeted me he said, “So you are Mr. Fraser. I had expected an older man, but if Saint-Gaudens said you can do the portrait, you are going to do it. You know a man must depend on his friends, and I would depend on Saint-Gaudens’ advice for anything in the world of Art. I have known him for a long time; as a matter of fact, when I was Police Commissioner of New York I often dropped in to his studio on Thirty-Sixth Street and enjoyed seeing his work.” This was told me in rather a high staccato voice. The President was powerfully built and rather stout at this period. Later, as a matter of fact, he told me he boxed very often with a former middle-weight champion of the world—Mike Donovan. I think his age was in the early forties. At that interview he made arrangements for me to come to the White House at eight o’clock in the morning and set my work up in the East room where the light was excellent. Next morning I had placed my modelling stand in front of the center window, and was ready for the President by fifteen minutes after eight, and he came in before the half hour.

I started the portrait then, and he told me exactly how he wanted to have it done. He was not to wear glasses, and his head was to be thrown well back. I started the portrait in that fashion and worked for about three-quarters of an hour when he said he would have to leave to meet his appointments, but that he would be back in the afternoon after five o’clock, and I could have another half hour. Meanwhile I worked from memory until it was necessary to put away my model and various things that I had brought for my work. The White House, you see, is opened for visitors at ten o’clock in the morning.

I came back again that afternoon, and the President was on time; and again we worked, but I found that the President’s expression without glasses was entirely different than his expression with glasses, and we had quite a discussion about that difficulty. Finally he agreed to put on his glasses, which aided my making the portrait much better in expression. He asked me to come the next morning, and I was there at eight o’clock. I had a fair start on the portrait but with the head lifted. Much to my surprise he came in about nine o’clock with his Cabinet, and chairs were placed around in front of him, and I necessarily had to work with my back to the Cabinet Members. I cannot recall all the Members, but I know that Elihu Root, William Howard Taft, and two or three others whose names escape me for the moment were there. A running conversation on all subjects was going on and it was impossible for me to keep the President in the position that he had thought would be good. …

Finally I said, “Mr. President, I would like to make a change in the gesture of the portrait. I think it would be much more characteristic. I will know also whether you and any of the Cabinet Members would be interested in the change.” As a matter of fact, when he tried to drive home any point that he had to make during the conversation, he leaned sharply forward with his chin protruded in an aggressive manner. When I had changed it to the attitude that gave those characteristics, the Cabinet Members liked it much better, and the President said, “By George, that is good!” and from that moment I went on with the new gesture. I had found it extremely difficult to remain relaxed on the first two or three sittings, never having made a portrait of a President before, or as a matter of fact, anyone of great importance, except Saint-Gaudens… and at that time I didn’t have the Presidential Cabinet back of me, watching my every move.


The President gave me sittings (or rather he stood up all the time) in the mornings, and again in the afternoon, faithfully posing for me as few people ever pose. On one occasion he came in limping and dripping with perspiration—he had been playing tennis and had turned his ankle. When I asked him to sit down, saying that I could put the portrait down lower, he would not have it. He insisted on standing, saying, “This is my punishment for losing.”

When the portrait was nearly completed he again had his Cabinet Members look at the bust. They liked it very much, which was most encouraging. I remember on this occasion that some lady from the West called to see the President. He left the East room and went out to meet the woman who was with a delegation from somewhere out West. When he came back he was quite angry; they had kept him too long. The woman had a photograph which she said she had taken of the President. He said it did look a little like him, but on the whole not much—it had short hair and a sort of potato nose. Secretary Root asked, “Mr. President, was that the only way in which it resembled you?” and the President, not quite hearing what Secretary Root said, asked, “What was that Elihu? What was that?” And Elihu said, “Oh, it was only a remark.” But the President didn’t quite like it, or at least made believe he didn’t. The Cabinet Members laughed heartily, in particular Secretary Taft. The President, I found, always listened closely to everything Elihu Root said. …

Many years later, a great Foundation wanted a portrait bust of Elihu Root. He remembered that I had done the portrait of President Roosevelt, and came to my studio and asked if I would make his portrait. When he came he said, “You know, I liked that portrait you made of President Theodore Roosevelt. It has his greatest characteristic— aggressiveness, aggressiveness, Aggressiveness! ” I was very pleased.

There was a constant stream of people coming in to see the President while the posings were taking place. … In talking to his many callers, it was evident that his knowledge of history and of the world was profound.

On one occasion he followed the ins and outs of the coast line of China, while talking with George Kennan, with the most astonishing understanding of its every contour. He was the George Kennan that was banned from entering Russia and Japan, long ago, for his political writings. After Kennan had left, he said to me, “This is the most interesting moment in the world’s history—the slowly awakening China, and the declining England … the joining of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans … and we will soon fly around the earth!” How right he was in his prediction, yet this was in 1904.

