Calvin Coolidge Mourns the Death of His Son, Calvin Jr.

August 12, 1924

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Calvin Coolidge Mourns the Death of His Son, Calvin Jr.
Autograph Letter Signed
2 pages | SMC 2419

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      When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him.
      - The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, 1929 
      Looking at the photos taken the day of the game, one can see the weather, albeit in the faces of President Coolidge's two sons, 17 year-old John and 16 year-old Calvin Jr. Washington D.C., infamous as the northernmost city to boast a humid subtropical climate - when, that is, it's not snowing - was 91 °F on June 30, 1924, and the boys, in their woolen suits and vests, hats and ties, were sweltering. But Coolidge had just been nominated for president some two weeks before and would seem to have needed the photos, for there were several newspaper shots taken on the 30th, of the Coolidge family, the Coolidge-Dawes Republican ticket, and various party worthies. But added to the campaign's demands, however, were Coolidge's own. The man who made his sons don tuxedos for dinner every night would not let a mere summer monsoon allow them to appear in a formal photo in anything less than a suit. Perhaps it was the heat, then, or all the layers of clothing, that made Calvin Jr. forego wearing socks under his sneakers that afternoon, when he went out to play tennis on the White House court. Maybe he couldn't find a pair, or clean ones, or didn't even notice: but he developed a blister on the third toe of his right foot and, by July 2nd, it was killing him.

      The boy was limping, running a fever, had swollen glands in his groin; the blister darkened, swelled to the size of a thumbnail, and red lines streaked his legs. What this meant, in those days before antibiotics - and Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin was still four years off - was that Calvin Jr. was, in the words of a attending presidential physician, "in trouble." Coolidge grasped this at first sight. When Charles Dawes, his recently nominated vice-presidential running mate, who happened to be at the White House that night, passed the boy's bedroom, he chanced to see Calvin Jr. "in great distress" and the President bending over his bed. "I have never witnessed such a look of agony and despair," Dawes recalled later, "as was on the President's face." It was downhill all the way.

      The end came too soon. On July 5th, Calvin Jr., was moved from the White House to Walter Reed Army Hospital; his parents, moving likewise into a room there, to be with their stricken boy. By July 7th, Calvin Jr.'s localized infection had developed into full-blown sepsis. As the boy slipped in and out of delirium, Coolidge cradled him in his arms. He died at 10:20 p.m. Some there say that the president was in perfect control of his emotions; others, that he was hysterical, shouting he would soon join his son in death. Probably fairest was the assessment of the eminent pathologist, Dr. John Albert Kolmer, who had been called to attend at the bedside. "It is commonly stated that President Coolidge is 'cold as ice'," he wrote, "but I had the opportunity of seeing him in his hour of grief and to know quite otherwise. Indeed, it was the most touching and heart-rending experience of my whole professional career."

      The death of a child, at any age, is unbearable – and Coolidge's anguish at losing his favorite son, terrible. Calvin Jr. was, in fact, a younger version of himself. They looked the same, thought the same, were modest, hardworking, and possessed of a dry teasing wit. He had doted on his youngest - on his eldest, John, not so much - and when he was gone, it was more than the joy of the presidency that went with him. Overnight, Coolidge changed from being an engaged and energetic president to a man who slept an incredible 16 hours a day. He worked at his desk but four and a half - and there, often put his head down to weep, or escape again into sleep. The death he longed for at Calvin Jr.'s bedside, couldn't come soon enough...

      "Silent Cal", typically, almost never wrote about his giant loss. Here, then, is letter that is remarkably scarce. Writing to an old friend six weeks after Calvin Jr.'s death, he refers, first, to the funeral - which began with a service in the White House, proceeded to a service in Northampton, Massachusetts, and ended with a burial in Plymouth, Vermont - and then used a brief description of his son not dissimilar to the painfully short one he would pen in his Autobiography five years later. There he wrote that "he was a boy of much promise" and here, that he "could have been a power for much good in the world"...

      It was a comfort to know that you and others of our friends were at Northampton Station when we went back home although we could not express our appreciation. Everyone has been most kind and thoughtful in their expressions of sympathy. I am sure Calvin could have been a power for much good in the world, but he lives now without the sorrow and suffering that comes to all mortals more than the world could ever give him.

      Left unsaid was that much of that "sorrow and suffering" was Coolidge's own - which, ultimately, he would lay on his presidency. "If I had not been President," he concluded his 226 word autobiographical paean to his son, "he would not have raised a blister on his toe, which resulted in blood poisoning, playing lawn tennis in the South Grounds." Coolidge died, heartbroken, at the age of 60 in 1933. He was buried next to Calvin Jr.

      Calvin Jr.'s mother Grace also wrote a letter, ten days after his death, expressing almost the same sentiments as her husband's. Oddly enough, it was to the wife of the man to whom he would write his letter, as above: Judge Irwin. "There's an awful ache way deep down inside," she told Mrs. Irwin, "but my boy is safe and happy and nothing can hurt him now. I did think he was equipped to do a lot of good in the world..." But Grace, both in writing and in life, was more hopeful than her husband. Perhaps Calvin Jr., was "in some unknown way we that we cannot understand" doing that good now. "I have faith it is so." Her husband, apparently, did not: for him, the death of his favorite son was a tragedy from which he never recovered.

      Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 2 pages, small quarto, The White House, August 12, 1924. To Judge Richard W. Irwin of Northampton, Massachusetts.

      Of extreme rarity on this subject. No other letter about Calvin's death, save this, is known to have ever appeared at auction.
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