My Father And Mrs. Roosevelt’s Dogs

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I knew what my sister was now thinking. She was caught because the dog-patting gloves were at home. Mrs. Roosevelt’s fine patrician face was bending over her, solicitous, smiling, the butler was waiting, and my sister had to answer. The choice was between sitting it out here with no one to talk to and nothing to do and escaping to the roof, where there would be dogs. Scylla downstairs, Charybdis up. To my surprise my sister opted for the roof. It was three or possibly four flights above the living room, and I watched her trot amiably up the stairs after the butler. The dogs were well ahead of him, pulling at their leashes.

Mrs. Roosevelt returned the beam of her presence to the other guests. My mother, involved in talk across the room, was unaware that my sister had left. I was relieved that she was gone, though for a guilty second I thought the price of getting rid of her—since it involved dogs—might be a bit high. I then forgot about her altogether and, with an eye to my story, set about noticing the surroundings and finding out who was there.

I never got very far. It could have been five minutes later or fifteen when a thin, wailing sound was heard in the upper reaches of the stairwell, accompanied by distant barking. Everyone stopped talking. The noise grew louder, with a subclatter of running feet on the steps, and my sister’s voice was now distinguishable in the fearful cry “I’ve been bitten, I’ve been bitten, I’ve been bitten,” which she howled all the way down. I was sitting within view of the landing and have never forgotten the sight of her flying down those stairs, panic on her face, tears flowing from her eyes, and blood trickling down one shin and soaking bright red into the white ankle sock. The butler was running close behind her—breathless, face strained, jacket open—and yipping at his heels were the two Pekingese dogs, each trailing a loose leash down the stairs. In a few seconds this procession streaked into the sitting room. There my sister collapsed on a chair, the butler stood in the middle of the room catching his breath, and the dogs ran around barking excitedly. All the guests were now on their feet. Somebody chased the dogs, caught them, and returned them, panting, to the butler, who with one Pekingese under each arm hastily disappeared.

Two figures in the room, Mother and Mrs. Roosevelt, twinned in lifelong maternal responsibility, rose quickly to attend my sister’s leg. Mother looked worried. Mrs. Roosevelt very calmly took charge. She dabbed at the wound with a handkerchief, revealing a long, thin cut. There were no teeth marks; it looked more like a deep scratch. The bleeding had stopped, as had the tears. My sister sat without a sound while Mrs. Roosevelt sent a servant for some peroxide and cotton, applied both, and asked what had happened. Her dogs, she said, were not given to biting people. My sister said it was probably an accident. The dogs had been chasing her, and when she stopped running and turned around suddenly, the teeth of one of them had landed in her leg. Mrs. Roosevelt gave a fond, grandmotherly pat to the injured shin, indicating that the operation and the inquisition were over.

Everyone in the room was now as calm as Mrs. Roosevelt, and with the hubbub past I was ready to follow up on the interview. But the tea party had been dealt a blow from which it could not recover. It was over; everyone was saying good-by. At our turn Mrs. Roosevelt apologized on behalf of her dogs, and my mother apologized in a general way for all daughters everywhere. Mrs. Roosevelt epitomized the perfect hostess, displaying that empathy the French call politesse du coeur . Her parting gesture was to tell me she was sorry we hadn’t had time to talk, but she was sure I could get all the material I needed from a book about her, which she now had in her hand, probably having sent for it after the peroxide. The book, which I still have, was a biography called Gracious Lady, The Life of Sara Delano Roosevelt . It was too flattering, Mrs. Roosevelt said; biographers were always too flattering if their subjects were still alive. In her view the truth could be written only after the subjects were dead. She inscribed the book to me in her big, round, shaggy script and to fasten the memory of that afternoon dated it April 28, 1938.

Mrs. Roosevelt doubtless thought this was the last she would ever hear about that dog bite, but she hadn’t reckoned with my father.

To see the happenings of that day in their full light one must know something more of my father. He was considered a modest man of plain tastes, but in his secret heart he had always regarded himself as the equal of any man alive—with a few exceptions, such as Justice Benjamin Cardozo, Justice Louis Brandeis, Florenz Ziegfeld, Will Rogers, John L. Lewis, Fiorello La Guardia, Albert Einstein, my father’s good friend the New York saloonkeeper and restaurateur Dinty Moore, and perhaps a dozen others whom he viewed in one way or another as being clearly superior to himself. To my knowledge he stood in fear of no human being, which is why it is remarkable that he lived all his life in morbid fear of dogs and germs.