FDR and Eleanor — “an extraordinary marriage”?
Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary
By Hazel Rowley
(Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 331 pages, $27)
The outlines of FDR’s turbulent marriage with Eleanor have been recalled many times, maybe at one time most definitively in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 1995 No Ordinary Time, supplemented by PBS documentaries and a few television biopics. The narrative is fairly well known. A dashing and ambitious young FDR married a not-beautiful but intelligent woman who came from his social class and who was niece to his hero, President Teddy Roosevelt. FDR was extroverted and fun. Eleanor was more serious, sometimes awkward, but loyal. During World War I, while assistant secretary of the navy, FDR romanced his wife’s fetching young social secretary. Eleanor discovered their love letters, was distraught, and offered a divorce. For reasons personal and political, the marriage holds, but both tend afterward to live independently, even despite FDR’s crippling polio, and while maintaining a remarkable political partnership. FDR flirts with various women without necessarily having affairs. Eleanor has male friends, and lesbian friends, also likely not committing physical adultery. At FDR’s death, he is in the presence of his former mistress, along with other friends, betraying his promise of more than 25 years before not to see Eleanor’s former social secretary again. Eleanor grieves the failures of their marriage while also joining the nation in mourning her historically majestic husband, who dies at the height of his glory.
Is there more information to be learned? Apparently so. Since Goodwin’s book, the extensive correspondence between Eleanor and her intimate lesbian friend Lorena Hickok has been more thoroughly reviewed. And new letters have surfaced from Lucy Mercer Rutherford, FDR’s inamorata whose acquaintance he supposedly renewed only at his life’s end. But we now know that he sustained some contact with her throughout his 12-year presidency. Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage tries to collate all of this drama, somewhat entertainingly, though she leaves questions unanswered. The Roosevelt marriage was ostensibly conventional and ultimately blessed with five surviving children until FDR’s service in the Woodrow Wilson administration. Eleanor hired 23-year-old Lucy Mercer to work as her social secretary at the house three days a week. The Roosevelts initially lived on N Street, near the current Tabard Inn, in the former home of Eleanor’s aunt, who was sister to Teddy Roosevelt. Lucy’s once socially prominent parents had lived down the street until her father, a former Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt, lost the family fortune and took to drink. Lucy’s mother divorced him, leaving Lucy with upscale manners but no money. She became a virtual part of FDR and Eleanor’s family. Everyone loved Lucy, including even FDR’s difficult mother, who called her “so sweet and attractive.”
Lucy years later recalled that from the first, FDR and she were “inexorably drawn to each other.” Their affair probably began in the summer of 1916, when Eleanor, as usual, was with the children at the Roosevelt Canadian retreat at Campobello. FDR toiled away in steamy Washington, D.C., enmeshed in World War I preparations and the 1916 presidential campaign. Lucy joined FDR and other friends for boat trips on the Potomac and drives into the Virginia countryside, trying to escape the heat. One jaunt, with President Wilson’s physician Cary Grayson and Mrs. Grayson, took them to Harpers Ferry, then a three-hour drive one way. Washington tongues began to wag. Eleanor’s cousin, the mischievous Alice Roosevelt Longworth, told FDR: “I saw you twenty miles out in the country. You didn’t see me. Your hands were on the wheel, but your eyes were on that perfectly lovely lady.” Even acerbic Alice loved Lucy, and hosted her and FDR at her own home, later explaining: “He deserved a good time. He was married to Eleanor.” Lucy left Eleanor’s employ in 1917 to work directly for FDR at the Navy Department.
