The Charms of Eleanor

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…

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