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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
The captain of a transatlantic liner was his ship’s social arbiter as well as her commander. In consultation with the purser—and often only after contacting the home office—he carefully surveyed the passenger list, selecting from it for his own table in the great dining saloon that handful of men and women whose prominence was so obvious that even the most socially ambitious travelers would be willing to accept assignment elsewhere.
This was often delicate work, but not when the captain prepared the seating for the June 7, 1905, sailing of the White Star liner Oceanic from New York. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were aboard, on their way to England and the Continent for a delayed honeymoon. Young Mrs. Roosevelt was the favorite niece of the President of the United States; Theodore Roosevelt himself had given her away at her wedding. She was only twenty and unusually tall—nearly as tall as her husband—and surprisingly diffident, with a habit of gazing down at her hands while waiting for others to speak to her. But there was no question of her social preeminence. Franklin Roosevelt was not only her husband but the twenty-three-year-old son of the late James Roosevelt, who had been a frequent passenger aboard the ships of the White Star line and a good friend of its late founder, Sir Thomas Ismay.
Eleanor was seated in the place of honor at the right of Capt. J. G. Cameron, Franklin wrote home, in one of the earliest of the steady, reassuring stream of letters that he and his bride would write to Franklin’s mother, Sara, “and I next. …”
The young Roosevelts had been married for nearly three months before they sailed. They had put off their honeymoon so that Franklin could complete his first year at Columbia Law School and take his examinations. At Sara’s urging they had started their lives together with a week at Springwood, the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park home—“just where my great happiness began,” she told them.
We know little of how happy the young Roosevelts were that week. Franklin characteristically left no record of it, while what seems to have remained with Eleanor was a jumble of proofs of her own crippling timorousness. She remembered most vividly that Elspeth McEachern—“Elespie,” who had been the Springwood housekeeper since long before Franklin was born—had coldly looked her up and down as she arrived, as if “wondering if I could come up to her expectations as the wife of ‘her boy.’”
Eleanor could never count on anyone’s unshakable affection.
The morning after their first night together as man and wife, standing in the Springwood parlor near the fire that took the edge off the March wind blowing around the house, Franklin had shown Eleanor one of his most precious first editions. Somehow—“in some inconceivable way,” she recalled half a century later, still horrified at the memory—she slightly tore one of the pages. (Perhaps, like a good many of the volumes on her husband’s shelves, its pages had never been cut; he was always a collector, not a reader.) In any case, she wrote, “I held it in my hands, while cold shivers went up and down my spine. Finally, I made myself tell him what I had done. He looked at me with bewilderment and some amusement. ‘If you had not done it,’” he assured her, “‘I probably would [have].’”
“What I had dreaded I don’t I know,” Eleanor wrote, “but I remember my vast relief. That was the beginning of my becoming more mature about my fears of displeasing people.”
If it was, it was just the beginning, and the depth of her fears must have honestly baffled her husband, whose own eagerness to please was built upon a self-assurance at once strong and unexamined. The orphaned daughter of an alcoholic father and a distracted mother, and raised by relatives whose interest in her was for the most part merely dutiful, Eleanor had never been able to count on anyone’s unshakable affection. She was always worried that she would somehow offend those who she hoped would love her, that her failings would drive them to abandon her. Her own lack of self-confidence had been a revelation to Franklin, she once told an interviewer: “He had always been secure in every way, you see, and then he discovered that I was perfectly insecure.…” Franklin began to call Eleanor by a pet name, at once fond and faintly patronizing: “Babs,” short for “baby.”
After their week together at Hyde Park, Franklin and Eleanor moved into a small furnished apartment Sara found for them on West Forty-fifth Street in New York City. They spent just over a month there. Eleanor’s insecurities were again apparent. She could sew—a childhood nurse had seen to that—but she knew nothing of cleaning or cooking, could not even order a meal properly, or so she remembered. The hotel staff and its kitchens helped, but it was not easy. She was humiliated by her own incompetence, fearful that she was already proving inadequate as wife and daughter-in-law.
