Miss Eleanor Roosevelt

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First the shock.

It came to her in the great white house her Grandfather Warren DeIano had built in Fairhaven, the house now legally owned by all the Delano brothers and sisters but actually managed, along with the trust fund that accompanied it, by Sara’s elder brother, Warren IH. The Delano clan had gathered there for Thanksgiving, 1903. And perhaps it was on Thanksgiving Day itself in a room redolent of the turkeys that roasted in the kitchen —possibly a room containing mementos of the old China trade and, upon one wall, the coat of arms of Jehan de Lannoy, Knight of the Golden Fleece—perhaps it was then and there that he told her, as tactfully as possible, after a considerable verbal preparation, that he had fallen in love with Eleanor Roosevelt, had proposed marriage to her, had been accepted.

His mother was visibly staggered. She could not at first believe her ears. Her handsome son “had never been in any sense a ladies man,” according to her recorded belief. “I don’t believe I remember ever hearing him talk about girls…” she later wrote. Certainly he had shown no slightest romantic interest in any girl. Yet here he was, a college student who had cast his first ballot less than three weeks before, who had yet to earn a dollar of his own or decide definitely upon a career—here he was, not seeking her advice, much less her permission, but simply flatly informing her, as of an accomplished and irrevocable fact, that he was going to be married! And to Eleanor Roosevelt! Of the girl’s suitability in terms of family and social standing there could be no question, though her immediate family situation might well raise certain doubts: she was a Roosevelt, after all, and a niece of the President of the United States. Moreover, she was a sweet thing, rather pathetically so, eager to please and gratifyingly grateful for every kindness shown her. But she seemed not at all the kind of girl who would seriously attract Franklin, being quite easily classifiable, in the metaphorical botany of the day, as both wallflower and (potentially at least) clinging vine. She was certainly not beautiful. Her large lustrous eyes were truly lovely, and she had a good figure and complexion; but all this was offset by her protruding teeth and slightly receding chin and by the self-conscious awkwardness she often displayed. She shared few if any of Franklin’s active interests. She was not good at winter sports, she was a poor sailor, she couldn’t swim, she played neither tennis nor golf, and she had no special interest in nature nor any at all in collecting. She seemed old for her age (she was only nineteen), and in unattractive ways, being excessively tense and earnest, as well as timid and retiring, with little evident force of mind or charm of personality. What, then, did Franklin see in her?

And how could he have arrived at his decision, through a process that must have extended through months of increasingly frequent meetings and growing intimacy, without his mother’s having had the slightest inkling of what was going on?

To her there seemed but one explanation of her surprise. Her son had been deliberately secretive, had taken pains to exclude her from knowledge of the most important development in his life thus far; and she could not but feel this as a derogatory and even a contemptuous commentary upon herself and her relationship (she had believed it to be an almost perfect rapport) with her son. It was as if she were being cast aside —her love spurned, her authority flouted, her wisdom denied, her loneliness assured. And her first response, after the shock wore off, seems to have been a more or less calculated play for sympathy, an expression of hurt that was like a sword aimed at the tender heart and filial conscience of her son, at the faint heart and puritanical self-denial of Eleanor.