Scattered Clouds 41° Good Afternoon
Scattered Clouds 41° Good Afternoon

The true stories behind 'Hyde Park on Hudson'

Bill Murray stars as President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Bill Murray stars as President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 2012 film "Hyde Park on Hudson." Although the movie is largely set at the Roosevelt family estate in Hyde Park, filming actually took place in England. Photo Credit: Nicola Dove

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited the British king and queen to his Hyde Park estate in 1939, it marked a milestone in Anglo-American diplomacy -- and helped inspire the upcoming Bill Murray movie, "Hyde Park on Hudson."

Like most movies based on a true story, creative license was taken to bring the narrative to the silver screen, but the "Hyde Park on Hudson" cast and crew made efforts to ensure many of the sights and sounds rang true.

Newsday Westchester traveled to Roosevelt's estate in Dutchess County, researched historical documents, spoke with local experts and took notes on the film itself in a quest to separate fact from fiction.

The royal visit: Historical documents tell the story

The movie, which opens Friday, revolves around a few days in the summer of 1939. Ignoring critics who prefer the United States remain separated from England, the country that had fought against its independence, Roosevelt (played by Murray) invites King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) to visit his bucolic Hyde Park estate. When they arrive on June 10, Roosevelt's guests know they aren't stopping by as a mere courtesy; rather, the event is a private maneuver in public relations, as the royals seek support from the Americans with a second world war imminent.

In both the movie and real life, the first day of the royal visit ends with a formal dinner in Springwood, Roosevelt's birthplace and home. The next day, Roosevelt drives the king and the queen to Top Cottage, his hilltop retreat on the east side of the estate, where the monarchs are introduced to Native American entertainment and to what they considered an unusual regional delicacy: hot dogs.

But what audiences won't see in the movie is the correspondence that came before and after the Hyde Park meeting of the minds -- letters and telegrams that the Roosevelt Library website posts for all to see.

Although the movie references Roosevelt's warm invitation in passing, his formal letter -- dated Sept. 17, 1938, and typed onto White House stationery -- offers the same convivial tone. "If you should be here in June or July you might care to avoid the heat of Washington and in such a case it would give us the greatest pleasure to have you and Her Majesty come to visit us at our country home at Hyde Park, which is on the Hudson River, about eighty miles north of New York," reads one section of the letter. "... you both might like three or four days of very simple country life at Hyde Park -- with no formal entertainment and an opportunity to get a bit of rest and relaxation," the letter continues.

Dated Oct. 8 of the same year, King George VI's reply, while noncommittal at the time, clues its readers into the extent of British duress. "Your letter ... came as a pleasant relief at a time of great anxiety, and I thank you warmly for it," the king wrote.

Over time, however, the king and queen agreed to visit the president. After two days in Washington, D.C., they headed north to Hyde Park, where entertainment and relative solitude awaited, and the seeds of one of America's strongest modern alliances were about to grow.

In the press, much was made about the picnic lunch that Roosevelt served the royals on June 11. The movie makes it appear as if the menu is comprised of just hot dogs. But history reveals that the meal options included Virginia ham, smoked turkey, cranberry jelly, salad, rolls, strawberry shortcake, coffee, beer and soda.

As the Roosevelt Library website notes, the meeting of the minds in Hyde Park did much more than expose a couple of Brits to casual American cuisine.

"More importantly to Franklin Roosevelt ... was that this visit changed the perceptions of the American people, which in turn allowed him to do more for Britain," reads the site. "When England declared war on Germany three months later, Americans, due in no small part to the king and queen's visit, sympathized with England's plight; Britons were no longer strangers or the evil colonial rulers from the past but familiar friends and relatives with whom Americans could identify."

The day after the royal family left Hyde Park, the king sent a telegram thanking the president for the experience. "The Queen and I are deeply grateful, Mr. President, to Mrs. Roosevelt and yourself for your hospitality during the past four days," reads a portion of the telegram. "The kindness shown to us personally by you both was endorsed by your fellow countrymen and countrywomen with a cordiality that has stirred our hearts. In Washington, in New York and indeed wherever we have been in the United States, we have been accorded a reception of which the friendliness was unmistakable."

In early 1940, when World War II was raging in England but had not yet engulfed the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt mailed a letter to Queen Elizabeth to offer emotional support. The queen's reply expressed fear and sadness, yet memories of their Hyde Park picnic lunch remained a source of comfort, almost two years later.

"Sometimes, during the last terrible months, we have felt rather lonely in our fight against evil things, but I can honestly say that our hearts have been lightened by the knowledge that friends in America understand what we are fighting for," reads a portion of Queen Elizabeth's letter. "We look back with such great pleasure to those lovely days we spent with you last June. We often talk of them, and of your & the President's welcome & hospitality. The picnic was great fun, and our children were so thrilled with the descriptions of the Indian singing & marvelous clothes -- not to mention the hot dogs!"

The New Deal: Reimagining FDR from England

Although "Hyde Park" was filmed in England, and not on the estate where Roosevelt spent much of his life, the film does an admirable job recreating the serene, leafy ambience of the president's countryside haven.

According to cast and crew interviews included with the "Hyde Park on Hudson" press kit, one of the movie's crew members to visit the actual Hyde Park estate was production designer Simon Bowles, who applied the room measurements and period details of Springwood to a private mansion that scouts found within 10 miles of London.

And then there were all the little things that were shipped from America to England to allow for the perception of authenticity. From microphones that the film would use for Roosevelt's fireside chat scene to the vintage dresses that many of the actresses would wear, overseas shipping proved integral to the film's aesthetic success.

