- Historic Sites
He had a long, intimate friendship that stayed unknown for almost half a century after his death
April 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 2
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.
He confided in her, too, his exasperation at the limitations polio placed on him—something his wife said she had literally never heard him mention during a dozen years in the White House. “Some day … you must see this country,” he wrote to Daisy while on a train journey through the West in 1935. “It has been a successful trip—really happy crowds of people—even bigger than last year—and there is no doubt of the great great gains in prosperity. My difficulty is in having to keep on my ‘braces’ from early morn till nearly midnight—because at every stop—even a water tower—a crowd surrounds the rear platform & I cannot disappoint them by refusing to go out and say ‘Howdy.’”
Daisy’s journals show also that Roosevelt’s vaunted inner serenity was not as unshakable as we had thought. “The President] had an awful nightmare last night,” she noted at the Maryland retreat he called Shangri-La in October of 1943. “I woke out of a sound sleep, to hear him calling for help in blood curdling sounds! When he appeared at 10 A.M. he told us he thought a man was coming in “through the transom” & was going to kill him, & then sat down on the edge of his bed. It all happened in a minute, I suppose, & quiet settled down again. … I wondered why the [Secret Service] didn’t rush in, but he says they are quite accustomed to his nightmares!”
What astonished me most is the emotional candor in the letters. Roosevelt could confide in Daisy when he could not in his wife.
There are other surprises scattered through Daisy’s papers. FDR did not tell either his wife or his Secretary of State in advance that he was sailing to meet Winston Churchill off New-foundland in 1941, but he did tell Daisy, and then sent her long chatty letters from aboard ship: “[Churchill] … in many ways is an English Mayor La Guardia!” he wrote after their first meeting, “Don’t say I said so!” In 1944 he toyed with the notion of resigning the Presidency once the war had ended, to become Secretary-General of the brand-new United Nations. His inability ever to admit to himself that his paralysis was permanent turns out to have extended all the way to the final months of his life when, with Daisy’s connivance, a self-proclaimed healer was regularly slipping into the White House to give him massages meant somehow to put him back on his feet.
For me, the most surprising—and the most poignant—passages come at the very end of Daisy’s journals and confirm more clearly than anything else I have ever encountered the continuing paramountcy of the President’s mother in her son’s emotional life, even after she was dead. “That big [Hyde Park] house without his mother seems awfully big & bare,” Daisy noted shortly after Sara Delano Roosevelt’s death in 1941. “She gave him that personal affection which his friends & secretaries cannot do, in the same way—He was always ‘my boy,’ and he seemed to me often rather pathetic, and hungry for just that kind of thing. His wife is a wonderful person, but she lacks the ability to give him the things his mother gave him. She is away so much, and when she is here she has so many people around—the splendid people who are trying to do good and improve the world—‘up-lifters,’ the [President] calls them—that he can not relax and really rest.”
Providing the kind of relaxation and rest FDR’s mother had always insisted upon for him became Daisy’s mission. At Warm Springs in early April of 1945, when even Roosevelt seems to have understood his life was ebbing, his doctors prescribed a daily bowl of sweetened porridge in hopes of keeping up his weight. He couldn’t bear the stuff, and so it fell to Daisy to spoon it into him. After his valet had put him to bed, she wrote, “I took him his gruel … and he put on his little act of helplessness! It amuses him to be fed, and I love to feed him. …” During the last evenings of his life then, with the help of his adoring friend, the dying President found solace in willing his mind back to the happiest moments of his life and pretended to be a little boy once again, being cared for by the mother who always meant everything to him.