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The Wonderful Husband
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s honeymoon was a lavish grand tour through a sunny, hospitable Europe. It was also filled with signs of the mutual bafflement that would one day embitter their marriage.
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
Eleanor later said that she had been “horrified” at this extravagance, embarrassed to find that “in some way we had been identified with Uncle Ted,” but Franklin was delighted. No identification could possibly have pleased him more. He photographed the sitting room—filled with carved and polished furniture, its walls covered in silk, a cut-glass vase of complimentary roses on the central table—and so large, Eleanor remembered, “that I could not find anything that I put down!” The Roosevelts happily occupied the royal suite for five days before moving to the Continent.
The trip was to last more than three months and to take the young couple from Britain through France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany and back to Britain again before they hurried home in mid-September so that Franklin could start his second year of law school. In one sense it was an uneventful journey, filled with quiet times and fond visits to places already familiar to either Franklin or Eleanor from their childhoods. But now and then along the way, things happened—small things mostly—that highlighted the dissimilarities between them and hinted at what would one day happen to them and to their marriage.
Of all the sources of Eleanor’s insecurities, none was greater than sex. Girls of her class were not encouraged to know much about it. Eleanor’s younger cousin Corinne Robinson Alsop remembered once having been kissed by a boy in the stable of her family’s summer home at Orange, New Jersey. “It frightened me to death,” she wrote many years later, “and I discussed with my intimate friends whether I would immediately have a baby.” Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Eleanor’s more resourceful and slightly older cousin, recalled that by the age of fifteen she herself had managed to glean at least a sketchy sense of the mechanics of reproduction by close study of her own pet rabbits and guinea pigs, supplemented by selective reading of the Old Testament. Eleanor evidently had not, and when Alice tried to tell her something of what her own Bible study had taught her—“probably nothing more explosive than the ‘begat’ series,” Alice recalled—Eleanor “suddenly leapt on me and tried … to smother me with a pillow, saying I was being blasphemous. … I think she probably went to her wedding not knowing anything about the subject at all.”
But along the way, events hinted at what would happen to the marriage.
Alice may have been right. Certainly Eleanor’s own family had been of little help. She herself remembered stumbling upon the word whore in the Bible and asking her grandmother Hall what it meant. “It is not a word that little girls should use” was the old lady’s answer. “There were certain subjects never discussed by ladies of different ages,” Eleanor wrote many years later, “and the result was frequently very bewildered young people when they found themselves confronted with some of life’s natural situations!”
When she herself was so confronted, Eleanor was evidently not only bewildered but embarrassed and appalled. Many years later, in an awkward premarital talk with her own daughter, Anna, she would warn that “sex was an ordeal to be borne.” The conventions of the time had something to do with that attitude; it was how older women of Eleanor’s class expected younger women to feel. Her mother-in-law, for example, would have approved. A brashly intrusive grandson once pointedly asked Sara Delano Roosevelt whether she and his grandfather had ever had “any fun.” “I knew my obligations as a wife,” Sara replied, “and did my duty.”
But for Eleanor something more was wrong. The thing that frightened her most all her life was loss of control—anyone’s, but especially her own. The roots of that fear may have lain in her half-remembered child’s impression of her drunken father, Elliott Roosevelt, as well as her more vivid memories of her alcoholic uncles and of her frenzied, temperamental aunt Edith Hall. Something, she once confided to a close friend, had “locked me up” emotionally, had given her “an exaggerated idea of the necessity of keeping all one’s desires under complete subjugation.”
That struggle was made all the more intense by the strength of those desires. Eleanor Roosevelt craved physical affection as only a person to whom it has been consistently denied can crave it. In some of her love letters to Franklin, written during their courtship, she expressed it openly. “I wish you were here, dear, to kiss me goodnight,” she had written him more than a year before their marriage, and, again, closer to their wedding day: “I am hungry for you every moment, you are never out of my thoughts. …” And she seems to have hoped to find in her mother-in-law a warm source of the sort of physical closeness she had only rarely received from her own distant mother. “You are always just the sweetest, dearest Mama to your children,” she had written as she set sail on her honeymoon, “and I shall look forward to our next long evening together, when I shall want to be kissed all the time.” And again: “I feel as though we would have such long arrears of kisses and cuddly times to make up when we get home!” Eleanor Roosevelt harbored powerful passions; the fervor with which she clung to her closest friends throughout her long life would attest to that. But she yearned still more for emotional intimacy.