FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR: AN EXTRAORDINARY MARRIAGE
By Hazel Rowley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 331 pages
On my long shelf of biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his times I count at least eight that already touch on, and sometimes salivate over, the varied romantic and sexual escapades of both FDR and his wife, Eleanor. Does this sad world need yet another helping of salacious Rooseveltian tittle-tattle?
With this book, the answer has to be an enthusiastic yes. While at least one other book carries the title "Eleanor and Franklin," Hazel Rowley has gone beyond the gossip and gives us a book of real insight and a tale that is as sympathetic as it is cautionary. I will go so far as to say that if you are going to read only one book about this extraordinary couple, this is the one.
The author coherently pulls together all the previous, often confusing assertions of serial and random-gendered liaisons and adds some previously unpublished facts. These new proofs not only put the various infidelities into a sort of understandable order, they add a context that helps us better understand just what Franklin and Eleanor were seeking.
Ms. Rowley is no stranger to untangling complicated human emotions. Among her previous books are ones about Richard Wright and about Simone de Beauvoir and John Paul Sartre. I doubt she has ever run across two darker emotional black holes than FDR and his wife. In fact, one comes away from this recounting with the clear feeling that all the Roosevelts, from Uncle Teddy and his uninhibited daughter Alice to FDR's mother, Sara, and the couple's run-amok offspring, were so needy that they went looking for love in all the wrong places.
What is so interesting about this story is that one is also struck by just how magnetic both Franklin and Eleanor were as personalities, as each drew a succession of acolytes into orbit around them where they did double duty as political operatives and suppliers of emotional and sometimes sexual surcease. Once drawn in, many of these minions served the Roosevelts literally for the rest of their lives, in some cases actually shortening their life spans rather than give up the warmth of the Roosevelt charm.
First and foremost were Louis Howe and Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. Howe was a scruffy, consumptive, not too successful press agent who ran Franklin Roosevelt's first campaign for the New York Senate, came to Washington with him during his time as assistant Navy secretary and, even after FDR was stricken with what may or may not have been polio, never gave up the struggle to push him back into the political limelight and ultimately into the White House. While engaged in that all-consuming struggle, he also invented the outgoing, socially committed individual who replaced the shy, diffident, sexually diffident, sulker that Eleanor Roosevelt had been in the first decade of their marriage. Even when he clearly was dying, he refused to abandon his bedroom in the White House just in case either of his sovereigns might need him.
Lucy Mercer went the distance, too. Lucy was the daughter of a socially connected but impoverished Washington family when she was hired to be Eleanor's social secretary. She was tall and handsome and adored the dashing FDR, with his movie-star good looks and boundless energy. The common story is that their love affair was discovered in 1918 when Eleanor found a stash of love letters in Franklin's luggage. But it also is clear that many people, including the malicious cousin Alice, took great glee in hinting at it well before. The common tale is that rather than risk being cut off from his mother's financial support by divorcing Eleanor, Franklin gave up Lucy until they re-connected in the 1930s.
But Ms. Rowley has unearthed correspondence in the Franklin Roosevelt Library archives that shows the two were at least in contact as early as 1926. At that time, she was married to the wealthy Winthrop Rutherfurd and commuting between estates in New Jersey and Aiken, S.C., at a time when FDR was commuting regularly by train between his houseboat in Florida and his newly discovered physiotherapy spa in Warm Springs, Ga. The train ran through Aiken each day. During his time at the White House, Lucy was a frequent visitor whenever Eleanor was away, and, indeed, she was with him in Warm Springs when he died in 1945.
But there were others. For FDR there was Marguerite "Missy" LeHand, who was hired as a secretary but became his de facto wife. Her bedrooms in the New York governor's mansion and in the White House were always closer to his than Eleanor's, and when he dropped out for months for his houseboat adventures, it was Missy, not Eleanor, who was with him. Not that she was enough for Roosevelt. There were romantic exchanges with cousins, newspaper heiresses and Norwegian princesses and flirtations with the young wives of his aides.
Eleanor at first found both solace and political support among a collection of activist women who were prominent journalists and political operatives within the Democratic Party organization. Most of those women - including, Ms. Rowley alleges, Francis Perkins, the first female Cabinet officer - were lesbians, and at least two of them probably had physical relations with Eleanor that produced some steamy correspondence. But at the same time, she enjoyed the devotion and casual physical contact with a succession of devoted men, including one bodyguard and a young socialist who later became one of her biographers.
So how much sex were the Roosevelts up to? Importantly, Ms. Rowley reminds us that Franklin and Eleanor were products of 19th-century morality, which often made a sharp distinction between emotional love and physical intimacy. It was common to have one without the other, and sex often was the more perfunctory and joyless of the two. This led to exaggeratedly romantic infatuations of a kind that we in this more rational time no longer give in to.
The important point of the story is that their emotional hungers drew people to both FDR and Eleanor, and that also enabled them to become dominant historical figures of their time and ours. Sex to them was not everything.
James Srodes' latest book, "The Dupont Circle Set," will be published by Counterpoint Press in 2011.
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