Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley
edited and annotated by Geoffrey C. Ward
Houghton Mifflin, 444 pp., $24.95
For nearly twenty years I lived at Barrytown on the east bank of the Hudson, upriver from the villages of Hyde Park, Rhinebeck, and Rhinecliff. Technically, I was a River person, since I lived in a River house built in 1820 for a Livingston daughter; actually, I was an outsider from nowhere—my home city of Washington, DC, being as close to nowhere as any place could be, at least in the minds of the River people. The Mrs. Astor, born Caroline Schermerhorn, boasted of having never been west of the Hudson—or was it her drawing room at Ferncliff which looked west upon the wide Hudson and the Catskill mountains beyond? The River road meandered from some spot near Poughkeepsie up to the old whaling port of Hudson. Much of it had been part of the original Albany Post Road, not much of a post road, they used to say, because it was easier to take mail and passengers by boat from New York City to Albany. Even in my day, the Hudson River was still a splendidly convenient boulevard.
The area entered our American history when the Dutch patroons, centered upon New Amsterdam, began to build neat stone houses north of their island city. Of the Dutch families, the grandest was called Beekman. Then, in war, the Dutch gave way to the English, some of whom were actually gentry though most were not. But the river proved to be a common leveler—or raiser up. The newcomers were headed by one Robert Livingston, who had received from James II the “Livingston Manor” grant that included most of today’s Dutchess and Columbia counties. Other wealthy families began to build great houses on the east bank of the river, making sure that sure their Greek Revival porticoes or mock Gothic towers would make a fine impression on those traveling up or down river. The Dutch co-existed phlegmatically with the new masters of what was no longer New Amsterdam but New York; they also intermarried, with the new Anglo ascendancy.
By the middle of the last century, all in a row from Staatsburg north to the Livingston’s manor, Clermont, there were the houses of Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Astors, Delanos, Millses (theirs was Mrs. Wharton’s House of Mirth), Chanlers, Aldriches, Montgomerys. The Dutch Roosevelts of Hyde Park were fifth cousins to President Theodore Roosevelt (of Long Island). They had also intermarried not only with the Beekmans but with the Delanos. In fact, for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his Beekman heritage was a matter of great pride, rather like an Englishman with a connection to the Plantagenets, the one true, legitimate, if fallen, dynasty. So it was with Franklin’s cousin, Margaret (known as Daisy) Suckley; although a member of a good River family she, too, exulted in her Beekman blood and now in Geoffrey C. Ward’s engrossing study, Closest Companion, of the two cousins and their…love affair? the joy that they take in their common Beekman heritage is absolute …