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Love on the Hudson

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 proof that although President Roosevelt wanted to inaugurate “the age of the common man” it was quietly understood from the very beginning that a Beekman connection made one a good deal more common than any other man and, thus, democracy had been kept at bay.

I remember Daisy well. She was a small, pleasant-looking woman in her sixties, with a charming, rather secretive smile. She had a soft voice; spoke very little. Unmarried, she lived in her family house, Wilderstein, having sold off an adjacent River house, Wilder-cliff, to the critic and Columbia professor F.W. Dupee. I would see her at the Dupees and at Mrs. Tracy Dows’s but only once at Eleanor Roosevelt’s Hyde Park cottage (the ladies did not really get on); I knew that she was the President’s cousin (Eleanor’s too) and that she had been with Franklin the day he died in Georgia. One thought of her as a poor relation, a useful near-servant, no more. By and large, there was not much mingling of the River cousinage. As the Astor family chieftain, Vincent, put it, “No Visititis on the Hudson.” Even though—or because—they were all related, most seemed to be on amiably bad terms with the rest. Only Daisy, wraith-like, moved from River house to River house, a benign presence. Now Ward has read her letters to Franklin as well as Franklin’s letters to her, and Daisy has become suddenly very interesting as Ward, politely but firmly, leads her onto history’s stage.

Did Daisy and Franklin have an affair? This is the vulgar question that Ward is obliged to entertain if not answer. But what he is able to demonstrate, through their letters and diaries, is the closest friendship of our complex mysterious President, who kept people in different compartments, often for life, never committing too much of his privacy to anyone, except his Beekman cousin and neighbor, quiet Daisy.

It is no secret that Ward has already written by far the best study* of Franklin Roosevelt that we are ever apt to get. Along with his scholarship and wit, the last rather rare in American biography, Ward shared with Roosevelt the same misfortune, polio—he, too, spent time at Warm Springs, Georgia, a spa that Roosevelt had founded for himself and others so struck. Polio was the central fact of Roosevelt’s mature years. He could not walk and, toward the end, could no longer even fake a steel-braced up-right step or two where useless leg muscles were compensated for by strong arms and whitened knuckles, as he clutched at the arm of a son or aide.

The first fact of Franklin’s entire life was his adoring mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, known to the River as Mrs. James. She adored him, he adored her. He always lived in her house on the River where she was chatelaine, not his wife and cousin, Eleanor. By 1917, the Franklin Roosevelt marriage effectively ended when Eleanor discovered that he was having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eleanor’s ultimatum was swift; give up Lucy or Eleanor will not only divorce Franklin but allow Lucy the added joy of bringing up his five children. Since Franklin already had the presidency on his mind, he gave up Lucy while Eleanor, with relief, gave up their sexual life together. Gradually, husband and wife became like two law partners. He did strategy and major court-room argument; she went on circuit. I never detected the slightest affection—as opposed to admiration—for Franklin in the talks that I had with Mrs. Roosevelt during the last years of her life. She had been profoundly shaken to find that Lucy was present that day at Warm Springs when he had his terminal stroke. Worse, she discovered that he had been seeing her for years, often with the connivance of Daisy. Eleanor at the graveside was more Medea than grieving widow.

A number of “new aspects of Franklin’s character emerge from those previously unpublished letters and diaries, many not even known of until now. One is his almost desperate need for affection from a woman (or amiable company from a man like Harry Hopkins) and how little he got of either. Until his mother’s death, he relied on her for comfort. When she was gone he was either alone and depressed in the White House or surrounded by people for whom, despite his failing strength, he had to be unrelievedly “on” or, as he put it, “Exhibit A.”

Most Rooseveltians are either Franklinites or Eleanorites. Since I never knew him, I saw him largely through my family’s eyes—that is to say as a sinister, rather treacherous, figure who maneuvered us into war—while Eleanor I got to know as a neighbor and, later, as a political ally when I ran for Congress in the District. Now I begin to see how Eleanor must have looked to Daisy and, perhaps, to Franklin, too. The portrait is forbidding. She is forever on the move, on the firm’s behalf, of course, but there are hints that she would rather be anywhere than at his side. Daisy is almost always careful to praise Eleanor’s good works. But there are times when Daisy grows exasperated with a wife who is never there to look after an invalid husband who, by 1944, is visibly dying before their eyes. On February 8, 1944, Daisy notes in her diary: “I said he should either take a rest or a short drive, every afternoon. He said he hated to drive alone. I said he should ask Mrs. R. He laughed: ‘I would have to make an appointment a week ahead!’ ”

Eleanor also saw to it that Franklin would never have a decent meal in the White House:

The P. [President] & all the men came back about 7.45; all enthusiastic about their supper. The P. told them at supper that in the W.H. he never had such good beef stew, carrots, macaroni, home baked bread, butter, & coffee! Poor Mrs. [Henrietta] Nesbitt, the W.H. housekeeper!

Ward comments:

Mrs. Nesbitt was a Hyde Park caterer whom Eleanor Roosevelt had hired to manage the White House kitchens. FDR disliked her and detested her pallid cooking, but was unable to get rid of her. She was evidently as imperious as she was inept; when the President sent her a memorandum detailing his dislike of broccoli, she ordered the chefs to serve it to him, anyway. “It’s good for him,” she said. “He should like it.”

Daisy concedes, “His wife is a wonderful person, but she lacks the ability to give him the things his mother gave him. She is away so much, and when she is here she has so many people around—the splendid people who are trying to do good and improve the world, ‘uplifters’ the P. calls them—that he cannot relax and really rest.” But then, confronted with the disastrous news of his first thorough medical check-up in the spring of 1944—enlarged heart, congestive heart failure, hypertension—Eleanor said that she was not “interested in physiology.” Like Mary Baker Eddy, she felt such things were weaknesses in the mind.

The Beekman cousins began their close relationship when he invited her to his first inauguration as president. Daisy was enthralled and wrote her cousin not long after, and so the long correspondence began; later, they would travel together. Daisy was what used to be called, without opprobrium, a spinster. Of the two boys and four girls at Wilderstein only one girl was to marry. Their mother, still alive in the Thirties, loathed sex and, as Ward puts it, “invariably wept at weddings at the thought of the awful things awaiting the bride.” Daisy showed no interest in marriage and, presumably, none in sex. By 1933 the Suckley fortunes were at a low ebb; the eldest brother had invested badly but then matters stabilized and she had her small income and could still live at home. In due course, she was put in charge of the Roosevelt library at Hyde Park. She was intelligent but not clever; drawn to quack doctors, numerologists, astrologists; she also knew that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln was constantly aprowl in the White House.

  1. *

    Before the Trumpet: Young Franklin Roosevelt, 1882–1905 (Harper and Row, 1985), and A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt (Harper and Row, 1989).

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