A distinguished biographer’s fresh take on the marriage of the Roosevelts, the most dynamic couple ever to occupy the White House.
Scholars agree that Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the role of First Lady every bit as much as Franklin transformed the presidency. They divide, however, on the “touchy subject” of their unconventional marriage. Most see it as deeply troubled and champion one or the other partner. Rowley (Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, 2005, etc.) declines to take sides, instead portraying the union as a courageous and radical arrangement that fulfilled the needs of each, a partnership as unprecedented as the manner in which they both served the country. By 1925, married 20 years with five surviving children, the Roosevelts were already a nontraditional union, for two reasons: Franklin’s World War I affair with Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer, and his midlife affliction with infantile paralysis. From that point, notwithstanding a continuing deep respect and affection between them, they led largely independent lives, satisfying emotional needs through a series of romantic friendships that expanded the marriage into a kind of community involving colleagues, friends, employees and family. The people, with the exception of Louis Howe, FDR’s longtime political advisor, rarely overlapped. Eleanor’s circle included her bodyguard, a young socialist and her late-life personal doctor. She also cultivated close female companions, two Democratic Party activists with whom she lived for a time and a journalist. Rowley explores each of these relationships, acknowledges Eleanor’s life on “the edge of the lesbian world,” but admirably refrains from declarations for which she has no evidence. Franklin’s intimates included a distant cousin, flirtations with a woman publisher and most importantly, his personal secretary, “Missy” LeHand. Intending not to idealize the marriage, the author nevertheless touches too lightly on the Roosevelts’ powerful and devouring neediness. Their thoroughly undistinguished children were not least among the broken hearts and confused minds these two titans left behind.
A focused account of a complex marriage that continues to fascinate.