When they first married, Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt fit the definition of the typical Victorian aristocratic couple.
He was a Harvard graduate; she was a debutante. They came from the same respectable family, descended from the Dutch immigrant Claes van Rosenvelt. He expected to go into law while she would raise their future children.
Yet even the distinguishing factor of being related to President Theodore Roosevelt (he was a distant cousin and she was Teddy’s niece) didn’t forecast that the two would become one of the most powerful and influential political couples in U.S. history.
Author Hazel Rowley delves into their relationship in “Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage.” Unlike previous biographers, Rowley cheers for their union.
“When I told the chief archivist at the FDR Library that I was researching the Roosevelt marriage, he remarked ‘A touchy subject,’” Rowley wrote in the preface.
But for Rowley, that touchiness made the project more fascinating. She uses the book to defend what she calls “the most interesting and radical marriage in history.”
“In my view, the Roosevelts’ bond was political in every sense of the word: they were two politically astute people, very tough underneath their vulnerabilities, who knew exactly what they needed in order to do their best work. …
Their marriage did not evolve by itself; they consciously shaped the way it changed.”
Nevertheless, Rowley’s take serves mostly as an overview of the marriage. She doesn’t add any new revelations, and her conjectures downplay what others have seen as major problems in their marriage, including FDR’s affairs and Eleanor’s “ruthless craving for personal publicity.”
Their relationship began in the summer of 1902. They had last seen each other three years earlier at a family Christmas party, when the gallant FDR noticed the awkward Eleanor and asked her to dance so she wouldn’t feel left out.
The two caught up on family news, with Theodore Roosevelt now president, and talked about their educational experiences, hers at Allenswood Academy in England and his at Harvard University.
That meeting led to a three-year courtship, including a secret engagement at the insistence of FDR’s mother, who was not thrilled with the union. They married and began the Victorian lifestyle of work and children, with Franklin’s mother, Sara, always nearby.
Their life together continued down this path for years, with FDR starting to advance in the political arena and Eleanor acting as the proper wife, even as she became more involved in his work.
Things shifted when Eleanor discovered that her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, was writing love letters to FDR.
Rowley naively ponders the implications of this love affair, one of the best-known presidential indiscretions in history. She acknowledges that the letters exist but insists that “we will never know the depth of FDR’s feelings for Lucy.
We will never even know whether it was an ‘affair.’” Rowley reasons that for Mercer, a devout Catholic, a physical relationship would have been a cardinal sin and she and FDR wouldn’t want to risk a pregnancy.
Rowley explains why she believes FDR didn’t leave his marriage: “FDR still loved Eleanor. He knew what he owed to her; he knew how much he needed her. He asked her forgiveness.”
A few years later, when FDR contracted polio and was paralyzed from the waist down, their lives changed. It was then that their relationship became more unconventional. Much of his time was spent away from his family as he tried to recover with only his personal secretary, Missy LeHand, nearby.
Eleanor stood by her husband and took care of her children, but she left behind the “gentlewoman” ways of her mother-in-law and the ladylike politics of her aunt, Anna “Bye” Roosevelt Cowles. She developed strong friendships, championed causes and set about to helping her husband to continue advancing politically.
The last third of the book covers their marriage during the presidency, serving as merely a historical recap. But even as Lucy Mercer returned to the picture, Rowley points to the 40th anniversary of the Roosevelts’ wedding day as one of her final examples of their strong relationship. That night, FDR told his favorite story of their wedding day, describing how, in the heyday of Theodore Roosevelt, no one paid much attention to the young groom and bride.
FDR retired to bed soon after, and his secretary noted, “Thus another milestone is passed in the career of an extraordinary man and wife.”