They were cousins, fifth-generation, once removed. Their common ancestor, Claes van Rosenvelt, had emigrated from Holland around 1650 and settled in New Amsterdam, as New York City was still called at that time. On American shores the family name, which meant “field of roses,” had been changed to “Roosevelt,” but the descendants still pronounced the first syllable “rose,” in deference to their Dutch heritage. However the name was pronounced, there was no ambiguity about its standing: “Roosevelt” was a pedigree name among the New York aristocracy. Indeed, when Franklin and Eleanor happened to find themselves on the same train, in the summer of 1902, it was the most famous name in the country.
The cousins were on the New York Central, traveling north from New York City, along the east bank of the Hudson River. Franklin was strolling through the coach car when he spotted Eleanor, sitting with her maid. They had not seen each other for three and a half years.
The last occasion had been a family Christmas party, held in Orange, New Jersey, at the grand country home of Corinne Roosevelt Robinson—the “little sister” of Anna, Theodore, and Elliott Roosevelt. At fourteen, Eleanor looked gangly and awkward in a short white dress with blue bows on each shoulder—a hand-me-down from one of her maternal aunts. Seeing her looking lost on the sidelines, Franklin went up and asked her to dance. “I still remember my gratitude,” Eleanor wrote years later, in This Is My Story.
At that Christmas party in 1898, the family had been celebrating Theodore Roosevelt’s latest triumphs. In August, he had returned from the Spanish-American War covered in glory for his exploits as commander of the cavalry regiment, the Rough Riders. Theodore Roosevelt had become a popular hero, the man everyone talked about. In November he had been elected governor of New York. That Christmas, he was about to move his family to Albany.
Since then, Theodore Roosevelt’s rise had been meteoric. A progressive Republican, he was governor of New York for two years and then was elected vice president, under President William McKinley. In September 1901, when McKinley was shot by an anarchist in Buffalo, New York, Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president in American history, at the age of forty-two.
To Eleanor, Uncle Ted might be the most famous man in the land, but above all he was the elder brother of the man she would idealize to her dying day—her father, Elliott, who had died when she was nine. Uncle Ted, a sentimental man, often told her that he loved her like a daughter. Eleanor found him a little overpowering. During her adolescence, when she made her annual summer visit to the Roosevelt cousins at Oyster Bay, Long Island, he used to give her such bear hugs that her clothes once tore. “Eleanor, my darling Eleanor!” he greeted her. With alarming boisterousness, he would chase the tribe of children through the haystacks in the barn, or down the hill to the waterfront. Although Eleanor had never learned to swim, Uncle Ted told her to jump off the dock and have a go. She had come up spluttering and panicked. Uncle Ted took her in his lap and explained to her that he had formerly been afraid of many things—grizzly bears, mean horses, and men with guns—but he had found that if you acted fearless, after a while you became fearless. It was important, he said, never to fear the challenges life threw in your path.
To Franklin, cousin Theodore was quite simply a hero. Everyone in the family knew that Theodore had been a sickly, puny boy, who suffered terribly from asthma, and seemed far less promising than his handsome younger brother, Elliott. But whereas Elliott had led a dissipated life and drank himself to an early death, Theodore excelled at Harvard, wrote books, and entered politics, eager to give his life to “public service.” Calling himself a “Lincoln Republican” (Abraham Lincoln was his hero), the young president was promising to bring back the virtues of the old Republican Party—social justice and reform.
Franklin saw himself as a Democrat, just as his father had been. It was a political allegiance that set them apart in the aristocratic circles in which they moved. But it was not out of family loyalty that Franklin intended to vote Republican in the next presidential election. He considered Theodore Roosevelt more progressive than the Democrats. The new president promised a “square deal” for every man, favored suffrage for women, spoke out against lynching, defended the right of labor to organize, and believed in strict regulation of big business.
Franklin had felt privileged to have a couple of personal conversations with the president earlier that year, when Theodore’s eldest daughter, Alice, had her coming-out ball at the White House. It was too bad Eleanor had been unable to attend, he told her. He had had a glorious few days in Washington. Alice was creating a sensation these days. The press was calling her “Princess Alice.” The ball, held in the East Room, had made front-page news. Franklin did not add that he had been one of Alice’s most eager dance partners.
Eleanor, who had been out of the country for three years, in England, had not felt tempted to come home—not even for a glamorous White House event. Her time at Allenswood, a girls’ finishing school in Wimbledon, outside London, had been the happiest years of her life, she told Franklin. Her aunt Bye (Anna Roosevelt) had attended Marie Souvestre’s school twenty years earlier, and had recommended that Eleanor go there. Mlle. Souvestre’s classes, held in French, were wonderfully stimulating. The Frenchwoman liked Americans, whom she thought more open and less class-bound than the British. Eleanor had become her favorite protégée. During vacations, Eleanor had even traveled with Mlle. Souvestre on the Continent.
Franklin grinned. He had heard the scandalous news that his Hyde Park neighbors, the Newboldts, had come across Eleanor in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, wandering around without a chaperone. The family elders had been horrified.
Eleanor blushed. Mlle. Souvestre was seventy now, and not in the best of health, she explained. Some afternoons, she had wanted to rest and sent Eleanor out by herself, with a guidebook. Moreover, the headmistress, a sophisticated European, did not hide her impatience with the staid conventions of New York society. Eleanor would have given anything to stay at Allenswood another year, but her grandmother would not hear of it. Eleanor was turning eighteen in October, and it was time to come out.
Franklin was about to begin his third year at Harvard. He enjoyed his courses in history, economics, and government, he told Eleanor, but he was happiest in the office of The Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper. He hoped to be made an assistant managing editor this year. The Crimson played an important role in bringing together the Harvard community, and could exert quite a bit of influence.
His mother had been lonely since his father’s death, but she was keeping herself busy. She managed their estate at Hyde Park, in the Hudson valley, to which they were now returning. For the past two winters she had rented an apartment in Boston, to be closer to Franklin. Last summer, they had traveled together to Europe. They were on the ship home when they heard the news—by megaphone from a passing vessel—that President McKinley was dead.
His mother would be wondering where he was. Would Eleanor like to accompany him to the Pullman car to see her? Eleanor stood up. Only now did Franklin see how tall she had grown. She was five-eleven, just two inches shorter than he was. Her thick golden hair came to her waist, and in her fashionable Paris clothing she looked willowy and graceful. He had been noticing her gentle blue eyes, which had a new sparkle to them. While she was abroad, cousin Eleanor had turned into a lovely young lady.
Eighteen months after her husband’s death, Sara Delano Roosevelt was still wearing a black gown and mourning veil that went from her hat to her ankles. She had become a widow at the age of forty-six. For the rest of her life she would look back nostalgically to those twenty years of happy marriage to James Roosevelt.
It was her friend Anna Roosevelt—known as “Bye”—who had introduced them. Everyone in the family owed so much to Bye. The eldest of the four siblings (Bye, Theodore, Elliott, and Corinne), Bye had severe physical problems—her spine was deformed, and she was almost hunchbacked—but she looked after everybody, was interested in everything, her mind was razor-sharp, she was the stalwart of the family. The life of the party wherever she went, Bye had a frenetic social schedule. It was because she was always running off to another engagement that the family, who once called her “Bamie,” renamed her “Bye.”
In April 1880, Sara Delano and Bye Roosevelt were twenty-five and still single. Sara did not relish the prospect of spinsterhood, but she had little interest in young men her own age, who could not hold a candle to the father she adored. Bye, who everyone said was too busy for marriage, had just turned down a proposal from her cousin James Roosevelt, a fifty-two-year-old widower. But Bye was nevertheless fond of her cousin, and she invited him to a family dinner. Among the guests was Sara Delano—or “Sallie,” as she was known to family and friends.
Most of the evening, James Roosevelt had talked to her. Soon after, he invited Bye, Corinne, and their mother, Martha, to visit his Hyde Park estate, Springwood, adding that he would be delighted if Miss Sallie would accompany them. The women had gone there in early May and stayed a week. During that time, James ventured another proposal.
He was luckier this time. It had not taken Sara long to warm to her suitor. She was flattered by the older man’s interest in her. He was a handsome man, and with his muttonchop whiskers and Old World chivalry, he reminded her of her father. James Roosevelt was wealthy, sufficiently so for it to be clear that he was not pursuing her for her own large fortune. And despite the twenty-seven-year age difference, they had a great deal in common. They both belonged to the Hudson valley landed gentry, who modeled themselves on the British aristocracy, spoke with English-sounding accents, hired French and German governesses and tutors for their children, wintered in Manhattan (two hours away by train), and made annual trips to Europe. The Delano family estate, Algonac, comprised sixty acres of land on the west bank of the river, at Newburgh. Springwood, twenty miles to the north, was set among thirteen hundred acres of meadows, woods, vineyards, and orchards on the east bank, at Hyde Park. Sara’s family descended from French Huguenot nobility (her ancestor, Philippe de Lannoy, was one of the earliest settlers in the Plymouth Colony); James hailed from an illustrious mix of Dutch Roosevelts and Yankee Aspinwalls. His son from his first marriage, James Roosevelt Jr. (“Rosy”), who was just six months younger than Sara, had recently married Helen Schermerhorn Astor, from the fabulously wealthy Astor family.
