WASHINGTON (AP).- A handwritten letter from fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini congratulating President Franklin D. Roosevelt on his inauguration, and a note from a woman who had a brief affair with Roosevelt were shown to the public for the first time Wednesday at the National Archives.
The 5,000 documents and gifts collected by Roosevelt's secretaries include a note from Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, who had an affair with Roosevelt that forever changed his marriage to Eleanor Roosevelt when she discovered the infidelity in 1918.
Rutherfurd wrote Roosevelt's personal secretary, Grace Tully, a week before his death in 1945 to arrange a visit with a portrait painter and photographer. The "Unfinished Portrait" was in progress when he collapsed and died.
The meetings with Rutherfurd were kept secret from Eleanor Roosevelt until after her husband's death, and the letter is evidence Tully was involved in communications between Rutherfurd and Roosevelt.
The 14 boxes of items had been sealed with duct tape for years, and were considered the last great privately-held collection of papers for Roosevelt's presidential library in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Anne Roosevelt, the president's granddaughter, said Tully and another personal secretary, Marguerite "Missy" LeHand, were devoted to Roosevelt.
"Their understanding of what to save and what to collect was important," she said. "We are grateful to them for being pack rats."
It took an act of Congress to get the documents to the National Archives, though, after an ownership dispute. The Sun-Times Media Group Inc., formerly Hollinger International Inc., bought the collection in 2001 for $8 million. In 2004, Hollinger put the items up for sale at Christie's auction house, but the National Archives claimed ownership to some of the times, saying they were presidential materials. The company eventually agreed to donate the items in exchange for a tax credit.
A 2009 bankruptcy filing by the Sun-Times Media Group could have scuttled the whole deal, said Roosevelt library director Cynthia Koch. The multimillion dollar collection could have been divided up and sold off.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Louise Slaughter sponsored bills to smooth the way for the donation with a full tax deduction. Schumer said it will ensure the papers are preserved.
"It has a magical feeling to hold a paper that Roosevelt himself had and to put yourself in his place as he made decisions about some of the most vexing problems our country ever faced," he said.
The donation became official June 30 after President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.
In the past month, archivist Robert Clark has sorted and organized about a third of the collection.
"For the first time, you see the inner workings of FDR's inner office and how Missy and Grace interacted with the president but also how they interacted with all those people around Roosevelt," Clark said.
A month after World War II broke out in Europe, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Kennedy wrote a personal note from London to LeHand. He described his view of the war, along with some personal reflections.
"It is lonesome as the devil here without the family and at the same time the delivery of mail is very bad, and chances are from now on it is going to be worse," Kennedy wrote.
The Roosevelt library plans to make the papers available to the public for research by Nov. 15 and will post them all online in January. Clark said it's too soon to know whether the collection will change any Roosevelt history.
Much is still unknown about Roosevelt, so the collection will prove valuable, said U.S. Archivist David Ferriero.
"They help fill gaps in the record of a presidency that changed America," he said. "Roosevelt did not keep a diary, did not sit for extensive interviews with historians, did not live to write his memoirs, and he never completely confided in anyone, not even his wife."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.