August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
The town house at 47 East 65th Street belonged to the President’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, and on Sundays we often passed it on our way home. The Sunday morning walk was a family ritual. It was my father’s pleasure to parade his “four girls,” my mother and his three daughters, all of us turned out in the tailored tweeds that he favored for women’s dress. In the lead on these walks was my father, the judge, with my mother on his arm—a woman of impressive carriage and striking good looks. My parents were both six feet tall, and they set a brisk pace. We girls took up the rear, a pale-faced, gangling lot who dawdled behind and then hastened to catch up, three pairs of long skinny legs with bony knees. My father thought we were beautiful.
As we approached the house on a certain Sunday morning in early spring—I can fix the year as 1938—Mrs. Roosevelt herself appeared at its front door, a substantial-looking figure, white-haired, in a long dark dress. She was saying good-by to some caller. When the caller departed, Mrs. Roosevelt caught sight of us, and my mother, never shy, spoke in greeting. Mrs. Roosevelt seemed to recognize my parents, and a conversation began that drew them up the steps. My father, who had long admired the old lady, introduced all his daughters to her in turn, as if presenting us at court. We were then aged fifteen, fourteen, and nine—two lanky adolescents and one rounder little girl. We all waited while Mrs. Roosevelt and my parents exchanged platitudes, mostly about the weather and about some large state gathering where they had last met. It was a warm day, the steps were soaked in sunshine, and I remember thinking that in this bright light, close up, Mrs. Roosevelt looked older and more wrinkled than she did in the newsreels. She was then eighty-three, very animated and still handsome—the haughty, aristocratic matriarch of Roosevelt legend now chatting folksily at her front door. Our audience lasted only a few minutes. Mrs. Roosevelt said good-by, and as she entered her house, somewhere inside we could hear a dog barking. My father looked relieved when the front door closed. He was terrified of dogs.
Back on the sidewalk my mother turned to me with the air of excitement that so often stirred in her, triggered by big events or small ones; it didn’t much matter, since she had a way of making the most casual happening into an occasion, into some kind of party. That party edge was always there in her talk and in her eyes, in the whole childish expectancy of her face, so at odds with her Valkyrie posture and her monumental height. And though it was wearing on a day-to-day basis to live with her high energy and excitement, we were all so used to it that by comparison other households seemed dull. My father treated her alternately as an adored goddess who was not to be crossed and as a spirited child who had gone too far.
When she turned to me that Sunday morning, it was to say “There! There’s your interview!” And I realized, with a clutch of fright, what she meant: I was to interview Mrs. Roosevelt. I was a shy girl, yet I had become the star reporter of my high-school newspaper; somehow I could manage talking to strange people when I was in the reporter’s role. What I was now facing up to was my newest assignment—a bimonthly interview with some famous person. I was able to manage the interview, but I was too timid to call anyone up cold to ask for an appointment, and this is where my mother came in. She was delighted to do it, and with her nerve and my father’s wide connections a large roster of New York’s famous people was suddenly available to a small high-school weekly. Mother had set up my first interview with Grover Whalen, then New York’s official meeter and greeter; a second with Lawrence Tibbett, the opera star; and now for the third interview she was suggesting Mrs. Roosevelt—actually, offering her—with a blend of innocence and willfulness, as if Mrs. Roosevelt were somehow hers to convey.
I resisted the idea out of diffidence, but not for long. Mrs. Roosevelt apparently did not resist at all. By the time I came home from school the next day, everything was arranged. In her naive and direct way Mother had simply telephoned Mrs. Roosevelt and explained her purpose, and Mrs. Roosevelt had obligingly suggested that Mother and I come for tea on a certain weekday afternoon later in April. I wanted desperately to go alone; professional reporters did not arrive on scene with a parent in tow. Yet it was my mother who had cued me into this tea party, and I couldn’t now ask her to stay home.
