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!
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.
Daisy’s first “date” with Franklin was in September 1934. He took her for a drive to Eleanor’s get-away cottage, Val-Kill. There is rather a lot in her diaries of little me and the President himself at the wheel.
By November Franklin is writing, “You added several years to my life & much to my happiness.” By early 1935, when the New Deal is in crisis with Huey Long, the Supreme Court, Dr. Townsend, Franklin writes her, “I need either to swear at somebody or to have a long suffering ear like yours to tell it to quietly!”
For the remaining ten years of Franklin’s life, Daisy provided that ear. The letters to her have not all survived but hers to him are complete as well as her diary. She came to know many secrets. She was on hand when Churchill came to Hyde Park. Daisy was not quite temperance but Churchill’s constant Scotch drinking awed her. When they visited Franklin’s blue-haired cousin, Laura Delano, something of a card, the Prime Minister asked for his usual Scotch while the willful Laura, a devotee of complex sugary drinks, gave him a daiquiri to drink. Not noticing what was in the glass, Churchill took a sip and then, to Laura’s horror, spat it out at her feet. Even in my day, a decade later, Laura would look very stern at the mention of Churchill’s name. Interestingly, for those clan-minded River families, so like the American South, Daisy was closer to Eleanor in blood than to Franklin—fourth cousin to her, sixth to him.
If anything “happened,” it would have begun during August 1933 when they took shelter from a storm on what they called Our Hill. The spinster and the sickly polio victim seem unlikely as lovers though, a year earlier at Warm Springs, Elliot Roosevelt assured my father that the President was very active sexually, particularly with his secretary Missy LeHand. But that Franklin and Daisy were in love is in no doubt and that, of course, is the point. They were already discussing a cottage atop Our Hill for after the presidency, or even before, if possible. It should be noted that Missy Lehand’s family thought that the house on Our Hill was to be for Missy and Franklin and I suspect that he might even have mentioned it as a getaway to his last love, Crown Princess Martha of Norway, who came to stay during the war, causing Missy to retire (and promptly die) and Daisy to note with benign malice, “The Crown Princess hasn’t much to say, but as the P. talks all the time anyway it didn’t make much difference. It is strange, however, that a person in her position, & with so much natural charm, has no manner! Even in her own home…she leaves the guests to take care of themselves…”
Daisy reads Beverly Nichols for hints on how to do up the house-to-be. Franklin thinks his own tastes are too simple for “B. Nichols” (how thrilled that silly-billy would have been to know that he was read and reread by the Leader of the Free World). Meanwhile, history kept moving. Reelection in 1936. Again in 1940. The Allied armies are finally beginning to win, and the President’s body is gradually shutting down. It is poignant to observe Daisy observing her friend in his decline. She tries to feed him minerals from one of her cranks. (Analysts found nothing harmful in them, and nothing beneficial either.) She puts a masseur onto him who tells him he’ll soon be walking. So eager is Franklin for good news that he claims to have been able to move a little toe.
Daisy never forgets that she is River not Village. But Franklin the politician must speak for Village, too. She applauds his efforts at educating the national Village folk “because so many people in our class still object to more than the minimum of education for the mass of the people” as “they lose the sense of subservience to—shall I say?—us.” It is plain that neither Beekman cousin ever had much direct experience with Villagers.
Daisy records a very odd conversation with the President’s eldest son, James, on January 26, 1944 (the war is ending),
At lunch, Jimmy talked about the young, uneducated boys who are learning that you kill or get killed, etc., etc., and may prove to be a real menace if, at the end of the war, they are suddenly given a bonus, and let loose on the country—He thinks they should be kept in the army, or in C.C.C. camps or something like that, until jobs are found for them, or unless they are put back to school—He says many are almost illiterate.
Fear of class war is never far from the River mind. Happily, Franklin was ready with the GI Bill of Rights which sent many Villagers to school, while his heir, Harry Truman, compassionately put the country on a permanent wartime footing thus avoiding great unemployment. Curiously, River’s fear of Village was to come true after Vietnam when the Village boys came home to find that they had been well and royally screwed by a Village, not a River, government. The rest is—today.
At the time of the 1944 election, the infamous fourth term (decried by many Roosevelt supporters), Franklin was dying. But he pulled himself together for one last hurrah; submitting to heavy makeup, he drove in the rain in triumph through Manhattan. He was now sleeping much of the day. Harry Hopkins, his closest man friend, was also dying and so, in effect, the war was running itself to conclusion. It was Daisy’s view that Franklin wanted to stay in office long enough to set up some sort of League of Nations and then resign and go home to the River. Incidentally, in all the correspondence and diaries there is not one reference to Vice-President Truman.
