The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

FDR-rated ‘Hyde Park on Hudson’ wrongs Roosevelt and his cousin

Bill Murray as FDR in “Hyde Park on Hudson.” (Nikola Dove/AP)

My Republican parents had it in for FDR, so I grew up thinking of the New Dealer who saved England’s marmalade as a big-government mama’s boy with one wide open White House.

Yet even that is a gauzier view of our 32nd president than the one we see in “Hyde Park on Hudson,” a grubby little movie about a shallow little man. Never has crude behavior been more attractively lit.

Set at Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y., on the 1939 weekend when the king and queen of England came to secure the United States’ friendship before World War II, we are meant, I think, to be charmed by old Franklin. The film’s narrator, the president’s spinster cousin Daisy Suckley, played by Laura Linney, seems to think we should be as thrilled as she is by his attentions to her.

That’s impossible, though, because the Franklin Roosevelt of this movie is less concerned with Hitler than with juggling women he treats like hookers. In the film’s defining scene, on a Hudson Valley hilltop, the moves he puts on Daisy make Bill Clinton’s treatment of Monica Lewinsky look almost gallant.

Could the president who brought us Social Security have been such a moral runt? Sure, but he wasn’t. Did the man who saw us through the Great Depression have had such little regard for women? No again, as it turns out.

In fact, the historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who edited Daisy Suckley’s papers, told me that although he hasn’t seen the movie, he’s appalled by all he has read and heard about how it depicts her friendship with FDR.

“His relationship with her was an extremely old-fashioned, very decorous sort of 19th century — they wrote each other letters and may have kissed once, in a car on a hilltop. It was the delight of her life to be the friend of Franklin Roosevelt.” Having read every word of the letters and diaries the film is supposed to be based on, he says, his impression is that she never had sex with anyone, and would be humiliated by such a coarse presentation of their connection.

A user, yes, but an abuser, I don’t think so. “He was manipulative with everybody he knew; he was a politician. But did he have what you so nicely called a ‘transactional relationship’ with her? No. I feel so guilty,” he said, for even agreeing to edit the papers that led to the movie project.

Jonathan Alter, author of “The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope,” also thinks the view of FDR as one creepy cousin is mistaken: “He loved women — liked hanging out with women and hearing their banter; the idea of him treating them as people to service him I don’t think is right.”

He was deeply in love with the one woman with whom we know he had an affair, Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd, who stayed close to him all his life and was with him when he died, as was Daisy.

He named a frigate after his personal secretary, Missy LeHand — another woman cast as a plaything in the movie. When in reality, Alter says, “she was so woven into his inner circle she might as well have been Valerie Jarrett.”

He not only enjoyed the company of women but trusted their opinions more than some other men of his vintage. He was not only open-minded about his wife Eleanor’s intimacy with Lorena Hickok, but hired the former Associated Press writer to travel the country and report back to him on which public works projects were successful and which were not, then took what she told him seriously.

Daisy gave him his dog, Fala, and kept a kind of shrine to him in her bedroom, where when she died at age 99, a small suitcase filled with those letters and diaries was found under her bed. (Future presidential friends, beware.) Would she have felt that loyalty to someone to whom she was nothing?

Maybe; it has been known to happen. But it isn’t what happened to her, and it seems unfair that the life of a woman whose discretion made her one of the president’s most trusted confidantes has in death been reduced to the stuff of a fourth-rate sex scandal.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that her husband used everyone for his own purposes; he could be cold, yes, and even cruel. But if anything, he preferred the company of women, who adored him in return. And where Daisy Suckley was concerned, it’s not her cousin but this ugly movie that seems to have manipulated her, and twisted beyond all recognition something she thought of as a lovely secret.