Book World: Carolyn See on "Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage"

WINNERS: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt with a congratulatory telegram on his 1932 presidential election victory.
WINNERS: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt with a congratulatory telegram on his 1932 presidential election victory. (Associated Press)
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By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 8:00 PM


An Extraordinary Marriage

By Hazel Rowley

Farrar Straus Giroux. 345 pp. $27

Here's some old-time Republican humor: Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt are sitting in the White House living room during World War II. "Do you notice anything different about me, dear?" Eleanor asks. "No, dear, I don't," Franklin answers. "What can it be?" "I'm wearing my gas mask," Eleanor responds. Ha, ha, ha.

Women all over America - if they were a certain type - could take comfort in the fact that even if they were poor, uneducated and stupid, there was one person more homely than they were. Eleanor was the proverbial mud fence, and because she believed in good causes, social justice and the essential humanity of Negroes, she also got to be the national pill. Put another way, in their 40-year marriage, Franklin Roosevelt was the hipster, Eleanor the square.

They were both of New York aristocracy, of Dutch heritage. They were fifth cousins, once removed. Eleanor's uncle was the beloved president Theodore Roosevelt. They were rich, and had - theoretically - every advantage. Franklin, in fact, did. His father was an invalid, but his mother, who was immensely wealthy, made Franklin the apple of her eye. He was handsome, sunny-tempered, perhaps a little slick. Things were different for Eleanor. Her mother, a great beauty, was disappointed in her girl's looks; her father was a classic sociopathic charmer - extremely kind and solicitous when it occurred to him, absent the rest of the time. Once "her father asked her to wait for him in the lobby of the Knickerbocker Club, and she waited, holding his three fox-terriers on their leashes, until six hours later the doorman sent her home in a carriage." Plainly speaking, she was never loved.

Then, when she was a young woman fresh from boarding school and Roosevelt was still an undergraduate at Harvard, the pair recognized each other on a tram. One of Franklin's relatives had just made a scandalous and sordid marriage, and perhaps it was this that convinced Franklin she would be good wife material. There was a courtship, the young couple married, and Uncle Teddy came to the wedding and stole the show: "My father," Alice Roosevelt Longworth wrote, "lived up to his reputation of being the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral and hogged the limelight unashamedly." Afterward, they went to live in New York City in a home that opened directly on Eleanor's mother-in-law's home. Sara Delano Roosevelt proved to be a classic gorgon, holding on to the purse strings, criticizing her daughter-in-law at every turn. Eleanor gave birth to six children; five survived.

If I've spent a long time on the early stages of the Roosevelt marriage, so does Hazel Rowley, the author of this enticing new biography. Her research, both meticulous and extensive, does not bloat the book into a doorstop. "Franklin and Eleanor" is less about history than about relationships, and it reads like a wonderful novel at times, giving us a vision of what parts of American life were like then. No matter how rich you were, life was hard.

Illness bedeviled Eleanor and Franklin. They managed to have typhoid fever at the same time. When she discovered Lucy Mercer's love letters, he was down with double pneumonia. That mother-in-law never stopped interfering. But - the author implicitly suggests - it was all this, along with Franklin's natural ebullience and Eleanor's implacable desire to do good, that gave them the strength to cope with Franklin's polio (described here in appalling detail), to survive election after election after election. (His mother opposed his political career with all her might.)

Their personal lives turned radical and subversive. After his affair with Mercer, Franklin had a series of adoring females around him, and for the most part Eleanor never objected. She herself had some form of romance with her bodyguard-chauffeur; he was a handsome chap and plainly devoted. And just about the time of her husband's first presidential inauguration, she embarked on a passionate affair with Lorena Hickok, at that time the foremost female newspaper reporter in the land.

A blend of characteristics - Franklin's flamboyant confidence, Eleanor's passion for social justice - generated the exceptional energy it took for the pair to change the world. Their ability, so well captured in these pages, to gather friends and followers into a coherent and powerful community and their willingness to exchange affection until the very end remain awesome. This is much more than a book about politics.

See reviews books every Friday for The Post.

Sunday in Outlook l The incomparable life and voice of Frank Sinatra. l The killing fields of Hitler and Stalin. l Leslie Marmon Silko's new memoir. l The history-making friendship of Madison and Jefferson. l And the gradual path to creative breakthroughs.

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