In September of 1901, on the grounds of the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, two shots rang out. President William McKinley, mortally wounded, fell into the arms of his private secretary, to whom he spoke the famous words, “My wife, Cortelyou, be careful how you tell her.” This was probably the most dramatic moment in US Cabinet Secretary George Cortelyou’s public service, if not his life. Though he is mostly associated with McKinley’s assassination, there is far more to Cortelyou’s legacy. Having served under three presidents directly, Cortelyou’s roles were precursors of what would become the duties of Chief of Staff and Press Secretary. But Cortelyou managed to be quite more than the sum of even these two monumental roles.
George Cortelyou was born in New York City in 1862. After attending George Washington University and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., he worked as a school teacher and principal in preparatory schools. He became a stenographer and entered public service in 1889 as a private secretary to various public officials. In 1895, the Assistant Postmaster General was so taken with his private secretary that, when President Grover Cleveland approached him in search of a chief clerk, he immediately recommended Cortelyou.
Within two years, Cortelyou managed to prove himself invaluable to the President. Upon Cleveland’s departure from the White House in 1897, Cleveland told the incoming McKinley that if he wanted “things to run smoothly around here, my advice is to keep Cortelyou. McKinley took that advice, and Cortelyou soon went from assistant presidential secretary to McKinley’s main Cabinet Secretary.
Cortelyou and McKinley established a relationship with the press that laid the foundation for future administrations. They met with the press personally and cultivated not only their goodwill but kept them updated by sharing presidential statements and establishing a press office inside the White House.
Cortelyou’s practical approach extended beyond his relationship with the press. He had a well-founded concern for McKinley’s safety, considering that America had lost Presidents Garfield and Lincoln to assassination as recently as 1881 and 1865, respectively. Perhaps more on his mind was the recent assassination of Umeberto I of Italy in July of 1900. Cortelyou urged President McKinley not to attend the very public Pan-American Exposition, going so far as to cancel McKinley’s appearance at the Exposition twice, only to be ignored both times. Following McKinley’s assassination, Cortelyou asked for congressional funds to increase the security for his next boss, Theodore Roosevelt. Though there was an attempt made on Former President Roosevelt’s life as he campaigned for a third term in October of 1912, Cortelyou’s initiative had a lasting impact on the protocol for keeping the most powerful person on earth safe.
Cortelyou worked for Cleveland for two years, and four for McKinley. But it was with Theodore Roosevelt that he enjoyed the most intimate relationship and under whose auspices Cortelyou fulfilled his powerful and numerous potentials, enacting change that would have a lasting impact on the office of the presidency, as well as the nation.
When Roosevelt took over McKinley’s term upon the latter’s assassination, he not only retained Cortelyou, but charged him with reorganizing the Executive Mansion. It was at this time that Roosevelt gave it the official name of “The White House,” and even had the letterhead changed. Roosevelt, the scion of a powerful business family, wanted the White House to run with the same kind of efficiency. Cortelyou obliged and wrote protocols for how White House staff were to conduct themselves and fulfill their responsibilities. He even insisted that at the end of every workday, all desks would be cleared of paper. He also completely overhauled the chaotic travel protocol for the President.
Cortelyou was far more to Roosevelt than a clerk or private secretary. He became one of Roosevelt’s most trusted advisors. In fact, Roosevelt created a cabinet position for Cortelyou, and appointed him the first United States Secretary of Commerce and Labor in 1903 in order to control the excesses of big businesses. The following year, Cortelyou left his cabinet position to run Roosevelt’s successful reelection campaign. Cortelyou went on to serve as Postmaster General in 1905 and Secretary of the Treasury, where he presided over the Great Panic of 1907.
Not many people manage to occupy as many powerful positions as Cortelyou did in his lifetime. But this is not what made Cortelyou remarkable. Most people are lauded if they impact one aspect of government. George Cortelyou managed to improve the way multiple aspects of the presidency and the United States are run. Cortelyou’s overhaul of White House staffing and presidential correspondence enabled the president to be more efficient. His allocation of congressional funds and the doubling of secret service agents made the office of the presidency safer. Cortelyou’s inclusion of a press office in the White House during the McKinley administration made the president more accessible and the office more transparent and accountable to its citizens. His invention of the press release during the Roosevelt administration allowed the president to get ahead of leaked reports and to influence his image in the media. It was during Cortelyou’s tenure as Secretary of Treasury from 1907 to 1909, that Cortelyou established his most far-reaching legacy where the American people are concerned; Cortelyou began to advocate for a central banking system, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913.
After his service as Secretary of Treasury, Cortelyou worked for the Consolidated Gas Company until 1935. He passed away in 1940 at the age of 78 leaving behind a wife, two sons, and two daughters. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the wake, as she was best friends with Lilly, Cortelyou’s wife.
Manuscripts from George Cortelyou:
George Cortelyou also remains enshrined in another piece of history. This clip is the first video ever taken of a president. McKinley and Cortelyou are reenacting the moment where Cortelyou informs McKinley of the latter’s Republican nomination for President in September of 1896.
Learn More About George Cortelyou & Other Important Political Figures
Read more about George Cortelyou and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Titanic Victims – Archibald Willingham Butt, Anne Frank Family Album at the Anne Frank Fonds and Harry Truman Post Presidency.
 For more on the modernisation of the presidency with regard to the press, see Ponder, Stephen. “The President Makes News: William McKinley and the First Presidential Press Corps, 1897-1901.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 4, 1994, pp. 823–836. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27551327. Accessed 20 Feb. 2020.
 For more on Cortelyou’s general innovation and impact on the press during the McKinley administration, see List of McKinley Firsts