At first Sara’s father, Warren Delano, was taken aback by the whirlwind romance. But he liked James Roosevelt, a graduate of Harvard Law School, a director of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, and a respected leader within the Hyde Park community, and was soon telling the family, “James Roosevelt is the first person who has made me realize that a Democrat can be a gentleman.”
The wedding was held at Algonac, on a sunny October day, amid the fall foliage. The couple spent a blissful month at Hyde Park, then sailed off on their European honeymoon. They were away ten months, and when they returned, Sara was four months pregnant. “We have had such happy days,” she wrote in her journal.
Eleanor had always found cousin Sallie intimidating, and on the train that day her mourning attire made her seem even more formidable than usual. She was a handsome, tall woman, with an aloof, regal manner, and a prominent, square jaw that suggested obstinacy. She sat bolt upright, and had a habit of lifting her chin and looking down her nose at people, which made Eleanor feel she was being appraised. “Mrs. James Roosevelt…was sorry for me, I think,” she wrote in her autobiography.
Sara Delano Roosevelt had good reason to feel sorry for Eleanor. She had not seen much of the girl’s family over the years, but she was well aware of their tragedies, one after another. Bye Roosevelt had often confided her worries about her brother, Elliott.
Sara first met Elliott Roosevelt soon after her marriage. In November 1880, she and James were crossing the Atlantic on their honeymoon. Among their fellow passengers on the new White Star liner, the Germanic, was twenty-year-old Elliott, on his way to India, where he was going to hunt big game—elephants and tigers. Like everyone else, Sara and James had found the handsome young man irresistibly charming. When Franklin was born, fourteen months later, they asked Elliott to be a godfather.
At the christening, in March 1882, Elliott, just back from India, cut a dashing figure. With his name, wealth, and good looks, he was one of the most eligible bachelors in New York City. Before long he was courting Anna Livingston Ludlow Hall, an exquisitely beautiful nineteen-year-old from Tivoli on the Hudson, whose family was among the famous “Four Hundred” who constituted the elite of New York Knickerbocker society. When the engagement was announced a year later, Elliott’s siblings were relieved that the “dear old boy” was settling down at last, “with a definite purpose in life.” The wedding, in December 1883, was hailed in the press as “one of the most brilliant social events of the season.”
Ten months later, on October 11, 1884, Anna Eleanor (known as “Eleanor”) came into the world. Sadly, the girl did not appear to have inherited her parents’ good looks, and Anna seemed embarrassed by her. Sara remembered the family coming to Springwood when Eleanor was two. The little girl stood around sucking her thumb, looking solemn and anxious. Anna taunted her, calling her “Granny.” Sara had felt grateful to young Franklin, who crawled around the nursery with his cousin on his back, making her laugh.
All too soon, Sara was hearing troubling stories about Elliott. He had suffered seizures since he was fourteen. The doctors called it “hysteria.” His family called it “Elliott’s weakness.” Because of ill health, he had left school at sixteen. His father sent him to a frontier post in Texas to toughen him up, and Elliott spent a year hunting buffalo. But now another weakness, more serious, was coming to light. Sara supposed it began among the cowboys in the Wild West and grew worse in India, where Elliott fraternized with hard-drinking young aristocrats from Europe and America. There was no longer any hiding the fact that Elliott was an alcoholic.
Elliott could not settle down to married life, or, it seemed, to anything else. He talked about writing up his India stories (his elder brother had already written several books); he talked about entering Republican politics, like Theodore. Instead he spent whole days drinking with friends at the exclusive Knickerbocker Club, on Fifth Avenue. He was often away—riding to the hounds, playing polo, and partying with friends. When he broke his leg in a riding accident, he took morphine and laudanum for the pain, and after that he was addicted to opiates.
In March 1889, Anna gave birth to a son. They named the boy after his father, calling him “Ellie.” But it was around this time that the family started to worry about Elliott’s sanity. His moods fluctuated wildly. He told Anna that he wanted to leave America; Theodore made him feel a failure. Difficult though it was with the young children, Anna agreed to go to Europe. Once there, Elliott went to this and that sanatorium, spending all his trust money and writing home for more.
Around Christmas 1890, Anna found herself pregnant a third time. Her husband’s behavior was alarming her, and she begged Bye to come over and help. Bye arrived in Paris in February 1891, and was appalled, she wrote home, by the scene that greeted her. Elliott oscillated between depression, violence, and contrition. His drunken ranting was that of a mad man. He even accused Anna of infidelity, and demanded to know whether the baby was really his. Anna still loved her husband and longed to help him, but she was suffering from chronic headaches, and occasionally became hysterical herself under the strain. With Elliott at home, Bye feared for the safety of Anna and the children.
Theodore wrote back that a young woman named Katy Mann, a former servant of Elliott’s at their summer house on Long Island, had given birth to a child she claimed was Elliott’s. She was asking the family for $10,000—an enormous sum.
In Paris, Elliott denied any truth to the story. But he was now threatening suicide. Meanwhile, Theodore sent an investigator to see the servant’s baby son. “He came back convinced from the likeness that Katy Mann’s story was true,” Theodore wrote to Bye. Dreading public scandal, Theodore arranged an out-of-court settlement. Elliott was nothing more than a “flagrant man-swine,” he railed to his sisters.
In June 1891, Anna gave birth to another son, Hall. In August, as soon as they could travel, Anna, Bye, and the three children sailed for home, leaving Elliott behind. The American newspapers blazoned the news to the world: “Elliott Roosevelt Demented by Excesses…Wrecked by Liquor and Folly, He Is Now Confined in an Asylum for the Insane near Paris.”
That winter, Theodore sailed to France to confront his brother and make financial arrangements for Elliott’s family. He found Elliott surrounded by empty bottles, looked after by a devoted American mistress. Theodore bullied his younger brother for a week, then reported that Elliott had “surrendered.” “He was in a mood that was terribly touching,” he wrote to Bye. “How long it will last of course no one can say.”
For a while it looked as if Elliott might have mended his ways. He returned to the United States, undertook a cure at a rehabilitation center in Illinois, then went to Abingdon, Virginia, where Corinne’s husband, Douglas Robinson, had arranged a managerial position for him on the Robinson estate. From Abingdon, Elliott wrote pleading letters to his mother-in-law, assuring her that he had reformed himself. Mary Hall wrote back: “Do not come.”
In November 1892, Anna contracted diphtheria or scarlet fever—or both. Elliott’s letters grew increasingly desperate. He had proven himself trustworthy, he pleaded with his mother-in-law. “Can I not win forgiveness?” He wanted to see his wife. “I ought to be with her unless my presence is actually distasteful to her…It is my place and my right.” In early December, Anna died. She was twenty-nine.
Mary Hall, who had four adolescents of her own still at home (Anna’s younger brothers and sisters) took in Anna’s three children—Eleanor, Ellie, and Hall. She rarely permitted Elliott to see the children, and never on his own. Spring came around, and Ellie, just four, died of scarlet fever. He was buried at Tivoli, next to his mother.
Elliott Roosevelt moved to Manhattan, where he lived incognito. The patrons of his local club knew him as “Mr. Elliott.” According to his valet, the master hallucinated a great deal and tried to throw himself out of the window. In the summer of 1894 he drove his carriage into a lamppost and was hurled onto the street. He never recovered, and a month later, his valet found him dead. “Many people will be pained by this news,” The World reported on August 16. “There was a time when there were not many more popular young persons in society than Mr. and Mrs. Elliott Roosevelt.”
Elliott’s mistress turned up at the cemetery and stood weeping by the grave. Poor little Eleanor, not yet ten, was not allowed to go.
This Is My Story, the first volume of Eleanor Roosevelt’s autobiography, published in 1937, when she was in the White House, carried the dedication: “To the memory of my father who fired a child’s imagination, and to the few other people who have meant the same inspiration throughout my life.”
Inspiration was a strange word to use about a man who destroyed his life and the happiness of all those around him, but when it came to her father, Eleanor was willfully blind. For her mother, she had surprisingly little sympathy. Her father was “loved by all who came in contact with him, high or low,” she wrote, whereas her mother was a snob, preoccupied by “Society.”
