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Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt shared “one of the most interesting and radical marriages in history," contends biographer Hazel Rowley.

By Terry Hartle / December 16, 2010


Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are one of the most important and famous political couples in American history. Together they faced great public and private trials and both were widely respected at home and abroad. But the exact nature of their 40-year marriage has long been a subject of speculation.

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The conventional wisdom is that their marriage effectively ended in 1918 when Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair with Lucy Mercer. From that point until Franklin’s death in April 1945, their relationship was little more than a cordial partnership that allowed both parties the freedom to pursue their interest in politics and close friends.

However, in Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, biographer Hazel Rowley argues that this view understates and underestimates the importance of the bond they shared. While acknowledging that their relationship was unconventional, she contends that this was “one of the most interesting and radical marriages in history.” In Rowley’s view, “Their marriage did not evolve by itself; they consciously shaped the way it changed. It was a joint endeavor; a partnership that made it possible for the Roosevelts to become the spectacular and influential individuals they became.”

At the heart of their relationship were many exceptionally close friends who supported and nourished the couple. For Franklin, the central people were his first political adviser Louis Howe, Lucy Mercer (later Lucy Rutherford), his secretary “Missy” LeHand, and his cousin Daisy Suckley. For Eleanor, the companions were Nancy Cook, a Democratic political operative; journalist Lorena Hickock; George Miller, her bodyguard; Joseph Lash, a student who became a confidant and later wrote several books about the Roosevelts; and her devoted secretary, “Tommy” Thompson.

It’s a challenge to analyze the private lives of the Roosevelts. Franklin never kept a journal, so we don’t have any direct insight into his thinking. Eleanor did keep a diary but she was fully aware that it would become public and as a result it is not as candid as historians would like. Moreover, as one might expect of this earlier, more private time, those who knew the truth kept it to themselves. Even Eleanor’s close friend Joseph Lash, whose 1971 bestseller “Eleanor and Franklin” was the first study of their relationship, was notably discreet on important questions like the possibility that Eleanor had extramarital relationships.

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