Friday, January 2, 2009

FDR and his Women


One day in early 1918, a change took place in the marriage of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt, who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson, had just returned from a tour of Europe, inspecting the navy overseas during the Great War. Exhausted and suffering from pneumonia, it was left to Eleanor as the dutiful wife to unpack his belongings. What she found set her into shock. Love letters between her husband and Lucy Mercer, a young woman that she had hired to be her social secretary. Eleanor had long suspected that something was going on between her handsome, vibrant husband, and her vivacious secretary, in fact she had fired Lucy, ostensibly because she no longer needed Lucy’s services during wartime. But now to see the evidence in black and white cut Eleanor to the quick.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) had long worried that she would never be able to hold onto her husband. As a child, her mother Anna Hall Roosevelt had constantly pointed out her lack of good looks, calling her ‘Granny’ to her face, telling her that she needed to develop exquisite manners since she would never be a beauty. Even her maternal aunt, the unfortunately nicknamed Pussie couldn’t help pointing out her lack of chin, and her protruding teeth. As she got older she grew to the ungainly height of five foot ten. The only person to show her unconditional love was her father, Elliott Roosevelt, the handsome and alcoholic younger brother of Teddy Roosevelt. Her father’s love was inconsistent. Once he left her outside the Knickerbocker Club for four hours while he went inside and drank himself into a stupor. By the age of ten, Eleanor had lost both her mother and younger brother to diphtheria, and her father to alcoholism.

She was sent to live with her grandmother Hall, who took her in, but showed her no affection. At the age of fifteen, Eleanor was finally sent off to school in England, to keep her safe from her alcoholic uncles. For the first time, Eleanor knew what it was like to be popular and respected. At the age of nineteen, she made the acquaintance of her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, two years her senior, a junior at Harvard. He was handsome and popular and wonders of wonders; he fell in love with her. Eleanor couldn’t believe her good luck. Franklin was entranced with the tall willowy young woman who was unlike the other debutantes in New York. She brought him along one day while she was doing charity work, introducing him to the poverty and grime of the immigrants on the lower East Side. She believed him and thought that he was going to do great things. Another attraction was undoubtedly the fact that her uncle was Teddy Roosevelt. Franklin worshipped his distant cousin, and hoped to emulate his political career. They were married in 1905 and Eleanor was soon occupied making babies. In the first ten years of her marriage, she gave birth to six children, five of whom survived.

Soon the cracks began to show in the marriage. Franklin was gregarious, the life of the party. He loved to flirt, drink cocktails, and listen to a good gossip. He was used to being adored, as the only child of Sara Delano and James Roosevelt. Eleanor was more serious, she hated small talk and wasn’t very good at it. She was also uncomfortable around people who drank, having lived with several alcoholics. After her marriage, she was forced to give up her charity work by her mother-in-law. And the idea of sex was not her cup of tea, she found it something that women needed to endure, not a pleasure. While she craved intimacy with a partner, Franklin seemed to content to skate along the surface of life. He hated conflict and would avoid it as much as possible.

The Mother-in-Law from Hell:

FDR, let’s face it, was a mama’s boy, and Sara's adoration of her son would have long term consequences in his life. For his entire existence, FDR needed to have pretty women around who adored him. Sara Delano Roosevelt was not about to release her hold on her son just because he had the misfortune to decide to get married. When FDR was born, doctors warned Sara not to have any more children. In consequence, FDR became her whole world. She even followed him to college, taking an apartment near the Harvard campus. When FDR announced his intentions to wed Eleanor, Sara insisted that the engagement remain a secret for at least a year, hoping that the romance would die out and her darling boy would be all hers once again. When it turned out that FDR was serious, Sara took over. After their marriage, Sara bought two adjoining brownstones in the city and cut connecting doors between the two houses, so that she could pop in on Eleanor at any time. Eleanor had hoped that Sara would replace the mother that she never had. The Roosevelt children soon learned that their grandmother was a complete pushover, and would run to her whenever they were denied by their parents. Eleanor and her mother-in-law continued to butt heads throughout the Roosevelt marriage. When FDR came down with polio, Eleanor seized her chance. While Sara wanted FDR to give up his dream of politics, Eleanor encouraged him. When Sara finally died in 1941, Eleanor wrote one of her children that she felt nothing.