The appointed day arrived. We were ready early, Mother wearing her new hat and holding white gloves. I was in my Sunday tweeds and had tucked a note pad and two sharpened pencils into my purse. Stored in my head was the list of questions I had in readiness for that moment when Mrs. Roosevelt would talk to me, I hoped alone. As we were about to leave, my youngest sister, the nine-year-old, who had been standing around watchfully, suddenly grasped my arm and began to plead “Take me with you, please take me with you, I want to go” over and over, as in a chant. I was startled; having her aboard this afternoon was out of the question. I objected, my mother tried to reason with her, the hour grew later, and still the pleading went on. My sister promised she would say nothing, do nothing, just sit there and listen; she only wanted to see Mrs. Roosevelt and the inside of that house. She would never have another chance, never ask me another favor again, if only if only if——the words gave way to sobs. Mother was moved. “Take her along,” she said. I may have been moved too, but I don’t recall it, nor ever saying Yes. All I remember is my sister making a fast switch into her Sunday clothes and coming along.
I had reason later to recall her bare pink legs, cuffed at the ankles by white party socks, and her feet in patent-leather party shoes. She had washed her face of tear stains and was now smiling—a smile wreathed in metal, because at that time her front teeth were covered by braces for straightening, an indignity all of us girls had to suffer in turn. She was otherwise a benign-looking child with big dark eyes in a round, intelligent face, fringed across the forehead by neatly cut bangs. A strong-willed child and too curious, but actually not a bad kid. As we turned the corner of Sixty-fifth Street that day my only real objection to her was that I wished she had never been born.
We were again at the steps, which led up to an austerely high, arched doorway. As usual, a policeman stood guard outside. The house was of white stone, some five stories tall, and though it looked from the outside like one house, inside it was really two. One was the residence of Sara Delano [Mrs. James] Roosevelt; the other was the New York home of the Franklin Roosevelts. The double house was then well known, being the place where the President stayed when he was in town.
A middle-aged butler let us into the vestibule, which opened into both houses. We followed him through the door on Sara Delano’s side and up a flight of steps to an upstairs sitting room. My remaining impression is of a large, comfortable room, not stylish but handsome, a room full of good brown woods and yielding upholstery, a lively clutter of objects and framed photographs, and the respectable silver and china appropriate to the ceremony of pouring tea.
It was all disarmingly informal, some ten or fifteen people moving around and talking—among them, I think, a sister of Mrs. Roosevelt’s, an elderly couple from Paris or someplace, and a woman reporter from one of the New York papers. I never did get to find out exactly who they all were. Mrs. Roosevelt walked over to greet us. I remember her as being even taller than she actually was, a woman of firm step, with F.D.R.’s beacon smile and his marked uptilt of the chin, and with a distinctive voice—Brahmin, yet very warm—that reminded one of F.D.R.’s fireside radio chats. My mother, who could fall into a conversation with anyone anywhere, joined a talk cluster across the room. I sat down with my teacup, alone, wondering how and when I could engineer a few private words with Mrs. Roosevelt.
My sister sat across from me, her tea and biscuits finished, looking toward me for some hint of what to do next. I noticed her feet in the shiny black shoes, shifting about, the feet of a restless child. Mrs. Roosevelt may have noticed them too, because at that moment she came over to ask my sister if she wouldn’t like to go up to the roof with the butler and play with the dogs. As I recall it, the butler was standing at the threshold of the room, on the stair landing, holding two small brown Pekingese dogs on their leashes. It was time for their afternoon airing.
My sister looked stricken. Play with the dogs! In those days my sisters and I, conditioned by my father’s example, were still intensely afraid of dogs, even small ones on leashes. My mother had normal, affectionate feelings toward dogs, and whenever possible in our presence she would pick one up and stroke him and let him lick her face, even put her hand in his mouth; but my father’s influence in our household being always somehow the stronger one, her exhibitions of dog loving never touched our hearts. She made dogs no less fearsome; we simply thought she was braver than the rest of us and was showing off. Outside the family circle none of us ever spoke of our dog phobia, which embarrassed us, and we tried to hide it. Now and then, for appearances, we would pat a friend’s dog on the street or let it nuzzle our hands, but only if we were wearing heavy leather gloves.
