In 1914 when World War I began in Europe, Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover were millionaires, living in a posh London townhouse.
The Millionaire Part
Neither of the Hoovers were born rich. Lou’s family were solidly middle class, but hardly wealthy. Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), on the other hand, was a poor farm boy completely orphaned by nine, and sent to live with relatives.
It was entirely by his own talents, energies, hard work and determination that he achieved spectacular success as a mining engineer, and by age 25, was paid almost as much as the President of the United States. At 30, he was a millionaire, and at the time of World War I, he had consulting offices in six countries.
Americans in Europe: 1914
Even though there had been rumblings of unrest through Europe for years, most people (including Americans) were oblivious. Europe had been generally peaceful since the time of Napoleon. War was unthinkable.
But war did come and more than 100,000 U.S. citizens traveling for business or pleasure, found themselves stranded in Europe that August. They all rushed to go home.
If communication and transportation problems weren’t enough, each belligerent country refused to honor any other currency than its own. Thus thousands of Americans with dollars in their wallets and/or letters of credit were stuck without ready cash for even a cup of coffee.
As thousands upon thousands of departing Americans arrived in London, trying to book passage back to the States, British officials were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers who had nowhere to stay nor wherewithal to purchase available meals until they could board their ships home.
One official, a personal friend of the Hoovers, asked him if he might help. Hoover readily agreed, and quickly determined the most pressing problem: A quick-fix to provide meals and/or a place to stay until his countrymen could complete their passage arrangements.
The Quick Fix
Hoover promptly called his wife and told her to come at once with all the cash they had in the house – about 500 pounds (perhaps $3000 in today’s money). With nothing more than a personal handwritten IOU note, he began lending small 2 or 5 pound amounts to his fellow Americans. The next day, he went to the bank and withdrew several thousand pounds to continue providing immediate relief.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Hoover recognized another problem and called on several of her numerous women-friends to organize a “quick fix” of her own: relief at the train stations. They called on restaurants to provide sandwiches and coffee and milk for the children (since many Americans had their families with them), recruited a group of “nannies-by-the-hour” and ran a make-shift day care nursery so overstressed parents could wait in line to make arrangements without worrying about small children.
Once the crisis passed, Herbert and Lou Hoover found themselves a new career: Humanitarianism with a capital “H”. He never worked as a mining engineer again, nor took a dime for any of his various positions during the rest of his life.
In his memoirs, written decades later, he noted that he had advanced around $300,000, and all but $300 had been repaid. He believed some of those people may have died.
The Quick Fix That Wouldn’t Fix
Fifteen years later, the Hoovers, by then one of the most respected and well-known couples in the country, were in the White House. It took less than a year before they were faced with an insidious problem: the Great Depression had begun, and it refused to go away.
First Lady Lou Hoover began receiving hundreds and then thousands of letters begging for help. People needed fuel for the winter, overdue rent to be paid, impending starvation, coats and shoes for the children, and most pressing of all, jobs.
Like her husband, Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944) was basically a shy person, absolutely appalled at the thought of “tooting one’s own horn” or even permitting a horn to be tooted on their behalf. Very quietly, she ferried requests along with her card, to various federal agencies and services that could offer assistance, including state and local authorities around the country.
But there were hundreds of requests that she answered personally with a few dollars here, a few there, vouchers for food or medicine, warm coats or shoes – whatever she could do to alleviate need, all from the Hoovers’ personal account.
There was no quick fix, and it barely scratched the surface of the extent of the problems.
Mrs. Hoover’s Desk
When the Hoovers “retired” from the White House, their stellar reputations in tatters, they became what might be termed a “bi-coastal” family. His business interests were in the East, so he took a large suite in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
She, on the other hand, was privately and deeply disillusioned by the politics that had turned them from hero to villain. She returned to the home they had built in Palo Alto, California, to follow her own interests, which included numerous cultural and charitable activities. She went East and he went West from time to time. They wrote and phoned regularly.
Once World War II began, both of them recommitted themselves to humanitarian efforts, raising funds and goods for the war effort.
In 1944, Lou Hoover was in New York. Feeling tired and not-herself, she cancelled an appointment to retire early. Ex-President Hoover, with an engagement of his own, kissed her goodnight and said he would see her later.
Not long after her funeral, Hoover was in California, tying up the loose ends of Lou’s life. When he went through her desk, he was astounded. There were literally hundreds of checks, made out to her personally, for small sums. Accompanying notes thanked her for the help and kindness she had extended when they were in need. Some of those checks had been there for years.
She never cashed them.
Boller, Paul Jr. – Presidential Anecdotes, Oxford University Press, 1981
Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995
Hoover, Irwin Hood – 42 Years in the White House – Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1934