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 But, through previously unpublished letters and other documents, Persico reveals for the first time that their romance continued unbroken for nearly 30 years.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.
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.
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.
It is a tantalizing question: If Sara had not threatened to cut off her son, if Franklin had divorced Eleanor and remarried, and if indeed FDR's political career had ended, how differently might the history of the 20th century have read?
Adapted from Franklin & Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life by Joseph E. Persico. Copyright © 2008 by Joseph E. Persico. Published by Random House Inc.