Only a very few men in our nation’s history can say they served as valet to the President of the United States. Irvin McDuffie was one of them. Hired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as valet and personal assistant, McDuffie – or Mac, as FDR called him – later described Roosevelt as “the kindest and finest man in the world.”
Irvin McDuffie was a Georgia native. He worked his way up from shining shoes in an Atlanta barber shop to co-owning a shop. Along the way, however, he also served as a valet for the German consul in Atlanta. In 1927, McDuffie injured his legs and, after that, could not stand for extended periods. One of his barbershop customers heard him say he wished to find another valet position instead. As it happened, this customer was a building materials supplier to FDR’s Warm Springs Foundation. He mentioned McDuffie to Roosevelt, knowing he was looking for a valet.
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It was the beginning of a long and historic relationship - an adventure for McDuffie and his wife, Lizzie, whom the Roosevelts later hired as their maid.
Unlike some other presidential valets, McDuffie never actually selected FDR’s wardrobe. He would lay out several options, but FDR always made the final decision. McDuffie did make an “executive” wardrobe decision one time, though. He confiscated the tie FDR was wearing at the time of an attempted assassination in 1933, when he was still President-Elect. He felt the tie had become unlucky.
In addition to duties normally associated with being a valet, McDuffie assisted the President with personal activities made difficult by FDR’s polio. Mac lifted FDR into and out of bed and his wheelchair, and helped him put on his steel leg braces. He also helped him dress. He was always in awe of Roosevelt, one time saying of him, “He can work five men to death while he lies in bed.”
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Irvin McDuffie even had an official double. FDR started using one – a man named Sean O’Grady – in 1932. Although the President had received death threats, the primary reason for introducing a double was that the president’s polio tired him, making it difficult to make every scheduled public appearance. From even a short distance, O’Grady looked remarkably like FDR. And just after the inauguration in 1933, the president’s valet was also replaced with a double for certain public appearances -- one Rufus Strother. This was the first time either an American President or his valet used a double.
McDuffie himself accompanied President Roosevelt to Brazil in 1936. During the visit, Mac was detained by the Rio de Janeiro police. It was a mistake, but the incident caused McDuffie to miss the sailing of the USS Indianapolis, the President’s ship. FDR was so upset at the thought of making do without his valet, he dispatched the USS Chester to bring McDuffie home.
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In her memoirs, Lizzie McDuffie noted that she and her husband became FDR’s insider spokespeople for African American conditions. Their positions within the White House family were well-known, so they were privy to reports of discrimination in the postal service and the Works Progress Administration, among other issues. They personally carried these stories to the President.
Toward the end of his life, Irvin McDuffie worked in a job that FDR arranged at the Treasury Department. He passed away on January 30, 1945. Coincidentally, that was the date that would have been Roosevelt’s 64th birthday.
World renowned collector Raleigh DeGeer Amyx has acquired a remarkable number of scarce or rare pieces of official White House China. Mr. Amyx’s passion for American historical artifacts has been his sole focus for more than 35 years. Mr. Amyx's collection is the largest privately-owned collection of extremely high-quality, as well as the rarest, Official White House China and Presidential China in the world. If you would like to engage in a discussion with Mr. Amyx about White House China, please contact him through the button below.