In November 1932, soon after Franklin had been elected president, Eleanor Roosevelt read her father’s letters—to his mother, siblings, wife, mother-in-law, and daughter—and published a carefully culled selection in a volume entitled Hunting Big Game in the Eighties. As she delved into her father’s past, she must have understood how much her mother had suffered in her marriage. And yet she continued to see her father, the black sheep among the Roosevelt men, in the rosiest possible light.
The irony is that Eleanor experienced her father mostly as an aching absence. She admitted that her mother did her best to compensate. “My mother made a great effort for me, she would read to me and have me read to her, she would have me recite my poems, she would keep me after the boys had gone to bed, and still I can remember standing in the door, very often with my finger in my mouth—which was, of course, forbidden—and I can see the look in her eyes and hear the tone of her voice as she said: ‘Come in, Granny.’”
Eleanor Roosevelt’s biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, points out that it is to Anna Roosevelt’s credit that she never tried to turn the little girl against her father, and never burdened Eleanor with her anxieties. But to Eleanor, even as an adult, all that counted was that her father loved her (“to him I was a miracle from Heaven”) and her mother did not. Or so it seemed to her. “With my father I was perfectly happy,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I loved his voice…Above all, I loved the way he treated me.”
The reality was a long way from this idyll. Her father was impatient with what he saw as her lack of physical courage, and as a young girl Eleanor learned to hide her terror so as not to incur his wrath. Early on, she understood that her father did foolhardy things, and that he made lots of promises but could never be relied upon. In This Is My Story, she did not mention the occasion—she was eight—when 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.
When their mother died, Eleanor and her two brothers went to live with their grandmother and Eleanor took refuge in a dream world in which her father was the hero and she was his companion:
After we were installed, my father came to see me…He was dressed all in black, looking very sad. He held out his arms and gathered me to him. In a little while he began to talk, to explain to me that my mother was gone, that she had been all the world to him, and now he only had my brothers and myself, that my brothers were very young, and that he and I must keep close together. Some day I would make a home for him again, we would travel together and do many things.
Somehow it was always he and I. I did not understand whether my brothers were to be our children…He told me to write to him often, to be a good girl, not to give any trouble, to study hard, to grow up into a woman he could be proud of, and he would come to see me whenever it was possible.
It was a confusing scenario for a little girl. Later in life, having had six children of her own, Eleanor wrote: “I do not think that I am a natural born mother…If I ever wanted to mother anyone, it was my father.”
She wholeheartedly assumed the role of her father’s angelic little woman. After her brother Ellie died, eight-year-old Eleanor wrote to her father: “We must remember Ellie is going to be safe in heaven and to be with Mother who is waiting there and our Lord wants Ellie boy with him now, we must be happy and do God’s will and we must cheer others.”
Her father sent her presents—books, puppies, a pony to ride at Tivoli, white violets (“which you can put in your Prayer book at the XXIII Psalm”)—and wrote letters full of loving admonitions, which whispered the promise of a cozy future together. “Father’s Own Little Nell,” he called her. She should learn to ride her pony, he wrote, “for it will please me so and we can have such fun riding together after you come to the city next fall.” She must stop biting her fingernails, and take “good care of those cunning wee hands that Father loves so to be petted by.” It was important for her to work on “all those little things that will make my dear Girl so much more attractive if she attends to them, not forgetting the big ones. Unselfishness, generosity, loving tenderness and cheerfulness.”
In early July 1894, Eleanor wrote that she and her brother Hall (“Brudie”) were going to Bar Harbor, in Maine:
I would have written before but I went to Cousin Susie. We are starting today for Bar Harbor we are in a great flurry and hurry I am in Uncle Eddies room. The men are just going to take the trunks away. We are to have lunch at 15 minutes before twelve. We are going to Boston in the one o’clock train. Brudie wears pants now.
Good-by I hope you are well dear Father.
With a great deal of love to everybody and you especially I am your little daughter,
From Bar Harbor she wrote that she was enjoying herself: they had visited an Indian encampment, she had walked to the top of the nearby mountain, she had caught six fish (“don’t you think I did well for the first time”), and she was taking daily lessons with Grandma.
Elliott wrote back: “I hope my little girl is well…Kiss Baby Brudie for me and never forget I love you.” The gaps between his letters caused him to feel bursts of contrition. “What must you think of your Father who has not written in so long,” he wrote on August 13, 1894. “I have after all been very busy, quite ill, at intervals not able to move from my bed for days…Give my love to Grandma and Brudie, and all.”
Two days later, Eleanor was told that her father was dead. Her reaction, her grandmother wrote to Corinne Robinson, was subdued. “Poor child has had so much sorrow crowded into her short life she now takes everything very quietly, the only remark she made was ‘I did want to see father once more.’”
If Eleanor’s childhood comes over like fiction, so much it resembles the unrelentingly grim, tearjerker Victorian novels that were popular at the time, Franklin’s is like a painting—one of those idealized landscapes of the sleepy Hudson on a serene summer day.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a golden boy growing up in a golden world. This was the late nineteenth century. The automobile and telephone had not yet been invented, and the village of Hyde Park, seventy-five miles up the Hudson River from New York City, was a close-knit rural community. The Albany Post Road, which ran in front of Springwood, linking New York City to Albany, was a horse-and-cart route. James Roosevelt and his family knew everyone in the village of Hyde Park. On Sunday, they greeted their neighbors at St. James Episcopal Church, where James was a vestryman.
The “River families,” as the locals called the fifty or so families whose magnificent country estates dotted the banks of the Hudson, visited one another regularly, went to one anothers’ houses for parties and dances, and met one another on their travels in Europe. Their lifestyle was luxurious, but not ostentatious. (The Roosevelts looked down on their nouveau riche neighbors, the Vanderbilts, and refused to visit their meretricious mansion.) James Roosevelt, who believed that privilege came with responsibility toward the less fortunate, was actively involved in the village school and local affairs. Franklin would always look back to his Hudson valley childhood as an idyllic community of friends and neighbors.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on January 30, 1882, in his parents’ second-story bedroom at Springwood, Hyde Park. It was a difficult birth, and the doctor probably told Sara that she should not risk another child. To her, he was always “my precious Franklin.” Most aristocratic families employed a wet nurse to feed their babies, but Sara breast-fed her son herself, for a year.
In the fashion of the time, Sara dressed Franklin in short skirts until he was five. In the old photographs, with his long blond ringlets and little boots, he looked like a girl. Until he was nine, his mother dressed him in Scottish kilts, Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits, and sailor suits. Later in life Franklin confessed that he had longed to wear shirts and pants, like other boys his age.
Sara kept everything to do with her beloved son—his blond baby locks, his first teeth, his drawings, scribblings, every letter he ever wrote her. The first one, in neat looping handwriting on carefully ruled pencil lines, was written in May 1888. Franklin was six, and his mother was at Algonquin, looking after her sick father:
My dear mamma
I went fishing yesterday after noon with papa we caught a dozen of minnows we left them on the bank papa told me it would frighten the fish to put them in the pond how is dear grandpapa I hope he is better dear mamma I send you a kiss
your loving son
Franklin was aware that his mother tended to be overprotective. No doubt his father often said so. Franklin was eight when he wrote to his father jubilantly: “Mama left this morning and I am going to take my bath alone. I have jumped from five to six feet today.”
Sara Delano admitted in her memoir, My Boy Franklin, that her boy was kept under close surveillance:
We never tried,…his father and I, to influence him against his own tastes and inclinations or to shape his life. At least we made every effort not to and thought we were succeeding pretty well until one day…we noticed that he seemed much depressed…Finally, a little alarmed, I asked him whether he was unhappy. He did not answer at once and then said very seriously, “Yes I am unhappy.”
When I asked him why, he was again silent for a moment or two. Then with a curious little gesture that combined entreaty with a suggestion of impatience, he clasped his hands in front of him and exclaimed, “Oh, for freedom!”
There is no doubt that Sara Delano, in her loving way, was extremely controlling. Nevertheless, Franklin’s flashes of rebellion were rare. He was his parents’ pride and joy, and he liked it that way. On the whole he was eager to please, and it was not difficult for him to do. He was a handsome, polite lad, with a sunny disposition and keen interest in the world around him. As an adolescent he already had a remarkable knowledge of the trees, birds, history, and architecture of the Hudson valley. When he was ten, Sara gave him her stamp albums, which contained exotic stamps from China, where she had lived for a time as a child, and Franklin became a devoted stamp collector—a passion that would endure for the rest of his life. When he was eleven, he began to keep a bird diary, carefully noting sightings. His father gave him a shotgun, and Franklin began a collection of stuffed Hudson River birds that remains to this day the most comprehensive in existence. He agreed with his father to shoot only one male and one female from each species, and for several months, until it made him ill, he stuffed and mounted the birds himself. On trips to New York City, his favorite excursion was to the American Museum of Natural History, co-founded by cousin Theodore’s father, and to which cousin Theodore had donated many of his own bird specimens.
