Skip to main content


A (White) House Divided

June 2024
5min read

FDR and Eleanor could do just about anything—beat a Depression, win a world war—except please each other

When Harry Hopkins first appeared at No. 10 Downing Street in January of 1941, Winston Churchill did not know what to make of him. His American visitor was rumpled, gaunt, deathly pale—Hopkins looked, a friend said, like“an ill-fed horse at the end of a hard day—and few in England knew much about him other than that he was the personal representative of Franklin D. Roosevelt, had no military background, and had long been identified with the President’s most adventurous social legislation. Churchill, desperate for American help against Germany, had been told that both FDR and his closest aide were susceptible to flattery and so began their talks with a lavish tribute to Roosevelt’s statesmanship. Hopkins kept quiet. Then the prime minister launched into an even more eloquent monologue about the wonderful postwar world he planned for Britain’s humblest citizens, plans he hoped would appeal to one of the New Deal’s most prominent champions.

Hopkins listened politely as long as he could. “Mr. Churchill,” he finally said, “I don’t give a damn about your cottagers. I’ve come over here to find out how we can help you beat this fellow Hitler.”

Churchill was delighted. He and Hopkins—and Franklin Roosevelt—clearly understood one another: Victory came before anything else.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin’s richly textured, immensely readable new book No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt—The Homefront in World War II (Simon & Schuster, $30.00) makes clear, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt never quite reached that same understanding. It was all very well for America to become the arsenal of democracy, Mrs. Roosevelt believed, so long as the arsenal itself was run along truly democratic lines, and she worked tirelessly, if not always tactfully, to ensure that it was. In chronicling the story of the Roosevelts’ tense, turbulent, but hugely effective wartime partnership, Goodwin also manages to provide a memorable portrait of the country they led.


Even though FDR was armed with what Isaiah Berlin called an inbred belief that “with enough energy and spirit anything could be achieved by man,” the President faced a formidable task in the spring of 1940, when Goodwin’s book begins. Switzerland had a larger army than the United States; so did sixteen other countries. There was no munitions industry to speak of. The public was unsure if America had any stake in the awful events unfolding abroad. Yet somehow, Goodwin shows us, largely through Roosevelt’s distinctive combination of boldness and cynicism and simple faith in democracy, a nervous and unsure nation was transformed into the mightiest power the world had ever seen, “the country of machines,” Joseph Stalin called it, that made Allied victory possible.

Not long ago I interviewed Dr. Howard Bruenn, FDR’s physician during his final months. The peripatetic Mrs. Roosevelt, he remembered, once alighted long enough for him to examine her, and he found that her thyroid, a source of energy, was slightly undersized. “Suppose she’d had even a normal thyroid,” he said. “All hell would have broken loose!”

A lot of hell did. The administration’s sharp turn from struggling with domestic problems to preparing for war threw Mrs. Roosevelt for a time —she feared she would again be without a role of her own—but she soon found one, hurling herself into war work with all her old energy while also serving as in-house advocate for groups otherwise too easily ignored by her overburdened husband: blacks wanting to integrate the armed forces, women wanting equal treatment in defense industries, refugees from Hitler, Japanese-Americans unjustly interned. She prodded FDR ceaselessly, sometimes berated and very often second-guessed him—and in the process did prodigies of good.

No cause seemed too insignificant. Learning that a soldier hospitalized with injured hands had been a pianist in civilian life, Mrs. Roosevelt invited him to use the White House piano to get back into shape. Soon the soldier’s five-finger exercises were adding to the genial cacophony that characterized the Roosevelt White House, which already seemed more like a somewhat seedy residential hotel than a real home, its dingy corridors filled with grandchildren, exiled royalty, old friends and hangers-on, and, sometimes, total strangers brought home for the night by the lady of the house.

For all the amassing of federal power for which FDR has been both praised and blamed, he surrounded himself with remarkably few of the imperial trappings upon which his successors have insisted. He fought the Great Depression with a staff smaller than that currently assigned to Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he went on to help direct the greatest war in history with a staff smaller than that now answering to Al Gore. The places to which he repaired to rest—in the Maryland mountains, on a forested bluff overlooking his mother’s estate at Hyde Park, and at Warm Springs, Georgia—were the simplest sorts of summer cottages. And there was not even a fancy White House chef in Roosevelt’s time. The kitchen was presided over by Henrietta Nesbitt, an imperious but untalented Hyde Park caterer whom Eleanor liked and FDR detested but could not bring himself to fire. When—like George Bush four decades later—he expressed his dislike of broccoli, she paid no attention. “Fix it anyhow,” she told the cooks, “he should like it.”

The Roosevelts’ house had always been divided. It was virtually impossible to remain close to both of its central figures simultaneously.

The quarrels between the Roosevelts were sometimes acrimonious, and toward the end, when Mrs. Roosevelt proved oblivious of the precipitous decline in her husband’s health that was perfectly plain to everyone else around him, continuing doggedly to press him to take on brand-new tasks when he was barely able to perform routine ones, it is hard for even her most ardent admirers not to lose sympathy with zeal so badly misplaced.

Serious questions of substance and tactics accounted for some of the tension between the Roosevelts, and it had been Eleanor’s understandable bitterness over FDR’s early dalliance with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, that had been the catalyst for their having decided to sleep—and, for the most part, live—apart long before they moved into the White House; she once claimed to have forgiven but not forgotten his transgression, but in fact, she had been unable to do either. Still, the root cause of the difficulties between them lay deeper. Sara Delano Roosevelt, not Eleanor, was always the most important woman in FDR’s life, and it had been his wife’s bad luck that from the first she echoed too vividly the element in his mother’s personality he resented most—her ceaseless exhortations to do the right thing—while being incapable of supplying the unqualified adoration that was among his mother’s most precious gifts to him. “He might have been happier with a wife who was completely uncritical,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote after his death. “That I was never able to be, and he had to find it in other people.” During the war years those other people included Crown Princess Martha of Norway, his daughter, Anna, his cousins Margaret Suckley and Laura Delano, and, in a final irony a novelist would have been reluctant to concoct, Lucy Mercer herself.

It was virtually impossible to remain close to both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt simultaneously.

Through all their difficulties the Roosevelts retained mutual affection and respect. As Goodwin reminds us, their arguments were almost always over the pace at which the country could be made to move rather than the direction in which it should be going.

FDR never entirely abandoned the New Deal, promising in 1944 an economic Bill of Rights to guarantee a job, education, decent housing, medical care, and old-age security to every American.

For her part, Eleanor Roosevelt stood ready to defend her husband from attacks by outsiders. When a young black woman wrote to her angrily complaining that FDR’s 1940 Republican opponent had been more forthright than he about civil rights, she minced no words in her response: “I wonder if it ever occurred to you that Wendell Willkie has no responsibility whatsoever. He can say whatever he likes and do whatever he likes and nothing very serious will happen. If he were to be elected President, on that day, he would have to take into consideration the people who are heads of important committees in Congress . . . people on whom he must depend to pass vital legislation for the nation as a whole. For one who must really have a knowledge of the workings of our kind of government, your letter seems to me one of the most thoughtless I have ever read.”

In the terrible hours after Pearl Harbor it was Eleanor Roosevelt, not her husband, who first rallied the country to resist. “Whatever is asked of us I am sure we can accomplish,” Eleanor Roosevelt told her weekly radio audience on the evening of December 7, 1941; “we are the free and unconquerable people of the U.S.A.” In large part because of the complicated Roosevelt partnership, we were.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.