King Albert I as “a railroad man”, and Herbert Hoover’s linguistic ability

In an insomniac moment recently, I hit upon the memoirs of Herbert Hoover as a potential cure. The second volume of three, which deals with the successful years of his political career, starts with him organising at very short notice a visit to California by King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians. This was in 1919, and the royals had arrived in Washington the very day that President Woodrow Wilson was incapacitated by a cerebral haemorrhage, so all of their official engagements in the capital had been cancelled; and the King and Queen knew Hoover from the war, where he become famous for his role coordinating international aid for Belgium.

Hoover managed to get accommodation for the royals in Santa Barbara, by promising official Belgian awards to everyone who helped. This led to a political problem (pages 8-9):

From the City Hall we went to the Palace Hotel, where we had engaged rooms for the King’s use prior to a public luncheon in his honor… I had no sooner returned to the King’s rooms than the Mayor descended upon me with the Order of the Crown, second class—glittering star, red ribbon, and all—in his hand, and a troubled look. The King had just put it on him. And the very next day, he was coming up for reelection. He felt certain that if he faced over a thousand people and reporters at the luncheon with this display of feudalism on his breast, he would lose thousands of votes. It was an emergency that called for quick action.

I suggested to His Honor that certain European cities had been decorated for valor; Verdun, for example, had received the Croix de Guerre. Why should he not speak at the luncheon, refer to this precedent, and go on to grow eloquent over the great honor conferred on the City of San Francisco? The Mayor thought this a stroke of genius. When he rose to speak, he held up the Order for all to see and in most eloquent terms accepted it on behalf of the city of which he had the honor to be chief magistrate, I sat next to the King, who turned to me and said, sotto voce, in the colloquialism of his youthful period as an American railroad man:

“What in blank is he talking about?”

“Pay no attention to the Mayor,” I replied. “He has his troubles. I’ll explain later on.” Which I did. The King was so interested that he asked me to telegraph him the result of the election. I was happy to inform him next night that the Mayor had been retained in office by an unusually handsome majority.

I had forgotten this episode when later I was called on to serve as pallbearer at Mr. Rolph’s funeral—he died Governor of California. On his breast was the button of the Belgian Order of the Crown.

We can date this precisely, because official records indicate that the election for mayor of San Francisco was on 2 November 1919 and that James Rolph won it with the biggest majority of his five victories for that position. (His opponent was Handsome Gene Schmitz, who had been previously sacked as mayor and imprisoned for extortion in 1907.)

But I was intrigued by a couple of points here.

  • Surely Hoover would have spoken French well enough for the King to speak to him discreetly in that language rather then in colloquial English?
  • And what did Hoover mean by King Albert’s “youthful period as an American railroad man”?

The first question is easy to resolve from the first volume of Hoover’s memoirs. His linguistic gifts were in fact minimal. Although lists of presidential trivia celebrate him as the only Chief Executive who spoke Chinese, he himself is much more modest (p 36):

With a natural gift for languages she [Lou Hoover, his wife] made great progress in the most difficult tongue in the world. I never absorbed more than a hundred words. But all our life afterwards she kept that hundred words in use between us by speaking Chinese to me on sotto voce occasions.

As for French, he notes (p 20) that he studied both French literature (which he passed) and German (which he failed) at Stanford, where he was in the very first class after the university opened in 1891. But I suspect that this French literature course may have been in English. In 1899 in China (p. 36) he notes:

I had armed myself with a supply of cheap paper translations of Balzac, Dumas, Zola, Victor Hugo, Rousseau, and Montaigne, so that I made at least a beginning of an education in French literature. It subsequently traveled the more solid road of Voltaire, Mirabeau, the Encyclopedists, and the other Revolutionaries

There is no suggestion of his reading the books in the original.

Between 1907 and 1912, Herbert and Lou Hoover translated the Latin text De re metallica by Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer) into English. Hoover notes (p. 118) that he mainly worked on the technical terms, while “Mrs. Hoover’s ability to read German and some French helped greatly”, which suggests that he was not comfortable with either language. In 1915 in Paris, after a day of fruitless negotiation with the French government, he notes with relief (p. 169) the intervention of a banker, “an elderly and distinguished looking Frenchman, who spoke perfect English”.

Although most Americans of his class would have been taught some French at school, Hoover lost both his parents before his tenth birthday, was adopted by an uncle in Oregon and then dropped out of high school to work in the family business. And being taught a subject does not mean that you learn it. He must have had at least tourist level French, but it was clearly not a working language for him, any more than Chinese was.

Going back to the question of King Albert’s days “as an American railroad man” (my fingers itch when typing that word, for me of course it’s usually “railway”): this story was told by the King to Hoover at their the first meeting in person (p. 186 of Hoover’s first volume):

When he was heir apparent, after his education at Oxford, the old King Leopold had sent him to get some American experience under the tutelage of James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railway in which Leopold had a large interest. The Prince wanted no tourist visit, so he got from Mr. Hill a job as a fireman on the railway. He told me that it was the happiest period of his life. He even made up his mind to abandon his Belgian nationality and become an American. He was sure he would be promoted to be an engine driver in a few years and possibly a railroad president sometime. He thought either of them was a better job than that of being a king. Soon after he began to evidence such yearnings, the Belgian Minister at Washington turned up at Missoula and ordered him, on behalf of the King, to stop dreaming and go straight home. So ended his independence.

Well. The future King’s visit to America in March to June 1898 is very well documented – his diary (in French) has actually been published (with notes in Dutch, sorry). He went all over the country, from coast to coast, dipping into Mexico and Canada (and also visited two brothels in Seattle). James J. Hill and his sons are mentioned several times as offering him hospitality, but there is nothing about working as a fireman, and no mention of Missoula, Montana (the Great Northern Railway’s main junction point in the northwest).

I have not found any reliable record that Albert visited America other than in 1898 and 1919, and his life is pretty well documented. The story he told Hoover is simply inconsistent with his own diary of the trip. I think that he was playing a joke on Hoover in 1915, to exaggerate his affection for America. Obviously he did not say “what the blank…?” at the San Francisco lunch, but something much stronger. However there are plenty of other ways in which he could have picked up the English vernacular, including for instance the brothels in Seattle. So it’s a nice story, recounted by a king to a future president, but I suspect it is fictional.

One thought on “King Albert I as “a railroad man”, and Herbert Hoover’s linguistic ability

  1. When I was over there was a really nice Hoover and the Belgians exhibition at Stamford, who remain proud of him.

    I think this is one of those “stories that aren’t true but were said for good reasons” 🙂

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