James Roosevelt was old enough to be Franklin’s grandfather, but in his fifties he was still a vigorous man, and he enjoyed riding, sailing, iceboating, and shooting with his young son, just as he had done with his first son, Rosy. When Franklin was nine, James bought him a forty-five-foot yacht, with an auxiliary motor, for summers at Campobello. They named it Half Moon, after the ship on which Henry Hudson explored the river for the Dutch East India Company. It was to his father that Franklin owed his love of boats and the sea.
Like most boys of his social class, Franklin was initially schooled by tutors, who could speak to him in their native French or German. Private tutoring also had the advantage that the family’s travels were not confined by the school year. Franklin and his parents (accompanied by servants and tutors) spent time in New York City, where they had an apartment at the Renaissance Hotel, on West Forty-third Street. In the spring, they sailed to Europe. In the summer they withdrew to the cool air of Campobello, a Canadian island off the coast of Maine, and spent three months in their sprawling house—they called it a “cottage”—on a hill overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay. Throughout the year, they made frequent railroad trips to stay with family members and friends up and down the East Coast. As manager of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, James Roosevelt had at his disposal a private railroad car, with bedrooms, a sitting room, and a Negro porter and cook.
Franklin was not yet ten when his father had a heart attack. James Roosevelt was sixty-three. Overnight, Sara turned him into an invalid. From now on, she and Franklin had a tacit agreement never to worry Papa unnecessarily. To Franklin, his father became a distant figure. More than ever, it was Mama who ruled the household.
Until Franklin went to Groton, he had rarely been separated from his parents. Because his mother had not been ready to part with him earlier, he started school at fourteen, two years later than the other boys. It made it more difficult for him to make friends. The “new boy” was considered arrogant, with an affected manner. Even his female cousins thought Franklin “prissy,” an overprotected young man, who danced attendance on his mother. His cousin Alice teased him about his initials, F.D. “We used to call him ‘Feather Duster,’” she said later, “because he pranced around and fluttered.”
The Spartan conditions at Groton must have come as a shock to Franklin after his pampered life at Hyde Park. Later, he admitted that he was terribly lonely at boarding school, and always felt an outsider. But he never showed it. For the four years he was at Groton, he wrote home twice a week. What is most striking about these letters, his biographers agree, is the degree to which Franklin perfected the art of amiable chatter, without revealing a thing about his inner self. The emotional register rarely flickered.
The school of Groton, two miles from the village by that name, was an isolated community in rural New England, thirty-five miles northwest of Boston. In the winter, the school was sometimes completely cut off by snow and ice. The headmaster, Reverend Endicott Peabody, born in Salem and educated in England, had founded the institution in 1884, with the elite British public school as its model. Groton was expensive, there were no scholarships, and the boys came exclusively from old WASP families. Following the timeworn British tradition, the boys were to be toughened up for leadership. They were, after all, the American aristocracy, the ruling class.
Peabody used an invidious combination of benevolence and bullying to coerce the boys. The more rebellious fellows bitterly resented him. Most were eager for his approval. Franklin was more eager than most.
The headmaster believed in the Victorian ethic of “muscular Christianity”—the idea that subjecting the body to strenuous exertion promoted moral health and vigorous masculinity, which should be harnessed in service to God and country. Like his friend Theodore Roosevelt, Peabody was a Republican, who nevertheless believed in social justice. He often told the boys that he had great respect for any man who chose politics as a way to bring about reform.
For these 150 “Grotties,” as they called themselves, the day began before dawn with a cold shower (no concessions were made to the bitter New England winter), followed by chapel, classes, athletics, prayers, evening meal in stiff white collars, study period, and bed in a bare cubicle, with a curtain instead of a door. The boys were not encouraged to form close friendships, and were not permitted to go for a walk in pairs. But Peabody was not against hazing, which at Groton took the form of “boot-boxing” (being crammed into a footlocker), or “pumping” (head-dunking into a toilet bowl)—practices that occasionally necessitated resuscitation. It discouraged the rebels, those whom Peabody called “undesirable citizens.”
Franklin regarded Groton as something of a survival course. “I am getting on very well and I have not been put in the boot-box yet!” he wrote to his parents in his first week. One week later: “The Biddle boy is quite crazy, fresh and stupid, he has been boot-boxed once and threatened to be pumped several times.” One year later: “You will be pleased to hear that George Cabot Ward Low…has been pumped, & a pretty sight he was! He left off swaggering immediately!” Franklin was nothing of a rebel.
In his early teens, Franklin was thin and gangly, and showed no prowess at football or baseball. At Groton, athletics were deemed almost more important than academic studies. There were eight football teams, graded from best to worst, and Franklin was placed in the second to worst. In his first months at the school he received no “black marks,” whereas most boys were given two or three a week. His performance in class was consistently better than average, and he regularly won a prize for punctuality. As he would discover, these things did not make him popular.
An additional trial was Taddy Roosevelt, the son of Franklin’s half brother, Rosy, who was in the form ahead of him. The boys were greatly amused that the nephew was older than the uncle, and Franklin was immediately dubbed “Uncle Frank.” Worse, Taddy was a wild young man, with an allowance twice the size of everyone else’s, who cared little about his studies and even less about sport. Franklin found him an embarrassment.
At least Franklin could be proud of his name when Theodore Roosevelt came to visit the school, in June 1897. Cousin Theodore, who was assistant secretary of the navy at the time, gave a “splendid talk on his adventures when he was on the Police Board,” Franklin told his parents, with “killing stories about policemen and their doings,” which “kept the whole room in an uproar for over an hour.” When cousin Theodore invited Franklin to his Long Island home for the Fourth of July long weekend, Franklin accepted eagerly. It turned out that his mother had other plans for him, but Franklin stood firm. “I am sorry you didn’t want me to go to Oyster Bay for the 4th but I had already accepted Cousin Theodore’s invitation & I shall enjoy it very much,” he told her. “I wish you had let me make my own plans as you said.” A rebuke like this was rare indeed.
Popularity with girls would have helped him, but Franklin hardly knew any. Apart from Mrs. Peabody, the headmaster’s wife, who was something of a mother figure within the school community, the only women the boys saw, for months at a time, were visiting relatives and friends. When Franklin, about to turn seventeen, was required to invite a girl to a social event, he asked his mother for help: “I wish you would think up some decent partner for me for the N.Y. dance, so that I can get somebody early, and not get palmed off on some ice-cart.” His mother obliged with four suggestions. All were cousins, apart from Mary Newboldt, their neighbors’ daughter at Hyde Park, with whom Franklin had played as a child. “As you know very few girls you ought to make haste,” she urged him.
Like the British schools on which Groton was modeled, the headmaster chose prefects from the boys in the final year, and conferred on them special authority. Franklin was not selected. When eighteen-year-old Franklin packed up his belongings on June 24, 1900, the evening before his graduation, his letter home gave a rare glimpse of self-doubt: “Tomorrow is Prize-Day and my fate will soon be decided but I don’t really expect to get one, so shall not be disappointed…In the afternoon everyone will amuse the numerous girls, and I don’t think I know one that is coming, but will probably be shelved with a ‘pill.’”
By the following evening, Franklin’s good cheer was restored, and he was every bit the grateful Grotonian. “My darling Mama and Papa, ‘The strife is o’er, the battle won!’ What a joyful yet sad day this has been. Never again will we hold recitations in the old School, and scarce a boy but wishes he were a 1st former again.” To his relief, he was acquainted with one of the visiting girls, and had proudly shown her over the school. During the awards ceremony, to his delight, his name had been called for the Latin Prize. “I can hardly wait to see you,” he told his parents, “but feel awfully to be leaving here for good.”
Eleanor embraced the Christian ideal of feminine selflessness with an almost missionary zeal. Everyone was struck by it; her cousin Alice was impatient with it. The cousins were the same age (Alice was a few months older); they looked alike (tall, with fair hair and blue eyes); their fathers (Theodore and Elliott) were brothers; their mothers had died when they were young (Alice Lee, Theodore’s first wife, died one day after giving birth to Alice), but the two girls could not have been more different. In an interview later in life, Alice mused:
Whereas she responded to her insecurity by being do-goody and virtuous I did by being boisterous and showing off…I didn’t do any of the nice and proper things expected of me. Whereas Eleanor certainly did. She always made a tremendous effort to do everything she thought was expected of her…I can still see those large blue eyes fixed on one, worrying about one, and wanting you to know that in her you had a friend. She always wanted to discuss things like whether contentment was better than happiness and whether they conflicted with one another. Things like that, which I didn’t give a damn about.
