Re-examining Roosevelt

PrintPrintEmailEmailOver the course of the eight years it took me to write two books on Franklin Roosevelt’s first forty-six, I had a recurring dream. In it, FDR and I played endless games of cards across his big presidential desk. He was, as you might imagine, a genial, if intimidating, card player—hearty, voluble, willing to take enormous risks and utterly confident he would win, no matter what cards he was dealt. And from time to time as we played—usually while he told me a long, involved anecdote whose details I often missed by which invariably reflected well on himself—he would wink, take a card from his hand, and slip it inside his jacket.

 

All of Franklin Roosevelt’s cards were never on the table. Still, by the time I’d finished burrowing through Roosevelt’s papers and interviewing a good many of the surviving men and women who had known him, I was pretty sure that while no one could ever know everything about my cheerfully elusive subject, the important secrets of his personality and private life had mostly been revealed. And, for what it’s worth, once my second book was published in 1989,1 stopped having that card-playing dream altogether. I’d finally taken most of the Roosevelt tricks—or so I thought.

Then, a couple of years ago, I got a telephone call. Friends cleaning up Wilderstein, the Rhinebeck, New York, home of Roosevelt’s sixth cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley following her death in her one hundredth year, had discovered beneath her bed a battered black suitcase filled with papers. Since some of them mentioned the President, I was asked whether I would be willing to come up and have a look at them to see if they might make a book.

I agreed to go. Daisy Suckley’s was a familiar name in the Roosevelt literature. No one was more often with FDR during the war years than she—attending picnics; riding in his car; working over his papers with him at the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park or in the White House study; walking the celebrated Scottie, Fala, which had been her gift to him; and, finally, at the President’s side when he was fatally stricken at Warm Springs. Even members of Roosevelt’s staff, put off by her constant but mostly silent presence, and fooled by the skill with which she played what she herself once called “my part of prim spinster,” dismissed her as the “little mud wren.”

She told two generations of scholars who came calling that she had very little to add to the Roosevelt story, had simply been privileged to be a social friend of the President’s. When asked whether she had kept a journal, she smiled and answered with a question of her own: “What makes you think I would keep a diary?”

But, I now discovered, she had indeed kept a diary—thousands of pages of diaries in fact, covering virtually every day she spent with the President. And she had kept thirty-eight of his handwritten letters to her, as well, along with scores of her own letters to him, letters which revealed that they had been far closer to each other than anyone seems ever to have imagined. The book I’ve cobbled together from her papers— Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley —has just been published by Houghton Mifflin; most of the proceeds from it will go toward keeping her remarkable but derelict house from rotting away.

The book traces the trajectory of their relationship, which began as a simple friendship between two lonely people in the first months of Roosevelt’s recuperation from polio in 1922, metamorphosed into a clandestine but genteel flirtation during the 1930s, and then shifted again as the President’s health began its slow, steady decline and Daisy became his unofficial nurse as well as his companion.

A Washington hostess called Roosevelt “the most magnetic man I’ve ever met” when he was still a minor official in the Wilson administration, and the aura of the Presidency only added to his impact. So it is not surprising that when he turned the full focus of his attention on his sheltered, in-experienced Hudson River neighbor, she melted.

But what was it about her that drew him?

She shared the hobbies he loved. She liked old houses and old papers. She enjoyed gossip, too, especially about the old river families among which they’d both grown up, the same gossip that delighted him and his mother—and quickly bored his wife.

But there was clearly more to it than that. Daisy’s papers demonstrate that Eleanor Roosevelt’s assertion that her husband had no genuine intimates was only partially accurate. FDR lived his life in compartments; the fact that he did not confide in his wife does not mean that he did not long to tell at least some of his troubles to someone.

What astonished me most about Roosevelt’s letters to Daisy is the degree of emotional candor they contain. Most of his personal letters were, as his wife wrote, “just letters to be letters”—chatty and high-spirited, but always self-contained. Yet FDR was willing to admit in writing to Daisy—and to no one else of whom I am aware—that he was discouraged, even depressed at times: “Do you know that you alone have known that I was a bit ‘cast down’ these past weeks,” he told her on one occasion. “I couldn’t let anyone else know it—but somehow I seem to tell you all those things and what I don’t happen to tell you, you seem to know anyway!”

Roosevelt could confide in Daisy, when he could not easily confide in his wife, because Daisy could be counted on to listen with sympathy—and not to tell him that such perfectly understandable gloomy thoughts were somehow unworthy of a Roosevelt.