- 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
I knew her father had died of alcoholism, and her uncles had drunkenly fired hunting rifles at her from the windows of her grandmother’s house. But didn’t she understand that her husband desperately needed a brief escape from the burden of reopening the banks and dreaming up Lend-Lease and responding to the worst naval defeat in America’s history? I shared her frustration when FDR declined to make an antilynching law a top priority, and refused to open the door to the Jewish victims of Hitler’s persecutions, but wasn’t she sufficiently astute to appreciate the adage that to be a great statesman, one must first be a good politician?
Then there was Mrs. Nesbitt. FDR relished rich foods and fine wines. His wife turned the White House over to a kitchen moralist who believed in “plain food plainly prepared.” Admirers sent the President wild game, of which he was particularly fond. It rotted in the basement. FDR expressed a longing for white asparagus. Mrs. Nesbitt told him it was unavailable, though when his secretaries chipped in to buy some, they managed to find it in the local stores. White House cuisine became so notorious that Martha Gellhorn surprised her future husband Ernest Hemingway by wolfing down several sandwiches in preparation for dinner there. Such infamously bad food was not the oversight of a woman too busy filling the stomachs of millions to worry about pleasing the palates of a few, or the result of an inbred disapproval of indulgence and aversion to pleasure. It was a wife’s revenge on her husband, for betraying her love, for falling short of her standards.
FDR was not the only one to endure the subtle retribution of his long-suffering wife. ER relied upon the kindness and sustenance of her friends, especially her women friends. It was with the help of these accomplished attorneys, social workers, journalists, and activists that she found her voice and defined her causes. The relationships were intense, the disappointments profound, the fallings-out fierce. One afternoon while I was touring Val-Kill, the cottage in Hyde Park that ER set up for herself after she had given up the house she’d originally built with her friends Nancy Cook and Marion Dickerman, I asked a noted Roosevelt scholar if he knew the reason for the rupture. He replied that no one did, but that ER, who was breathtakingly generous to those in need, often turned away from those who no longer needed her.
Just as I was discovering a darker side of ER’s character, so a more melancholy aspect of FDR’s life began to emerge. The loneliness of leadership is a truism. After all the experts and advisers have rung in, one man must make the decision to cut the meager pensions of World War I veterans, to give Americans numbers to ensure their social security, to send abroad precious ships and arms that may soon be needed at home. But according to his contemporaries, the thirty-second President suffered a more personal form of isolation.
FDR was the most convivial of men. He loved to gather a group around him while he mixed cocktails, told stories, and traded gossip and jokes. Even during the terrible years when he was battling to walk again, he delighted in company. As he dragged his legs back and forth between two parallel bars, or swung beneath them, or went through other agonizingly repetitious exercises, he kept up a marathon of dazzling conversation designed to distract and entertain. He hated to be alone. Yet he often dined on Mrs. Nesbitt’s inedible food off a solitary tray in his study. The wife of his aide Edwin ("Pa") Watson called him “the loneliest man in the world.” In 1943 FDR told his distant cousin and close companion Margaret Suckley, “I’m either Exhibit A or left completely alone.”
But if his need for company was prodigious, it could also be promiscuous. Most historians date Lucy Mercer’s first visit to the White House, under her Secret Service code name of Mrs. Johnson, to August 1941. My study of the presidential chronology disclosed a meeting on June 5 of the same year. The difference of several weeks would not seem important but for who else was in the White House at the time. While Lucy Mercer, now Mrs. Winthrop Rutherfurd, was having tea with the President in the oval study, Marguerite ("Missy") LeHand, his personal secretary, lay in her small room on the third floor sedated but uncalm. After two decades of cruising the Florida waters and sharing a Warm Springs cottage with FDR, sitting by his side as he sorted his stamps when she knew he needed silence, and arranging impromptu dinners and late-night poker games when she sensed he’d like company, Missy, who was only 43, had suffered a stroke the night before—brought on, some said, by her effort to keep up with FDR. The President’s official schedule for June 5, 1941, reads in part:
"1130: To Marguerite A. LeHand’s apartment
"1555-1740: Returned from Office to Study White House accompanied by Mrs. Johnson
"1740: To Marguerite A. LeHand’s apartment”
FDR was not the sexual rake certain historians have made him out to be, but he did subscribe to the philosophy of the E. Y. Harburg song that would appear the year after his death, “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.” Missy once said he “was really incapable of a personal friendship with anyone.” Some found him almost sadistic. “He always enjoyed other people’s discomfort,” Averell Harriman observed.