The Wonderful Husband

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Franklin offered her what reassurance he could, while doing his best to keep up with his studies. But it may have been with some relief that the young Roosevelts shifted to Sara’s empty, rented brownstone at 200 Madison Avenue when she moved up to Hyde Park at the end of April. Elespie was sent down from Springwood to manage their little household and supervise the cook and waitress. Eleanor was not to worry; Sara would take care of things, and while her children were abroad, she would do her best to find them a house to rent for the coming year. The young wife was almost pathetically grateful. “Thank you so much dear for everything you did for us,” she wrote to her mother-in-law that spring. “You are just the sweetest, dearest Mama to your children. …”

More than anything in the world, that was what Sara wanted to hear. For she, too, was then full of fears. She had long before lost the father she revered and, more recently, the husband she loved. Her great worry now was that she would also somehow lose the son who was all she had left. “How can I be thankful enough to God for you,” she once wrote Franklin, “when He has taken from me the love & devotion that have so long been mine?”

Both Franklin and Eleanor understood Sara’s fear, and they tried hard to live up to the pledge Franklin had given her after he told her of his secret engagement. “Nothing,” he had said then, “can ever change what we have been & always will be to each other—only now you have two children to love & to love you.”

Sara did her best to believe that, and Franklin and Eleanor did their best to demonstrate it. They spent nearly every weekend with her at Hyde Park that spring, and when they could not come to see her, she often came into town to see them.

But as their departure for Europe drew near, Sara became more tremulous. On June 7 she went with them to the dock and saw them safely to their cabin, but she left the Oceanic long before it sailed, unwilling to trust herself not to break down.

Aboard ship Franklin made friends easily, though mostly among older people, who were not put off, as men and women his own age still often were, by his sometimes overeager charm. He reported to his mother that he got along well with all the other passengers at the captain’s table: “Mr. Lancaster, an old Liverpool merchant & quite interesting, … a Mr. Evans, a rich Englishman, and Mr. and Mrs. Monell of Tuxedo Park,” who turned out to be neighbors of his aunt Kassie Collier. “She [Mrs. Monell] is pretty and very nice,” he told Sara, “but he is rather a bore, though I fancy pretty well off.” There were distant cousins aboard, too, and older relatives of his Harvard friends and classmates.

In one sense it was an uneventful journey, filled with quiet times.

Franklin moved smoothly among them all, Eleanor doing her best to keep up, perhaps a little startled but not displeased at the impression her husband seemed to make on everyone with whom they came in contact. Even the servants admired him. One morning in their cabin the stewardess drew Eleanor aside to ask if Franklin was English; he must be, she said, “he was so handsome and had the real English profile!” Eleanor thought this a great compliment; so would Sara, to whom she confided it; Franklin professed to be embarrassed.

 

The sea was his element. Everything about ships and shipboard life delighted him. The Russo-Japanese War, in which for the first time in modern history an Eastern power showed that it could more than match a Western one, was still raging, and when Franklin discovered that six Japanese naval officers were aboard, on their way to England to take command of two new warships being built for them in British yards, he left Eleanor’s side to talk with them—“though their English is not voluble, and I find myself giving out more information than I receive.” He persisted, however, and Eleanor seems to have found it a little wearying. “He is looking well,” she told his mother, “and has spent most of his time trying to talk to the Japs. He has succeeded a few times. …”

And he cajoled the captain into escorting him and Eleanor on an exhaustive inspection of the ship. Eleanor gamely pronounced the tour “very interesting,” but it had also troubled her, making her “more sorry than ever for the Steerage passengers” past whom the captain had hurried them below-decks.

When they reached Brown’s, the fashionable old London hotel where visiting members of the Roosevelt family traditionally stayed, “we were ushered into the royal suite,” Franklin told his mother, “one flight up, front, price $1000 a day—a sitting room 40 ft. by 30, a double bedroom, another ditto, and a bath. Our breath was so taken away that we couldn’t even protest and are now saying ‘Damn the expense, Wot’s the odds!’” (The extraordinary figure Franklin gave as the cost of the royal suite was a characteristic exaggeration; the actual price for five days was thirty-five British pounds. To the end of her life he took delight in teasing his mother about the cost of things. Later in the same letter he announced that “we have ordered thousands of dollars worth of clothes, and I am going to send you several cases of champagne, as I know it is needed at Hyde Park.”)