The House At Hyde Park

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From infancy Eleanor Roosevelt had felt at home nowhere, had been unsure where she belonged or how to behave in order to make herself welcome. To be required, year after year, to spend weeks and sometimes months at a time, often without her husband, in this place where everyone else in her family seemed so eager to be, and yet to feel always apart from it, became an agony. Her complicated struggle with the mother-in-law she continued both to resent and to rely upon often centered on Springwood and the children, who, she once confessed, “were more my mother-in-law’s children than they were mine.”

 

Franklin, who did his best always to ignore the tensions between the two most important women in his life, was the exuberant center of things at holiday time too. He supervised the cutting of the tall tree that always stood in the center of the library and placed each of the scores of candles that decorated it in its holder, climbing a ladder to reach the highest branches while the children offered noisy counsel from below. (To the end of his life the Roosevelt tree blazed with candles; in a bucket of water nearby stood a cane with a big sponge tied to it for dousing the sparks.)

Franklin carved the turkey himself, too, proudly producing slices so thin, he liked to say, “you can almost read through them,” a skill taught to every young gentleman at Groton. And after the feasting and the opening of the presents, piled in gaudy heaps on library chairs around the tree, one chair for each child, he read aloud Dickens’s A Christmas Carol , another Groton ritual, performed there by the headmaster, Endicott Peabody. It was evidently an irresistible performance, FDR’s “clear, confident voice … ,” James Roosevelt remembered, “soaring into the higher registers for … Tiny Tim, then shifting into a snarly imitation of mean, old Scrooge.”

 

After 1921 Franklin could no longer climb the ladder to place the Christmas candles or coast with his children or even climb his mother’s stairs. Infantile paralysis forced him to readjust his life at Hyde Park, as he had to do everywhere else. For example, the long, narrow drive that splits the fields in front of the house and runs down to the Albany Post Road between twin rows of oaks is two hundred yards long at most, a couple of minutes’ effortless exertion for a long-limbed schoolboy home from Groton, his dogs tumbling at his heels. After 1921 that driveway would become an infinity; he spent one whole summer trying to stump its length on crutches and never managed it. A local carpenter built parallel bars for him on his mother’s veranda, and he hauled himself back and forth along them, dragging his lifeless legs, chattering amiably all the while to keep visitors at their ease.

Springwood’s second floor gives the best sense of FDR’s physical limitations.

His mother—who had always been “so proud” of his legs, as she was of everything else about him—hoped he would abandon the political career of which she had never entirely approved and come home to Hyde Park, where, under her care, he could take up the tranquil invalid’s life his father had once led. FDR refused, of course, gently—he was careful always to avoid offending his mother—but implacably. It took him seven years to reenter active politics, and he spent most of that time elsewhere, struggling to regain his feet.

He never succeeded, but he did come back often to Springwood during those arduous years, doing his best to hold on to as much of his old life there as he could. He had roads cleared along paths he had blazed as a boy and liked to drive visitors along them in the open automobile Edsel Ford had fitted out for him with hand controls. He went on family picnics, too, sitting on a car seat dragged into the woods for him by an aide.

It is on the second floor of Springwood that a visitor can best sense the limitations Roosevelt’s physical helplessness imposed upon him and how he did his best to overcome them. An old-fashioned hand-powered elevator, once employed by the servants to pull his parents’ steamer trunks up to storage after their annual European tours, was used to get him up to the landing, and a ramp was installed so that his wheelchair could roll up to the long second-floor hall that led past his boyhood room and the room in which he had been born to his bedroom directly above the library. Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., remembers seeing him practice crawling down that hall, so that he could make it to the elevator unaided in case he was ever left alone in a fire. Against his mother’s wishes and the advice of the Secret Service, he refused ever to have an electric motor installed; flames might shut off the power, he told his son, and he preferred taking his chances hauling himself down before the thick rope burned through.

He was, in fact, almost never alone; a valet slept at the end of the hall and in the morning waited for orders in the little dressing room where FDR’s wheelchair, fashioned to his own specifications from an ordinary kitchen chair, sits today.