[18 January 2012]
I know: not another biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. After Blanche Weisen Cook, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Joseph Lash’s serious works, not to mention a bookshelf’s worth of other biographies, memoirs, and tell-alls, what could be left to say about the 32nd President of the United States and his wife?
Plenty. Hazel Rowley’s investigation into this most unusual presidential couple will have you glued to your chair, oblivious to the dying Christmas tree or niggling New Year’s Resolutions involving the gym.
Rowley’s previous biography, Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre investigated Simone de Beauvior and Jean-Paul Sartre’s uncommon “marriage”. It set the stage for Rowley’s work on the Roosevelts’ unconventional, amazingly productive partnership. Where de Beauvior and Sartre changed the face of literature, the Roosevelts steered America through the Great Depression and World War II.
It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, known to all as FDR, who sat down with Stalin and Churchill to ensure Hitler never achieved world domination. It was Franklin Roosevelt who, along with his wife, took one appalled look at the unemployment rolls during the Great Depression and created, among other things, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, putting millions of Americans back to work.
It was Franklin Roosevelt who led the country through just over three presidential terms from a wheelchair, without ever letting his constituents know he was unable to walk.
When Roosevelt fell ill with poliomyelitis in 1921, he tapped into a national source of terror. A half-century before the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, disabled individuals were shunted from society into institutions. The idea of a paraplegic president was unthinkable, so, with the help of a devoted staff and a complicit media, he managed, incredibly, to hide his paraplegia from the world.
Unfortunately, it was also Franklin Roosevelt who saw fit to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II, and though Rowley notes Eleanor’s consternation, little more is said. Nothing excuses this decision. Nor can we ignore FDR’s allegiance with Southern Segregationists and his refusal to approve (to Eleanor’s dismay) the Anti-Lynching Bill. The man was far from perfect. Then again, I write this the night before the Iowa Presidential Caucases. The candidates, comparatively, are fools of the lowest order.
There are countless books documenting FDR’s rise to power, his role and place in history. There are perhaps more books about Eleanor. Certainly other biographers have successfully attempted to convey the complexity of the Roosevelts and the people they surrounded themselves with. But Rowley is unique in her ability to ferret out material—letters, diaries, memoirs—and present them in a way that make these endlessly documented individuals feel, long after their deaths, immediate, personal, and real.
Eleanor’s childhood was difficult. Anna, her lovely mother, dubbed her solemn daughter “granny”. Eleanor’s father, Elliott, was an alcoholic whose erratic behavior forced Anna to leave him. In his absence, Eleanor venerated him. When Eleanor was eight years old, Anna died of Diphtheria. Two years later, Elliott succumbed to alcoholism. Eleanor and her siblings were raised in the care of their maternal grandmother, whose fortunes had greatly diminished.
FDR fared better. The only child of Sara Delano Roosevelt and James Roosevelt, he was raised with every comfort. An active, athletic child, he collected nature samples and was fascinated by naval history and boats of all kinds, an interest that would serve him well as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson. When his father died in 1900, the bereaved Sara, with nothing but time and money, grew into an infamously meddlesome mother, and later, mother-in-law.
Eleanor and Franklin were fifth cousins who always knew one another, albeit distantly. They met again while Franklin was attending Harvard. Eleanor had recently returned from England to become an unwilling debutante. Franklin was pleasantly surprised by his cousin’s intelligence. He began courting Eleanor, wasting little time before proposing. Eleanor was delighted. Sara was not. Despite her misgivings, the couple married in 1905, given away by Eleanor’s Uncle Theodore, then President.
The newlyweds faced one serious problem: Sara. Rowley’s portrait of this overbearing woman belies caricature; when Roger Waters was dreaming up The Wall, he might have modeled his “Mother” character on this invasive, controlling woman. Sara had neither tact nor delicacy where her son and daughter-in-law were concerned. Her intrusive ways ended only with her death in 1941. Initially Eleanor was meek: letters to “Cousin Sallie” are sickeningly sweet. But one must consider the era, along with the tremendous power Sara wielded over her precious boy with her bulging pocketbook.
Despite an enviable income ($290,000 annually in today’s dollars), FDR ran through money. During the couple’s honeymoon, he wrote Sara: “Then we went to Combe and Levy and ordered thousands of dollars worth of linen, 8 doz. tablecloths, six napkins… and a handkerchief.”
After Sara paid off the above bills (two years overdue), she insisted on building the couple a home beside hers. The homes were in fact attached, and Sara came and went as she pleased. The family also shared space on Campobello Island, a remote, beautiful piece of land off Maine. As Eleanor chafed, Franklin, long adept at managing his mother, easily avoided getting caught between the women, neatly eluding both.
Eleanor had more than Sara to contend with. The first four years the Roosevelt marriage were subsumed by childbearing. Their third child, Franklin, Jr., died at seven months. After the birth of John, the sixth and final Roosevelt offspring, the couple kept separate bedrooms. Rowley can offer only speculation as to why there were no more children: either the couple stopped sleeping together or discreetly used birth control.
In 1917, FDR had an affair with Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer. He did little to hide the romance, and after some months, Eleanor found their letters. The affair was a watershed moment in the marriage. Eleanor offered FDR his “freedom”. Whether this meant divorce or permission to sleep with other women is unknown. Rowley writes sensitively of Eleanor’s terrible pain, FDR’s guilt, and the fallout within the family’s circle. The affair did permanent damage to the marriage, but at the urgings of Sara and Louis Howe, a newspaper reporter who gave up his career to work for FDR, the couple stayed together.
