Fala, a black Scottish terrier, was one of the most famous Presidential Pets of all time. He lived with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – ironically one of the most famous Presidents of all time! Fala was much-loved by the President and his wife, Eleanor.
Fala was given as a gift to FDR by Mrs. Augustus G. Kellog of Westport, Connecticut via Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley who bred and raised terriers. Suckley was in charge of some of Fala’s training as a puppy and taught Fala to do basic tricks such as jump, roll over, and sit.
Born on April 7th, 1940 to Peter and Wendy, Fala was originally named Big Boy. When he was gifted to FDR, the President promptly renamed him with a large and rather unusual name: Murray the Outlaw of Falahill, after a Scottish ancestor of FDR’s. Quite an unwieldy name to be sure, so it was quickly shortened to Fala. According to Resa Willis in her book FDR and Lucy: Lovers and Friends, Fala was gregarious, and he “liked to toddle down the walkway to bid guests good morning.” According to Roosevelt grandson Curtis, Fala also enjoyed showing off and that he was “catered to by everyone”.
Fala also enjoyed meetings, whether they were press conferences or cabinet meetings. In Why We Love the Dogs We Do: How to Find the Dog That Matches Your Personality, author Stanley Coren said that “Fala seemed to sense whenever a press conference was about to occur. As soon as the doors opened to admit the reporters, Fala would dash in and settle himself at FDR’s feet. He often did the same at cabinet meetings.”
Fala spent a lot of time with FDR, and once the family moved into the White House, Fala got a lot of national attention. This didn’t go to his head though – he was still a regular dog and one of his favorite things to do was to beg for food. Despite getting a special bone included on FDR’s breakfast tray every morning (he slept on the President’s bed) and a full dinner at night, Fala always wanted more. He was so cute that he often got it too! Unfortunately, he was fed so much that he began to have intestinal issues and had to go to the veterinarian. It was then that FDR discovered that Fala had been eating quite a bit more than he should have, and gave the order that no one was to feed Fala but himself.
Another time Fala was caught in a “dog being just a dog moment” was on an ocean trip with the President. In the West Indies, aboard the ship Tuscalosa Fala caused a commotion amongst the sailors. It was hot, so some of the crew were laying on the deck – but Fala had other ideas. He ran up and down the row of sailors, tickling their feet!
One time Fala even jumped out of FDR’s lap while their car was at a red light…and “visited” a nearby fire hydrant!
Fala also enjoyed fishing, although not as traditionally as the President. One day when Fala and the President were on a fishing trip in Florida, Fala noticed that the fish did something fun when they were thrown into the fish pile: they flopped up and down. Fala thought this looked like so much fun that he had to try it himself. He spent the next few days flip-flopping around like a fish!
Occasionally, Fala would escape and be found in various places. One time, he was found in downtown Washington. Another time he was caught sniffing at the doors to the Treasury. Noting that it happened to fall on the fifteenth of the month, FDR was amused and said “He had probably run out of spending money – almost everyone else does on that day.”
One of Fala’s most famous news moments was in 1944. Fala accompanied FDR on a trip to the Aleutian Islands, and all went well – or so he and the President thought. Somehow a rumor got started that the President had forgotten Fala, and then sent back a Navy destroyer to pick him up at the taxpayers’ expense. FDR vehemently denied this, and even made it the subject of a campaign speech on September 23rd in Washington:
These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself … But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog.
Fala accompanied FDR on one trip in 1941 on the U.S.S. Augusta, where he witnessed FDR and Winston Churchill sign the Atlantic Charter. During this time, he made friends with Rufus, Churchill’s poodle, and all four were photographed together.
During the war, Fala even became an honorary Army private by donating a dollar to the war effort. Although this was a clever campaign on the part of the White House, Fala ended up leading the way for the public to also donate in their dogs’ names. This led to hundreds of thousands of dogs becoming privates as well. So you could say Fala even led a dog army.
Fala was so popular that he received a lot of fan mail, including one from a poodle, Abigail, who scolded Fala for chasing a skunk and causing a lot of unpleasantness for everyone involved. Fala had so much fan mail, that he actually had his own secretary assigned to him to handle his mail.
Fame came with a price though. One time Fala wandered off from the President’s side while they were on the Navy cruiser, the Baltimore. When Fala reappeared, he was missing chunks of his hair! It turned out that the sailors had taken cut it off of him for souvenirs.
Fala was with the President so much that he even had his own code name given by Secret Service: Informer. Secret Service called Fala “the Informer” because they were often worried that Fala drew so much public attention that when he was with the President, it put the President’s life in danger. During war time, it was sometimes important to keep the President’s location secret, but with Fala always about and sometimes needing a walk – then being spotted – it made it very difficult to keep the President’s locations quiet. FDR didn’t seem concerned though and had Fala with him as much as he could.
Sadly, on April 12th, 1945 FDR suffered a massive and fatal stroke and died at 3:35pm. Oddly enough, FDR and Fala were separated – FDR was in Warm Springs, Virginia and Fala was back at the White House. According to biographer Jim Bishop, moments after the President’s death Fala began to act strangely. Bishop described it as “a snapping, snarling series of barks was heard. No one had paid any attention to Fala. He had been dozing in a corner of the room. For a reason beyond understanding, he ran directly for the front screen door and bashed his black head against it. The screen broke and he crawled through and ran snapping and barking up into the hills. There, Secret Service men could see him, standing alone, unmoving, on an eminence.”
Fala accompanied the First Lady on the funeral train, and attended FDR’s funeral. He then went to live with Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-Kill, their home in Hyde Park, New York. But Fala never really accepted the President’s death. In her autobiography, Eleanor spoke of Fala’s behavior:
“It was Fala, my husband’s little dog, who never really readjusted. Once, in 1945, when General Eisenhower came to lay a wreath on Franklin’s grave, the gates of the regular driveway were opened and his automobile approached the house accompanied by the wailing of the sirens of a police escort. When Fala heard the sirens, his legs straightened out, his ears pricked up and I knew that he expected to see his master coming down the drive as he had come so many times. Later, when we were living in the cottage, Fala always lay near the dining-room door where he could watch both entrances just as he did when his master was there. Franklin would often decide suddenly to go somewhere and Fala had to watch both entrances in order to be ready to spring up and join the party on short notice. Fala accepted me after my husband’s death, but I was just someone to put up with until the master should return.”
One time while at the retreat in Val-Kill Fala did suffer an attack from a much larger dog. FDR and Eleanor’s son Elliot was visiting with his bull mastiff, and the mastiff attacked Fala, injuring both his back and his right eye. Blaze, the mastiff, had achieved a semi-notoriety of his own a few months earlier. Sent from overseas by Elliot Roosevelt to his wife Faye, Blaze had allegedly bumped three service men off of a flight because he had a higher priority.
Fala did go on to recover and the mastiff was euthanized as a precaution to prevent other attacks. Most of the time though, Fala led an ideal life. He even managed to find love, fathering two daughters – Meggy and Peggy – with fellow Scottish terrier Buttons. He often was seen playing with one of his grandsons, Tamas McFalla.
Two days before Fala’s 12th birthday, on April 5th 1952, Fala was euthanized as his failing health caused life to be a hardship. He is buried with the President and his wife in the Rose Garden at Springwood. Posthumously, both FDR and Fala were immortalized in bronze in a Washington memorial statue.