As a young child, Eleanor had experienced maternal rejection and paternal abandonment, and was well acquainted with insecurity, self-hatred, and guilt. She had tried to please her mother, tried to please her father, and both had died—deserting her. As an adolescent, she felt grateful to her mother’s relatives for taking her in and did her best to be good and make herself useful. She would always feel that she had to deserve love.
From the age of nine, she lived most of the year in her grandmother’s gloomy brownstone house on West Thirty-seventh Street in Manhattan, along with her uncles, Vallie and Eddie (in their late twenties), her aunts Pussie and Maude (in their early twenties), and her younger brother, Hall. Eleanor’s maternal grandfather, Valentine Hall, had died a decade earlier, at forty-six, without a will, so that his widow had only dower rights to his estate. Although the Hall family had the highest Knickerbocker credentials, it was struggling to keep up appearances. Eleanor’s uncles were already alcoholics. Her aunts were beautiful, talented, unmarried, and frustrated. Eleanor was acutely aware of the tensions in the house.
She was closest to her aunt Pussie, but Pussie was moody, especially when she was in love. Fourteen-year-old Eleanor wrote in her diary: “Poor Auntie Pussie she is so worried. I am going to try and see if I can’t do something for her…I’ve tried to be good & sweet & quiet but have not succeeded. Oh my.”
Eleanor was painfully conscious that she was no beauty. Her height and her aunts’ hand-me-down dresses did not help. “Poor little soul,” Theodore’s second wife, Edith, remarked to her mother, “she is very plain. Her mouth and teeth seem to have no future. But the ugly duckling may turn out to be a swan.” When Eleanor was seventeen, her aunt Pussie, in one of her vile moods, told Eleanor to her face that she was an “ugly duckling” who would never find an eligible man.
After being too lenient with her own children, Mary Hall was strict with her granddaughter. In Manhattan, Eleanor was never allowed out without a maid. Even at Tivoli, during the summer months, she was closely supervised. “There were hot, breathless days when my fingers stuck to the keys as I practiced on the piano,” she wrote. “I would roll my stockings down and then be told that ladies did not show their legs and promptly have to fasten them up again.”
In Manhattan, Eleanor was schooled, along with a handful of other girls, by Mr. Roser, a fusty, bewhiskered fellow who had made a name for himself as an educator of wealthy young women. In one of Eleanor’s surviving essays—the topic was “Loyalty and Friendship”—we see the thrust of her self-admonitions: “It may seem strange but no matter how plain a woman may be if truth & loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her & she will do good to all who come near her & those who know her will always love her for they will feel her loyal spirit & have confidence in her.”
In Allenswood, fifteen-year-old Eleanor would discover the truth of those words. It was frightening to sail to England and be left alone at boarding school, but in that small community of thirty-five to forty girls from around the world, she thrived. Within a short time, the hawkeyed headmistress, Mlle. Souvestre, was very impressed by Eleanor. “She is full of sympathy for all those who live with her and shows an intelligent interest in everything she comes in contact with,” the Frenchwoman wrote to Eleanor’s grandmother. “As a pupil she is very satisfactory, but even that is of small account when you compare it with the perfect quality of her soul.”
Marie Souvestre was a cultivated, charismatic woman, whose friends included Henry James, Marcel Proust, Sir Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father), and the socialist reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb. She believed that young women should develop independent minds, take responsibility for themselves, and participate in the social issues of the day. The school syllabus, with its emphasis on literature, history, and languages, seemed on the surface to be eminently suitable for young Victorian ladies, but Mlle. Souvestre’s classes, held in the library among the books, flowers, and risqué sculptures, were surprisingly subversive. If a girl wrote an essay in which she parroted someone else’s views, Souvestre tore it up in front of the others. She talked to her students about social justice, the savagery of British imperialism, the plight of the Negro in America, and the importance of the trade union movement. Eleanor often thought to herself that if her grandmother had any inkling of Mlle. Souvestre’s views, she would call her home immediately.
Eleanor was seriously shocked to discover that Marie Souvestre was an atheist. Was she also aware that Mlle. Souvestre was a lesbian? It would have been an unusual girls’ boarding school if rumors did not fly. If, perchance, Eleanor did not fully grasp the meaning of sapphism when she was at Allenswood, she certainly understood it later. In This Is My Story, she hinted that Marie Souvestre’s relationship with the school administrator, a tiny Italian woman, was far more intense than the standard collegial rapport. And she did not hide the fact that Souvestre chose favorites from among her students whom she invited for “salon” evenings in her inner sanctum. It was from Mlle. Souvestre that Eleanor learned the art—it became a lifelong practice, which Eleanor did beautifully—of reading aloud to friends.
Eleanor’s cautious picture of the school in her autobiography was boldly reinforced in 1949, when Dorothy Strachey Bussy’s lesbian novel, Olivia, exploded onto the literary scene. Dorothy Strachey, sister of the famous homosexual biographer Lytton Strachey, taught English at Allenswood. She sent Eleanor a copy of her novel, with the dedication: “For Tottie, in memory of old days from D.S.” A thinly fictionalized portrait of Mlle. Souvestre, the novel portrayed the fervent emotions “Mlle Julie” aroused among her favored protégées.
By the time Eleanor became her favorite student, Marie Souvestre was seventy, and no longer the flirtatious beauty she once had been. Eleanor ardently admired her, but there is no indication that she fell in love with her mentor. Indeed, Eleanor found it a burden as well as a privilege to be Mlle. Souvestre’s chosen protégée. She was expected to sit opposite the headmistress every evening at dinner, directly across from that “eagle eye which penetrated right through to your backbone.” It meant having to behave perfectly, take part in the conversation with the invited guests, and eat everything on her plate—including that disgustingly clammy English dish, suet pudding.
As for Mlle. Souvestre, she was enchanted by Eleanor. When they went traveling together, the headmistress wrote to Mrs. Hall, in her flawed English: “It is impossible to wish for myself a more delightful companion traveling. She is never tired, never out of sorts, never without a keen interest in all that she sees…She looks always very thin, delicate and often white and just the same I have rarely seen such a power of endurance…What a blank her going away will leave in my life.”
Eleanor would always feel profoundly grateful to Mlle. Souvestre. As a teacher, Souvestre made her students curious; she encouraged them to think critically. As a Frenchwoman, she told Eleanor frankly what she thought of her dowdy clothes, and insisted that she have some fashionable dresses made up in Paris. As a mentor, she encouraged Eleanor to become more self-reliant and adventurous. On their European travels, she taught Eleanor something about the art of enjoying life. She introduced the girl to the local wines (mixed with water), and to some of her bohemian friends on the Riviera. They were on the train to Pisa when Souvestre, on a whim, decided they would get off at Alassio, so they could look at the stars from the beach. It was the first time Eleanor had ever seen such thrilling spontaneity in an adult. “Never again would I be the rigid little person I had been.”
At the beginning of Eleanor’s final semester at Allenswood, Corinne Robinson (the daughter of Aunt Corinne) arrived as a student. Corinne could scarcely believe the transformation in her cousin. From being the earnest little orphan, Eleanor had become the most sought-after girl in the school:
She was beloved by everybody. Saturdays we were allowed a sortie into Putney which had stores where you could buy books, flowers. Young girls have crushes and you bought violets or a book and left them in the room of the girl you were idolizing. Eleanor’s room every Saturday would be full of flowers because she was so admired.
“This was the first time in all my life that all my fears left me,” Eleanor wrote in her autobiography. But in July 1902, after three years at Allenswood, it was time to sail for home. Not only was Eleanor returning to the old family tensions but she was about to face the ordeal of “coming out,” that ritual initiation ceremony every young woman dreaded. And by now Eleanor Roosevelt was not just any young woman. She was the niece of the president of the United States.
That summer, the grand old house at Tivoli was sinister. Pussie was hardly ever there, Maude and Eddie had married, and Uncle Vallie had become a violent drunk. Eleanor had two friends from England to stay, and she spent the whole time worrying that her uncle would go on one of his rampages. Her grandmother had put three heavy locks on Eleanor’s bedroom door, but that still left the rest of the house.
“When does the big season of social dissipations start in New York?” Marie Souvestre asked. She missed Eleanor every day of her life, she told her. “Ma chère petite, my mind is so divided in respect to you. I should like to know that you are happy, and yet how I fear to hear that you have been unable to defend yourself against all the temptations which surround you; evenings out, pleasure, flirtations. How all this will estrange you from all that I knew you to be!”
