FDR's Secret Love

How Roosevelt's lifelong affair might have changed the course of a century.

Sara Roosevelt (left) with FDR and Eleanor, 1920. She was as shocked at the idea of their divorcing as she was at their marrying.

Sara Roosevelt (left) with FDR and Eleanor, 1920. She was as shocked at the idea of their divorcing as she was at their marrying.

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The life of Franklin Roosevelt has been well analyzed through the lens of politics and policy. As the president who lifted the country out of economic despair and stood up to foreign military aggression, FDR offers historians the richest of public material. Yet, as bestselling historian Joseph E. Persico contends in his new book, Franklin and Lucy, it is impossible to understand the 32nd president without examining one aspect of the private man: the influence of the women who figured so prominently in his life. "They form and reveal him," Persico writes. The women include his adoring mother, the domineering Sara Delano Roosevelt; his homely wife, Eleanor, the trusted adviser and committed social activist; the devoted personal aide, Missy LeHand; and his great love, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, a beautiful and refined woman who served as a secretary to Eleanor. Together, Persico writes, these women "satisfied FDR's deep-seated need for adulation, admiration, approval, and respite from the crushing burdens of his office."

It has been well documented that FDR was involved with Lucy Mercer during World War I. She was also present at Warm Springs, Ga., on the day that FDR died. But, through previously unpublished letters and other documents, Persico reveals for the first time that their romance continued unbroken for nearly 30 years. In the following excerpt, set in 1918, FDR has just returned, ill, from an overseas trip while serving as assistant secretary of the Navy, and Eleanor has discovered letters to Franklin from Lucy.

Thirteen years before, Eleanor had sobbed to her cousin Ethel that she would never be able to hold Franklin; "He's too attractive." Now, like the dreaded knock on the condemned prisoner's cell, the moment seemed at hand. How hollow had been her husband's promises, his protestations of missing her while packing her off to Campobello, his lies about needing to stay behind because of his work. Franklin had openly deceived her with an employee she had entrusted with her most private affairs.

What was collapsing in her external life could not compare with the disintegration within. She had always believed herself more unattractive than she was, a conviction confirmed early by her mother's cutting comments. Her father had promised her happiness, then snatched it away by his dissipation and death. Only lately had [her] confidence returned with her recognized contributions to the war effort. Now, in an instant, a packet of letters had swept [it] away. Because of her lack of interest in sex, she had not grasped what an overpowering force it was. Now, faced with incontrovertible evidence that her husband had found satisfaction elsewhere, sexual failure was added to her inadequacies.

The precise content of Lucy's letters can never be known because, as Eleanor confided years later to a curator at the Roosevelt Library, she had destroyed them. But, however genteelly Lucy might have expressed herself, her words left no doubt as to the seriousness of the affair. As Eleanor digested their awful import, she accepted what she must do. She approached Franklin as soon as he began to mend with the proof in hand of his infidelity.

Lucy was like no other woman, and Franklin was like no other man. What they had done and what they felt for each other could not be compared to the lechery of a Livy Davis [a womanizing friend]. Franklin suffered qualms of conscience, understood the risks to his marriage and career, but in the company of Lucy, they vanished. In the confrontation with Eleanor, Franklin admitted his feelings for Lucy. In likely the most reckless move of his heretofore cautiously constructed life, he said he wanted to marry her. Eleanor later confided in her daughter, Anna. "She told me that she questioned him, offered him a divorce, and asked that he think things over carefully before giving her a definite answer." Most important, she urged him to consider the children.

Eventually, they would have to face his mother with the truth. In a tense encounter in Sara's living room, Eleanor, resignedly, spoke of her willingness to give Franklin his freedom. Sara was aghast. The idea that her son wanted to divorce Eleanor was the greatest shock she had suffered since 13 years before when he had told her he intended to marry her. It is "all very well for you, Eleanor, to speak of being willing to give Franklin his freedom," she said. But imagine the wagging tongues and shaking heads at Oyster Bay. Adultery could be concealed, even tolerated, but divorce was a calamity. After Cousin Alice Longworth's failed attempt to divorce the chronically faithless Nick Longworth, she noted, "I don't think one can have any idea how horrendous even the idea of divorce was in those days. I remember telling my family in 1912 I wanted one and, although they didn't quite lock me up, they exercised considerable pressure to get me to reconsider." Indeed, no one in either branch of the Roosevelt family had ever been divorced.