I knew what my sister was now thinking. She was caught because the dog-patting gloves were at home. Mrs. Roosevelt’s fine patrician face was bending over her, solicitous, smiling, the butler was waiting, and my sister had to answer. The choice was between sitting it out here with no one to talk to and nothing to do and escaping to the roof, where there would be dogs. Scylla downstairs, Charybdis up. To my surprise my sister opted for the roof. It was three or possibly four flights above the living room, and I watched her trot amiably up the stairs after the butler. The dogs were well ahead of him, pulling at their leashes.
Mrs. Roosevelt returned the beam of her presence to the other guests. My mother, involved in talk across the room, was unaware that my sister had left. I was relieved that she was gone, though for a guilty second I thought the price of getting rid of her—since it involved dogs—might be a bit high. I then forgot about her altogether and, with an eye to my story, set about noticing the surroundings and finding out who was there.
I never got very far. It could have been five minutes later or fifteen when a thin, wailing sound was heard in the upper reaches of the stairwell, accompanied by distant barking. Everyone stopped talking. The noise grew louder, with a subclatter of running feet on the steps, and my sister’s voice was now distinguishable in the fearful cry “I’ve been bitten, I’ve been bitten, I’ve been bitten,” which she howled all the way down. I was sitting within view of the landing and have never forgotten the sight of her flying down those stairs, panic on her face, tears flowing from her eyes, and blood trickling down one shin and soaking bright red into the white ankle sock. The butler was running close behind her—breathless, face strained, jacket open—and yipping at his heels were the two Pekingese dogs, each trailing a loose leash down the stairs. In a few seconds this procession streaked into the sitting room. There my sister collapsed on a chair, the butler stood in the middle of the room catching his breath, and the dogs ran around barking excitedly. All the guests were now on their feet. Somebody chased the dogs, caught them, and returned them, panting, to the butler, who with one Pekingese under each arm hastily disappeared.
Two figures in the room, Mother and Mrs. Roosevelt, twinned in lifelong maternal responsibility, rose quickly to attend my sister’s leg. Mother looked worried. Mrs. Roosevelt very calmly took charge. She dabbed at the wound with a handkerchief, revealing a long, thin cut. There were no teeth marks; it looked more like a deep scratch. The bleeding had stopped, as had the tears. My sister sat without a sound while Mrs. Roosevelt sent a servant for some peroxide and cotton, applied both, and asked what had happened. Her dogs, she said, were not given to biting people. My sister said it was probably an accident. The dogs had been chasing her, and when she stopped running and turned around suddenly, the teeth of one of them had landed in her leg. Mrs. Roosevelt gave a fond, grandmotherly pat to the injured shin, indicating that the operation and the inquisition were over.
Everyone in the room was now as calm as Mrs. Roosevelt, and with the hubbub past I was ready to follow up on the interview. But the tea party had been dealt a blow from which it could not recover. It was over; everyone was saying good-by. At our turn Mrs. Roosevelt apologized on behalf of her dogs, and my mother apologized in a general way for all daughters everywhere. Mrs. Roosevelt epitomized the perfect hostess, displaying that empathy the French call politesse du coeur . Her parting gesture was to tell me she was sorry we hadn’t had time to talk, but she was sure I could get all the material I needed from a book about her, which she now had in her hand, probably having sent for it after the peroxide. The book, which I still have, was a biography called Gracious Lady, The Life of Sara Delano Roosevelt . It was too flattering, Mrs. Roosevelt said; biographers were always too flattering if their subjects were still alive. In her view the truth could be written only after the subjects were dead. She inscribed the book to me in her big, round, shaggy script and to fasten the memory of that afternoon dated it April 28, 1938.
Mrs. Roosevelt doubtless thought this was the last she would ever hear about that dog bite, but she hadn’t reckoned with my father.