Enter Lucy Page Mercer (1891-1948). Like Eleanor and Franklin, Lucy came from an old family with roots deep in Maryland history. Her father Carroll Mercer was descended from the founders of the state, but by the time Lucy and her older sister Violetta were born, Carroll and
the girls’ mother Minnie had run through both family fortunes. Minnie left her husband and took the girls to New York, where she tried a career as an interior decorator. After a few years, they returned to Washington, DC. While Violetta trained to be a nurse, Lucy found a job that suited her perfectly, social secretary to the wife of the youngest assistant secretary of the navy in history, FDR.

Eleanor was overwhelmed by the sheer number of social calls that she was required to undertake when she and Franklin arrived in Washington in 1913. The wives of all cabinet members, congressman, and senators had to be visited. If Eleanor was lucky, she could just leave her card, but if the wife was home, she had to make small talk for at least fifteen minutes. Once or twice a week, she was also required to be ‘at home’ for social calls. Invitations poured in to the Roosevelt home in Washington, almost drowning Eleanor in cardstock. Within a few days of her arrival, Lucy had organized things thoroughly. She even took over paying the bills. Franklin met her one day as she was arriving and he was leaving. He was immediately taken with the lovely young woman. Like Eleanor, she was tall, with light brown hair and blue eyes but unlike Eleanor, she was vivacious and full of fun. Soon Lucy was filling in as the extra woman at dinner parties at the Roosevelt home.

While Eleanor was at the family summer home in Campobello, off the coast of Maine, FDR was often stuck in Washington, as was Lucy. No one knows just when it started, but by 1916, Lucy and FDR were in love. They were aided in their attempts to see each other by none other than Eleanor’s first cousin, Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Unhappy in her own marriage, and irritated by Eleanor’s prudishness, she was quite willing to help things along. Before long, even Eleanor sensed that something was going on between the beautiful young Lucy and her husband. After she finally fired Lucy, FDR managed to get her a job in the Navy department as the country geared up for war.

Matters came to a head when Eleanor found the love letters from Lucy in FDR’s luggage. She offered to give him a divorce, after FDR told her that he wanted to marry Lucy. It was Sara Roosevelt who nipped the love story in the bud. It was unthinkable for a Roosevelt to get a divorce. If FDR persisted, Sara would see that he was cut off without a penny. Although Eleanor had a small inheritance, and FDR’s father had left him a three million dollar trust, Sara controlled the purse strings. During his years in Washington, FDR had been living beyond his means. Although his salary as assistant secretary of the navy plus his yearly money from his trust plus Eleanor’s money would have been enough for most upper middle class families, FDR was not used to such things as a budget. Sara paid for the children’s private schools, nannies, FDR’s private clubs, and the medical bills. Even at the age of thirty-six, FDR was still tied to his mother’s purse strings.

A divorce would also be the end of FDR’s ambitions for the presidency. It wasn’t until 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected, that the country had a divorced president. In New York at the time, the only cause for divorce was adultery. FDR would have to admit that he had cheated on his wife. Divorce still carried a stigma in upper class circles. FDR was not ready to give up his ambition to be President of the United States.

Eleanor had two conditions for continuing the marriage: Franklin must agree to never see Lucy Mercer again, and they would never again share a bedroom as husband and wife. FDR agreed. He told Lucy that it was Eleanor who wouldn’t give him a divorce, absolving himself of the responsibility of choosing ambition over love. Eleanor later stated that while she could forgive FDR for the affair, she could never forget and that she had stopped loving him from the moment she found out.

A year after the end of their relationship, Lucy married Winthrop Rutherfurd, a wealthy New Yorker, almost thirty years her senior. Handsome, and from a different era, Rutherfurd was a widower with six children, the youngest only two years old. In the 1890’s he had courted Consuelo Vanderbilt, who wanted to marry him until her ambitious mother Alva put a stop to it. A Rutherfurd was no match for the likes of the Duke of Marlborough. Rutherfurd finally married for the first time at the age of forty. Although she didn’t love Winthrop, she felt that he and the children needed her, and his fortune meant that she and her mother would no longer have to worry about money. She eventually had a daughter of her own named Barbara. For twenty years, she devoted herself to being a good wife to Winty, and a step-mother to his five children who adored her and never considered anything less than their mother.

