FDR And His Women

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Getting to know FDR, ER, and Lucy Mercer was not an unalloyed pleasure. I discovered secrets I wanted to sweep under the rug. During the early days of their marriage, ER wrote her mother-in-law that the “Jew party” at Bernard Baruch’s was “appalling. I never wish to hear money, jewels, or labels mentioned again.” In 1917, on an official trip to Haiti, FDR’s behavior to his hosts was as unfailingly courteous as his enjoyment of his colleagues’ racist jokes was hearty. And what was the future First Lady who would champion female equality doing opposing woman suffrage? Moreover, when it comes to historical cover-ups, many FDR and ER partisans would like to bury Lucy Mercer along with the inconvenient prejudices of their youth. But whitewashing the weaknesses of the great is a disservice to them as well as history.

During the four years I spent with Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt, I never stopped wondering at the imaginations of those two children of privilege who came to intuit hardship they had never endured. When I looked at their early prejudices, I saw signposts indicating how far they had traveled. When I thought about their personal flaws, I marveled at the public good to which they put them. As I came to know Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, I began to shed my predilections and prejudices and admire the strength of her convictions, the delicacy of her principles, and the size of her heart. In a tragic situation that tested all three individuals, each behaved with honor and dignity.

The more I admired the three of them, the less I wanted to gloss over their faults. Perhaps FDR’s charm did mask an emotional iciness, and ER’s high-mindedness did make her almost as hard on others as she was on herself, and Lucy’s ability to live a gilded life while one-third of the nation was “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” was unconscionable. But all three were grand enough to accommodate flaws. As Lucy realizes in my book, if you cannot accept imperfections, you cannot love—or, I would add, write history, biography, or fiction.