- Historic Sites
FDR And His Women
A novelist who has just spent several years with them tells a moving story of love: public and private, given and withheld
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
In the FDR Library in Hyde Park, among the effects of Anna Roosevelt Halsted, the only daughter of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, there is a scrap of yellowing paper, about four inches by five. It is covered with a penciled note in the kind of cryptic shorthand I and most writers I know use when insight or inspiration strikes. It begins, “ER: her garlic pills (Sis could smell them on her breath).”
Unlike a chronology of events I later unearthed, the note was not a new discovery. Unlike a formerly unpublished letter from which I finally got permission to quote, it wasn’t even classified. Yet when I came across it, I heard the subversive rasp of a key turning in a lock. Eleanor Roosevelt might have been a saint, but she was a saint with a faddish bent and a powerful peasant breath. The noble woman was human. I was more intrigued than ever.
My fascination with Eleanor Roosevelt dates back to my childhood. In the 1950s and 1960s she was the fearless, indefatigable, right-minded woman every girl who knew there was more to life than cheerleading wanted to emulate. My love affair with her husband, which came later, was more personal and had to do as much with my adolescent yearnings as the great man’s achievements. My mother hated FDR. I naturally fell for him. The void left by my father, who died shortly after the war, made the towering national patriarch even more irresistible. My discovery of Lucy Mercer, FDR’s great love, complicated the story and humanized the characters. I envied Lucy. I pitied Eleanor. I identified with them both. And I continued to worship Franklin. All three lingered in my consciousness long after the need for adolescent mutiny faded. Four years ago, when reports of presidential misbehavior convulsed the country, I found myself wanting to tell the story of three people who comported themselves with dignity and grace in the face of imminent heartbreak and of an era that allowed them to.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the greatest obstacle I faced when I started the research for Lucy, a novel about the love affair that altered and almost derailed twentiethcentury history. (If FDR had not fallen in love with Lucy Mercer, ER might never have become a force for peace and social justice. If Lucy Mercer had been a weaker, less generousspirited woman, FDR might not have become one of America’s greatest Presidents.) Everywhere I looked for Lucy, there stood ER, larger than life, better than good, generous, high-minded, selfless.
She had emerged from a tragic, if gilded, childhood to embrace the underdog, speak up for the disenfranchised, and battle tirelessly for human dignity. Because of her efforts, women as well as men had Civilian Conservation Corps camps, and children no longer drank tainted milk, and blacks got a share, if not a fair one, of the defense miracle that was wresting the nation out of the Depression and into World War II.
Her personal conduct was no less inspiring; she was the embodiment of one of her husband’s favorite words—grand. On the rare occasions when she was less than that, ER owned up to her failings scrupulously. In her autobiographies she admitted to a tendency, when hurt or angry, to withdraw into a punishing silence—her Griselda mood, she called it. During their engagement she wrote to her future husband, “Sometimes I think that a woman’s moods are sent her just as a man’s temptations are.”
But the demands ER made on herself could take a fearful toll on others, especially the man with whom she had linked her destiny when she was only 20 and he had just turned 23. She expected her husband to do well. That was a given. She was also determined that he would do good. In A First Class Temperament, Geoffrey C. Ward recounts a telling conversation between the young FDR and his wife. One morning over breakfast she asked if a letter had arrived. He replied that it had. She inquired if he’d answered it.
He assured her he would.
“Don’t you think, Franklin, that you should answer it promptly?” she urged.
“Oh, I’ll answer it promptly.”
“Don’t you think . . . that it would be best if you answered it now?” she insisted. He left the table to answer the letter.
Throughout their lives together, ER never stopped casting a pall over the short cocktail hour that gave FDR enormous pleasure. Their daughter Anna tells of one evening in the White House when her mother so infuriated her father with her insistence that he address a “sheaf of papers this high” during the 20 minutes permitted for two “very small” cocktails that he flung the entire stack across the room.
The demands Eleanor Roosevelt made on herself could take a fearful toll on others, especially her husband.
The better I got to know the woman whom I had been raised to revere, the more I marveled at her achievements and squirmed in her presence. Please, I begged, when she spent a night on the doorstep because she didn’t want to disturb the servants or, she told her young husband when he returned at dawn from the dance she’d left him to enjoy, to ruin his glorious time by going back to ask him for the key. Don’t, I murmured when on FDR’s first presidential visit to Campobello a dozen years after he’d been stricken with polio and carried off the island on a stretcher, she scolded him publicly for bringing the assembled guests to the dinner table late. But she did. She had to, and J began to resent her for it.