Eleanor Roosevelt

An Organ Grinder similar to one you might have seen on the streets of Washington in the late 19th century. (Photo source: Library of Congress)

Organ Grinders and Their Monkeys Once Entertained on DC Sidewalks

If you're a Peter Sellers fan, you're probably familiar with this scene in the 1975 film Return of the Pink Panther, in which Inspector Clouseau fails to notice a bank robbery because he is questioning a street accordion player and his chimpanzee companion about whether or not they have the required permit. ("I am a musician and the monkey is a businessman," the accordionist explains. "He doesn't tell me what to play, and I don't tell him what to do with his money.")

You may not realize that there's a grain of truth in the comedy.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there actually were street musicians who performed with dancing simians in the streets of the nation's capital, and they actually sometimes got into similar beefs with District police.

Advice from Eleanor

The Roosevelt family's roots are in New York, but they clearly had a strong connection to Washington, D.C. Having two presidents and a first lady in the ranks will do that. In that sense, it's fitting that D.C. is home to one of the largest Roosevelt archives today. No, we're not talking about the Library of Congress or the National Archives (though assuredly those repositories have plenty of stuff on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor). No, we're talking about The Eleanor Roosevelt project at The George Washington University.

The project has put a huge selection of Eleanor's writings online, including all 8,112 editions of the My Day column, which was syndicated in newspapers across the country from 1935-1962. Those are interesting.

But the real gold in the collection might be the digitized If You Ask Me, advice column that Eleanor wrote for Ladies Home Journal and, later, McCall's magazine.

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Bonus Marchers

In 1932, as the nation lingered in the desperate depths of the Great Depression, thousands of World War I veterans and their families marched on Washington to demand immediate lump-sum payment of their military pensions. To the consternation of President Herbert Hoover, who was about to embark upon a difficult reelection campaign, the ragtag army camped in tents and shacks along the Anacostia River, and began trying to pressure the White House and Congress by marching up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Unfortunately, the bill to pay them their benefits passed the House but was overwhelmingly defeated in the Senate in June.

The marchers stubbornly stayed, and rebuffed the Hoover administration's offer of train fare out of town. In response, Hoover decided to evict them by force. On July 28, in one of the most disturbing moments in the history of Washington, U.S. horse cavalry wearing gas masks and steel helmets, and backed by five tanks, descended upon the bonus marchers, scattering them and their wives and children and burning their campsites. 

Pete Seeger in Washington

Pete Seeger, the folk music legend who passed away on Jan. 27 at age 94 in New York City, was a performer whose art was intertwined in close harmony with a slew of social causes, ranging from civil rights and the organized labor movement to environmentalism. As he once wrote, "Music, as any art, is not an end in itself, but is a means for achieving larger ends." While Seeger lived most of his life in upstate New York, Seeger's twin passions for music and activism often brought him to Washington, where his calm eloquence and forthrightness gave him influence in the White House — and also subjected him to peril. 

We Will Never Die Pageant, 1943

In an age before e-news, social media, and cellphones, one pageant helped bring the truth about the tragedy unfolding in Hitler’s Europe to the nation’s attention.

Seventy years after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, hundreds of members of Congress, and several Supreme Court Justices convened in Constitution Hall to learn of the atrocities being committed in Europe, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington will mark the anniversary of that pageant, entitled We Will Never Die – a Mass Memorial to the Two Million Dead of Europe.