A month before the famous visit between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King George VI of Great Britain, the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway visited the US.
The Young Norwegians
In 1939, Norwegian Crown Prince Olav V and his charming wife, the former Swedish Princess Martha came to the USA on a semi-official visit. They had the pleasant opportunity to meet President and Mrs. Roosevelt, but they mostly spent time out west – skiing. Both were superb athletes, who had originally met at the 1928 Olympics.
Olav and Martha were a real love match, delighting both Swedes and Norwegians, cementing the amicable dis-union between the two Scandinavian countries some 25 years earlier.
Martha was not only a devoted wife, mother of three and hostess, but embodied many of the qualities that would endear her to her adopted country: happy to lend her name, energies and prestige to various charitable, cultural and historical organizations.
But 1939 was a European tinderbox, and the Norwegian Storting (their parliament) had deep concerns for their country’s safety and security against Germans on the march. Olav became a symbol of national resistance to the invading German army in 1941, holding out with his father and other government officials in the north woods. Nevertheless, the Norwegian politicians insisted on evacuating their monarch and leadership to England as government in exile. Olav, a naval officer, became a secret emissary to the US, making several trips to meet with President Roosevelt.
King Haakon and Olav needed to remain in London, but to secure his family’s safety, and protect the royal succession, Martha and the children were sent to the United States, care/of President Roosevelt.
The Royal House Guest
FDR was happy to welcome his Royal visitors, and offer the hospitality of the White House, which became their “second home” in the US. Shortly after their arrival, Princess Martha obtained a suitable house (on 140 acres) on Pook’s Hill, in Bethesda, MD.
Franklin Roosevelt always enjoyed feminine company and companions. If they were young and attractive, so much the better. If they were intelligent – another plus. And if they were gentle tempered, non-demanding and content to bask in the President’s limelight, it was the epitome. Martha not only embodied all the above, but one additional plus: like FDR (who was twenty years her senior), she had a marvelous sense of humor, according to those who knew her.
FDR and the Princess became fast friends. She was regularly invited to White House functions, and even private luncheons and dinners for selected guests. She was the President’s guest at his home at Hyde Park, and also at Shangra-La, the presidential retreat in Maryland (now called Camp David.) He, in turn, was invited to visit her Bethesda home – particularly on those occasions when Prince Olav had slipped quietly into the country for a brief visit.
Martha championed Norwegian causes and charities throughout her four year stay in the US. She traveled tirelessly throughout the US and Canada, happy to lend her name, make appearances and speeches, and do whatever she could to be useful to her country’s sovereignty.
“Look To Norway”
In April, 1940, the Nazi Army invaded Norway, a neutral country. Despite the valiant heroism of Prince Olav and others, many in the USA perceived Norway to be indifferent to the advancing Germans, and that foreign aid and support would be futile. Princess Martha did much to dispel that notion. Norway was obviously no match for the Germans, however they were not, nor ever were acquiescing, and indeed were deserving of American assistance.
By 1942, the US was actively supporting Norway, and supplied them with a naval vessel, rechristened the King Haakon VII, to “hunt U-boats.” When it was launched at the Washington Navy Yards, the President and Mrs. Roosevelt, accompanied by Princess Martha, did the honors. FDR made one of his most noteworthy speeches, saying, “If there is anyone who is still wondering why this war is being fought, let him look to Norway. If anyone has any delusions that his war could have been averted, let him look to Norway; and if anyone still doubts the democratic will to win, again I say, let him look to Norway.”
The Princess added a few comments, thanking the President, saying “…everywhere on this globe…Norwegian men and women are praying and working and fighting to regard the free and happy Norway.”
As historians evaluated and re-evaluated FDR over the past decades, leaving nothing to privacy, some biographers unearthed several close female relationships in his life. Including Princess Martha. The guest logs of the White House include her name dozens of times, leading some to believe in an intimacy between the crippled President and the attractive Princess.
Perhaps the definitive response lies in the recollections of Diana Hopkins, daughter of Harry Hopkins, FDR’s closest advisor, who lived in the White House. Diana recalls her mother Louise telling her, how after an exhausting day volunteering at the Washington hospitals, she came home to a message from the president, requesting her to be a chaperone for his visit to Pook Hill to have tea with the Princess. Still in her uniform, she drove over with the President to visit Martha.
The likelihood that anything improper was going on is probably just gossip. She was very happily married, and FDR was genuinely fond of both Martha and Olav. But they were definitely great pals!
Martha never became Queen of Norway. She died of cancer in 1954 at age 53.
Prince Olav became King Olav V in 1957. He died in 1991. He never remarried.
Their youngest child, Prince Harald (the little boy who played with Fala) became King of Norway in 1991, and is still living.
Davis, Kenneth – FDR: The War President: 1940-43 – Random House, 2000
Morgan, Ted – FDR: A Biography – Simon & Schuster, 1985