When the relationship between Lucy Mercer and FDR was finally revealed after their deaths, it was thought that they didn’t meet again until 1941 but recently it has come to light that FDR and Lucy were still in contact in the late 1920’s and that FDR arranged a ticket for Lucy for his first inauguration as President. Lucy would call the White House pretending to be Mrs. Paul Johnson. They also continued to see each other whenever Lucy was in Washington, visiting her sister Violetta's family. They devised different ruses, 'accidental' meetings on country roads in Virginia, or FDR would pick Lucy up at Violetta's house.

It wasn't until 1941 that they actually met up at the White House while Eleanor was away which was quite often as the First Lady pursued her own interests and her own friends. Over the next four years, Lucy and her daughter Barbara made numerous visits to the White House while Eleanor was away. Lucy used her influence to get plum assignments in the armed forces for her step-sons. Even J. Edgar Hoover knew about FDR's relationship with Lucy. The only one in the dark was Eleanor. The truth came out at FDR's death. Eleanor discovered that Lucy had been with him at Warm Springs and that her daughter Anna had helped them meet. Even at her husband's death, she felt angered and betrayed. Eventually as the years passed, she became more philosophical about Lucy's role in her husband's life. Possibly she realized that Lucy's company had brought Franklin comfort and peace when he most needed it. While Franklin admired Eleanor and loved her in his way, the wife he had married had become a stateswoman in her own right, and was no longer just his wife. Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd died of leukemia in 1948, three years after the man she loved. By her bedside was a picture of FDR.


Missy LeHand (1898-1944) the 'Unofficial Wife':
Marguerite 'Missy' LeHand came into FDR’s life just before he came down with polio. Irish Catholic, from a working class neighborhood, Missy was young and bubbly, when she went to work as his secretary. She had attended secretarial school after graduating from high school becoming a secretary at the Democratic Party's national headquarters and eventually Roosevelt's secretary in 1920. From the beginning she was devoted to him. While Eleanor became more and more involved in her own life, Missy spent considerable time with FDR down at Warm Springs in Georgia, and his boat. There is speculation that Missy was also his mistress. When FDR and Eleanor moved into the Governor's mansion in Albany, Missy's room had a connecting door to Franklin's, and she was often seen coming in and out at all hours in her nightgown. She also had a room on the floor above his at the White House. As well as her secretarial duties, she also took care of the bills, and acted as his hostess whenever Eleanor had other plans. She was feminine, loved to dress up and wear high heels, just the type of woman FDR found attractive. While Eleanor hectored and pushed him about social issues, Missy spent her time cutting amusing articles and cartoons out of the newspaper for him. She catered and soothed his ego. Although friends tried to fix her up with eligible men, as far as she was concerned none of them measured up to 'FD' as she called him. She did have a brief romance with William Bullit, the handsome ambassador to Russia, but it didn't last. Roosevelt rewrote his will to leave half of the income from his estate (which was eventually probated at more than $3 million) for Missy's care after she suffered a stroke and half to Eleanor. This was in recognition of her years of service as his secretary. According to author Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book "No Ordinary Time" Roosevelt said it was the least he could do. The will stated that upon Missy's death the income would go to Eleanor, with the principal eventually divided equally among his children. Missy suffered a stroke during Roosevelt's third term and never fully recovered. She died in 1944 after devoting more than twenty years of her life to FDR.

