The Wonderful Husband

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Franklin did what he could to allay his wife’s myriad fears. He was loving, kind, and attentive, for the most part. His active encouragement could cheer her momentarily, but it could not mask the fact that her fears and inhibitions often made it impossible for her to share his pleasures. His exuberant generosity troubled her too; after listing all the clothes he bought for her in Paris—“a long stole and big muff of the softest, finest mink I’ve ever seen,” an evening cloak, five evening gowns, an afternoon dress, a tweed coat and skirt and riding habit—she asked her mother-in-law: “Are you horrified at my extravagance? I am, but Franklin hasn’t begun to complain as yet.” She even worried that her letters home were somehow not what they should be. “You must forgive me dear if my letters are long and dull,” she told Sara, “for I can’t write like Franklin and I’m really quite ashamed to send you such stupid epistles after his amusing ones.”

Franklin had a wonderful time revisiting Osberton-in-Worksop, the sprawling Nottinghamshire estate of Cecil Foljambe, the fourth Baron Hawkesbury. He had first gone there at eleven, traveling out from London alone to see the baron’s celebrated collection of mounted birds. “We got to this house at 9,” he now told his mother, “and Mr. Foljambe and Lady Gertrude are just the same, Mr. F. of course a little older and more feeble, but most delightful and Lady G. hasn’t altered one scrap.… I remember the house very well and the place, and nothing is altered. This morning I began well by being late for breakfast and at twelve we all went for a walk in the gardens. … After lunch we went for a long drive with Mr. and Lady F. to Sherwood Forest, the scene of Robin Hood’s escapades, passing thro’ the Duke of Newcastle’s place.…

Eleanor remembered the same visit as something like a nightmare. The great house that Franklin so admired “terrified” her; there was only one modern bathroom serving all its many rooms, and tin tubs filled with hot water were set up in front of the stone fireplace in their bedroom for bathing, a practice she found disquieting. “Dinner was formal,” she wrote later, “and to my horror there were no introductions. We were guests in the house, and that was considered sufficient.” While Franklin chatted effortlessly with his dinner partners, Eleanor struggled hard to find something to talk about with hers.

After dinner the party played bridge—for money, an activity Eleanor’s pious grandmother Hall had taught her to deplore. “My principles would not allow me to do this,” she remembered, “so I was carried by my partner. …” Since she also played badly, she now felt doubly guilty; she had embarrassed Franklin and she had cost her partner money. “I felt like an animal in a trap,” she recalled, not knowing how to act, unable to flee.

In Paris, when Franklin and some visiting Harvard friends took her and Sara’s sister, Dora Forbes, to a faintly risqué French farce, in part just to see how Mrs. Forbes would take it, it was Eleanor, not the older woman, who was embarrassed. “I confess my Anglo-Saxon sense of humor was somewhat strained,” she remembered, “but [Aunt Dora] had lived many years in Paris and did not give them the satisfaction of turning a hair!” Modern literature, too, sometimes troubled Eleanor. While Franklin lost himself in one of Bret Harte’s gold-rush tales one afternoon, she tried to read “a French book by Anatole France [though] he occasionally disgusts me so that I have to stop, and yet it is a mild and proper book for the French, devoted so far to the problem of our future life!”

Franklin was puzzled and perhaps irritated by Eleanor’s withdrawal.

She and Franklin and another young couple lunched together in Paris, at Voisin’s. “There we saw Mrs. Jay Burden and Mrs. Harry Whitney,” Eleanor reported to her mother-in-law in genuine shock, “with Mr. Bertie Goelet and Mr. Meredith Hare so you see it is not fashionable to go out with your husband!” Many years later the daughter-in-law of one of these ladies was shown this passage. “From what I know of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt,” she said, “I believe he would already, even on his honeymoon, have rather moved to the other table.”’

This was unfair to both Roosevelts, but Eleanor knew that she was somehow letting her husband down by her inability to enjoy things as he did, to relish life without rendering judgments on it. “I looked at everything from the point of what I ought to do,” she wrote later, “rarely from the standpoint of what I wanted to do. … I was never carefree. …”

Franklin very often was. He had climbed his peak at Cortina, had danced with the serving girls, though he knew Eleanor wished him to do otherwise. He was usually solicitous and almost always cheerful, but when it came to a choice between what he wanted to do and what his wife—or anyone else, for that matter—might have preferred, he was rarely deflected from his course. As a beloved only child he had rarely had to compromise with the wishes of others; his parents had provided the only effective brake upon his desires, and his marriage, which was in part for him a declaration of independence from his mother’s loving demands, was not now going to keep him from indulging them.