By Ray Hill

In 1943, while still a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Cabinet, Harold L. Ickes wrote his autobiography.  Aptly entitled “Autobiography of a Curmudgeon,” Ickes immediately said, “If, in these pages, I have hurled an insult at anyone, be it known that such was my deliberate intent, and I may as well state flatly now that it be useless and a waste of time to ask me to say I am sorry.”

Despite the profoundly self-righteous streak in Harold L. Ickes’ character, his own personal life was a mess.  His marriage to Anna Wilmarth had ceased to be a real marriage and she remained in Illinois to finish her last term in the state legislature when Ickes left for Washington to assume his new duties as Secretary of the Interior in 1933.  By the time Anna moved to Washington, Ickes was having an affair with a much younger woman who had a fiancé.  Ickes employed them both at the Interior Department.  The Secretary became alarmed when rumors about his affair made the circuit in Washington through both political and social circles.  Certain that news of the affair would eventually reach Mrs. Ickes, the Secretary told his wife about it.  That certainly did nothing to improve relations between the couple, although Ickes was shaken when Anna was killed in an automobile accident while visiting New Mexico in 1935.

Secretary Ickes finally found happiness in the sister of his stepson’s wife, Jane Dahlman.  The two were married in Dublin, Ireland in 1937 when Ickes was sixty-four and his bride was twenty-five.  Their first born child, Harold M. Ickes, would go on to serve as Deputy Chief of Staff for Bill Clinton’s White House.  A daughter, Elizabeth Jane, was born to the couple a few years later.

Ickes was highly conscious of the age difference between he and his wife, yet Jane Dalhman Ickes seemed to provide the stable and loving home life the curmudgeonly Secretary of the Interior needed.  A few years before marrying Jane Dahlman, Ickes found a farm in Olney, Maryland, about fifteen miles north of Washington, D. C.  The house was originally built as something of a replica of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.  A stately house with impressive columns, it had five bedrooms and four full baths.  There were quarters for servants and it became a working farm, which was managed by Jane Ickes.

President Roosevelt visited Ickes’ “farm” several times and the Secretary of the Interior had an extensive flower garden, which he prized.  It was the last home Harold Ickes would ever need or buy.  He lived at the Headwaters Farm for the rest of his life.  After Ickes died, his widow continued to live there until her own death.

Even as he aged, Ickes worked ferociously, remained highly nervous, supremely suspicious and struggled with debilitating insomnia.  Ickes battled his insomnia with whisky and Nembutal and still had trouble sleeping.

Sleep deprivation did nothing to improve Ickes’ overall grumpiness.

As World War II approached, Ickes was both appalled and alarmed by American isolationism.  The foremost spokesman in the country for isolationism was Charles Lindberg, who had once been considered a hero by millions of Americans.  When Lindberg’s wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh penned a best-selling book, “The Wave of the Future,” Ickes snapped it was “the bible of every American Nazi, Fascist, Bundist and appeaser.”

Ickes did his best to push FDR to help a beleaguered Great Britain, which faced a brutal air assault by Hitler’s Germany.  Roosevelt realized millions of Americans, though they might be sympathetic with Britain, wanted no part of a foreign war.  Ickes had been designated as oil administrator for the country and he stopped a shipment of oil to Japan before the war, which caused considerable outcry.  President Roosevelt had to instruct Ickes not to stop such shipments in the future.  The bombing of Pearl Harbor changed everything in the United States and Ickes did his part for the war effort.

Ickes had been similarly stubborn in his refusal to sell helium to Germany before American entry into World War II.  Virtually every other member of the Cabinet disagreed with Ickes, but he didn’t care and was so peevish about it, an amused FDR let him have his way.  Ickes displayed the same attitude about selling scrap iron to the Japanese, supported by only Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and Vice President Henry Wallace.  Ickes’ objections were overruled by Secretary of State Cordell Hull.

Like millions of other Americans, Harold Ickes closely followed news from both the European and Pacific war theatres avidly.  Ickes never approved of the internment of Japanese – American citizens by the administration and it was likely not coincidental that the War Relocation Authority was placed in the Department of the Interior.  By the spring of 1944, Ickes was urging the president to reverse the policy that kept Nisei troops from fighting for their country.  A few months later, Secretary Ickes wrote FDR to ask the president to end the exclusion policy and close the internment camps.  It was only after FDR had been reelected to a fourth term and the United States Supreme Court had ruled against further imprisonment of Japanese – American citizens that Roosevelt complied with Ickes’ request.

Harold Ickes’ thoughts on the restoration of the rights of Japanese – American citizens are moving.

“It has long been my belief that the greatness of America has risen in large part to the diversity of her peoples.  Before the war, peoples of Japanese ancestry were a small but valuable element in our population.  Their record of law-abiding, industrious citizenship was surpassed by no other group.  Their contributions to the arts, agriculture, and science were indisputable evidence that the majority of them believed in America and were growing with America.”