Souvestre was the one person who understood Eleanor’s conflicts. She knew how insecure Eleanor was, and how much she craved love and admiration. The Eleanor she loved was a serious, intelligent girl, full of curiosity and energy, who genuinely wanted to make a meaningful contribution to the world. Over their evening meals abroad, they had discussed the social pressure that faced Eleanor in New York. “Protect yourself to some extent against it, my dear child,” Mlle. Souvestre now urged. “Even when success comes, as I am sure it will, bear in mind that there are more quiet and enviable joys than to be among the most sought-after-women at a ball or the woman best liked by your neighbor at the table, at luncheons and the various fashionable affairs.”
Eleanor made her debut at the Assembly Ball, one of New York’s most exclusive social occasions, held in the Waldorf-Astoria on December 11, 1902. Four other Roosevelt debutantes shared the limelight that evening, including Alice, who had already made her official White House debut in January. The press dubbed them “the magic Five.” “Interesting-looking,” Town Topics declared, “but they are not pretty.”
Eleanor looked elegant in her gown from the famous Paris fashion design house of Callot Soeurs, but she was to discover that she knew only two unmarried men in the entire gathering, and both were much older. The dance card dangling from her wrist had empty spaces on it. “I do not think I quite realized beforehand what utter agony it was going to be or I would never have had the courage to go,” she wrote later. “By no stretch of the imagination could I fool myself into thinking that I was a popular debutante! I went home early, thankful to get away.”
Eleanor had a name that counted in society, and that winter she did not lack invitations. Once she came out, there were theater parties, dinners, receptions, luncheons, and dances. Acutely conscious that she was too tall, not a good dancer, and not good at small talk, she suffered terrible anxieties. “That first winter nearly brought me to a state of nervous collapse.”
One of the two older bachelors at her debutante ball was the tall, dark, lanky Robert Munro Ferguson. Born into an aristocratic Scottish landowning family, he had come to the United States as an eighteen-year-old and became a close friend of Bye and Theodore Roosevelt. Eleanor had first met Bob when she was seven and he was twenty-two. Dashing as a young man, he was now thirty-three, too thin, and often ill. But Bob Ferguson saved Eleanor that winter. When he took her to informal gatherings at the homes of his artist friends, Eleanor actually managed to enjoy herself. Since Ferguson was an older man, Grandmother Hall even allowed him to escort Eleanor home without her maid.
All that ended when Bob Ferguson proposed marriage to Eleanor. She was flattered, but she could not see herself married to this rather dour older man. She liked him a great deal. She did not love him.
When Franklin turned seventeen, on January 30, 1899, his invalid father wrote to him at Groton: “Do you realize that you are approaching manhood and next year, when you begin your university life, you will be away from the safeguards of school and will have to withstand many temptations?…But I always feel your character is so well formed and established I have no fear.”
Franklin arrived at Harvard in September 1900. He roomed with a Groton friend, Lathrop Brown, and they were proud of their handsome apartment on the luxurious end of Mt. Auburn Street, known to Harvard men as the Gold Coast. At eighteen, Franklin had reached his full height, six-one, and become a singularly handsome young man, with a radiant smile and abundant charm. After four years of being exiled in the male wilderness of Groton, he was looking forward to his new bachelor freedom at Harvard. But he had barely settled into the place when a crisis descended on the family.
Franklin’s half nephew, Taddy Roosevelt, who had been the bane of Franklin’s existence at Groton, had been at Harvard for a year—at least officially. In fact, he was spending most of his time down in Manhattan, in the notorious red-light meatpacking district known as the Tender-loin. No sooner had he turned twenty-one and come into his late mother’s vast Astor legacy than he took his prostitute girlfriend along to City Hall and married her. In mid-October, the scandal hit the press: “Boy millionaire weds: Astor scion’s bride won in dancehall.” Two days later, James Roosevelt had a heart attack. Mama wrote to Franklin:
Your father cannot get…out of his mind the thought that his grandson has been leading a bad wicked life for months. His marrying the creature brings it before the public, but the sin came first and he has disgraced his good name. Poor Papa suffered so much in the night for breath that he thought he could not live. He talked of you and said “Tell Franklin to be good and never be like Taddy.”
Franklin wrote back:
The disgusting business about Taddy did not come as a very great surprise to me or to anyone in Cambridge. I have heard the rumor ever since I have been here, but in the absence of facts the best course has been silence. I do not wonder that it has upset Papa, but although the disgrace to the name has been the worst part of the affair, one can never again consider him a true Roosevelt. It will be well for him not only to go to parts unknown, but to stay there.
In early December, Franklin was urgently summoned to the family apartment at the Renaissance Hotel, in New York. Franklin, his mother, and his half brother, Rosy, were standing vigilantly by when seventy-two-year-old James Roosevelt took his last breath. Franklin’s mother would always blame Taddy.
Franklin remained at Hyde Park until the New Year, then returned to Cambridge, in mourning attire. Melancholy letters arrived from his mother. With his “darling father’s spirit flown,” she wrote, she now lived for Franklin. Over the years she would constantly tell her son: “You are my life.”
Not surprisingly, Franklin kept any interest in other women entirely to himself. He scarcely went out during the six-month mourning period for his father, but after that his sporadic entries in his line-a-day diary refer to at least a dozen girls. He did not mention them to his mother.
By the summer of 1902, twenty-year-old Franklin had a serious love interest. Mama knew Alice Sohier, of course. The Sohiers were a distinguished New England family, with a house in Boston and a large country estate at Beverly, Massachusetts. Alice’s father was active in local Republican politics, and a keen yachtsman. Mama knew that Franklin spent time with the Sohier family. She had no idea that Franklin was in love with seventeen-year-old Alice.
At twenty, Franklin was high-spirited and ambitious. Alice Sohier would never forget the evening when he told her family that he planned to be president of the United States one day. The Sohiers laughed. But Alice found herself very attracted to this confident young man. They saw a lot of each other in June. It was summer, and they were cavorting in swimming costumes, and the Sohier family sometimes left them alone together. It seems that Franklin and Alice indulged in some serious petting. Franklin proposed to her. He was in a hurry to marry. As he saw it—especially after the ignominious Taddy affair—marriage was his only chance for sexual fulfillment. It would also mean freedom from his mother. Alice hesitated. She was too young for marriage. Her parents, no doubt wanting her to bide her time, decided to send her to Europe.
In July 1902, Franklin wrote in his diary that he and two friends sailed in the Half Moon to Beverly. They took Alice for a “good long sail” to Marblehead. He was invited to the Sohiers for dinner, and afterward he and Alice sat outside. At this point, he resorted to code: “Spend evening on lawn. Alice confides in her doctor.” The next morning he and his friends left Beverly at 6 a.m. Franklin wrote, again in code: “Worried over Alice all night.”
The code Franklin had devised, which substituted numbers for vowels and deleted the tops or bottoms of consonants, creating the effect of hieroglyphic squiggles, was clearly intended to foil his mother, in case she snooped among his papers when he was home. Cryptologists have cracked the code, but not the meaning.
We will never know what lay behind Franklin’s anxious entry, but it is probable that Alice’s period had not arrived. Those were times when young women feared that a kiss would lead to pregnancy. In the course of their lusty embraces, Franklin might have accidentally ejaculated. He was clearly terrified. Taddy had done enough damage to the Roosevelt name. Everything was at stake—Franklin’s reputation as much as Alice’s. Whatever they had done on those hot June nights, neither Franklin nor Alice Sohier would ever tell anyone.
Some fifty years later, Alice Sohier Shaw did tell her granddaughter that Franklin was very forward. “In a day and age when well brought-up young men were expected to keep their hands off the person of young ladies from respectable families, Franklin had to be slapped—hard.” According to her, Franklin had more than once stepped onto the train in Beverly with a bright red mark on his cheek.
For whatever reason—it could well be that this scare put her off her ardent suitor—Alice decided against marriage to Franklin. In her old age, having been a lifelong Republican voter, Alice would tell her granddaughter how relieved she was to have escaped becoming the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had confided in her that his lonely childhood made him want a whole brood of children—at least six. She mused: “I did not wish to be a cow.”
On October 8, 1902, Franklin wrote in his diary: “Today Alice Sohier left for Europe & I saw her off on the ‘Commonwealth.’” That was it. There was no mention of his mood as he stood waving from the Boston wharf.
In mid-November, six weeks after Alice left for Europe, Franklin saw Eleanor again—the first time since their meeting on the train that summer. Rosy, Franklin’s half brother, invited a contingent of Roosevelts to the gala horse show in Madison Square Garden, followed by dinner at Sherry’s, New York’s most fashionable restaurant.