It wasn't always a simple process, as evidenced by the crew's efforts to recreate the wheelchair that remains next to Roosevelt's desk in the Springwood library.

"The wheels had to come from Holland, and we had to cut down a specially made kitchen chair to fashion a chair that would have parallel sides so that the wheels are able to pass," Bowles said. "The metal structure underneath had to be made as well. We had to decide what kind of oak it should be and what color it would get stained, and check on the screws and bolts."

In the same library where the real wheelchair sits, there's an oil portrait of Roosevelt. But in a stroke that some may consider genius, rather than just recreate that image, the movie hired a stills photographer, Nicola Dove, to paint Murray, who mimicked the president's pose, expression and attire.

In the case of Springwood, the crew was able to find a reasonable facsimile. But the effort to recreate Top Cottage was a bit more involved.

According to producer Kevin Loader, "To recreate Top Cottage, the president's retreat where he wanted to write detective novels, we built a house entirely from scratch in a woodland clearing in the Chilterns [hills in southeast England]."

Nonetheless, Murray -- who knows what it's like to live along the Hudson, as he's a Rockland County resident -- seemed pleased with the result. "I went from visiting the real Top Cottage to the recreation in the space of a few weeks," he said. "The view from the elevation was so much alike."

In addition to Murray and Bowles, "Hyde Park on Hudson" actress Laura Linney, director Roger Michell and screenwriter Richard Nelson were among the cast and other crew members to tour the grounds and buildings of Roosevelt's Hyde Park estate before the start of filming. Linney, who plays FDR's mistress Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, described herself as a frequent Hyde Park visitor, and Murray studied the presidential library's tapes of Roosevelt's speech patterns in an effort to bolster his performance.

The real deal: Experts talk Hyde Park, await movie

Veronica Coffey, a National Park Ranger, has spent the past five years giving tours of Roosevelt's Hyde Park estate. After leading Newsday Westchester on a tour of Springwood and its immediate surroundings, she stood in its spacious backyard that overlooks the Hudson River, mulling the property's history and anticipating the movie that makes the setting its title role.

"It was really the place that [Roosevelt] held dearest to his heart," Coffey said.

Sharing that sentiment was David B. Woolner, the resident historian of the New York City-based Roosevelt Institute and a history professor at Marist College in the Town of Poughkeepsie.

"This was not the place where Roosevelt came to be president," Woolner said in a phone interview. "This was the place where Franklin Roosevelt came to be Franklin Roosevelt."

Woolner said he was excited the royal visit helped inspire the story of "Hyde Park on Hudson," particularly because there are modern parallels.

"In the last 15 to 20 years, the royal visit [to Hyde Park] has taken on greater significance in terms of its importance for Anglo-American relations," Woolner said. "We often think of the [Winston] Churchill-Roosevelt relationship as the beginning of that so-called 'special relationship' ... but increasingly historians are seeing the royal visit as maybe the beginning of that wartime 'special relationship.'"

In the entryway of Springwood, visitors can inspect a wall full of political cartoons, many of which date to the War of 1812 and mock the British. And, oh yes, they were on full display during the first royal visit.

In the movie, the cartoons appear in one of the royal bedrooms, and the king and queen fear in hushed tones that Roosevelt is laughing at their expense. But the real story might not be quite that dramatic, according to Woolner.

"[Sara Roosevelt] really thought he should take them down before the king arrived," he said. "The king came into the room and made a beeline for that wall, and started looking at the cartoons, and everybody was kind of terrified. And, apparently, the king was very complimentary, and said that FDR had a few cartoons that are not in the king's collection."

On the day that Newsday Westchester visited the estate, historical re-enactors portraying Roosevelt's butler, maid and Secret Service agent provided a guided tour of the house itself. For the three characters, the time was September 1939 -- three months after the royal visit -- and all of them spoke of that experience as if it were a kind of controlled chaos.

The royal accommodations were anything but palatial. The second-floor guest bedrooms, where king and queen slept separately, were no larger than most freshman dorm rooms today, and right down the hall from the bedrooms of Roosevelt and his mother, Sara.

"The Roosevelts are actually fairly modest folks," Woolner said, "It's kind of fascinating to go upstairs in the rooms where the king slept and where the queen slept, and see the very modest accommodations."

Although neither Coffey, the park ranger, nor Woolner had seen "Hyde Park on Hudson" when Newsday Westchester spoke with them, Coffey had seen the trailer and was impressed with how the film captures the essence of Springwood and Top Cottage.

"From what I've seen, I'm pleased at the way the property looks," she said. "I think it really captures the Hudson Valley."

Historians might also enjoy how the film delivers Queen Elizabeth's reaction to Roosevelt's aggressive driving, which he achieved with hand controls, to climb hilly terrain for the picnic lunch at Top Cottage.

"At the end of the picnic, it's time to come back and the queen actually refuses to get back inside the car with him, because she does not want to get with that madman behind the wheel on the way back [to Springwood]," Coffey said. "So she insists [that] the Secret Service driver [take her] all the way back."

Woolner said that would become a lasting memory. "The Queen Mum recalled that drive with some fear and some exhilaration," he added. "Close to the end of her life, she wrote a little passage about what it was like to go up that hill with Franklin Roosevelt."

With regard to the casting of Murray as Roosevelt, Woolner offered general approval, especially since he considers them both "good-natured guys."

Coffey agreed, based on the movie trailer she'd seen. "We [in Hyde Park] are excited to see Bill Murray's take," she said. "His portrayal of FDR -- the way he speaks, his movements -- seem pretty spot-on."

"Hyde Park on Hudson" opens in theaters on Friday, Dec. 7.

More Entertainment