He posed one Sunday morning, and suddenly looking up said, “I suppose the people of the United States think I am in church. I wonder what they would say if they knew I was lazily posing for my portrait.”

I’d like to cite an incident as an example of Roosevelt’s moral courage which everyone realized. It was just getting dark one afternoon in the East room of the White House when a Western politician was announced. The President scowled and said, “Send him in.” The man came in and greeted the President briskly. Roosevelt was standing at one side of my stand as I worked, and did not look up at the Westerner’s greeting. The man, thinking he had not been heard, walked toward Roosevelt expectantly and asked about a letter he had addressed to the President. Roosevelt deliberately turned and walked around to the other side of the portrait, finally the man followed, only to have the President turn back to his first position. There I stood with the two men following each other round me until the caller sensed his lack of welcome and started to leave the room, saying, “Good-day Mr. President.” Before he got ten feet away the President said in a very loud voice as he leaned toward me, “That is a bad man, a very bad man.” …

The President, while talking with H— P— one day, mentioned his business.

“Mr. President,” asked H.P., “what is your business?”

The answer came with great definition and some scorn, “Young man, my business is politics !”

After H.P. had gone, an old friend of the President’s who was present asked Mr. Roosevelt who the young man was, and the President said scathingly, “Oh, he’s some kind of a reformer!” …

The President and his friends told many amusing stories. Among those that the President told were of sea-sick people. He was amused by their utter disregard of all surroundings. One was of a young lady and man lying in their deck chairs during a storm, both terribly sick, the man’s head in the lady’s lap. A solicitous person passing, asked, “Madam, can I do something for your poor husband?” The answer came, miserably, “He isn’t my husband, I don’t know who he is!” …

I was told by a gentleman who attended a party given for the President that someone chided the President because he didn’t smoke. The President, in that staccato voice, said, “Well, I like mint juleps, I like horse racing, and I go to prize fights. Won’t that do?

I tried most carefully to give a close effect of the President’s appearance. The President had a mole on the side of his chin, and when I modelled it, he noticed it at once, and with a curious smile, said in that high pitched voice that was so characteristic and amusing, “Young man, I am not anxious to emulate Cromwell!” and he threw his head back and laughed heartily. The President was most interested in the modelling of all of his separate features and once said, “I don’t think my features separately are very good with the exception of my ears. I like my ears, they are good. I always notice the ears of everyone.”

[An old friend was visiting the President] on a particularly hot day and to relieve the heat, the President ordered three mint juleps—the third one for me. He must have noticed when I took mine that I was not used to a strong drink … for he said, “Fraser, don’t mix any of the mint julep into that portrait—my party wouldn’t like it!”

Often late in the afternoon his horse would be brought and he would mount in front of the White House portico, then waving to Mrs. Roosevelt, who stood in an upper window, he would ride out of the White House grounds alone to meet his escorts. I asked if he didn’t think it was taking a risk, and he replied, “If they want to get me, they will get me.” And finally they did. He was shot and wounded while speaking in Milwaukee.

On one occasion, two German Counts visiting Washington came in to call on the President. One said, “Mr. President, you remind me so much of our Kaiser.” The other enthusiastically agreed. When they had gone, the President said to me, with his teeth clicking together, “If those men knew how I hate to be thought anything like their Kaiser , they would, I suppose, be greatly astonished.”

Later when the President, as a private citizen, visited Germany and had to make a courtesy call on the Kaiser, Wilhelm sent word he had ten minutes to give Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt sent back word that he could spare the Kaiser only five minutes.


The President, with all his might, fought to have the Panama Canal go to his liking and when in Congress there were objections he would become very angry, beating his hands against his head, shouting, “Oh, those wooden heads in Congress, those wooden heads!”

Roosevelt on the subject of the Panama Canal said, “The President who is in office when the canal is finished should come second to Abraham Lincoln in history.” I believe he thought he would be President at that time, and that linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was of the utmost importance to world history. …

Finally when the portrait was nearly finished he looked at it carefully and said, “I think this is good and I won’t pose for another bust. However, there is one thing that I would like you to do.” (He had, I knew, been having a heated controversy with Mr. Fairbanks, Vice-President.∗In general, Roosevelt maintained ostensibly cordial relations with his Vice President, Charles Warren Fairbanks, during their term of office together; but the two men represented opposite wings of the Republican Party and were never close.) “I have been thinking about where to put my name on the bust. It is usually on the base. I don’t like that. Just cut ‘Theodore Roosevelt’ deep in the back of the neck below the hairline. And in about two thousand years when this portrait is dug out of the ruins, the head broken from the shoulders, they won’t say—‘Ah, this is a bust of the great Indiana poet—Mr. Charles Fairbanks!’ ”

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