My Father And Mrs. Roosevelt’s Dogs

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The town house at 47 East 65th Street belonged to the President’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, and on Sundays we often passed it on our way home. The Sunday morning walk was a family ritual. It was my father’s pleasure to parade his “four girls,” my mother and his three daughters, all of us turned out in the tailored tweeds that he favored for women’s dress. In the lead on these walks was my father, the judge, with my mother on his arm—a woman of impressive carriage and striking good looks. My parents were both six feet tall, and they set a brisk pace. We girls took up the rear, a pale-faced, gangling lot who dawdled behind and then hastened to catch up, three pairs of long skinny legs with bony knees. My father thought we were beautiful.

As we approached the house on a certain Sunday morning in early spring—I can fix the year as 1938—Mrs. Roosevelt herself appeared at its front door, a substantial-looking figure, white-haired, in a long dark dress. She was saying good-by to some caller. When the caller departed, Mrs. Roosevelt caught sight of us, and my mother, never shy, spoke in greeting. Mrs. Roosevelt seemed to recognize my parents, and a conversation began that drew them up the steps. My father, who had long admired the old lady, introduced all his daughters to her in turn, as if presenting us at court. We were then aged fifteen, fourteen, and nine—two lanky adolescents and one rounder little girl. We all waited while Mrs. Roosevelt and my parents exchanged platitudes, mostly about the weather and about some large state gathering where they had last met. It was a warm day, the steps were soaked in sunshine, and I remember thinking that in this bright light, close up, Mrs. Roosevelt looked older and more wrinkled than she did in the newsreels. She was then eighty-three, very animated and still handsome—the haughty, aristocratic matriarch of Roosevelt legend now chatting folksily at her front door. Our audience lasted only a few minutes. Mrs. Roosevelt said good-by, and as she entered her house, somewhere inside we could hear a dog barking. My father looked relieved when the front door closed. He was terrified of dogs.

Back on the sidewalk my mother turned to me with the air of excitement that so often stirred in her, triggered by big events or small ones; it didn’t much matter, since she had a way of making the most casual happening into an occasion, into some kind of party. That party edge was always there in her talk and in her eyes, in the whole childish expectancy of her face, so at odds with her Valkyrie posture and her monumental height. And though it was wearing on a day-to-day basis to live with her high energy and excitement, we were all so used to it that by comparison other households seemed dull. My father treated her alternately as an adored goddess who was not to be crossed and as a spirited child who had gone too far.

When she turned to me that Sunday morning, it was to say “There! There’s your interview!” And I realized, with a clutch of fright, what she meant: I was to interview Mrs. Roosevelt. I was a shy girl, yet I had become the star reporter of my high-school newspaper; somehow I could manage talking to strange people when I was in the reporter’s role. What I was now facing up to was my newest assignment—a bimonthly interview with some famous person. I was able to manage the interview, but I was too timid to call anyone up cold to ask for an appointment, and this is where my mother came in. She was delighted to do it, and with her nerve and my father’s wide connections a large roster of New York’s famous people was suddenly available to a small high-school weekly. Mother had set up my first interview with Grover Whalen, then New York’s official meeter and greeter; a second with Lawrence Tibbett, the opera star; and now for the third interview she was suggesting Mrs. Roosevelt—actually, offering her—with a blend of innocence and willfulness, as if Mrs. Roosevelt were somehow hers to convey.

I resisted the idea out of diffidence, but not for long. Mrs. Roosevelt apparently did not resist at all. By the time I came home from school the next day, everything was arranged. In her naive and direct way Mother had simply telephoned Mrs. Roosevelt and explained her purpose, and Mrs. Roosevelt had obligingly suggested that Mother and I come for tea on a certain weekday afternoon later in April. I wanted desperately to go alone; professional reporters did not arrive on scene with a parent in tow. Yet it was my mother who had cued me into this tea party, and I couldn’t now ask her to stay home.