To see the happenings of that day in their full light one must know something more of my father. He was considered a modest man of plain tastes, but in his secret heart he had always regarded himself as the equal of any man alive—with a few exceptions, such as Justice Benjamin Cardozo, Justice Louis Brandeis, Florenz Ziegfeld, Will Rogers, John L. Lewis, Fiorello La Guardia, Albert Einstein, my father’s good friend the New York saloonkeeper and restaurateur Dinty Moore, and perhaps a dozen others whom he viewed in one way or another as being clearly superior to himself. To my knowledge he stood in fear of no human being, which is why it is remarkable that he lived all his life in morbid fear of dogs and germs.
He never took walks along empty country roads, for worry of all the hairy, four-legged animals that he felt might be lurking about in evil community with germs and insects. He felt relatively safe in Manhattan, where dogs were leashed and other animals were behind bars in the zoo. He used to say, in a general context, that to stay happy and healthy a man ought not to wander too far from the lamppost at Forty-second Street and Broadway. And I think what he meant, beyond his lifelong need for a symbiotic connection with the sidewalks of New York and all their human traffic, was that for him Times Square, especially at night, was a safe, crowded place where one might at worst be accosted by drunks, pimps, prostitutes, or thieves after one’s wallet, as compared with a lonesome country road where one might meet up with real danger—a savage dog leaping for the jugular or poisonous insects descending from the mysterious recesses of a tree. In the geography of my father’s mind the unsafe countryside included all the unpaved areas of the world that were inhabited by creatures on the loose, from the jungles of Africa to the wilds of suburbia.
Germs, being too microscopic to put on leashes, remained a problem to my father even in the city, but he managed to live with them by various means. For example, he would wash his hands and rinse out his mouth rather frequently, and every morning he would pour some disinfectant over his toes. He also took an aspirin two or three times a day. In the same spirit of prophylaxis he drank a minimum of tap water, preferring bottled mineral water, which he considered cleaner and somehow therapeutic. Fortunately he was an exceptionally strong and healthy man. I don’t recall his ever having an illness that caused him to visit a doctor’s office or miss a day of work.
As for dogs, my father avoided all contact with them. He considered them dangerous as germ collectors (all that unwashed fur and snouts forever sniffing into garbage); besides, they had dangerous claws and teeth. Except for the puppy my mother once brought home experimentally—which she had to give away after a few weeks—I cannot remember a dog or cat ever being in our house, even those that might have belonged to visitors. As pets we kept a succession of fish, turtles, and canaries, all of which seemed to sense the unwelcome ambiance of our household, because they would soon wilt or grow moldy and die. Ours was a home that bestowed real love only on human beings.
Doubtless, had my father been present at the Creation, he would have beseeched God to eliminate His work of the fifth day, when He gave life to beasts and creeping things. And given the chance, my father might have pleaded this case rather eloquently. He was one of those born lawyers. He had practiced law in New York City for some twenty years before his election to the New York State Supreme Court, where he served until his death. When he sat on the bench in his judicial black robes, his idiosyncrasies were in abeyance. He was known as a distinguished and influential jurist, also as one who showed extraordinary patience and compassion toward anyone who entered his courtroom. It may have been, in some chance balancing of the scales, that his severe estrangement from the animal kingdom was compensated by an intense affinity with human beings. At any rate his particular combination of traits allowed him great fulfillment in the role of judge. His life had two fulcrums—his family and the court.
It was his devotion to the court (his court, all courts) that had led him, at the time of which I write, to be privately at odds with Franklin Roosevelt. He had passionately opposed Roosevelt’s 1937 plan to enlarge and thereby control the United States Supreme Court, and though the court-packing plan had been defeated, he never forgave Roosevelt for trying. An early supporter of F.D.R., he had by 1938 turned sourly against him.