Ickes said, “It is my prayer that other Americans will fully realize that to condone the whittling away of the rights of any one minority group is to pave the way for us all to lose the guarantees of the Constitution.”

Secretary Ickes concluded by, ironically quoting Roosevelt: “As the President has said, ‘Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.’”

It was Harold Ickes who sarcastically chided Wendell Willkie, the GOP presidential nominee in 1940, as being merely “a barefoot Wall Street lawyer.”  Four years later, Ickes noted the youthful governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey, has “thrown his diaper in the ring.”  It was not the only reference Ickes made about Dewey’s relative youth.  The Secretary of the Interior called Governor Dewey “the candidate in sneakers.”

With the passing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 15, 1945, the public career of Harold L. Ickes was coming to an end.  Ickes, like many other New Dealers, had little respect for Harry Truman, much less affection.  Still, Ickes was not eager to surrender the reigns of power and remained in the Cabinet.  The frequent meddling and peevishness of Ickes was not greeted by the new president with open amusement, as it often was by FDR.  Truman was altogether a different matter.

When Truman nominated a wealthy California oilman, Edwin S. Pauley, to serve as Under Secretary of the Navy, Ickes was less than impressed.  Pauley had been a significant fundraiser for the national Democratic Party and the question of just who owned the offshore oil rights – – – the federal government or the states – – – was beginning to boil.  According to Ickes, Pauley told the Secretary that if Ickes were to issue a ruling that his opinion was the states owned the drilling rights to offshore oil, Pauley could raise $300,000 for the party.  Ickes was summoned before the Senate’s Naval Affairs Committee to testify on the Pauley nomination and admitted President Truman advised him to merely tell the truth.  Ickes said that before he left, Truman told him to be “gentle” with Pauley.

Ickes was asked about the incident and he told the truth, which profoundly embarrassed the Truman administration and Pauley later asked that his nomination be withdrawn.

The incident led to Ickes submitting his resignation, in the form of a two thousand word indictment to Truman and to his surprise, the president accepted it quickly and gave the Secretary of the Interior three days to vacate his office.  Before leaving, Ickes held what was then the largest press conference ever held by a public official in Washington, D. C.  The Secretary snapped that he had no intention of committing perjury to serve the Democratic Party’s interests.

Harold Ickes returned to Headwaters Farm and became a syndicated columnist.  That allowed Ickes to continue to comment on public policy, although as the years passed, he became less and less relevant.  Ickes did support Truman in 1948 and flatly rejected the notion of the new Progressive Party built around the candidacy of his old Cabinet rival Henry Wallace.

Always cognizant of the nearly forty year age difference between he and his wife, Ickes pressed his adult son, Raymond, to help look after his much younger half-siblings and Ickes’ widow.  Muckraking columnist Drew Pearson had long been a friend of Harold Ickes who had fought hard to protect Paul Pearson, governor of Puerto Rico, who just happened to be the younger Pearson’s father.  The columnist paid one last visit to Headwaters Farm to visit the old curmudgeon, whom he found in a very large bed.

According to Pearson, Ickes “looked tired and worn.”  Ickes had spent a very uncomfortable three months in considerable pain and had often been confined to his bed.

Yet Ickes remained hopeful, pointing out he would be seventy-eight years old in March and said he wanted to live long enough to see one more presidential election.

An ailing Harold Ickes told the columnist that he hankered to get back into the fight and wanted to talk to presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver.

“I should like to be in this fight,” Ickes whispered.  “It may be my last one but I hope to get well soon and get in it.”

Even then Harold Ickes retained his flinty realism and said, “I haven’t told this to anyone else, Drew, but I’m afraid it will be my last battle.”

Drew Pearson recorded his own thoughts as he left Headwaters Farm.

“I knew that I should never see Harold Ickes again.”

Ickes had been to the hospital and seemed to have improved significantly, but after a short time at home, he was sent to the hospital yet again.  Ickes never lived to see his seventy-eighth birthday.  He died at 6:25 p.m. in Washington’s Emergency Hospital on February 3, 1952.  As Ickes’ best biographer, T. H. Watkins, wrote, finally, “Harold Ickes slept.”

The life of Harold L. Ickes was stormy, colorful and frequently contentious.  Much of his private life was at complete variance of his public life.  Yet, he seemingly found happiness with a much younger wife and new family.  Ickes never stopped craving the thrill of political combat and being at the center of government.  Harold Ickes had to settle for a very comfortable retirement at his beloved Headwaters Farm, warm in the arms of a loving family, and commenting on current events from the sidelines.

The ever quotable Ickes may well have provided as good an epitaph as any.

Ickes once observed:

“I’ve known for a long time that I’m not loved with the fervor to which I’m entitled.  If a man worked hard at it he couldn’t get a bigger list of enemies than I.”