My Father And Mrs. Roosevelt’s Dogs

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The appointed day arrived. We were ready early, Mother wearing her new hat and holding white gloves. I was in my Sunday tweeds and had tucked a note pad and two sharpened pencils into my purse. Stored in my head was the list of questions I had in readiness for that moment when Mrs. Roosevelt would talk to me, I hoped alone. As we were about to leave, my youngest sister, the nine-year-old, who had been standing around watchfully, suddenly grasped my arm and began to plead “Take me with you, please take me with you, I want to go” over and over, as in a chant. I was startled; having her aboard this afternoon was out of the question. I objected, my mother tried to reason with her, the hour grew later, and still the pleading went on. My sister promised she would say nothing, do nothing, just sit there and listen; she only wanted to see Mrs. Roosevelt and the inside of that house. She would never have another chance, never ask me another favor again, if only if only if——the words gave way to sobs. Mother was moved. “Take her along,” she said. I may have been moved too, but I don’t recall it, nor ever saying Yes. All I remember is my sister making a fast switch into her Sunday clothes and coming along.

I had reason later to recall her bare pink legs, cuffed at the ankles by white party socks, and her feet in patent-leather party shoes. She had washed her face of tear stains and was now smiling—a smile wreathed in metal, because at that time her front teeth were covered by braces for straightening, an indignity all of us girls had to suffer in turn. She was otherwise a benign-looking child with big dark eyes in a round, intelligent face, fringed across the forehead by neatly cut bangs. A strong-willed child and too curious, but actually not a bad kid. As we turned the corner of Sixty-fifth Street that day my only real objection to her was that I wished she had never been born.

We were again at the steps, which led up to an austerely high, arched doorway. As usual, a policeman stood guard outside. The house was of white stone, some five stories tall, and though it looked from the outside like one house, inside it was really two. One was the residence of Sara Delano [Mrs. James] Roosevelt; the other was the New York home of the Franklin Roosevelts. The double house was then well known, being the place where the President stayed when he was in town.

A middle-aged butler let us into the vestibule, which opened into both houses. We followed him through the door on Sara Delano’s side and up a flight of steps to an upstairs sitting room. My remaining impression is of a large, comfortable room, not stylish but handsome, a room full of good brown woods and yielding upholstery, a lively clutter of objects and framed photographs, and the respectable silver and china appropriate to the ceremony of pouring tea.

It was all disarmingly informal, some ten or fifteen people moving around and talking—among them, I think, a sister of Mrs. Roosevelt’s, an elderly couple from Paris or someplace, and a woman reporter from one of the New York papers. I never did get to find out exactly who they all were. Mrs. Roosevelt walked over to greet us. I remember her as being even taller than she actually was, a woman of firm step, with F.D.R.’s beacon smile and his marked uptilt of the chin, and with a distinctive voice—Brahmin, yet very warm—that reminded one of F.D.R.’s fireside radio chats. My mother, who could fall into a conversation with anyone anywhere, joined a talk cluster across the room. I sat down with my teacup, alone, wondering how and when I could engineer a few private words with Mrs. Roosevelt.

My sister sat across from me, her tea and biscuits finished, looking toward me for some hint of what to do next. I noticed her feet in the shiny black shoes, shifting about, the feet of a restless child. Mrs. Roosevelt may have noticed them too, because at that moment she came over to ask my sister if she wouldn’t like to go up to the roof with the butler and play with the dogs. As I recall it, the butler was standing at the threshold of the room, on the stair landing, holding two small brown Pekingese dogs on their leashes. It was time for their afternoon airing.

My sister looked stricken. Play with the dogs! In those days my sisters and I, conditioned by my father’s example, were still intensely afraid of dogs, even small ones on leashes. My mother had normal, affectionate feelings toward dogs, and whenever possible in our presence she would pick one up and stroke him and let him lick her face, even put her hand in his mouth; but my father’s influence in our household being always somehow the stronger one, her exhibitions of dog loving never touched our hearts. She made dogs no less fearsome; we simply thought she was braver than the rest of us and was showing off. Outside the family circle none of us ever spoke of our dog phobia, which embarrassed us, and we tried to hide it. Now and then, for appearances, we would pat a friend’s dog on the street or let it nuzzle our hands, but only if we were wearing heavy leather gloves.