- Historic Sites
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
In London and Paris, Milan and Florence, the Roosevelts spent hours in secondhand bookshops, bargaining for volumes to add to Franklin’s collection. At Paris he relied upon his own overconfident French to strike his bargains, but Eleanor’s Italian was better than his, and when they reached Milan she was pleased when he asked her to translate for him—pleased, that is, until he accused her of always siding with the shopkeepers and resumed negotiating for himself, relying on his own distinctive Italian, “made up,” Eleanor later said, from Latin learned at Groton.
The tensions between the Roosevelts were already real but still muted by the no less authentic love they felt for each other and by the heady sense of starting out life together. That feeling may have taken some time to develop, for they were rarely alone. At Liverpool, their first, brief stop after landing at Queenstown, they were welcomed by Eleanor’s aunt Ella Bulloch, the widow of Irvine Bulloch, who had served aboard the Confederate warship Kearsarge during the Civil War and, after Appomattox, had settled in self-imposed exile in Scotland with his brother, James, rather than return to a country ruled by Yankees. In Paris the couple visited Dora Forbes and her husband, Paul, in their apartment on the Avenue de l’Alma. With them they undertook an automobile excursion to Fontainebleau; a tire blew on the way and Franklin’s younger cousin Warren Robbins, now also touring Europe, photographed him stretching the patched tube over the wooden-spoked rear wheel of the Forbeses’ big touring car, while Eleanor and Franklin’s aunt and uncle looked on from the shade of a roadside tree.
They also saw a good deal of Franklin’s most distant cousin, Hortense Howland, while in Paris. Madame Howland was the French widow of a brother of James Roosevelt’s first wife, Rebecca Howland, and Franklin’s father had been a trustee of her estate. When a fellow trustee absconded with some of the funds, Mr. James had made them up out of his own pocket—a gallantry for which she remained grateful all her life. She was a minor fixture of Parisian society—appearing briefly in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past—and Franklin’s good looks frankly dazzled her. Madame Howland’s open admiration made him “cross,” Eleanor reported, “but I thought her most appreciative as she kept repeating, ‘Qu’il est beau, qu’il est charmant!’”
But there were plenty of what Eleanor called “nice lazy” times too—days, or at least long hours, when they could be by themselves and learn more about each other. In Venice, where they spent ten days, “we saw churches until my husband would look at no more,” Eleanor recalled later, “but he was never tired of sitting in the sun at one of the little tables around the Piazza [San Marco] and recalling the history of Venice.” She was a tireless sightseer, soberly assessing every monument and artifact she saw; the Scuola di San Rocco, for example, she pronounced “a very fine building decorated by Tintoretto and some minor lights,” but the “one or two Titians” it contained she thought not “among his best.” Franklin raced ahead of her through the galleries of what he called the “Academica de Belly Arty” (Accademia de Belle Arti), taking in at a gallop “the Paul Veroneses and Titians etc.—chiefly indecent infants sitting on, or falling off of, clouds—or scared apostles trying to keep the sun out of their eyes.” The Roosevelts shopped together, too, ordering up a set of glasses specially incised with the Roosevelt family crest.
In the evenings Franklin and Eleanor reclined side by side in a gondola and were rowed through the canals, languid journeys made still more pleasurable for Eleanor because of her powerful memories of having glided along the same waterways fifteen years before, next to the father she adored.
At St. Moritz—which Franklin declared “the loveliest place we have seen yet“—he and Eleanor found that their clothes were insufficiently elegant and varied for the main dining room of the Palace Hotel; at mealtimes they were relegated to their own balcony overlooking the lake. (Eleanor did not forget this slight. Visiting St. Moritz half a century later, she took considerable pleasure in staying at another fashionable hotel despite the bewildered protests of the Palace management.) “Since dinner,” Eleanor reported to Sara from there one evening, “I have been writing this and [Franklin] has been mending his Kodak and occasionally telling me that I have a wonderful husband, so I suppose he is being successful!”