Books: “Franklin and Eleanor”

January 7, 2011

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941

“I hate it,” Charlie Brown once said, “when there are two sides to a story.” Actually, Charlie, there are at least two sides to every story, and none more certainly than the story of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, probably the most complicated First Couple in American history. The sorting out of their relationship still goes on 65 years after FDR’s death, most recently in Hazel Rowley’s book “Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage.”


This is not the story of how the insatiable FDR cheated on his wife, leaving the pair in a marriage maintained only for the sake of appearances and finances. It’s a lot more complicated and — in Rowley’s view — a lot more important than that. It is well established by now that in 1918 Eleanor discovered love letters written by her secretary, Lucy Mercer, to FDR, and that the incident had a permanent impact on the marriage. It is also known that FDR promised never to see Lucy Mercer again and that he broke that promise — in fact, that Lucy was among those who were with him in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945, when he suffered the cerebral stroke that resulted in his death. It is also known that Franklin Roosevelt was an incurable flirt, and that he highly valued his relationships with women who were both charming in their own right and — this was essential — who were charmed by him. Rowley explains that this tendency often irritated Eleanor, but that she came to understand and accept the importance of certain women in her husband’s life.


But the author explains that there was much more to the story than that. Physical intimacy disappeared from the Roosevelts’ marriage, but Rowley writes that Eleanor, who had six children in relatively rapid succession, thought of her sexual relations as a necessary but unwelcome burden. But Eleanor, like most human beings, had needs of her own with respect to affection and intimacy. She fulfilled these needs in more than one way, with both women and men, though how intimate these relationships were is largely a matter of conjecture. Rowley recounts that Franklin encouraged his wife’s friendship with a lesbian couple to the point of helping the three of them build a house and a workshop on property he owned near his mother’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y.


Eleanor also had an intense tie to Lorena Hickok, a pioneering Associated Press reporter who became so close to the Roosevelts that she herself decided she could no longer report on them objectively. By the time FDR was elected president for the first time, in 1932, Rowley writes, “Everyone in the political press corps knew that Lorena Hickok was a lesbian. By now most of the reporters had figured out that she was passionately in love with Eleanor and that her feelings appeared to be reciprocated.”

Whatever relationships Franklin and Eleanor forged outside their marriage, Rowley maintains, the two of them continued to love and support each other, and they formed a partnership whose vigor helped carry the nation through the Great Depression and the Second World War. At times they seemed to constitute a single person, as Eleanor traveled to places at home and abroad that were beyond her paralyzed husband’s capacity. Although Eleanor’s activism occasionally embarrassed the politically sensitive Franklin, they shared many of the same ideals of social justice.


In the process of describing the marriage of these two gigantic historical figures, Rowley draws portraits of many of the interesting characters in the Roosevelt clan and entourage — a crowd that FDR liked to think of as a big, happy family. Not the least of the players was Louis Howe, a disheveled ex-journalist who was one of FDR’s closest advisers for most of his political career, the tireless battery behind the campaigns that made Roosevelt governor of New York and president of the United States. Some of the people around Roosevelt — including his patrician mother, Sara — disapproved of this little man with cigarette ashes on his rumpled clothing, but Eleanor wasn’t one of them, and Rowley describes how it was Howe who repeatedly encouraged Eleanor to make herself heard on the issues that were important to her — a visionary attitude in that male-dominated era.


5 Responses to “Books: “Franklin and Eleanor””

  1. bronxboy55 Says:

    Eleanor seemed to be trapped in so many different corners, it’s a wonder she didn’t lose her mind. Yet not only did she hold onto her sanity, she was a social and political superstar, and remained so until the very end. Thank you for an excellent glimpse into the life of this remarkable person.

  2. charlespaolino Says:

    As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have admired Eleanor Roosevelt since I was a child. Her role in the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights is an under-appreciated example of her service to the nation and the world.She was ahead of her time in her understanding of human rights and social justice, and she struggled with FDR over issues of race, including the interment of Japanese Americans during the war. FDR, of course, had to make political judgments that Eleanor did not. Sometimes she took that into account so as not to embarrass him and cost him support in the South, but she herself had both feet planted on the side of the angels.

  3. shoreacres Says:

    It’s been an extraordinary experience for me to learn about the Roosevelts in my middle years, as my family had little time or care for them when I was growing up. It wasn’t that they were critical, precisely, but Truman seemed to be the moon eclipsing FDR’s sun.

    Part of it was simple circumstance. My family was divided between the coal mines of south-central Iowa and Kansas City, and our dinner table conversation often was of the Pendergast machine and its relationship to Truman. When my uncle gave David McCullough’s Truman to my aunt for Christmas, she wept in gratitude.

    As for the Roosevelts, your post is a useful reminder that tolerance, acceptance of ambiguity and an ability to navigate complicated relationships with grace is hardly limited to our age. In fact, I’d be willing to say our leaders could learn a thing or two from people who died before I was born. Clearly, the Roosevelts’ commitment to goals larger than themselves helped them become the memorable individuals they are.

  4. charlespaolino Says:

    I see that you I discussed Roosevelt and Truman after a post I made last May. Concerning your last point here, the author of this book emphasizes the conviction that Roosevelt men had an obligation to public service that superseded their own convenience or even their own wellbeing. That’s why all the sons of FDR and Eleanor were in the armed forces during World War II. FDR and Eleanor were both Roosevelts — fifth cousins — and I guess Eleanor was the first to extend this obligation to Roosevelt women. Her family clearly never intended that. Her grandmother, who raised her, sent her off to France to attend a school for girls, but Grandma didn’t know that the woman who ran that school was very very progressive and put into Eleanor’s mind ideas of independence and curiosity that never left her.

  5. Robert Gertz Says:

    I think one may forget the genuine affection between Franklin and Eleanor that appears in their private letters and conversations long after 1918 and despite other persons’ crowding into their lives, not merely because FDR or Eleanor needed them but as Edward Herrman’s Franklin puts it so well in “White House Years” “Is it because they needed to give themselves to us?”. Eleanor and FDR did in fact constantly consider and worry about their relationship…”I think I looked tired chiefly because you were going away…” Eleanor wrote in 1931 and her eagerness to show off her new gained diving ability to him in 1928 is touching. He worried about her, wished she “…wasn’t so darned busy…”, was concerned how she’d take his arrangements for Missy’s medical coverage, urged her to press him…Craved her good opinion. He actually enjoyed going with her to visit her new women friends in the 20s when home from seeking warm water for his damaged legs, even though it meant the humiliation of hobbling through their apartment buildings on crutches, doing his “ersatz” walking. She bit the bullet in 1943 for his sake and began staying more frequently with him at the Big House in Hyde Park and found herself enjoying the place for the first time in years. They delighted in talk and debate and he made special time for her in the 30s White House when she returned from trips…A source of connection she relished so much that she became somewhat possessive and jealous when others and the war intruded. He warned Missy off, noting that she should have a life of her own and tried, sometimes with Eleanor’s assist, to find beaus for her. He got angry when some of Eleanor’s friends became too demanding of her and she enjoyed his jealousy of some of her rather attractive young male friends. It may not have been a passionate relationship after 1918, though neither of them were probably very good at physical intimacy, but it remained a marriage of feeling and spirit as well as a successful partnership.

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