- 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
The historical consensus is that Lucy Mercer gave FDR the unquestioning adoration ER could not. That is undoubtedly true. As a young Assistant Secretary of the Navy, FDR returned home each evening to a high-minded wife who was continually reminding him that he hadn’t mailed the $50 he’d blithely pledged to a hospital for immigrant children or that the story he told about his conversion to woman suffrage was more vivid than accurate. Three days a week he also came home to her social secretary, who laughed at his jokes and responded to his teasing and saw no reason to question his version of the way things had happened.
When FDR and Lucy, who was by then Mrs. Winthrop Rutherfurd, began to meet again in 1941, while ER was importuning FDR not to sacrifice social progress to military imperatives, Lucy was referring to him as “the Source I Do Not Question.” Even more moving than the words she wrote about FDR to others is a letter she sent to him that was until now locked away among the classified documents in the FDR Library. She speaks of “how much you have given . . . and how much more must still be given this greedy world . . . you have breathed new life into its spirit—and the fate of all that is good is in your dear blessed and capable hands.” Still, she cannot help “wishing for the soft life of joy ... & the world shut out.”
Lucy Mercer had a contagious genius for living joyously.
But many women worshiped FDR—the spunky Missy LeHand, the willfully spinsterish Daisy Suckley, the flirtatious Princess Martha of Norway, whose sexy high heels and stillunrationed black silk stockings the press gleefully reported. FDR flattered and flirted with them all, but it was Lucy for whom he had almost left his wife before he had polio, and Lucy whom the White House operators were instructed to put through no matter when she called, and Lucy whom he was with when he succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage on that clement April afternoon in Warm Springs.
Lucy Mercer had a talent, though it is not one held in high regard today. She made other people happy. I am not talking about giving up a career to stay home and raise children, or nursing an aging parent, or other instances of worthy self-sacrifice. I mean a contagious genius for living joyously. Her descendants speak of the insouciance with which she met early hardship. Her parents squandered a fortune with stunning panache, and one morning she and her sister awakened to find they were stranded penniless at their convent school in Austria. They mention her soft heart. She once bought out an entire farm stand so the woman running it could close for the day. They speak of her need to make surroundings beautiful, and days bright, and loved ones glad to be alive.
In 1941 she re-entered the paralyzed President’s life bearing an additional gift. When FDR looked into Lucy’s eyes, he saw himself striding down Connecticut Avenue to the old State, War, and Navy Building, and loping across the sun-washed greens where he’d played 18 holes of golf in the morning and another 18 in the afternoon, and doing a hundred things he’d never given a thought to in the years before he was stricken. That glimpse of a vigorous ambulatory self was not the only reason he returned to her at the end, but surely it was a happy side effect.
If Lucy Mercer’s art was living, the medium in which she worked was personal and the scale miniature. She did not fight for jobs for the nation’s destitute, or decent homes for families living in automobiles, or safe consumer products, or rural electrification, or racial equality, or rearmament. She was an exquisitely sensitive and engaging companion and later a constant and competent nurse to a husband who doted on her. She was a devoted and successful mother to five stepchildren and one biological daughter, all of whom adored her.
FDR and ER, in contrast, battled endlessly to make America a more inclusive society at home and a force for democracy abroad. Their marriage may have been a failure, but their partnership was a triumph. The President sent his wife out as his investigator and ambassador, valued her opinion, boasted of her achievements, and defended her weaknesses. Surely the monumental demands ER made on her husband were proof of her belief in his ability to rise to them. But their public accomplishments took a personal toll. Their daughter Anna wrote in an unpublished article, “It has always seemed to me that the greatest contradiction in my parents was, on the one handy their supreme ability to ‘relate’ to either groups of people or individuals who had problems, and on the other hand, their apparent lack of ability to ‘relate’ with the same consistent warmth and interest to an individual who was their child.” Three of the children testified to their father’s charisma and elusiveness and their mother’s coolness and confusing inconsistency. Moreover, while I do not believe that parents are responsible for the acts of adult offspring, and the nature-nurture debate is far from settled, the five surviving Roosevelt children married a total of 19 times. Throughout her life, ER blamed her early inadequacy as a mother for her children’s unhappiness and took on radio engagements, writing assignments, and other endeavors to further their careers and shore up their finances.