In December, Franklin asked Eleanor out twice—for lunch and tea in New York. He and Eleanor were invited to the first family’s New Year party. Eleanor stayed in the White House, with her cousin Alice. Franklin stayed with the president’s sister, Bye Roosevelt, in her house on N Street. On New Year’s Day there was a dinner at the White House, at which Franklin chatted with the president, then the group attended the theater. “Sit near Eleanor,” Franklin wrote. “Very interesting day.”
One of Eleanor’s attractions for Franklin was certainly the fact that she was so closely related to Theodore Roosevelt. With her came the whiff of the White House, which held a magical appeal for Franklin. But even without that, she was special. Eleanor had qualities that many people—particularly older people, like Mlle. Souvestre—found deeply appealing. She was open to new experiences, and appreciative. Although she looked fragile, she had quite extraordinary resilience and determination. Despite her name, she never pushed herself forward. Unlike his cousin Alice, with whom Franklin had flirted over the years, Eleanor was warm, selfless, and supportive. Franklin had been with girls who were more beautiful and more fun, but Eleanor cared about others, and cared about the world. With that sixth sense he would show so often in his future life, Franklin was realizing that he needed this woman.
Eleanor’s grandmother closed her Manhattan townhouse that winter—money no longer flowed as it once did in the Livingston Hall family—and Eleanor and her aunt Pussie were living at the home of their cousin, Mrs. Susan Parish, on East Seventy-sixth Street. Franklin began to make trips to New York to see Eleanor. It was quite a juggling act. His mother must not know what he was up to, and the straitlaced Mrs. Parish thrived on gossip. Franklin and Eleanor were never alone. He accompanied her to church, he took her on drives with her maid, they ate at friends’ houses, then he took the midnight train back to Cambridge.
On January 30, 1903, Franklin turned twenty-one. Rosy organized a dinner party, and Franklin invited sixteen guests, including Eleanor. “Very jolly,” Franklin wrote in his diary. Soon after, he was elected managing editor of The Harvard Crimson. He was graduating in June, but decided to return to Harvard for one more year, officially to attend graduate school, but mostly to run the newspaper.
To celebrate his graduation, he wanted to travel to Europe with a Harvard friend. This required delicate negotiation. Although Franklin was twenty-one, it would be his first vacation away from his mother. He approached her with the skill of a master tactician:
I really want you to tell [me] what you would want me to do. I have told you what I feel about it: that it would in all probability be good for me, and a delightful experience; but that I don’t want to be away from you for four weeks in the summer; also that I don’t want to go unless you could make up your mind not to care at all. I feel that really it would be a very thoroughly selfish proceeding on my part.
Two days later, Mama wrote back: “I am perfectly willing for you to go as it is only for a month, and with a nice fellow. I do not think I should feel the same if it were for longer or if it were with several fellows.”
Before he left, Franklin spent several weeks at Hyde Park, with his mother. He organized two house parties with a small group of friends and relatives his own age. Eleanor was among them each time. Since she was spending the summer just up the river, at her grandmother’s house in Tivoli, Franklin was able to invite her without making his mother suspicious. There were tennis parties, picnics, and dinners with neighbors. On Sunday, June 21, Franklin wrote in his diary: “Dine at Rogers & play blind man’s buff.” Tuesday June 23: “Took E to early train.”
Two weeks later, he invited six cousins. One evening he took his mother and guests on a dinner cruise in the Half Moon. His cousin Corinne was particularly struck by him that night. Franklin was “handsome at the tiller…a splendid sailor and completely confident,” she recalled. Franklin wrote in his diary that the day was “great fun.” He added, in code: “E is an Angel.”
At the end of July, Mama was on board the Celtic to see off Franklin and his friend. When the whistle blew for guests to disembark, she burst into tears. “I meant to be very brave,” she wrote him the next day. “It is…the thought of the ocean between me and my all that rather appalls me.”
Before he left, Franklin had made Eleanor promise to come to Campobello a few days after his return. Somehow, when he told his mother, he made it sound like a casual invitation to a cousin.
Eleanor arrived at the end of August with her maid and stayed for five days. She must have been nervous. She knew how much Franklin loved Campobello and the outdoor life there. She could not swim, she was scared of rough seas, she was hopeless at tennis, and she could not play golf.
Franklin was not put off. Accompanied by Mama, they went out sailing. With Eleanor’s maid, they walked to the village of Welshpool, two miles away. They picnicked with friends at Herring Cove, on the other side of the island. They had dinner at Mrs. Hartman Kuhn’s, their neighbor, who said later that she noticed the tenderness between them the first time she met Eleanor, and was sure there was marriage in the air. Mama, it seems, had no such premonition.
That fall, Franklin invited Eleanor twice to Hyde Park. In November, he asked her to the big Harvard-Yale game. She arrived in Boston on Saturday, November 21, chaperoned by Sara Delano’s sister, Kassie, and her daughter, Muriel Robbins. Despite Franklin’s enthusiastic leadership of the Harvard cheer squad, Yale won sixteen to nothing. Franklin showed the three women the rooms he shared with Lathrop Brown, and in the evening the women took the train to Groton. Eleanor was going to visit her thirteen-year-old brother, Hall, who had been at Groton a year. She visited regularly, along with all the parents. As she told Franklin, she wanted Hall to feel as if he belonged to somebody.
The next morning, Franklin got to Groton at nine, in time for church and the Reverend Peabody’s sermon. He had lunch with his aunt Kassie, cousin Muriel, and Eleanor. In the afternoon, he managed to maneuver some time with Eleanor on her own, and took her for a walk by the river. That evening, his diary entry was in code: “After lunch I have a never to be forgotten walk with my darling.” He had proposed to her. To his delight, Eleanor accepted.
Franklin and Eleanor were eager to announce their engagement. But Franklin still hesitated to tell his mother. Thursday was Thanksgiving, and he was to join Mama in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, for a celebration in the bosom of the Delano family. He and Eleanor had arranged to meet the following Sunday, November 29, in New York. He now wrote to Eleanor that he would lie to his mother, inventing some other reason for going to New York. Eleanor was dismayed. Couldn’t he tell his mother that he was seeing her, even if he did not tell her why? “I never want her to feel that she has been deceived.”
Franklin realized that he was going to have to bite the bullet. Either he was serious about this engagement or he was not. After the Thanksgiving dinner and singing around the piano, he took his mother aside. Sara wrote in her journal: “Franklin gave me quite a startling announcement.”
Sara apparently had no inkling. Naturally she felt hurt by Franklin’s secretiveness, not to mention threatened and betrayed. Franklin was her all. And now another woman was making claims on him.
She did not hide her displeasure. She reminded her son that he was only twenty-one, and Eleanor had just turned nineteen. None of his friends had married yet; his father had been thirty-three when he married for the first time. Franklin had only just entered graduate school; next year he was starting law school; he was not established in his career; how on earth did he think he could keep a family in the style to which he and Eleanor were accustomed?
Franklin stuck out his chin. He had made his choice. Eleanor was a fine woman. They had known her since she was born. He had not hidden anything from his mother; there was nothing to hide. He loved Eleanor and he wanted to marry her. That was all there was to it.
Sara bid for time. There was just one thing she asked of him: to keep the romance secret for a year. They were very young, he and Eleanor, and young people were known for changing their minds. Marriage was a commitment for life. This was not a decision to be taken lightly. If he and Eleanor still felt the same way after a year, they could announce their engagement with her blessing.
Franklin was not at all happy with this outcome. A year was a long time. It was going to be extremely awkward to keep their engagement a secret, even with their own friends. He knew Eleanor would be bitterly disappointed. But he could not afford—literally—to fall out with his mother. His trust fund from his father gave him $5,000 a year. That was equivalent to a professional salary, but Franklin liked to travel, and he liked to buy fine clothes, old books, and rare prints. He already relied on his mother’s help, and that was without a family. In his will, James Roosevelt had left his fortune to Sara for the duration of her life, along with the statement: “I do hereby appoint my wife sole guardian of my son Franklin D. Roosevelt, and I wish him to be under the influence of his mother.”
Franklin had little choice but to agree to his mother’s terms. After that, she had little choice but to let him spend Sunday and Monday in New York. He saw as much of Eleanor as they could respectably get away with. On Monday evening he took the train to Cambridge, and Eleanor sat up till after midnight writing to him: “I love you dearest and I hope that I shall always prove worthy of the love which you have given me. I have never known before what it was to be absolutely happy nor have I ever longed for just one glimpse of a pair of eyes.”
