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.
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.
Historians have made much about Eleanor’s sexuality, and Rowley tackles the question directly. Her view is that the first lady had an affair with Miller and had several female lovers. She claims that both Franklin and Eleanor were aware the other had “romantic friendships” and simply accepted them. Rowley writes: “The extended family of close companions were not there to paper over the holes in the marriage; they were embraced as part of it. Both FDR and Eleanor had other intimate companions, other loves. They accepted this about each other. It was part of their generous spirit.”
Rowley’s book deals almost exclusively with the Roosevelts’ relationship. Great political and historical events are only mentioned in passing. But her careful attention to the details of their marriage provides significant insight into this important aspect of their lives and the way in which it shaped their careers. Some of the biographical details still have the capacity to surprise. For example, early in their marriage, Eleanor – who is generally regarded as even more liberal than her husband – harbored common prejudices about race (she referred to African-Americans as “darkies”) and apparently opposed women’s suffrage.
The author clearly admires and respects both Franklin and Eleanor. But she seems partial to Eleanor, perhaps because the first lady was less self-centered and seemed more likely to recognize and reciprocate the friendship and affection she received from others. It may also be because Eleanor’s life shows so much evidence of personal growth – after a deeply unhappy childhood that left her a shy and reticent young woman, she became one of the nation’s most respected and influential figures.
Even today, there is much that historians do not know about the Roosevelts’ personal relationship. So the historian must analyze mountains of data and offer an interpretation. Rowley has clearly read and analyzed the extensive literature about the Roosevelts and undertook an extensive review of the documentary evidence at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. Despite an occasional tendency toward overstatement, her analysis is sound and the conclusions seem fair and on-target. The result is compelling history with first-rate character portraits of the Roosevelts and their closest friends. It also serves to remind us that no matter how much we may know about preeminent individuals, there are some parts of their lives that will always be ambiguous.
Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.