Franklin Delano Roosevelt 80 years ago faced the worst financial panic and economic distress in the nation’s history. Job 1 was calming the banking panic and strengthening the financial regulatory structure. To do this, Roosevelt recruited as his treasury secretary a business executive — one of three Republicans in his startup cabinet — William H. Woodin.
Secretary Woodin sold the New Deal to a hostile business community, and the panic and regulatory issues were largely solved by the middle of 1933. Woodin used his brains as a business mogul, his heart as a musician, and his patience as a fisherman to help institute financial regulations that served America well for the next three-quarters of a century.
The F.D.R.-Woodin achievement can be appreciated all the more today as headlines reveal an unending series of violations of ineffective financial regulations. The 1933 laws fenced off insured deposits from rent-seeking speculators. We should give huge credit to Roosevelt and Woodin for getting this done. And it’s worth looking at their private lives for clues to why it all worked so well.
One reason Woodin worked well with Roosevelt in Washington is they shared interests besides politics. In New York City, they were nearly neighbors. Woodin took an early interest in Roosevelt’s major philanthropic initiative, the Warm Springs Foundation — the first treatment center dedicated to polio, which led years later to the March of Dimes.
They also shared a love of boating and fishing. After Roosevelt survived a February 1933 assassination attempt in Miami, he calmed his nerves by going fishing with Vincent Astor, who was much affected by the progressive movement and strongly supported the New Deal. Later that year, in August-September, Roosevelt was picked up in Hyde Park by Astor’s boat, the Nourmahal, and was taken fishing for tuna off Montauk, as recorded in The East Hampton Star of Sept. 1, 1933.
Will Woodin and his family divided their summers between ocean beaches and tennis courts near Lily Pond Lane in East Hampton and boating activities on Gardiner’s Bay, at the Devon Yacht Club. On the Woodins’ boating and fishing activities I have had the pleasure of interviewing three of his grandchildren.
Woodin’s grandsons Charlie Miner and Bill Rowe liked to race their jointly owned Star sailboat (#1585) on Saturdays and Sundays at the club. The Rowe grandchildren, boys and girls, were all active participants in the sailing program, and The Star of July 12, 1929, reported that “the Misses Margaret and Grace Rowe, sailing their boat Nippy,” won a race that included a boat of their grandfather’s.
Woody Rowe, a grandson, remembers eating delicious coffee ice cream on the hot sand of the beach. One of the most vivid memories of the grandchildren is fishing from their grandfather’s yacht, the Nanin.
Will Woodin was elected the Devon Yacht Club’s third commodore for the six-year period 1922-28, the peak years of what the East Hampton Historical Society calls, in its fine exhibit at the Clinton Academy, the “Jazz Age.” The Devon Yacht Club already had two almost identical 60-foot motor yachts owned by two Devon Colony founders, William Cooper Procter and Richmond Levering, who called them the Heather and the Insep (for “the Inseparables”).
In 1922 or 1923, Commodore Woodin purchased an 80-foot boat, eclipsing the other boats anchored off the Devon beach. He named it the Nanin, after his wife, Annie (Nan) Jessup. The Nanin was built in 1915 for Albert Y. Gowen of Cleveland by the famed Boston boatyard of Lawley & Son, which had built several America’s Cup contenders. It was initially named the Speejacks, but suffered a fire in 1919. After Lawley & Son rebuilt the boat in 1920, replacing the single engine with two Speedway engines with 32-inch propellers, Gowen renamed the boat Sweetheart, sold it, and took his new 98-foot Speejacks 35,000 miles around the world in 1921-22. At the time it was the smallest boat ever to make this trip.
Most of the Woodin grandchildren enjoyed fishing on the Nanin, especially Charlie Miner, but Anne Harvey Gerli reports that as a child she used to try to save the fish by taking out the hooks and throwing them back in the water after she was informed that fish, unlike people, did not drown in water and actually prefer it. Besides fishing, the Nanin went on cruises. Charlie remembers making the trip all the way up through the Erie Canal locks to Lake Erie. He also remembers going on the boat to join spectators attending America’s Cup races in Newport, R.I.
A Woodin family legend told by two of his grandchildren, who suspect that it might indeed be a story created to console them, is that the boat was taken by the U.S. Navy in 1940 to rescue British soldiers from Dunkirk and was sunk by U-boats during the effort. However, the timing of the Dunkirk retreat flotilla, a matter of days in the second half of May 1940, makes the story implausible. The United States did not declare war on Germany until 1941, and small yachts were taken over by the Coast Guard for use only in the American hemisphere.
A different story is told by Richard Dey in his book “Adventures in the Trade Wind,” about chartering yachts in the West Indies. He finds the Nanin in Trinidad, with the name still on it. From Lloyd’s Register he found that this was the 80-foot Nanin still owned by Will Woodin’s widow, Annie Jessup, in 1940.
The “Trade Wind” book confirms that the Nanin was taken by the Coast Guard to be refitted for its use — probably with compensation. We know that Astor’s 264-foot yacht, the Nourmahal, built in Germany, was commandeered by the Coast Guard in 1940, for compensation of $300,000. A year after takeover, Astor’s refitted patrol boat quartered 98 enlisted sailors and nine officers. The boat patrolled the coastal waters until 1946, was sold privately, and scrapped in 1964.
So the Nanin ended up after World War II as a tugboat. The yacht, once fitted out like a racehorse, was now pulling the equivalent of a milk wagon. Its snazzy bronze propellers were gone and its motors replaced by noisy war-vintage G.M. engines, with the staff increased to eight to handle the heavy anchor.
The postwar Nanin is shown in a photograph in the book — sadly, up on the beach for repair, looking like a huge beached whale. This is one of only two photos of the Nanin I could find. Not a photo you would want to see. Thus passeth the glory of this world.
John Tepper Marlin, Ph.D., is chief economist for the Warrior Family Foundation. He has summered in Springs since 1981. In the July 28 Devon Yacht Club PHRF race he crewed for the winning boat skippered by Blake Fleetwood. He thanks Swede Edwards of North Sea Radiator for access to his near-complete set of Lloyd’s Register annuals.