On Tuesday, December 1, Sara took Eleanor shopping, then sat her down for “a long talk.” She told “the dear girl” that she was about to move up to Boston for the winter, and she did not want Franklin coming down to New York during that time. She would invite Eleanor up once or twice. As for their next reunion, Franklin had arranged for the three of them to lunch together in New York on Saturday, December 12. That was fine, Sara said, but she did not want Franklin to stay on in New York on Sunday. People would begin to talk. She wanted Franklin to spend that Sunday at Hyde Park.
Eleanor was distressed by the conversation. “Boy darling, I have rather a hard letter to write to you tonight,” she wrote that evening. The first hurdle was Sunday, December 13: “I don’t want you to stay if you feel it is your duty to go up & I shall understand, of course…Whatever you do I shall know to be right but I don’t quite think your Mother quite realizes what a very hard thing she was asking me to do for I am hungry for every moment of your time.”
Eleanor had understood the precariousness of her situation. If Franklin’s mother did not like her, she risked losing Franklin. The next morning, she wrote to Sara:
Dearest Cousin Sally:
I must write you & thank you for being so good to me yesterday. I know just how you feel & how hard it must be, but I do so want you to learn to love me a little. You must know that I will always try to do what you wish for I have grown to love you very dearly during the past summer.
It is impossible for me to tell you how I feel toward Franklin, I can only say that my one great wish is always to prove worthy of him.
I am counting the days to the 12th when I hope Franklin & you will both be here again & if there is anything which I can do for you you will write me, won’t you?
With my love dear cousin Sally,
Franklin, meanwhile, was caught between two women. He wrote to his mother on Harvard Crimson notepaper, telling her he was very busy, working into the early hours of the morning on the newspaper and various committees. Then came this:
Dearest Mama—I know what pain I must have caused you and you know I wouldn’t do it if I really could have helped it—mais tu sais, me voilà! That’s all that could be said—I know my mind, have known it for a long time, and know that I could never think otherwise: Result: I am the happiest man just now in the world; likewise the luckiest—And for you, dear Mummy, you know that nothing can ever change what we have always been & always will be to each other—only now you have two children to love & to love you—and Eleanor as you know will always be a daughter to you in every true way.
Franklin had done the unthinkable. He had stood up to his mother, squarely and firmly. “My dearest Franklin,” came the reply from Hyde Park, “I am so glad to think of my precious son so perfectly happy, you know that and I try not to think of myself. I know that in the future I shall be glad and I shall love Eleanor and adopt her fully when the right time comes. Only have patience dear Franklin, don’t let this new happiness make you lose interest in work or home.”
Franklin wrote back: “I am so glad, dear Mummy, that you are getting over the strangeness of it all—I knew you would.” That left the battle about the following weekend.
I confess that I think it would be poor policy for me to go to H.P. next Sunday—although, as you know and don’t have to be told, I always love & try to be there all I can—I have been home twice already this term…If I am in N.Y. on Sunday not a soul need know I have been there at all as if we go to Church at all we can go to any old one at about 100th St. & the rest of the day w’d be in the house where none c’d see us…Now if you really can’t see the way clear to my staying in N.Y. of course I will go to H.P. with you, but you know how I feel—and also I think that E. will be terribly disappointed, as I will, if we can’t have one of our first Sundays together—It seems a little hard & unnecessary on us both.
He and Eleanor won that round. But there were plenty more battles to come. Franklin was used to his mother, and had long ago chosen his way of dealing with her—lies, evasion, and feigned docility. Eleanor swung between compliance and anger. “You know how grateful I am for every moment which I have with you,” she wrote to Franklin, and signed her letter, just as she used to sign letters to her father, “Your devoted Little Nell.” But she did not see why her future mother-in-law should dictate to them when and where they could meet. “It is hard for her to realize that any one can want or need you more than she does,” Eleanor told Franklin, “so I suppose I ought not to mind, only I do mind terribly.”
Franklin managed to persuade his mother not to move to Boston that winter. He preferred to come down to New York to see her—and Eleanor. As a trade-off, he consented to go on a five-week cruise of the Caribbean with Mama and his best friend, Lathrop Brown. They sailed on February 6. Sara wrote in her diary: “F. is tired and blue.” So was Eleanor, who found the separation quite frightening. Would Franklin still love her when he got back? She knew that Sara would be intensely relieved if her son changed his mind.
Fortunately, Eleanor had another interest that winter. She had volunteered her services in the settlement movement, which aimed, through “settlement houses,” to provide social services to the urban poor. Eleanor was assigned to University Settlement House, on Rivington Street, where she and a friend taught dance and calisthenics to immigrant girls—mostly Jews and Italians—who lived in the dingy, malodorous slum tenements of the Lower East Side. (Eleanor once went inside one, with Franklin, when they took a sick girl home.) Unlike her friend, who came and went in her carriage, Eleanor preferred to take the elevated train and walk across the Bowery with her maid. It was a glimpse of another world—the streets teeming with foreign-looking people, the pushcart vendors at the curb, the strange food smells. She greatly admired the spirit of her young pupils, who worked long days in a factory or did piecework at home. Her cousin Susie was horrified, convinced that Eleanor would bring tuberculosis back to the household. But Eleanor, for the first time in her life, felt as if she were doing something useful. Her classes, she wrote to Franklin, were “the nicest part of the day.”
In late February, Eleanor went to Washington, where she spent two weeks with her aunt Bye, gaining some confidence in that highly sociable house on N Street. On March 10, Sara and Franklin arrived in Washington (they had taken the train up from Miami) and went straight to the Shoreham Hotel, where Bye soon called and invited them to tea. For two hours, while their maid unpacked, Sara marched an impatient Franklin around Washington. Finally, that afternoon, he and Eleanor were reunited. “Franklin’s feelings had not changed,” Eleanor wrote in her autobiography.
“Darling Franklin,” his mother wrote from Hyde Park, “I am feeling pretty blue. You are gone. The journey is over…but I must try to be unselfish & of course dear child I do rejoice in your happiness…Oh how still the house is…Do write. I am already longing to hear.”
Franklin had returned to Harvard, where he relished his job as editor in chief of the Crimson. When he was elected chairman of his class committee, Eleanor was thrilled for him. “I know how much it meant to you and I always want you to succeed. Dearest, if you only knew how happy it makes me to think that your love for me is making you try all the harder to do well, and oh! I hope so much that some day I will be more of a help to you.”
They were able to see each other more when Franklin entered Columbia Law School, in September 1904. Sara had given up their apartment at the Renaissance Hotel, and rented a house at 200 Madison Avenue. She and Franklin were once again under the same roof.
On October 11, Eleanor’s twentieth birthday, Franklin presented her with a diamond engagement ring from Tiffany. The secret was still closely guarded, but Sara had accepted the inevitable. “I pray that my precious Franklin may make you very happy,” she wrote to Eleanor, “and thank him for giving me such a loving daughter.”
The engagement was announced on December 1, 1904. “President’s Niece to Wed her Cousin,” the newspapers reported. This made it “one of the most interesting engagements of the season.” With that vicious penchant the gossip rags had for comparing women’s beauty, Town Topics commented: “Miss Roosevelt has more claims to good looks than any of the Roosevelt cousins. This she inherits from her mother, who was the beauty of Mrs. Valentine Hall’s four daughters.”
From the White House, Theodore Roosevelt sent congratulations to Franklin:
We are greatly rejoiced over the good news. I am as fond of Eleanor as if she were my daughter; and I like you, and trust you, and believe in you. No other success in life—not the Presidency, or anything else—begins to compare with the joy and happiness that come in and from the love of the true man and the true woman…Golden years open before you. May all good fortune attend you both, ever.
Her uncle Ted wanted to give Eleanor away, and offered to have the wedding at the White House. Franklin and Eleanor preferred a more modest setting, in New York. Cousin Susie Parish’s home on East Seventy-sixth Street, where Eleanor was currently living, was two interconnected houses (Susie’s mother lived in the other one), and the second-floor drawing rooms could be opened up to make a spectacular ballroom. Pussie had recently been married there.
It was no easy matter to arrange the date: the president had a full calendar. But he was coming to New York on March 17 for the St. Patrick’s Day parade and dinner, and in between, he could give the bride away.
Two weeks before the wedding, Sara, Franklin, and Eleanor traveled to Washington to attend the presidential inauguration. Theodore Roosevelt had won the election by the largest majority in American history. Franklin and Eleanor listened to his speech, watched the parade, and danced at the inaugural ball.
The day before the wedding, there was a great deal of coming and going at 6–8 East Seventy-sixth Street. The drawing room looked splendid. An altar had been set up in front of the mantel, and the cousins were to be married under an exuberant bower of palms and pink roses, symbolizing the “field of roses” in the family name. That evening, Sara wrote in her diary: “This is Franklin’s last night at home as a boy.”
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