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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A shattered Lucy fled to the home of her cousins. One, Elizabeth Henderson Cotten, recalled of that time, "I know that a marriage would have taken place, but as Lucy said to us, 'Eleanor was not willing to step aside.' " Lucy was not a "shrinking violet," Elizabeth further noted. "But she realized it was hopeless...[though] I am sure neither one of them ever loved anyone else." How much of Eleanor's understandable opprobrium did Lucy deserve? She was a warmhearted, decent human being whose only sin had been to fall hopelessly in love.

The idea has been put forth that Lucy would never have married Franklin because she was a devout descendant of Maryland's Roman Catholic founders. But her father's family was Episcopal. Her mother, Minnie, had been divorced. She and her husband had been wed in London in a Church of England ceremony, which, according to Catholic doctrine, meant she was not married at all. As Cousin Elizabeth put it, Minnie's Catholicism was a late-blooming affair that she had come by for sentimental, not theological, reasons.

Political passions. The discovery of the affair and Franklin's reaction offer a glimpse into the soul of this opaque man. His ambition ran deep. His passion for politics and public service ran deep; but his commitment to love, while real, was evidently less deep. In October, while in the throes of the divorce crisis, he still took time to pursue his dream of martial glory. He wrote his secretary, Charles McCarthy, "You are quite right in guessing that I am probably going to get into the fighting end of the game, but, if I do so I suppose it will be the Navy and not the Army." When he returned to Washington, he rode the crest of his admired report on Europe to gain another meeting with President Wilson to press again his case for getting into uniform. Earlier that day, a story broke in the papers, doubtlessly planted by Louis Howe, that the assistant secretary of the Navy intended to enlist as an ordinary seaman. Franklin managed to see the president on October 13. Peace was in the air, Wilson informed him. The war could end within weeks, which it did. The slaughter was over, yet Roosevelt viewed the cheering crowds, impromptu parades, and honking horns with mixed feelings.

William Sheffield Cowles Jr. [a relative] recalled Franklin telling him that "he had made a mistake taking the job of assistant secretary. If he had gone into the Navy at the beginning of the war, with his knowledge of the sea and sailing, he would have been an executive officer on a destroyer." "I would have loved that," Franklin told Cowles.

Just before the armistice, FDR's scheme for 100,000 mines to block a major sea lane had finally been implemented, but too late to affect the war's outcome. Not, however, in Franklin's recounting. "It may not be too far-fetched...to say," he later would claim, "that the North Sea mine barrage...had something to do with the German Naval mutiny and the ending of the World War." No matter how he inflated his experiences, the truth remained: He had been a civilian in wartime, and the valor and political advantage of battlefield heroics had passed him by.

At some point, Eleanor destroyed the letters Franklin had sent her during their courtship. His tender affirmations of eternal and abiding love seemed to her a mockery. During their courtship, their different characters had seemed healthily complementary, his confidence, magnetism, and extroversion coupled with her shyness, loyalty, and high principles. After his faithlessness had been revealed, the equation began to shift. His confidence began to appear to her as egotism, his extroversion as shallowness, his magnetism as a gift squandered on self-indulgence. James Roosevelt, writing many years later, marked the end of the affair as the beginning between his parents of "an armed truce that endured until the day he died."

In the end, the three parties in the triangle behaved according to character, Eleanor self-sacrificing, Franklin self-preserving, Lucy lovelorn but resilient, as subsequent events would prove. Nineteen years later, when Eleanor recounted the year 1918 in her first autobiography, she wrote at length of Franklin's mission to Europe, of 18-hour shifts at the canteen, of her desperately ill husband being carried into his mother's house, even of Anna winning a German shepherd puppy in a lottery. But of the near destruction of her marriage, not a word.