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The Charms of Eleanor

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Bettmann/Corbis
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hyde Park, New York, November 1940

In 1918, during the fourteenth year of their marriage, Eleanor Roosevelt, age thirty-three, discovered that Franklin, age thirty-six, was in love with her young social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Long afterward, Eleanor told her friend Joseph Lash that the discovery was devastating, that the bottom seemed to have dropped out of her life. Yet as her subsequent history persuasively testifies, it was also her liberating moment, a life-changing event that opened a world of glorious possibilities for a woman not too timid to explore them.

Until then she had been bound to a stifling marriage in which her life was spent in unobtrusively loyal service to Franklin’s gaudy ambition and in childbearing. There had been six pregnancies in the marriage’s first twelve years; sex, she later told her daughter Anna, was an ordeal to be borne.

It was a marriage under constant surveillance by Franklin’s mother, the omnipresent Sara Delano, a live-in mother-in-law out of a Gothic soap opera. Sara cast an authoritative shadow over household operations, child rearing, and, worst of all, over Franklin. He was her only son, and she adored him but seemed determined to keep him her boy forever. This desire to clasp him in unending maternal embrace may have accounted for her refusal to surrender her tight control of the family’s considerable wealth.

The discovery that he was having some sort of affair with another woman produced a family crisis fraught with great pain for Eleanor and great danger for Franklin. To those who now think of them as giants at ease on the world stage, their behavior in this moment of emotional turmoil may seem astonishingly youthful in its innocence. Yet they were certainly not young, and the year, after all, was 1918, a time when philandering husbands were a Washington commonplace that capital society shrugged off as part of the local culture.

One of the more notorious was Nicholas Longworth, speaker of the House no less and husband of Eleanor’s cousin Alice Roosevelt, who is said to have discovered him on her bathroom floor one night in intimate embrace with her good friend Cissy Patterson. Eleanor lacked Alice’s insouciant view of the Washington social ramble, however.

She also had grotesque childhood memories of her disgraced father, Elliott Roosevelt, the eminent Theodore’s younger brother, who had been addicted to alcohol, opiates, and obliging women. In 1891 he was the subject of a newspaper headline that said, “Elliott Roosevelt Demented by Excesses…Wrecked by Liquor and Folly, He Is Now Confined in an Asylum for the Insane near Paris.” The confinement was brief. Eleanor was nine when he died, the result of driving his carriage into a lamppost and being thrown to the street. Despite his failings, Elliott was the parent she still deeply loved into her mature years; her mother, who died when Eleanor was eight, she viewed with indifference edging on contempt.

Whatever Eleanor’s psychic motivation, Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer moved her to threaten the ultimate family disgrace. For the Roosevelts, a family rooted in New York’s Hudson River aristocracy, divorce was regarded as an inexcusable social catastrophe. Maurine Beasley’s history of Eleanor’s rise to political power states that she “offered” Franklin a divorce; Hazel Rowley, focusing on the history of the Roosevelts’ family life, suggests that Franklin may have considered accepting the offer since he seemed, she says, “sufficiently besotted with Lucy” to start talking about marrying her.

At this stage the situation had become so explosive that the adults intervened. Franklin was told the facts of life. “Mama told Franklin that if he divorced Eleanor, left his children, and shamed the Roosevelt name, she would disinherit him, not give him another cent,” Rowley writes.

Louis Howe, Franklin’s indispensable political tutor, gave him what may have been an even more persuasive counsel. Divorce, Howe explained, would put an end to his political career. Here was dire consequence indeed, for, improbable though it may seem, Franklin had been seriously planning to become president of the United States since his days as a youngster in law school, and possibly longer.

With impressive gravity he had told his young colleagues that he would not practice law very long, but intended to move upward through a sequence of government positions that offered a good possibility of bringing him to the White House: first winning a seat in the state legislature, then becoming an assistant secretary of the Navy, and ultimately becoming governor of New York. Governors of New York, he explained, always had a good chance of becoming president.

He was describing the route his hero, Theodore Roosevelt, had taken to the White House, and by 1918 Franklin was well launched in TR’s wake. He had already won a seat in the New York Senate, and Woodrow Wilson had appointed him assistant secretary of the Navy.

Divorce from Eleanor would mean the end of all that; Howe was absolutely correct. It was a universally accepted axiom of American politics that a divorced candidate for president was unelectable, and for this reason political parties never nominated such men.

In effect, Eleanor’s “offer” of divorce amounted to a threat to destroy him. Eleanor, whether she realized it or not, commanded the field. Franklin, who obviously realized it all too painfully, chose to salvage his position with a negotiated peace. The agreement provided that Eleanor would continue the marriage with two stipulations. She and Franklin would have no further sexual relationship, and Franklin must not see Lucy Mercer again.

