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Jonathan Yardley
The women who made a man out of FDR.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 27, 2008

FRANKLIN & LUCY

President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life

By Joseph E. Persico

Random House. 443 pp. $28

On Jan. 30, 1882, after an "excruciating" labor that lasted more than 24 hours and left "her breath coming in shallow gasps, her skin turning blue," Sara Delano Roosevelt gave birth to a 10-pound boy, who was "lifeless and also blue." Only after the doctor "began blowing into the infant's mouth" did the baby at last begin to breathe and cry, but "so arduous had been the delivery, so close had the mother and baby come to dying, that the doctor cautioned Sara to have no more children."

She named the baby Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For the rest of her life, he was "the core of her existence." Coming from old New York money, she was in a position to grant her son his every wish -- indeed to grant him wishes he probably didn't know he had -- and she did precisely that. She could be suffocating, but in her fashion she was supportive and loving. She brought him up in the belief that he could do anything, and she "conditioned [him] to assume that a female presence in his life was there to serve and adore him," to have women around him "to whom he was the sun and they were his planets." This did not exactly leave him with what would now be considered an enlightened attitude toward women, but it did mean that women were more central to his life than they were to most of his male contemporaries, especially those who made politics their careers.

In addition to Sara, four other women played incalculably important roles in his life: Eleanor Roosevelt, his wife and cousin; Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, Eleanor's social secretary with whom he fell in love when he was in his 30s and with whom he remained in love for the rest of his life; Marguerite "Missy" LeHand, his secretary for two decades; and Anna, his favorite child, who during World War II took on many responsibilities in the White House for which the ever-busy Eleanor "had neither the time nor inclination." Other women make appearances in Joseph E. Persico's chronicle, but these five mattered most.

The marriage of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt is endlessly fascinating and endlessly mysterious. It took place in March 1905 over the strenuous objections of Sara. She was less concerned about a marriage of cousins -- these were not uncommon at the time, especially among New York bluebloods -- than about her apprehension that this shy, ungainly young woman was simply the wrong mate for her debonair, handsome son. To this day, it is difficult to see what drew FDR to Eleanor. She did take him seriously, at a time when few others did, and in the beginning she offered him complete adoration, but she hated the social life that he loved, she had little capacity for tenderness, and she found sexual relations repellent. Persico explores this issue intelligently, but in the end he is as baffled as everyone else has been: "That a young man of [such] gifts, an Adonis who could have easily won the hand of any number of more beautiful women, decided to choose Eleanor is either evidence of a then unsuspected depth in him or of the inexplicable choices of the human heart, or both."

Still, the marriage seems to have been reasonably happy in its first years, though what Eleanor "had been starved for, affection, warmth, above all intimacy with a soul mate, were not to be found in Franklin." She overcame her abhorrence of sex at least six times, as six children proved, and during the times when she and Franklin were separated, their letters were often affectionate. When he was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913 and the family moved to Washington, she hired, as her social secretary, the stunningly beautiful, 22-year-old Lucy Mercer, apparently with no thought that this might pose a threat to her marriage.

For quite a while the two women coexisted happily, and the Roosevelt children seem to have adored Lucy, but "between trips to Hyde Park and Campobello, Eleanor was often absent while Lucy continued to report to the Roosevelt house on N Street." By mid-1916, the attraction between FDR and the social secretary "had ripened into a love affair." Whether that "affair" was consummated apparently has never been known by anyone except FDR and Lucy, but the way Persico phrases the question -- "What do a thirty-five-year-old man who has sired six children and a twenty-six-year-old woman who is madly in love with him do when, by chance or design, they find themselves alone?" -- leaves little doubt as to his answer, and I think he's right. The times were different then, and people did not fall into bed together so easily and quickly as they do now, but it's hard to believe that these two healthy, hungry people were able to resist temptation.

By 1917 Eleanor was sufficiently suspicious that something was going on that she contrived a polite excuse to let Lucy go. Then, in 1918, when Franklin returned from an exhausting trip to Europe, she discovered in his luggage an incriminating packet of letters from Lucy. The ensuing confrontation must have been terrible, with Franklin saying he wanted his freedom and Eleanor urging "him to consider the effects of divorce on their children." Then came the confrontation with Sara, who told him that "she would cut him off without a cent and forfeit his right to inherit the estate," leaving him to choose between "freedom at a high price or living on in the comfortable prison of convention." He chose the latter, of course, largely for reasons of political ambition, and Eleanor agreed to remain with him, on two conditions: "that Lucy was to be effaced from his life" and that "he was never again to share [Eleanor's] bed."

The second condition may have given Franklin little pain, but the first proved unacceptable. Persico has obtained evidence that "there was never a complete break between Franklin and Lucy." It is common knowledge that she was with him in Warm Springs, Ga., at his death in April 1945, but throughout his presidency he found ways to stay in touch with her and to see her. Whether Lucy was more than a friend and companion during the White House years remains yet another mystery, but there seems no particular reason to believe that her clandestine visits to Warm Springs and even the White House were limited to "spiritual refreshment."

Compounding the mystery is the presence of Winthrop Rutherfurd, the wealthy and much older man Lucy married in 1920. He knew that she and Roosevelt were friends, but whether he knew more is unclear, as is what, if anything, he knew about her contacts with the president. She was a loyal and even devoted wife to him right up to his death in 1944, and a good stepmother to the six children from his first marriage. Indeed, virtually all the evidence indicates that she was a woman of exceptional decency, kindness, intelligence and discretion. By the same token, though, all the evidence indicates that she was in love with Franklin Roosevelt throughout her life, and that she was no mere puppet on the presidential string; she was as enthusiastic a participant in the clandestine assignations as he was, and she seems to have needed his company as badly as he needed hers.

There has been frequent speculation that Missy LeHand, who joined Roosevelt's staff in 1920, played a comparable role in his life, but this is less likely. As to Anna, she was the eldest of the Roosevelts' five surviving children (a boy died in infancy) and always enjoyed her father's strong affection, but it wasn't until late 1943 that the connection between them intensified. She had been living in Seattle with her husband, a newspaperman, but she came to the White House for Christmas and was persuaded by her father to stay on. By then Missy had been sidelined by a severe stroke -- she died the following summer, and "Anna proved smart and competent as she willingly took on Missy-like tasks, helping FDR serve at the cocktail hour, arranging the seating for dinners, dealing with callers for whom the president had no time." Roosevelt, Persico writes, "had found in his daughter a soul mate."

Persico -- a former speechwriter for W. Averell Harriman and Nelson Rockefeller who turned to writing popular histories three decades ago -- is judicious in his treatment of these sensitive matters. He gives each of FDR's five leading ladies her due, but he also is attentive to the others -- among them Dorothy Schiff, Grace Tully, Daisy Suckley and Alice Roosevelt Longworth -- who came into his orbit at various times and for various reasons. He is commendably nonjudgmental about the relationship between the two people of his title. Like Jean Edward Smith, Roosevelt's most recent and best biographer, he understands that Lucy Mercer helped FDR awaken his capacity for love and compassion, and thus helped him become the man to whom the nation will be eternally in debt. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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