Eleanor, Earl Miller and Lorena Hickok:

When FDR was elected Governor of the State of New York, New York State police sergeant Earl Miller was assigned to be her bodyguard. A strapping handsome man of thirty-two, Miller was an orphan like Eleanor. Prior to that, Miller had been Governor Al Smith's personal bodyguard. Miller was also an athlete and had been the Navy's middleweight boxing champion as well as a member of the U.S. Olympic squad at the Antwerp games in 1920. Eleanor was forty-four when she met Miller, thirty-two, in 1929. Miller became her friend as well as official escort. He taught her different sports, such as diving and riding, and coached her tennis game. There is some speculation that the relationship was a romance rather than a friendship. Miller however denied that there was ever a romantic relationship. It true that during his tenure as her bodyguard, he helped Eleanor to open up more, to go horseback riding, hiking, and to learn to dive. They had a very affectionate friendship which shocked Eleanor’s friends who thought that he was too familiar for a bodyguard. They were often seen holding hands, or walking with their arms around each other. People suspected that they were lovers. However, when the Roosevelts moved to the White House, Miller did not follow. Eleanor had already transferred her affections to Lorena Hickok (1893-1968), who she met when Hick as she came to be known came to interview her.

Born in Wisconsin, Hick escaped an abusive father to forge a career as a reporter eventually for the Associated Press. She gave all that career up to be with Eleanor, eventually moving into the White House during FDR's first term in office. She went on a few fact-finding missions with Harry Hopkins but most of her time was devoted to Eleanor. While Hick was definitely a lesbian, there has been much speculation about Eleanor especially since a cache of 2,336 letters between the two was discovered in the 1970's by Doris Faber who had gone to Hyde Park to do research on a young adult biography about Eleanor Roosevelt. The letters seem to indicate that much more went on between the two then just a loving friendship. A key passage from just one early twelve-page handwritten missive to Lorena from Eleanor is indicative: 'Goodnight, dear one. I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth. And in a little more than a week now — I shall!' Eleanor had become acquainted with two lesbian couples during her work with the Democratic party and her work at the Todhunter School. But it appears that Eleanor craved affection and intimacy whether it came from a man or a woman, it didn't really matter. There was a hole in her left by her parents death that one person couldn't fulfill. And she was still tied to FDR although they led increasingly seperate lives. However, by FDR's second term, Eleanor's affection had changed. As she became more and more independent, criss-crossing the country as FDR's eyes and legs, checking on the progress of New Deal initiatives, writing her daily column, she needed Hick less and less. Eventually Hick found another love, although she and Eleanor stayed in touch until Eleanor's death. Before her death in 1968, Hick destroyed most of the letters between the two women, so historians can only guess at the truth.

Eleanor had other close relationships over the years, men like Joseph Lash, who later wrote an acclaimed biography about her. After Franklin's death, she was busier than ever, becoming a delegate to the new United Nations, writing another two biographies, endorsing products on television. She also became involved in the civil rights movement, taking on the Klu Klux Klan when she fulfilled a speaking engagement down South. Not a particularly forceful or attentive mother, she was a much better grandmother to her grandchildren who adored her. She died at the of 78 in 1962, after being diagnosed with tuberculosis of the bone marrow, and is buried at Hyde Park alongside her husband Franklin, united in death.

The truth about FDR, and Lucy Mercer wasn't revealed until the 1960's after all three participants had passed away. It was dramatized in the ABC Miniseries, Eleanor & Franklin starring Jane Alexander and Edward Herrmann (who were both perfectly cast). Since then the nature of FDR's relationship with Lucy, Missy LeHand, and with his distant cousin Daisy Stuckley have occupied historians for years as well as Eleanor's with Lorena Hickok. Even FDR's children have written about the relationships and their interpretation of events.

What to make of FDR? A man who sacrificed love for ambition? In many ways he's like so many other politicians, able to compartmentalize his life. What would the world have been like if FDR hadn't been there to guide the nation through the Great Depression and World War II? The rupture in her marriage, in a way, freed Eleanor Roosevelt to become the woman that she did. No longer did she worry about losing her husband, that shoe had already dropped and she managed to survive and thrive. FDR and Eleanor forged a political partnership that wasn't seen again until Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter or Bill and Hillary Clinton. She gave him a social conscience, and he gave her a forum.

