- 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
Eleanor knew she was somehow letting her husband down.
The Roosevelts moved on to Germany, where Franklin wanted to show Eleanor some of the places he had known as a boy. Their journey began badly, at least from Eleanor’s point of view. When their train stopped somewhere between St. Moritz and Augsburg, Franklin got down to get himself some beer. While he was gone, Eleanor told Sara, “four large and burly Germans got into our compartment … and as they at first paid no attention to me, I thought Franklin would find no seat on his return. However, by dint of piling coats and cameras up opposite me I succeeded in keeping it, but to my horror the train began to move and there was no Franklin and 1 had no ticket and no money! You can imagine my feelings but luckily we returned to the station and Franklin reappeared. Of course the Germans proceeded to make themselves comfortable and at one time I thought Franklin would burst and a duel would ensue, for one of the Germans, after pulling the blinds across our windows, leaned across Franklin and closed the window without so much as saying ‘by your leave’!”
German boorishness was a constant theme in Roosevelt family letters from abroad; Franklin’s mother, especially, had objected to dining with “German swine” at the spas to which she and his father had often gone; now Franklin wrote to her from one of them, St. Blasien, that “by a show of severity I have secured a table on the verandah” of the old hotel, as far as possible from the dining room with its “four long pigsties where the strange assortment of mortals (swine are mortal, n’est ce pas?) consume victuals.”
But if Franklin and Eleanor were scornful of the Germans, they were delighted by the German countryside. They sat together on their balcony at St. Blasien, Eleanor reported, “played piquet and watched the most wonderful pinky clouds I’ve ever seen and listened to the band which plays every night.” At the falls of the Rhine near Schaffhausen they walked laughing, hand in hand, along the bottom of the cliff until they were soaked with spray. They climbed up the Feldberg after several days of steady rain to view the Black Forest spread out below them through ragged clouds of rising mist. And from the window of the observation car that took them on to Freiburg, Franklin proudly pointed out to Eleanor the steep, twisting road down which, at fourteen, he and his last tutor, Arthur Dumper, had coasted on their bicycles for eighteen miles; that long, giddy ride was a treasured memory for Franklin, a daring moment of freedom in a boyhood largely empty of adventure.
When the Roosevelts reached Paris on August 11, on their meandering way back to Britain and home, Franklin found a letter waiting for him at the front desk of the Imperial Hotel. It was from the Columbia Law School: he had failed to pass two of his courses, Contracts and Pleading & Practice. He sent his mother a cable immediately, asking that her housekeeper bundle up his law books and send them to him in London; nothing was said about why he needed them. Two nights later Eleanor wrote Sara her usual chatty letter, in the course of which she noted that Franklin was “sad at having failed in two exams, particularly as he got good marks (b) in all the others … if possible he wants to take them again this autumn, as otherwise it will mean very hard work all winter. I am not very confident about his passine. …”
As the honeymoon drew to a close, the young Roosevelts traveled to Scotland to visit Eleanor’s closest friend, Isabella Selmes, one year younger than she and just married to another of her good friends, Robert Munro Ferguson, a tall, diffident thirty-six-year-old Scot who had served with Uncle Theodore in Cuba. Isabella was an astonishingly beautiful youne woman, “one of the loveliest … girls 1 have ever seen,” Eleanor remembered. Born in Kentucky and brought up in St. Paul, Minnesota, she had, like Eleanor, lost her father at nine and had lived during the intervening years in the homes of relatives. Unlike Eleanor, however, she had never been without the love of her mother. Eleanor was fond of both mother and daughter—“there was a glamour about them both,” she later wrote—but in Isabella she found a friend and confidante who would prove steadfast throughout her life. They had met in 1903, the year of Isabella’s New York debut and the year after Eleanor’s. The older girl had helped reassure the younger one, and it was to Isabella alone among her contemporaries that Eleanor had confided the great secret of her engagement to Franklin several weeks before it was announced.
He was solicitous and cheerful, but Franklin rarely failed to get his way.
The Fergusons were honeymooning too, and the two couples had “great fun,” Isabella told her mother, “comparing housekeeping notes” on the Manhattan “bandboxes”—brownstones—both couples had rented by cable, sight unseen.