Franklin offered her what reassurance he could, while doing his best to keep up with his studies. But it may have been with some relief that the young Roosevelts shifted to Sara’s empty, rented brownstone at 200 Madison Avenue when she moved up to Hyde Park at the end of April. Elespie was sent down from Springwood to manage their little household and supervise the cook and waitress. Eleanor was not to worry; Sara would take care of things, and while her children were abroad, she would do her best to find them a house to rent for the coming year. The young wife was almost pathetically grateful. “Thank you so much dear for everything you did for us,” she wrote to her mother-in-law that spring. “You are just the sweetest, dearest Mama to your children. …”
More than anything in the world, that was what Sara wanted to hear. For she, too, was then full of fears. She had long before lost the father she revered and, more recently, the husband she loved. Her great worry now was that she would also somehow lose the son who was all she had left. “How can I be thankful enough to God for you,” she once wrote Franklin, “when He has taken from me the love & devotion that have so long been mine?”
Both Franklin and Eleanor understood Sara’s fear, and they tried hard to live up to the pledge Franklin had given her after he told her of his secret engagement. “Nothing,” he had said then, “can ever change what we have been & always will be to each other—only now you have two children to love & to love you.”
Sara did her best to believe that, and Franklin and Eleanor did their best to demonstrate it. They spent nearly every weekend with her at Hyde Park that spring, and when they could not come to see her, she often came into town to see them.
But as their departure for Europe drew near, Sara became more tremulous. On June 7 she went with them to the dock and saw them safely to their cabin, but she left the Oceanic long before it sailed, unwilling to trust herself not to break down.
Aboard ship Franklin made friends easily, though mostly among older people, who were not put off, as men and women his own age still often were, by his sometimes overeager charm. He reported to his mother that he got along well with all the other passengers at the captain’s table: “Mr. Lancaster, an old Liverpool merchant & quite interesting, … a Mr. Evans, a rich Englishman, and Mr. and Mrs. Monell of Tuxedo Park,” who turned out to be neighbors of his aunt Kassie Collier. “She [Mrs. Monell] is pretty and very nice,” he told Sara, “but he is rather a bore, though I fancy pretty well off.” There were distant cousins aboard, too, and older relatives of his Harvard friends and classmates.
In one sense it was an uneventful journey, filled with quiet times.
Franklin moved smoothly among them all, Eleanor doing her best to keep up, perhaps a little startled but not displeased at the impression her husband seemed to make on everyone with whom they came in contact. Even the servants admired him. One morning in their cabin the stewardess drew Eleanor aside to ask if Franklin was English; he must be, she said, “he was so handsome and had the real English profile!” Eleanor thought this a great compliment; so would Sara, to whom she confided it; Franklin professed to be embarrassed.
The sea was his element. Everything about ships and shipboard life delighted him. The Russo-Japanese War, in which for the first time in modern history an Eastern power showed that it could more than match a Western one, was still raging, and when Franklin discovered that six Japanese naval officers were aboard, on their way to England to take command of two new warships being built for them in British yards, he left Eleanor’s side to talk with them—“though their English is not voluble, and I find myself giving out more information than I receive.” He persisted, however, and Eleanor seems to have found it a little wearying. “He is looking well,” she told his mother, “and has spent most of his time trying to talk to the Japs. He has succeeded a few times. …”
And he cajoled the captain into escorting him and Eleanor on an exhaustive inspection of the ship. Eleanor gamely pronounced the tour “very interesting,” but it had also troubled her, making her “more sorry than ever for the Steerage passengers” past whom the captain had hurried them below-decks.
When they reached Brown’s, the fashionable old London hotel where visiting members of the Roosevelt family traditionally stayed, “we were ushered into the royal suite,” Franklin told his mother, “one flight up, front, price $1000 a day—a sitting room 40 ft. by 30, a double bedroom, another ditto, and a bath. Our breath was so taken away that we couldn’t even protest and are now saying ‘Damn the expense, Wot’s the odds!’” (The extraordinary figure Franklin gave as the cost of the royal suite was a characteristic exaggeration; the actual price for five days was thirty-five British pounds. To the end of her life he took delight in teasing his mother about the cost of things. Later in the same letter he announced that “we have ordered thousands of dollars worth of clothes, and I am going to send you several cases of champagne, as I know it is needed at Hyde Park.”)
Eleanor later said that she had been “horrified” at this extravagance, embarrassed to find that “in some way we had been identified with Uncle Ted,” but Franklin was delighted. No identification could possibly have pleased him more. He photographed the sitting room—filled with carved and polished furniture, its walls covered in silk, a cut-glass vase of complimentary roses on the central table—and so large, Eleanor remembered, “that I could not find anything that I put down!” The Roosevelts happily occupied the royal suite for five days before moving to the Continent.
