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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
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 Unlike a formerly unpublished letter from which I finally got permission to quote, it wasn’t even classified.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.