Howe was also instrumental in helping the couple deal with FDR’s polio. During the worst moments of FDR’s illness, Howe sat bedside, insisting on keeping him engaged with the events of the day. He would leave FDR’s room only to cheer the exhausted, emotionally overcome Eleanor. His devotion nearly cost him his wife, Grace, who accused him of adultery. Here is Howe’s tortured response:
“Dearest wife of mine…
I have given all my life to try and make you happy but I only make you more unhappy…So many things you don’t want—what is there that you do?
love you love you love you
Your husband” (sic)
Louis Howe wasn’t the only person whose devotion to the Roosevelts eclipsed any chance at a personal life. Through the years a number of people would literally live and die for the couple. Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, FDR’s secretary, came to work for “Effdee” as a single, pretty young woman. When her beloved “Effdee” fell ill, she sent daily letters, brightly happy notes that, like Louis Howe’s urgent bedside chats, assumed FDR’s recovery and return to politics. Though the true nature of their relationship remains unknown, Missy’s complete devotion to her boss is well-documented. Rowley writes:
“Whatever form it took, the relationship was hard on Missy. Missy was in love with a married man… She could never be open about her feelings for Franklin—not even among their friends. She could not make emotional demands on him; she was officially his secretary, his employee… She did her best to be the sunny, loving companion he wanted her to be.”
The pressures became unbearable. In 1927, on a visit to Warm Springs, a Georgia resort, Missy had a nervous breakdown. She recovered enough to resume working, following FDR to the White House. In 1941, at age 43, she suffered a massive stroke that left her unable to speak or walk. She died two years later.
Later, Eleanor’s secretary Malvina “Tommy” Thompson would willingly divorce her husband in service to Eleanor, telling Lorena Hickok: “My boss is a very big person…just about the biggest person in the world. Anything I can do for her—no matter what—justifies my existence.” Louis Howe’s fragile health meant he died soon after Missy; later, Franklin’s devoted caregiver and bodyguard Gus Gennerich would die of a heart attack at age 50.
Rowley’s treatment of FDR’s struggle with polio merits further mention. FDR was only 39 years old when he fell ill. This athletic man, who so loved sailing and had recently impressed members of the Democratic Party by leaping over chairs at a convention, literally lost the ability to walk overnight.
The era’s best medical treatments seem barbaric by today’s standards. The recommended massages, casts, and braces were agonizingly painful, often only worsening patient outcomes. But FDR was compliant. He did his exercises, building his upper body strength. Each day he was strapped into metal braces so tight they cut into his flesh, took up crutches, and attempted to “walk” down the driveway. He often fell in a heap and had to be picked up by Leroy, his caregiver.
Despite all this, he did his best to maintain a happy facade. Only Missy knew the extent of his depression, admitting it sometimes took until noon for FDR to pull himself together, dress, and face his friends with his usual devil-may-care attitude.
Amid all this personal turmoil, Roosevelt’s political star continued to rise. Rowley gives ample space to his positions as Secretary of the Navy under Wilson, the governorship of New York, and the Presidency. But her real story is the Roosevelts themselves, and the people who surrounded them.
As FDR moved into higher political office, Eleanor found herself increasingly involved in politics. Hers was an incredible schedule that included, at various times, working for the Red Cross, the New York League of Women Voters, teaching at a private girls school, and working at the Democratic State Headquarters. Her writing for the Women’ Democratic News had to stop after her husband become the Governor of New York, but her efforts toward equality, particularly for African Americans, were ceaseless.
When FDR became President, Eleanor began a daily newspaper column, “My Day”, giving her a forum to support her husband’s policies. She traveled widely, giving lectures and mingling freely with the American people, who adored her.
Eleanor’s work with the New York League of Women Voters brought her into contact with a new group of women, including a group of lesbian suffragettes who would become good friends. For a time Eleanor even shared a cottage at Campobello with partners Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman. She also became close friends with newswriter Lorena Hickok. The women had a brief, intense affair; echoing Missy’s plight, Hickok found herself unable to share the First Lady, wanting precious time alone. The women remained friends, but the affair did not last.
World War II forced the couple to work harder at a time when FDR’s health was deteriorating. Despite taking care with his diet, his blood pressure often soared. His doctors soon realized FDR was in heart failure. The President insisted on secrecy. He did not tell Anna, his daughter, now living in the White House and filling Missy’s role. Nor did he tell Eleanor.
Meanwhile, Lucy Mercer, now a widow, began seeing FDR again. Her visits were carefully kept from Eleanor. It was impossible, however, to hide the fact that Lucy Mercer was with FDR the day he died. The two were at lunch in Warm Springs when he lost consciousness, dying that afternoon. Eleanor had to be called in Washington.
As the inevitable drew near, I found myself reading faster, a terrible habit. The President fought with a quiet tenacity that confounds the current imagination. As Rowley documented FDR’s decline, then wrote plainly of his death, of how Eleanor consoled Truman, of how people fell to their knees in the street, sobbing as the funeral cortege went by, I also wept, scrabbling for tissues.
Yes, a great if fallible man had died. But so had somebody else: his biographer. On 1 March 2011, Hazel Rowley died unexpectedly after a series of strokes. She was 59 years old. Franklin and Eleanor was her final book.