Eleanor remarked later in life, that if the two of them had just sat down, after the discovery of his affair with Lucy Mercer, and really talked, they might have been able to salvage their marriage. But both were too good at concealing their real feelings. She also changed her feelings about the affair, realizing that for men, physical unfaithfulness doesn't carry the same weight that it does with women. "He might have been happier with a wife who was uncritical," she also admitted. "That, I was never able to be, and he had to find it in other people."


Sources and further reading:
Franklin & Lucy: Joseph E. Persico, Random House, 2008
Eleanor and Franklin. New York: Joseph Lash, W.W. Norton (1971)

Eleanor and Franklin and Eleanor and Franklin, the White House Years (DVD)

20 comments:

Susan said...

what a wonderful post! Thank you so much for getting to the gist of the subject! Eleanor had a difficult life.... seems as though she finally found herself.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thank you Susan. I've been incredibly fond of both FDR and Eleanor since childhood. I think that they are remarkable people, who despite their fundamental differences, managed to forge a partnership that was unprecedented at the time in politics.

Heather Carroll said...

I always loved Eleanor and hated FDR, she was such a mighty woman! Her relationship with Miller reminds me of Victoria and Mr. Brown a little bit.

Ms. Lucy said...

Truly, they were remarkable people, I agree with you. I can't imagine this type of thing holding up the way it did, in today's times.

www.enchantedbyjosephine.blogspot.com

dave hambidge said...

You have magnificently summarised a sequence of relationships that make out British Royalty seem quite tame.

I have nominated this blog in the bloggies annual awards for 'best design' and 'best overall' categories. Was that OK?

dave

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Why thanks Dave, that's so sweet!

Heather, I adore Eleanor, but I still have a soft spot for Franklin. Even Eleanor softened towards him in the end, realizing that in any marriage, it takes two people.

Ms. Lucy, it's amazing that the press not only had no inkling of what was going on or didn't print it but that so many people didn't even realize that FDR was disabled until he died.

Christopher said...

".........She also changed her feelings about the affair, realizing that for men, physical unfaithfulness doesn't carry the same weight that it does with women..........".

That Eleanor never did enjoy sex, probably ensured that Franklin - who famously did enjoy sex - would find it in the arms of other women. I feel sure, though, that he always loved Eleanor in the deepest sense. This is what's most important.

The subject of sex is always titillating, but in the eternal scheme of things, does it really matter if Franklin had sex with Lucy or Missy; or that Eleanor may have had sex with Loreena? Sex, after all, is merely the expression of certain emotions. It is the icing on the cake, but it's the cake (the underlying emotions) which is the most important.

I loved this posting. Eleanor, Franklin, and their times, never fail to fascinate.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I agree with you Christopher. Yes, for Eleanor sex had to do with procreation. She famously told her daughter Anna that sex was something to endure. Eleanor's friendships with Lorena Hickok, Earl Miller etc, were more about fulfilling an emotional need in her life than a sexual need. It would be nice to believe that she had a famous awakening in her later years, but for Eleanor intimacy was everything, and intimacy doesn't always mean sex. I think if Franklin did have sex with Missy it would have been more about proving that he still could have after the polio robbed him of his legs. Definitely Lucy was the love of his life, but I think Franklin loved Eleanor in his own way, or he loved certain things about her that he probably lacked.

Bearded Lady said...

Elizabeth, My husband just asked why I am ignoring him and I had to explain that I was utterly engrossed in your tale and he would just have to wait. haha I always wondered what attracted Franklin to Eleanor? They always seemed poorly matched as a romantic couple...but a dynamo in the white house. The fact that her uncle was a celebrity Roosevelt must have played into the initial attraction.

Eleanor is like the quintessential grandmother!

Cinderella said...

Just wanted to let you know that I gave your blog an award:
http://worldofroyaltyblog.com/2009/01/great-buddy-award/

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Bearded Lady, I think that part of the attraction for Franklin was that Eleanor was Teddy Roosevelt's favorite neice and FDR idolized TR. He wanted to emulate him and surpass him. Also, from what I've been reading, he admired her intellect and her empathy. He also felt a little sorry for her.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Cinderella for the award!

Terry C, NJ said...

Eleanor has been an idol of mine since childhood. What a woman!

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