It is relevant here that my father had never had an adequate place to register this rage. As a judge he was prevented by court ethics from speaking his mind publicly on partisan matters, and his image of judicial forbearance prevented him from lambasting the President even in private. Nor, in fairness, would he allow his anger to spill over onto “the Roosevelt women,” as he called them, Eleanor and Sara Delano Roosevelt, whom he continued to admire. There was nothing, however, in his code of behavior that would keep him from venting his fury, with gusto, on two offending Roosevelt dogs.
As we left the party that day, on the walk home, my sister and I abruptly abandoned our party manners. I told her she had ruined the day—dog bite for her, no interview for me. She wept again, claiming that it was not her fault and that I cared more about my newspaper story than about her. My mother had only one concern: we were in no way to mention the dog bite at home, and through my tirade and my sister’s tears we agreed.
Dinner went as usual that evening, with lively talk about the day’s happenings. My father wanted details about the afternoon with Mrs. Roosevelt, and we gave him what we could. It was only as my youngest sister rose from the table that, with his eagle eye for injuries, he noticed the long red mark on her leg.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Mother said. “A scratch.”
“Nothing!” he said. Why wasn’t it bandaged? How did she get it? We all had to admit that it was done by one of Mrs. Roosevelt’s dogs. My father by now was circling the table, stopping every so often to pound it with his fist. I recall his next words exactly, because they left me stunned. “Has it occurred to you,” he asked my mother, “that those goddamn dogs might have rabies ? Or some other dog disease?”
Mother said she doubted it—not Mrs. Roosevelt’s dogs. My father cut her off.
“I don’t care whose dogs they are!” he went on. This was a free country; the Roosevelt dogs could be as rabid as anyone else’s. He wanted my sister checked out immediately by a doctor and both dogs tested for rabies tonight.
Mother refused. A hot argument followed, which my father won. With considerable embarrassment Mother then telephoned Mrs. Roosevelt and explained the situation. Mrs. Roosevelt seemed to understand her predicament and promised to send the dogs to the veterinarian early the next day. She would give us his report on the rabies tests as soon as they were ready.
The next morning Mother took my sister to the doctor, who pronounced the wound a superficial scratch that was healing nicely. He left it unbandaged. It was a matter of days, I don’t recall how many, before the veterinarian’s report on the dogs arrived, addressed to my mother and delivered by a servant of Mrs. Roosevelt’s. The report was negative—the dogs were not rabid—and my father, who had been anxious and angry during the wait, relaxed. Along with the report the servant delivered a dozen long-stemmed red roses, with a charming, funny note in Mrs. Roosevelt’s handwriting that melted even my father. Its text is lost to me, because the card is gone.
Unfortunately the article I wrote about Mrs. Roosevelt for my school paper is not lost. It turned up recently to haunt me from the pages of an old scrapbook. It contains not one word about what actually took place that day, not one mention of my family or of dogs. I was evidently too ashamed to include them. Instead I wrote a dry, flat story straight out of the book Mrs. Roosevelt had given me—not only borrowing its facts but also plagiarizing its quotes and pretending that they had emerged from an exclusive interview. In my story there were no other guests—just Mrs. Roosevelt, alone, pouring tea for me.
When I could not find quotes in the book to suit my needs, I seem to have invented them—for instance, all those questions I never got to ask, with answers Mrs. Roosevelt never gave. I made up the entire interview, but no one except my father ever challenged its veracity. A purist, he believed that anything short of the truth should not be written at all. He said fakery would always be found out, but in this case he was wrong. In my entire youth I never told a lie that was so uncontested or so richly rewarded. My phony account was a huge success among my readers, and in its wake I proudly sent Mrs. Roosevelt a copy. She was indeed a great lady, among the last of her breed. She made no objection; she simply never replied.
We had no further relations with Mrs. Roosevelt, who died in 1941. Both my parents are also gone. The house on Sixth-fifth Street is now part of Hunter College; my high school, with its wonderful, sleazy newspaper, is defunct; the tempestuous girl in party socks has grown up to become my close friend—and the owner of a dog—and I am now older than my mother was that April day in 1938. Yet I still feel that I owe somebody, someplace, this honest revision of my story.