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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
And that Franklin Roosevelt could never provide. We know little of what he had experienced of sex before his marriage. He had been slow to develop interest in girls; his pursuit of Alice Sohier, the Boston girl who had spurned him before he began to court his cousin Eleanor, had been ardent but clumsy. Carousing Harvard boys of his generation sometimes frequented Boston’s more discreet bordellos, and he had traveled on his own with classmates during the summer of his sophomore year to London and across the Continent, where opportunities for experimentation were not lacking. He may have learned the rudiments of sex before his marriage, then, but genuine intimacy was beyond him.
Everything in his upbringing argued against it. Before Franklin was five years old, his grandfather Warren Delano II had laid down the lines along which he had been carefully brought to manhood; little Franklin, the old man wrote then, was “a very nice child, that is, always bright and happy. Not crying, worrying, infractions.” His father and mother—but especially his mother—had done all they could to ensure that he always remained ‘Very nice,” that he seemed always “bright and happy.”
Unpleasantness of any kind—fear, failure, humiliation, envy, anger—was to be ignored or laughed off. “Life is full of that sort of thing,” Sara had told Franklin when he suffered a momentary disappointment at Groton, “and we must be above caring. Only keep up your position and character and let no one make you feel small, go ahead your own way, and be kind to every one if you have the chance. …”
He did his best to follow that advice all his life, to live up to his parents’ example and expectations. It helped create the apparently serene and cheerful surface with which he learned to face down the sometimes puzzling world beyond Hyde Park. But its cost was a closing off. For far beneath that surface, unpleasant thoughts inevitably persisted, thoughts that were the opposite of “very nice,” and the mere fact of their secret existence had to be carefully guarded. To be asked to share them, even with his wife, was to feel intruded upon, crowded, trapped, exposed. Years of trying to create a life of his own while remaining a dutiful son to his loving but demanding mother had taught him the importance of keeping his own emotional counsel.
Eleanor reported that Franklin’s sleep was tormented by nightmares.
“His was an innate kind of reticence,” Eleanor once told a friend. “It became part of his nature not to talk to anyone of intimate things.”
Franklin was kind and solicitous toward his bride—he genuinely loved and cherished her, wanted her to be as happy as he was—but he was/inclined to laugh away her fears rather than to fully engage them, as he had been taught to do with his own. And when laughter and blithe exhortations to cheer up did not work, he chose simply to ignore them and go about his business, in the hope that they would somehow go away.
They did not, of course, and neither did his, for there is evidence that he, too, was privately troubled that first summer of his married life. His sleep was tormented by nightmares, Eleanor reported, during which he ground his teeth, tossed about, muttered incoherently. And he began to walk in his sleep. He evidently first did so aboard the Oceanic, anxiously fumbling at the door of their cabin in his pajamas, trying to get out, to get away.
It happened at least once more while the young Roosevelts were abroad. One night, when they were staying with friends in a Scottish country house, Franklin suddenly sat up, shrieking in terror. Eleanor tried to quiet him. “Don’t you see the revolving beam?” he said, peering up into the empty dark. She had to hold on to him to keep him from bounding out of the room to awaken the household. While she and Franklin were enjoying bed tea the next morning, she asked him if he remembered what had happened during the night. He said he did, she wrote later, and he “remembered being very much annoyed with me because I insisted on remaining in the path of the beam which at any moment threatened to fall off in its gyrations.”
It is impossible, of course, to “explain” anyone else’s dream; only the associations triggered in the dreamer’s mind matter. And all we have to work with are Eleanor Roosevelt’s memories, written down more than thirty years after the fact. Still, it seems clear that her outwardly tranquil young husband was concealing considerable psychological stress while overseas, fears and anxieties he could find no other way to express than by acting them out in his sleep.
There is one other hint that Franklin may have been undergoing internal tension on his honeymoon: He developed hives, which plagued him off and on all summer and for which no external cause was ever found. “They won’t go,” he joked to his mother, “so people think I have a flea that can’t be killed by any method”; in fact, they sometimes grew so severe that he took to his bed. It worried Eleanor; she thought the hot weather in Venice might somehow be to blame, but cool days and nights in the Alps did not seem to help; she suggested that Franklin stop drinking white wine with dinner, but that did not help either. Nothing did.