The precise nature of his “affair” with Lucy is unknown and likely to remain so. What Eleanor knew about it came from Lucy’s love letters, which she found in Franklin’s bags. He had returned from a European inspection tour with a bad case of pneumonia and a raging fever, and Eleanor, ever the helpful housewife, had unpacked his luggage. The letters—what wife would have been sufficiently high-minded to deny herself a peek?—confronted her with “indisputable proof,” Beasley states, that Franklin “was in love with another woman, one who was younger, more chic, livelier, and more attractive than she.”

The letters have since been destroyed, “thoroughly expunged from history,” as Rowley writes, with all other traces of the affair. In the absence of documents, both Rowley and Beasley can only speculate on the depth of the relationship, and both end with the conclusion that it did not extend to sex. Rowley, sounding like a detective from a Law and Order episode, has surmises galore:

It would have been difficult for them to conduct a full-scale affair. Franklin was never alone in the house; there were servants. Lucy lived with her mother. It was out of the question for them to go to a hotel. Franklin was known in Washington, and they could not have pretended to be a married couple, nor would they have dreamed of doing so.

What’s more, Lucy was a devout Catholic for whom sex with a married man was a cardinal sin. “Even if Lucy were prepared to incur the wrath of God,” Rowley concludes, “she and Franklin would both have been terrified of her becoming pregnant. Franklin had his own reputation to worry about, as well as Lucy’s.”

The two-part peace settlement between Franklin and Eleanor had a third and unforeseeable consequence: it made Eleanor an independent and equal power in the relationship. She had now been recognized as a serious partner in an enterprise that was both less and more than a marriage. A less clever woman might have failed to recognize the strength of her new position, but Eleanor, blessed with the Roosevelt political gene, moved discreetly to consolidate her gains. Though the marriage bed had been eliminated, she remained a faithful performer of other important wifely duties—doing heroic service for Franklin during the terrible polio years, for example. At the same time, under Louis Howe’s guidance, she was discovering a taste for public affairs and gingerly venturing into what had once seemed the forbidden man’s world where all power resided.

Later she was to fight big battles with big men, and sometimes she won. At the Democratic Party’s national convention in 1956 she did battle with Harry Truman and helped to secure the presidential nomination for Adlai Stevenson, whom Truman opposed. It was a nice irony; Stevenson was the first divorced politician to win a presidential nomination. He won it twice, in fact, and lost the presidency both times to the thoroughly married war hero General Eisenhower.

Public curiosity about the personal lives of the Roosevelts has provided profitable work for scholars, memoirists, journalists, and gossipy hacks for the past two or three generations, producing a tonnage of literature ranging from footnoted monographs to meretricious slanders, with many sound and entertaining volumes like these by Rowley and Beasley in between. That the industry continues to thrive in an age with virtually no historical memory seems odd, since Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were born in the Victorian Age and died long before most modern Americans were born.

It probably helps that they are associated with sentimental movie and TV entertainments depicting their era as an age of American nobility and glory—“the greatest generation” in Tom Brokaw’s formulation. A recent onset of speculation about Eleanor’s sexual history has probably refreshed public curiosity, as a hint of spicy goings-on among the famous usually does. The words “lesbian” and “lesbianism,” for example, are suddenly being used by people and journals normally too nervous about unconventional sex to speak them.

The recent books by Rowley and Beasley both explore the lesbian matter with considerable frankness. Both books are, in their different ways, tributes to Eleanor, thoroughly researched, not too loaded with fanciful speculation, and notable for offering a fresh view of Eleanor’s unorthodox world and the women and men she loved.

Eleanor was a figure of considerable historical consequence on two grounds. She embodied the aggressive spirit of feminism that began challenging male domination of American business and politics in the 1920s; and she became, as Beasley puts it, “a symbol of caring” for the poor, minorities, women, youth, and refugees during Franklin’s administration. In short, a hero of the feminist movement and the champion of the New Deal’s liberal impulse.

Being liberal was almost as difficult in her time as it is today. Ready access to the President meant she could talk sense to power, explaining why Japanese-American citizens ought not be sent to internment camps. Yet she could not prevail against power’s political need to do the wrong thing when the President decided that the internment was a politically essential response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

She could urge him to demand civil rights legislation for blacks, but could not overcome his argument that the Southern states were so vital to the Democratic Party’s political success that it might be disastrous to anger them. Not that a civil rights campaign would have had overwhelming support in the North either, for “the greatest generation” was also a profoundly racist generation with a segregated army and a fresh history of race rioting between factory workers in Northern industrial cities.

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