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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
FDR was physically fearless, but he could be emotionally craven.
He was physically fearless, but he could be emotionally craven. Though he didn’t mind others’ uneasiness, his need to charm was so great that he hated saying no to people. As a result, practically everyone left the presidential presence convinced his own argument had won the day. FDR fled tears. When his terrifying mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, bullied his young wife, he refused to take sides. According to Joseph Alsop, a Roosevelt cousin and political columnist, ER “had a downright ghastly childhood and youth,” while FDR “had an immensely happy childhood and a youth altogether comfortable and if anything overprotected. It was up to him, if it was up to anyone, to help her reach some sort of accommodation with married life and with her peculiar new surroundings.” The statement is both chivalrous, in keeping with Alsop’s old-school background, and idealistic, in its faith in the power of marital devotion, but the seemingly throwaway clause “if it was up to anyone” is the operative phrase. Could any husband, or any other human being, have healed ER’s wounds?
There was no shortage of people eager to try. The letters of Lorena Hickok, the AP reporter who became a government worker when her closeness to the White House compromised her professional objectivity, reveal a burning, and for a while reciprocated, passion for ER. Joseph Lash was a faithful intimate during ER’s life and an excellent friend in the books he wrote about her after her death. Even Earl Miller, the slippery, selfaggrandizing New York State trooper who started as her bodyguard, was unstinting in his devotion. And there were scores of others. But in 1960, when ER refused to come to the telephone because she suspected the caller wanted something from her, her surprised secretary asked if she didn’t believe people could like her for herself. “Everybody wants something,” ER replied. If FDR was incapable of giving love, as many close to him believed, perhaps ER was equally incapable of receiving it.
STill, if FDR could not save his wife, he did not have to betray her. The young FDR did not take socially unsanctioned sex lightly. When his half-nephew Taddy ran off with a woman from New York’s Tenderloin district called Dutch Sadie, he wrote to his mother from Harvard that “one can never again consider him a true Roosevelt.” The years tempered his priggishness. After Ambassador William Bullitt attempted to sabotage the career of Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles by spreading rumors of a homosexual scandal, FDR predicted that on the Day of Judgment, Welles would receive a rap on the knuckles for giving in to his human predilections but that Bullitt would burn in hell for ruining another man’s life. Nonetheless, FDR had his standards of conduct. In 1940 he wrote his former headmaster, Endicott Peabody, “More than forty years ago you said, in a sermon in the Old Chapel, something about not losing boyhood ideals in later life. Those were Groton ideals—taught by you—I try not to forget- and your words are still with me and with hundreds of other of ‘us boys.'” He also had a simple and unshakable faith in God. Yet after more than 10 years of marriage to a wife whom he would always respect and revere, he broke the rules of God and man and fell in love with another woman.
The experience transformed him. Most historians ascribe FDR’s metamorphosis from callow politician to visionary statesman to his contracting polio in the summer of 1921, but some contemporaries, such as Joseph Alsop and his mother, Corinne, who was ER’s first cousin, thought that loving, and losing, Lucy Mercer was the fire that began to forge his strength and patience even before his illness.
Who was this woman who attracted the greatest man of her time and held him until he died, not in her arms, as gossip still has it, but close enough? She was, to begin with, a researcher’s nightmare. It was not only that Eleanor, with her public achievements, personal tragedies, and flair for emotional undressing in public that would have warmed the heart of a latter-day talk-show host, could not help upstaging her; it was also that Lucy had a passion for privacy. She lived quietly, if splendidly, on a great estate in rural New Jersey and a handsome retreat in fashionable Aiken, South Carolina. She left only a handful of letters and no diaries, or at least none that have come to light. She told a friend she had burned FDR’s letters, though I do not believe that for a moment. Lucy Mercer could not have destroyed words written to her by “one of the greatest men that ever lived—to me—the greatest,” as she wrote his daughter after his death. In the same letter, she admitted that she had “been reading over some very old letters of his.”
The testimony of others, which ranged from the banal to the hyperbolic, affords few clues to her character. One Roosevelt son called her a “lady to her fingertips.” FDR’s mother wrote to her daughter-in-law, “Miss Mercer is here, she is so sweet and attractive and adores you, Eleanor.” I could not believe FDR had sacrificed the complicated, redoubtable, and, in her youth, lovely ER for this saccharine Victorian cliché. Admirers compared her voice to velvet and swore her smile was radiant. They insisted every man she met fell in love with her. I waded through the syrupy tributes in hope of a crumb of real insight.