The trip was to last more than three months and to take the young couple from Britain through France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany and back to Britain again before they hurried home in mid-September so that Franklin could start his second year of law school. In one sense it was an uneventful journey, filled with quiet times and fond visits to places already familiar to either Franklin or Eleanor from their childhoods. But now and then along the way, things happened—small things mostly—that highlighted the dissimilarities between them and hinted at what would one day happen to them and to their marriage.
Of all the sources of Eleanor’s insecurities, none was greater than sex. Girls of her class were not encouraged to know much about it. Eleanor’s younger cousin Corinne Robinson Alsop remembered once having been kissed by a boy in the stable of her family’s summer home at Orange, New Jersey. “It frightened me to death,” she wrote many years later, “and I discussed with my intimate friends whether I would immediately have a baby.” Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Eleanor’s more resourceful and slightly older cousin, recalled that by the age of fifteen she herself had managed to glean at least a sketchy sense of the mechanics of reproduction by close study of her own pet rabbits and guinea pigs, supplemented by selective reading of the Old Testament. Eleanor evidently had not, and when Alice tried to tell her something of what her own Bible study had taught her—“probably nothing more explosive than the ‘begat’ series,” Alice recalled—Eleanor “suddenly leapt on me and tried … to smother me with a pillow, saying I was being blasphemous. … I think she probably went to her wedding not knowing anything about the subject at all.”
But along the way, events hinted at what would happen to the marriage.
Alice may have been right. Certainly Eleanor’s own family had been of little help. She herself remembered stumbling upon the word whore in the Bible and asking her grandmother Hall what it meant. “It is not a word that little girls should use” was the old lady’s answer. “There were certain subjects never discussed by ladies of different ages,” Eleanor wrote many years later, “and the result was frequently very bewildered young people when they found themselves confronted with some of life’s natural situations!”
When she herself was so confronted, Eleanor was evidently not only bewildered but embarrassed and appalled. Many years later, in an awkward premarital talk with her own daughter, Anna, she would warn that “sex was an ordeal to be borne.” The conventions of the time had something to do with that attitude; it was how older women of Eleanor’s class expected younger women to feel. Her mother-in-law, for example, would have approved. A brashly intrusive grandson once pointedly asked Sara Delano Roosevelt whether she and his grandfather had ever had “any fun.” “I knew my obligations as a wife,” Sara replied, “and did my duty.”
But for Eleanor something more was wrong. The thing that frightened her most all her life was loss of control—anyone’s, but especially her own. The roots of that fear may have lain in her half-remembered child’s impression of her drunken father, Elliott Roosevelt, as well as her more vivid memories of her alcoholic uncles and of her frenzied, temperamental aunt Edith Hall. Something, she once confided to a close friend, had “locked me up” emotionally, had given her “an exaggerated idea of the necessity of keeping all one’s desires under complete subjugation.”
That struggle was made all the more intense by the strength of those desires. Eleanor Roosevelt craved physical affection as only a person to whom it has been consistently denied can crave it. In some of her love letters to Franklin, written during their courtship, she expressed it openly. “I wish you were here, dear, to kiss me goodnight,” she had written him more than a year before their marriage, and, again, closer to their wedding day: “I am hungry for you every moment, you are never out of my thoughts. …” And she seems to have hoped to find in her mother-in-law a warm source of the sort of physical closeness she had only rarely received from her own distant mother. “You are always just the sweetest, dearest Mama to your children,” she had written as she set sail on her honeymoon, “and I shall look forward to our next long evening together, when I shall want to be kissed all the time.” And again: “I feel as though we would have such long arrears of kisses and cuddly times to make up when we get home!” Eleanor Roosevelt harbored powerful passions; the fervor with which she clung to her closest friends throughout her long life would attest to that. But she yearned still more for emotional intimacy.
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.
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.”
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.
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!”
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 I 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 I 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.
