The Wonderful Husband

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Eleanor’s anxieties were more clear-cut than Franklin’s. Even before they were married, she had fretted over his constancy, had recited to him lines from a favorite poem and obtained from him a promise always to abide by them: “Unless you can swear, ‘For life, for death’/Oh, fear to call it loving!”

She did not worry initially that he was more likely than anyone else to be inconstant, but rather because she could never quite believe that anyone could love her for herself for long. She was not, finally, lovable in her own mind and, in part, because she was not, was always on the lookout for the first signs of the betrayal she was sure would come, that the example of her unsteady father had prepared her always to expect.

That pattern began to be discernible on her honeymoon. At Easton Hall, the grand Lancashire estate of the senior Roosevelts’ old friends Sir Hugh and Lady Cholmley, she took an instant dislike to the three unmarried Cholmley daughters, explaining her “prejudice” against them to Sara as the result of the “artificial” look their fashionable makeup lent them. But though neither she nor her mother-in-law is likely to have known it, two summers earlier Franklin had conducted a minor flirtation with Aline, the youngest and most attractive of the girls. Perhaps Eleanor’s infinitely sensitive antennae had picked up in Aline’s and Franklin’s behavior toward each other some hint of their old relationship.

Worse was to come. One evening at Cortina, high in the Dolomites, Franklin announced that he wished to rise early the next morning and climb the four-thousand-foot peak called the Faloria. He asked Eleanor to go with him. She demurred; she had done enough climbing the day before. Franklin was sorry but determined to have his climb. Eleanor urged him to go but silently wished he would stay behind with her; her parched childhood had taught her, she once wrote, “to protect myself from disappointment by not asking for what I wanted.”

Franklin went, and he took with him another guest at the hotel, Miss Kitty Gandy, a New York milliner only a few years older than Eleanor and far more worldly; she smoked Franklin’s cigarettes, and she wore one of her own creations, a big hat with a long, rakish feather, as they set out.

She was on the lookout for the betrayal she knew would come.

They were gone all morning. Eleanor did her best to act unconcerned, but as the hours dragged by, her worry could not be disguised. Toward noon the Misses Van Bibber, two elderly friends of Sara who were also staying at the hotel, invited the now openly nervous young woman to accompany them for a gentle stroll along the lower slopes; they would surely meet Franklin and Miss Gandy on their way down. She did go with them, but somehow the two parties missed each other on the broad mountainside.

When Franklin finally turned up with his flamboyant companion in the hotel dining room after lunch, breathless from his climb and eager to tell Eleanor of the sights he had seen—pink and yellow rocks, slopes of blinding white limestone, tumbling clouds—she greeted him with polite but cold silence. She had lapsed into the isolation that was the only way she knew to deal with her anger—“my Griselda mood,” she called it, and sometimes “my haggard days.”

Franklin was puzzled by her withdrawal. He had asked her to come with him, after all. All he’d done was climb a mountain Eleanor hadn’t wanted to climb and with an older woman whom he thought faintly laughable rather than alluring, but he chose to ride it out, remaining outwardly cheerful and oblivious. Eleanor retreated still further. The result—a long, baffled, aggrieved silence—would be repeated hundreds of times during their forty years together.

Eleanor’s mood did not improve the next evening. When she said she did not care to attend a dance in the dining room, Franklin went without her. He described the evening to his mother: “The hotel maids, cook etc. and some of the villagers did a ‘Schutplatten’—the native dance. It beats a cake walk and a court quadrille and a Robinson Virginia reel all to pieces and smacks of all three. … I danced with [the proprietress] and talked to the cook and smoked with a porter and had the time of my life.”

Eleanor had not had the time of her life at Cortina. She had been “jealous beyond description” of Miss Gandy, she later remembered, and “though I never said a word,” she did not begin to brighten again until the following morning, when she and Franklin left by carriage to ride over the Stelvio pass into Germany. It was mid-July, but there was ten feet of snow on either side of the twisting, climbing mountain road, Eleanor wrote, and “the air felt as it does at Hyde Park on a brilliant February day.”

Franklin walked alongside the carriage a good part of the way; this was the highest mountain road in Europe, he said, and he did not wish to tire the horses. As they began their descent, the snow gave way to meadows filled with flowers, and, perhaps relieved at his wife’s change of mood, Frankin stopped to gather for her a bouquet of wild jasmine. It smelled sweeter, Eleanor told Sara, “than anything I have ever had.”