Daisy’s last entries are sad, and often sharp, particularly about Eleanor’s abandonment of her husband. After some logistic confusion at the White House, she writes, “Mrs. R. should be here to attend to all this sort of thing. The P. shouldn’t have to—and it has to be done.”
Apparently, Franklin was always prone to nightmares. (Like Lincoln in a similar context?) One night he called for help with “blood curdling sounds.” He thought a man was coming “through the transom,” and was going to kill him. He asked to see a screening of Wilson, a fairly good film of obvious interest to Franklin as Woodrow Wilson’s heir and fellow Caesar; by the picture’s end, and Wilson’s physical crackup, the President’s blood pressure was perilously high; and there were no beta blockers then.
The Yalta meeting wore him out and both Churchill and Stalin noted that their colleague was not long for this world. But he knew what he was doing at the meeting. Eleanor told me that when he got home—they met briefly before he went to Warm Springs—she chided him for making no fuss over leaving Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in Russia’s hands. The Realpolitik member of the firm told her that Stalin would not give them up without a war. “Do you think the American people, after all they’ve gone through, would fight for those small countries?” Eleanor sighed. “I had to agree that he was right again.”
The deviousness of Franklin, the politician, was a necessity, increased no doubt by whatever psychic effect his immobility had on him. One of the reasons he tossed his head this way and that was not only for emphasis but to command attention—after all, he could never get up and walk out of a room—and his constant chattering was also a means to disguise what he was up to while holding everyone’s attention. Of the two, Eleanor was more apt to be brutal. It was a disagreeable surprise to me, an Eleanorite, to read:
Mrs. R. brought up the subject of the American fliers who came down in Arabia, & were mutilated & left to die in the desert. She insisted that we should bomb all Arabia, to stop such things. The P. said it was an impossible thing to do, in the first place, as the tribes are nomadic, & hide in secret places etc. Also, Arabia is a huge desert etc. Besides, it would be acting like the Japanese, to go & bomb a lot of people, who don’t know any better…. I put in one word, to the effect that we have lynching in this country still, but we don’t go & bomb the town where the lynching occurs—Harry Hopkins joined Mrs. R.—but their point seemed to me so completely illogical that I restrained myself, & kept silent!
One is struck by what such awesome power does to people and how it is the “compassionate” Eleanor who wants to kill at random and the Artful Dodger President who does not.
Finally, Franklin’s obsessive stamp collecting pays off. He knows his geography. Unlike subsequent presidents, he knows where all the countries are and who lives in them. He is also aware that the war with Japan is essentially a race war. Who will dominate the Pacific and Asia? the white or the yellow race? As of June 1944, race hatred was the fuel to our war against Japan, as I witnessed firsthand in the Pacific. Yet Franklin, Daisy reports, is already looking ahead:
In regard to the Far East in general which means the yellow race, which is far more numerous than the white, it will be to the advantage of the white race to be friends with them & work in cooperation with them, rather than make enemies of them & have them eventually use all the machines of western civilization to overrun & conquer the white race.
Today, such a statement would be denounced as racist if not, indeed, an invocation of the Yellow Peril.
Last speech to Congress to report on Yalta. I saw the newsreel at an army hospital in Alaska. The President spoke, seated, apologized for not standing but he said the weight of his metal braces was too much. Never before had he publicly referred to his paralysis. The voice was thick, somewhat slurred. It was plain that he had had a stroke of some sort. Then Franklin and Daisy were off to Warm Springs where they were joined by Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd and a painter friend. Laura Delano was also on hand. The River was rallying around him. Then, while being painted, he slumped and said, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.” As he was carried into the bedroom, Laura alone heard him say, “Be careful.” After fire, he most feared being dropped. Eleanor came and history resumed its course, and Mr. Truman does get a mention, when he is sworn in as president.
Toward the end Daisy was always there—closest companion—to feed him and watch him as he dozed off to talk of the River and, doubtless, of Our Hill, though it had been plain for some time that he would never live there. I should note she signed her letters to him “M” for Margaret, her real name, or simply “YM,” “Your Margaret.” He signed his letters “F.” All in all, an unexpectedly sweet story in a terrible time, when, along with wars and depressions and dust bowls, Villages became cities and the River polluted and one Beekman cousin petrified into history while the other, Daisy, simply faded, smiling, away. Ward has made FDR’s story something no one else has managed to do, poignant, sad.
May 11, 1995