AFTER THE U.S. entered World War I, FDR did a European tour, catching double pneumonia, and returning to New York a convalescent. While unpacking his luggage, Eleanor found Lucy’s love letters. Reputedly she offered FDR his freedom, FDR’s mother threatened to disinherit him if he divorced, Lucy was told Eleanor would not grant a divorce, Lucy’s Catholicism probably ruled out marriage to a divorced man anyway, and devoted FDR aide Louie Howe mediated, desperately wanting to preserve FDR’s political career. FDR foreswore seeing Lucy again. Rowley suggests the affair was never consummated. Lucy, a devout Catholic, lived with her mother. FDR’s house was full of servants. FDR was too well known to check in to hotels. Upper-class society then tolerated affairs with married women (Alice Roosevelt Longworth romanced and probably bore a child by Senator William Borah), but despoiling a respectable young lady was taboo.
His reputation still intact, FDR was the 1920 vice presidential nominee at age 38. The Democrats were crushed, but FDR’s magnetic star still shone. Of course, he was felled by polio in 1921, losing control over his legs and never really walking again. Eleanor faithfully nursed him. FDR strove to function as a crippled man but struggled with depression. His doting young secretary Missy LeHand, who affectionately called FDR “Effdee,” regularly provoked bursts of laughter from her boss. FDR took her for extended stays on a houseboat in Florida, where they were joined by other friends. Missy later recalled that sometimes a dispirited FDR, realizing he would never fully recover, remained in bed on the boat until noon. Eleanor always liked Missy and fully approved of her months away with her husband, which also came to include respites at his new retreat at Warm Springs, Georgia.
Rowley declares Missy’s involvement with FDR “romantic.” Whether it was physical is unclear. One married couple lived with the Roosevelts at the New York governor’s mansion and closely observed Missy and FDR for clues but could not answer the question. Despite his paralysis, FDR retained his sexual capacity. Another FDR biographer, Hugh Gregory Gallagher, whom Rowley quotes, is himself a polio victim who speculated that the paraplegic and prideful FDR remained chaste for a wide range of emotional and physical reasons. A very devoted Missy, who never married (though she did have a two-year romance with Ambassador to the Soviet Union William Bullitt), understood FDR’s limitations yet remained completely dedicated to him until her death in 1944. She was mourned as much by Eleanor as by FDR.
Eleanor herself rebounded from FDR’s earlier infidelity and struggle with illness by plunging into a busy world of social and political activism. She created a new set of radical female friends, some of whom were not very disguised lesbians. FDR’s Victorian and authoritarian mother, whose Hyde Park mansion also remained FDR and Eleanor’s home, naturally disapproved of this provocative new crowd. Perhaps himself somewhat amused, FDR went along, eventually building Eleanor her own separate home on the estate called Val-Kill, to spare Eleanor and Mother from butting heads. FDR probably also enjoyed the degree of separation. A female couple resided at Val-Kill with Eleanor until a falling out, prompting a passive-aggressive Eleanor, rather than expelling them, instead to renovate a nearby structure to become her own still separate cottage. All of this construction likely inspired FDR, still stuck with his mother at the big house, to build his own Top Cottage, while promising his mom that he’d still spend nights with her.
WAS ELEANOR HERSELF LESBIAN? Rowley doesn’t fully answer. Eleanor was extremely close to reporter Lorena Hickok, who clearly was in love with her, and with whom Eleanor shared tender embraces and kisses. “And so you think they gossip about us,” Eleanor wrote Hickok after FDR’s election to the presidency. “I am always so much more optimistic than you are. I suppose because I care so little about what ‘they’ say!” Time magazine described Hickok as a “rotund lady with a husky voice, a preemptory manner, baggy clothes” who is “fast friends with Mrs. Roosevelt.” No longer able to be a reporter while publicly so close to Eleanor, Hickok worked in the FDR administration, sometimes living in the White House and dining with the Roosevelts. But the passionate association with Eleanor couldn’t last. Eleanor was too busy, with her family, her causes, and her husband’s presidency. “I’m afraid you and I are always going to have times when we ache for each other and yet we are not always going to be happy when we are together,” Eleanor explained to her in 1934. Hickok died in 1968, and her 2,300-plus sometimes ardent letters from Eleanor became public 10 years later.
