Hazel Rowley’s latest book, Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage provides a unique perspective of the marriage of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The book paints a vivid picture of the life of the first couple and those that made up their inner circle. There aren’t many surprises. FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s dalliances with women, Sara Roosevelt’s controlling manner are all included. But it the way in which Rowley recounts the stories that makes this such an enjoyable book.
Several things struck me while reading this book. First the Eleanor we know today didn’t really become Eleanor until her mid-30s. Before that Eleanor lived her life concerned with making everyone else happy and concerned with taking care of others. But things changed after Eleanor found out about FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer. It hurt her deeply. But it gave her the courage to change her life. She started to do things that she wanted to do.
I knew FDR’s mother Sara was controlling and that she had a cantankerous relationship with Eleanor. Rowley illustrates just how difficult Sara made life for Eleanor and even at times Franklin. I was surprised to learn that even while Franklin was President he still had to ask his mother for money. Why? Because when Franklin’s father passed away, all of they money was left to Sara with the exception of a trust which provided a monthly stipend for Franklin. But Franklin had expensive tastes which meant that he frequently would have to request money from his mother.
But as much as I wanted to dislike Sara, it was impossible not to like her just a bit after Franklin’s affair with Mercer was discovered. FDR considered divorcing Eleanor but it was Louis Howe, the architect of FDR’s political career, and Sara that put an end to that idea. Louis reminded Franklin what an asset Eleanor was to his campaign. Sara simply told Franklin that if he divorced Eleanor, she would cut him off financially. FDR wasn’t stupid. He knew there was no way that he could live without his mother’s financial support.
I found FDR’s relationship with his personal secretary, Missy LeHand, fascinating. Missy worked for FDR for over 20 years and really became a member of the family. She lived at the White House and with FDR when he was in Warm Springs, GA. The thing I found most touching was that after Missy suffered a stroke, FDR wrote it into his will that half of his income from his estate would be given to Missy to provide for her care. FDR did it because Missy had taken care of FDR it was the least that he could do for her. Missy however died before FDR so the money reverted back to Eleanor.
Rowley illustrates that Franklin and Eleanor’s wasn’t conventional. They recognized that they couldn’t be everything for the other person and made room for the people who could make each other happy. But that’s not to say that they didn’t love each other. On the country, it seems that they loved each over very much. They also respected each other tremendously. Eleanor was FDRs eyes and ears in places that he couldn’t go because he was unable to walk. FDR allowed Eleanor to speak out for causes many of which he too believed in but couldn’t speak openly in favor of without political fallout.
My comments on this book don’t do it justice. If you are a fan of American History, biographies, FDR or Eleanor Roosevelt I urge you do read this book. You will not be disappointed.