The Wonderful Husband

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The captain of a transatlantic liner was his ship’s social arbiter as well as her commander. In consultation with the purser—and often only after contacting the home office—he carefully surveyed the passenger list, selecting from it for his own table in the great dining saloon that handful of men and women whose prominence was so obvious that even the most socially ambitious travelers would be willing to accept assignment elsewhere.

 

This was often delicate work, but not when the captain prepared the seating for the June 7, 1905, sailing of the White Star liner Oceanic from New York. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were aboard, on their way to England and the Continent for a delayed honeymoon. Young Mrs. Roosevelt was the favorite niece of the President of the United States; Theodore Roosevelt himself had given her away at her wedding. She was only twenty and unusually tall—nearly as tall as her husband—and surprisingly diffident, with a habit of gazing down at her hands while waiting for others to speak to her. But there was no question of her social preeminence. Franklin Roosevelt was not only her husband but the twenty-three-year-old son of the late James Roosevelt, who had been a frequent passenger aboard the ships of the White Star line and a good friend of its late founder, Sir Thomas Ismay.

Eleanor was seated in the place of honor at the right of Capt. J. G. Cameron, Franklin wrote home, in one of the earliest of the steady, reassuring stream of letters that he and his bride would write to Franklin’s mother, Sara, “and I next. …”

The young Roosevelts had been married for nearly three months before they sailed. They had put off their honeymoon so that Franklin could complete his first year at Columbia Law School and take his examinations. At Sara’s urging they had started their lives together with a week at Springwood, the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park home—“just where my great happiness began,” she told them.

We know little of how happy the young Roosevelts were that week. Franklin characteristically left no record of it, while what seems to have remained with Eleanor was a jumble of proofs of her own crippling timorousness. She remembered most vividly that Elspeth McEachern—“Elespie,” who had been the Springwood housekeeper since long before Franklin was born—had coldly looked her up and down as she arrived, as if “wondering if I could come up to her expectations as the wife of ‘her boy.’”

Eleanor could never count on anyone’s unshakable affection.

The morning after their first night together as man and wife, standing in the Springwood parlor near the fire that took the edge off the March wind blowing around the house, Franklin had shown Eleanor one of his most precious first editions. Somehow—“in some inconceivable way,” she recalled half a century later, still horrified at the memory—she slightly tore one of the pages. (Perhaps, like a good many of the volumes on her husband’s shelves, its pages had never been cut; he was always a collector, not a reader.) In any case, she wrote, “I held it in my hands, while cold shivers went up and down my spine. Finally, I made myself tell him what I had done. He looked at me with bewilderment and some amusement. ‘If you had not done it,’” he assured her, “‘I probably would [have].’”

 

“What I had dreaded I don’t I know,” Eleanor wrote, “but I remember my vast relief. That was the beginning of my becoming more mature about my fears of displeasing people.”

If it was, it was just the beginning, and the depth of her fears must have honestly baffled her husband, whose own eagerness to please was built upon a self-assurance at once strong and unexamined. The orphaned daughter of an alcoholic father and a distracted mother, and raised by relatives whose interest in her was for the most part merely dutiful, Eleanor had never been able to count on anyone’s unshakable affection. She was always worried that she would somehow offend those who she hoped would love her, that her failings would drive them to abandon her. Her own lack of self-confidence had been a revelation to Franklin, she once told an interviewer: “He had always been secure in every way, you see, and then he discovered that I was perfectly insecure.…” Franklin began to call Eleanor by a pet name, at once fond and faintly patronizing: “Babs,” short for “baby.”

After their week together at Hyde Park, Franklin and Eleanor moved into a small furnished apartment Sara found for them on West Forty-fifth Street in New York City. They spent just over a month there. Eleanor’s insecurities were again apparent. She could sew—a childhood nurse had seen to that—but she knew nothing of cleaning or cooking, could not even order a meal properly, or so she remembered. The hotel staff and its kitchens helped, but it was not easy. She was humiliated by her own incompetence, fearful that she was already proving inadequate as wife and daughter-in-law.