Eleanor also had a romantic friendship with her New York state trooper chauffeur Earl Miller, a rugged, uncultured man 13 years her junior. He regularly stayed at Eleanor’s Val-Kill home and frolicked with her and other friends at the swimming pool. One Roosevelt son speculated that Miller may have been his mother’s “one real romance” outside of marriage. Their correspondence was later destroyed. Rowley doubts they had a physical affair, noting that Miller’s marriages and romances were always with younger, pretty women. Eleanor’s other likely platonic romance was with a leftist student activist, Joe Lash, a frequent White House visitor. “I’ve grown to love you so much,” Eleanor once wrote him, while also befriending his girlfriend, and gifting him a Pontiac convertible. The FBI naturally monitored Lash and later taped an intimate hotel encounter between him and his girlfriend, whom the FBI mistook for Eleanor. FDR likely chuckled when J. Edgar Hoover shared the discovery. But seemingly FDR never discouraged Hoover from monitoring his wife’s radical friends.
FDR, despite his paralysis and grueling White House workload, still enjoyed the flirtatious company of doting women with whom he could playfully banter. Eleanor, in contrast, tended to badger him with urgent political requests. One FDR companion was the very attractive exiled Norwegian princess Martha, who called the president “Godfather,” and who called her “Godchild.” Norway’s crown prince remained in London to wage war and gratefully accepted FDR’s offer of refuge for his wife and children. Eleanor exasperatingly explained to a friend that “there always was a Martha for relaxation and for the none-ending pleasure of having an admiring audience for every breath.” Perhaps typical of FDR’s relations with his woman admirers was his flirtation with eventual New York Post owner Dorothy Schiff. Calling him a “sun god,” she later gushed, “If he had said let’s go to bed, I probably would have.” Instead, he had her spend the night at Eleanor’s cottage, and took her for casual drives in the woods. She found the routine bizarre.
MEANWHILE, Lucy Mercer years before had married a much older and extremely rich New Jersey squire. During the 1930s, she occasionally wrote FDR asking for favors on behalf of her family. In 1941, still attractive at age 50, she began to visit the White House (while Eleanor was away) for quiet dinners or afternoon teas, after which she returned to her sister’s house in Georgetown. Later, the visits included FDR’s daughter, who knew of the earlier affair. After Lucy’s elderly husband died in1944, FDR’s presidential train delivered him to the Rutherfords’ New Jersey estate, where he spent a few hours with Lucy and her extended family.
Famously, FDR dropped dead in 1945 at his Georgia cottage. With him were two female cousins, Lucy, and Lucy’s friend, Russian female portraitist Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who was painting FDR. Lucy and the painter hastily departed well before Eleanor’s arrival to retrieve the body. One of the gossipy female cousins spilled the beans to Eleanor, who had to endure a long, awkward overnight train ride with the cousins and her husband’s corpse back to Washington, D.C., also knowing that her daughter was privy to the renewed contact with Lucy. While packing at the White House, Eleanor made a point of sending an earlier FDR watercolor by Shoumatoff to Lucy, who thanked her with a classy note: “You—whom I have always felt to be the most blessed and privileged of women—must now feel immeasurable grief and pain and they must be almost unbearable.”
In her widowhood, Eleanor would become infatuated with her doctor, David Gurewitsch, 18 years her junior. He eventually married his younger girlfriend, with Eleanor hosting the wedding in her own apartment to assuage her private hurt. Eleanor later insisted they all share a Manhattan townhouse together, with Eleanor serving as a sort of mother-in-law, and where she died in 1962.
It was a somewhat strange but not surprising end for Eleanor, who seemed never to find full satisfaction in love. But her frustrations contributed to an unparalleled partnership with her irrepressible husband, who may have been more emotionally distant than physically unfaithful to her. Hazel Rowley’s account of their unusual marriage offers some new haphazard pieces but does not complete a complex puzzle.
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