The Roosevelts enjoyed themselves at Novar, one of the Ferguson family’s ancestral homes, and at Raith, a second Ferguson house near Edinburgh. It rained a good deal, and Franklin had begun to study in the mornings for his makeup examinations, but he managed to find opportunities to play golf at St. Andrews, to survey the tenant farms, and to take long, slow walks with Eleanor through the heather. Sir Ronald and Lady Helen Ferguson, Robert’s older brother and sister-in-law, were enthusiastic supporters of the Liberal party, and British politics was a constant topic of conversation at their table. The Fabian Socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb came for lunch one day. Eleanor identified them to Sara as writers of “books on sociology.” “Franklin discussed the methods of learning at Harvard with the husband,” she wrote, “while I discussed the servant problem with the wife!”
Twice during their stay with the Fergusons, Franklin again had to come to Eleanor’s rescue. At tea alone with Lady Helen one afternoon, she was asked, “Do tell me, my dear, how do you explain the difference between your national and state governments? It seems to us so confusing.” Eleanor, the niece of the President of the United States, could provide no answer. “I had never realized that there were any differences to explain…,” she wrote; the curriculum at Allenswood, the French-run boarding school she had attended briefly in England, had not included much information about her homeland. “I knew that we had state governments, because Uncle Ted had been Governor of New York State. My heart sank, and I wished that the ground would open up and swallow me.”
At that moment Franklin strolled in, back from a long walk with Sir Ronald. While Lady Helen poured Franklin a cup of tea, he did what he could to explain the American system. “He was adequate,” Eleanor remembered, “and I registered a vow that once safely back in the United States I would find out something about my own government.”
Later in their stay Eleanor was asked to open the local flower show. “Any young English girl would have been able to do it easily,” she wrote later—by which she meant any English girl of her own class—”but I was quite certain that I could never utter a word aloud in a public place.” She could snip the ribbon, thank the crowd, and declare the show open, she told Franklin that morning, but that was all; he would have to do the real speechmaking. Perhaps privately exasperated at having again to compensate for her timidity, he did not consult her on what to say, sitting in their room by himself and scribbling out his remarks in pencil, with many erasures and emendations. The result was Franklin Roosevelt’s first known speech as an adult, delivered before a small gathering of crofters. It started off well enough—Franklin was already good at creating a bond with his audience, however tenuous—but before he had finished his remarks the respectful attentiveness of his listeners must have been placed under considerable strain: “I must thank you again for your very great kindness and hospitality and tell you how much we appreciate this opportunity of meeting you here. Indeed, neither of us can think of you as foreigners or strangers for several of Mrs. Roosevelt’s ancestors were Scotchmen & my own great great grandfather was in exile to America after the Scotch Rebellion. And I was fortunate, too, in having a Highland nurse so that I passed my early years with kilts on the outside and oatmeal and scones in the interior. For especially good conduct a piece of shortbread was my reward, and I can assure you that my desire to be good [was] irreproachable.”
“Mr. Ferguson has asked me to tell you something of our American gardens, but judging from amateur observations on two short walks here on Thursday I must confess that the average of your gardens seems somewhat higher than of ours. I have been especially struck by the general neatness of your flower gardens, as well as by the taste in the selection and arrangement of the flowers. I imagine that with us the relative value of the land is lower than it is here, and that this may account for our tendency to spread our gardens out too much. But in our village gardens, especially in New England, the resemblance to yours is more marked. Perhaps with us the tendency is more to combine the flowers and fine vegetables and that vegetables form a rather larger proportion of our diets. Our average garden contains not only potatoes and cucumbers and peas, beans, onions and carrots, but also the small beet, the egg-plant, the yellow sweet potato, the lima bean, and the Indian sweet corn. And even most of the small gardens have two or three glass frames, an inexpensive way of raising in a climate like this, or like that of our northeast coast, many vegetables which the poor soil and bad weather would otherwise destroy. Perhaps one reason, aside from the cheapness compared to meat, why vegetables play such an important part in America is that our womenfolk excel in cooking them. Instead of water, we cook them nearly always in milk, and this of course makes them more nutritious, besides bringing out the flavor.
Eleanor thought this speech “Very good,” or so she told her mother-in-law—though later she admitted that for years afterward the family liked to tease Franklin about its imaginative version of American cooking—and she carefully clipped out a local newspaper story about the opening and sent it home to Sara, who proudly glued it into her scrapbook. Franklin was more realistic about his performance: “I had an awful time of it and wasn’t even introduced. I had to wander up to the front of the platform and the foolishness of my smile was only equalled by the extreme idiocy of the remarks that followed. You can imagine what a speech on gardening, and the raising of vegetables in general, by your son must have been like and I will say nothing more except that my appetite for those damned weeds has since that time departed.”
