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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If Franklin seriously meant to leave his wife, she could not stand in his way. Then the dowager empress of Hyde Park delivered her terms: If Franklin persisted, she would cut him off without a cent. He now confronted his choices, freedom at a high price or living in the comfortable prison of convention. He enjoyed lavish living and unthinkingly assumed it as his due. The annual income from Eleanor's trust, $8,000, and his own $5,000 could support a livable upper-middle-class life. But not the life the Roosevelts led. Who would pay for the upkeep on their homes, the servants' salaries, the club memberships, the children's tuition at the best private schools? Just the previous March when two of his children were ill, Franklin had written his mother, "You have saved my life or rather, the various doctors' lives, by making it possible for me to pay them promptly!" In the same letter he reminded Sara that a tax bill was due on his boat.

Was Sara serious about cutting off the son whom she adored above all else? He had to accept that he was kept by his mother on a golden leash.

During the crisis, Franklin finally consulted Louis Howe [a political adviser] about what he should do. For Howe, that Franklin was seriously considering leaving Eleanor was as if a heavy bettor had seen his horse stumble midway in a high-stakes race. What of those White House dreams? Howe was desperate to get his horse back on track. The grounds for divorce in New York State were adultery, and the details of the affair, if revealed, would spell Roosevelt's political death.

Wrecked career. And if politics was out, what else would Franklin do? He was no businessman, no great shakes at the law. If he wanted to rise in politics, Howe warned, it would have to be with Eleanor at his side. If divorced, would he even be able to continue in his present job? Both he and Louis well understood Josephus Daniels's [secretary of the Navy] puritanical streak. How would a man who had rescinded the issuance of condoms for sailors on shore leave, who believed that virginity was the proper lot of healthy young men, react toward a subordinate enmeshed in an illicit affair?

Franklin now accepted what he had to do. But first, with his two-track mind well in command, he immersed himself in department business. He prepared for Daniels an analysis and recommendations based on what he had found in Europe. The ever impressed Daniels sent Franklin's paper to President Woodrow Wilson with a note praising the "clear, concise, and illuminating report [by] the clear-headed and able FDR."

Finally, Franklin knew that he must face Lucy. Where did they meet? That they did meet after Eleanor's discovery of the affair is known because many years later, Franklin's daughter, Anna, who had come to know a middle-aged Lucy, told an interviewer, "L. M. hinted to me there were a couple of such meetings to wind up loose ends." When they met, whatever their private anguish, the ego-driven Franklin could not resist sharing with Lucy the contents of his European diary. He showed her passages describing the high personages he had dealt with, the dangers he had endured, a rousing speech he had made while sheltered in the woods near Amiens.

Before his departure to Europe, they had spoken of marriage. It could not be, he told her; Eleanor would not grant him a divorce. His deception was double-edged. He had first deceived Eleanor. Now he was deceiving Lucy with the claim that Eleanor stood in their way. Years later, Anna gave an interview to Joseph Lash, Eleanor's biographer, who asked her if "FDR may have used the story of er's refusal to give him a divorce as a way of putting off Lucy." Anna agreed. As for Eleanor, though her heart had been broken and her self-esteem battered, Franklin's decision to stick with her came as a relief since, as Anna put it, "She loved the guy deeply."

It is unlikely that Franklin told Lucy the principal demand Eleanor had extracted from him: that Lucy was to be effaced from his life. Eleanor had imposed on him a second condition: He was never again to share her bed.