Franklin and Eleanor’s Marriage

No none ever knows the inside story of a marriage, but Hazel Rowley does her best to understand the Roosevelt’s “extraordinary marriage” in her biography of  Franklin and Eleanor – the last book she wrote before her recent death at 59 years old.  Actually, I went straight to the eight pages of pictures in the middle; who knew FDR was so handsome in his younger day, and how well the false PR worked to convince everyone he was “swimming himself back to health.”

Eleanor and Franklin traveled in the elite circle of old New York, with a President in the family (Teddy Roosevelt was Eleanor’s uncle and gave her away at her wedding).  Their beginnings as a couple seemed romantic, except for Eleanor’s ubiquitous mother-in-law.  Rowley recounts the days of Tammany Hall when FDR first entered politics, and she clearly describes everyday life in the early nineteenth century – it’s easy to forget how hard daily life was back then, even for the wealthy.

And then, of course, there was Lucy Mercer – private secretary to Eleanor; private lover to Franklin…

“She was…a tall, slim beauty with the manners and poise of the blue-blooded…but she was Catholic, penniless, and her parents had created more than a whiff of scandal.  Where was she going to find a suitable husband?”

With a weak constitution, FDR was always getting sick – typhoid fever, the Spanish flu and finally, polio.   Rowley’s details of his first two years with the disease show the amazing spirit of a man who could not be put down.  Throughout, of course, he had the help of Eleanor, faithful servants and nurses, Missy LeHand, and Louis Howe, who eventually became the “Assistant President.”

Much has been written about how today’s world of sound-bites and fast information would never have allowed the façade that surrounded FDR’s life and real physical abilities, but he was careful not to outright lie about his condition.  With Louis Howe, FDR mastered the skill of perception; the public saw what they wanted them to see – through campaigns for Governor of New York and President of the United States.  It’s doubtful today’s press would be so willingly misdirected.

Rowley clearly outlines the Roosevelt’s political lives; both influencing public opinion – he with the Fireside Chats, she with the Gridiron Widows, and later, “FDR was the politician, and she was the agitator.”  At times, Rowley disagrees with other biographers and even with Eleanor’s own accounting.  Rowley contends, perhaps rightly, that Eleanor knew how to spin a story, years before Jackie Kennedy created Camelot.

“Eleanor’s autobiography was in every way a political document.  There was no way she could have told the truth about certain things…Her narrative might have come across as beguilingly honest, but it is full of omissions and factual errors…”

But it’s their personal lives that resonate.  No one really knows the anguish Eleanor may have felt at his need for other women, his deference to his mother, or the terror and pain Franklin endured.  Both partners, though supportive of each other, seemed to realize that one person could not be everything for the other – even in marriage.  Yet, it was this unusual partnership of Eleanor and Franklin that made both lives fearless, and care “so little about what {others} say.” Rowley includes a favorite quote, meant to address international affairs and the turmoil of the government FDR inherited from Hoover, but it could just as well be applied to their personal lives:

“…the policy of a good neighbor – who resolutely respects himself and…respects the rights of others….”

Although Rowley’s narrative sometimes seems like a staccato peppering of facts, this is a book you will want to read carefully and slowly, savoring her attention to detail. Rowley carefully references her facts throughout the biography (42 pages of notes and indexed material), but writes as though she were having a conversation about old friends.  The promised salacious gossip is there too – FDR as a philanderer (even after stricken with polio) and Eleanor with a woman lover – some true, some discounted – all fun to read about.

What struck me most were all those individuals who “sacrificed their personal lives” to befriend and support this extraordinary couple.