Eleanor’s worst fears about her husband’s fidelity would be realized.
However irritated Franklin may have been at having had to stand in for his wife, no hint of it was conveyed to Sara. Eleanor had opened the show “Very well,” he reported, “and spoke very clearly and well”…though, in fact, she had hardly spoken at all. Triumphs were to be shared; disappointments were kept to himself.
The Scottish reporter who covered the Roosevelts’ first public appearance noted that Franklin’s remarks had been interrupted several times by laughter and applause, but the crowd had shown the greatest enthusiasm when Eleanor was introduced. The local official who began the ceremony had seen no need to say anything more than that “Mrs. Roosevelt had a connection with the President of that great country, the United States (Loud applause)—a gentleman whom the world was applauding (Applause). …”
That applause echoed everywhere Franklin and Eleanor went during the final days of their honeymoon. Even the Fergusons’ tenants were eager to talk of Uncle Ted’s latest triumph, Eleanor was surprised to find. “They all seemed to know about it and take an interest. It is nice news, isn’t it?” On September 5, 1905, the same day Franklin and Sir Ronald were playing golf at St. Andrews, the Portsmouth Treaty was formally signed, ending the Russo-Japanese War. Theodore Roosevelt had been instrumental in arranging the talks at the U.S. naval base at Kittery, Maine, just across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that had at last led to peace. The political risks had been considerable; many of his advisers had warned him against involving himself in trying to settle a complicated foreign conflict that was of little interest to most Americans. But as he had told a friendly reporter while the outcome was still in doubt, “I thought it my plain duty to make the effort,” and that effort had now paid off. A Republican congressman had been waiting in the downstairs hall at Sagamore Hill to see TR when the news came that peace was at hand. The beaming President had pounded down the stairs, his visitor remembered. “It’s a mighty good thing for Russia, and a mighty good thing for Japan. And,” he said, thumping his own chest with pleasure, “a mighty good thing for me, too!”
It was a mighty good thing for him. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic declared him a peacemaker. Summing up feelings on the Continent, the Berlin correspondent for the New York World wrote that President Roosevelt had emerged from the negotiations as “the most important figure in international statesmanship.” The Nobel committee would later award him its Peace Prize.
No one was more impressed than Franklin. “Everyone is talking about Cousin Theodore,” he wrote Sara in the last of his honeymoon letters, “saying that he is the most prominent figure of present day history.” Franklin eagerly agreed with that assessment; he admired Theodore Roosevelt more than any man on earth.
On September 12, the day before the young Roosevelts sailed for home, he left Eleanor at Garlant’s Hotel in London to finish packing their trunks and hurried into the street, a tall, slender figure in a straw boater, peering at the crowds through pince-nez he had bought nine years earlier in open emulation of his cousin Theodore.
He had one more important stop to make. At Henry Graves & Company, Limited, Printsellers & Publishers, located at 6 Pall Mall, he wrote out a check for twenty-five British pounds and waited while the clerk wrapped his purchase—a silverpoint drawing by the British artist C. J. Backer of his vigorous, triumphant hero.
The eager charm and relentless high spirits that Franklin Roosevelt exhibited as he escorted his shy bride across the Continent never deserted him, even when paralysis locked him into a wheelchair. Nor did the single-minded ambition, the refusal to confide, or the unwillingness to concede defeat that would one day help him surpass the record of the distant cousin he idolized.
Eleanor’s worst fears about her husband’s fidelity would eventually be realized, of course, and nothing she attained during her remarkable life—not motherhood, not an independent political career, not a dozen years as First Lady, not even the extraordinary achievements that followed her husband’s death—ever quite overcame her sense that she was essentially unloved and unlovable. An old friend called her hotel room while she was visiting London late in her life, at a time when she was one of the most admired women on earth. Her secretary, Maureen Corr, took the call and, when she told her employer who it was, was instructed to say that she was sorry but Mrs. Roosevelt was too busy to come to the telephone.
“She wants something,” Eleanor said, after Miss Corr had hung up.
“But, Mrs. Roosevelt,” the secretary said, “don’t you think people ever love you for yourself?”
“No, dear,” she answered. “I don’t.”