On the day of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death his close friend and distant cousin Margaret Suckley wrote in her diary of Eleanor Roosevelt that “I believe she loved him more deeply than she knows herself, and his feeling for her was deep & lasting. The fact that they could not relax together, or play together, is the tragedy of their joint lives, for I believe, from everything that I have seen of them, that they had everything else in common. It was probably a matter of personalities, of a certain lack of humor on her part – I can not blaime either of them. They are both remarkable people – sky-high above the average”.
The marriage of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt was arguably one of the most consequential marriages in history and much has already been written about it by their many biographers. But so far no book has dealt exclusively with the marriage from its beginning to the end and this is what the American author Hazel Rowley, perhaps best known for her book on Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, has intended to do in her new book Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux of New York just recently.
It is of course a well-known story and the sources available to Rowley have been consulted by many authors before her. Yet her well-written, engaging account of the Roosevelt marriage has potential for becoming one of the classic books on Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the greatest US presidents, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the most significant of the country’s first ladies.
Rowley’s book provides a brief summary of the main protagonists’ respective backgrounds, but the main story is of course the marriage, which lasted for forty years. Thus the focus is more on the persons than the politics, but as politics was at the centre of the couple’s lives it all gets weaved together.
It is, in Rowley’s words, the story of the marriage’s “evolution from a conventional Victorian family into the bold and radical partnership that made Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt go down in history as one of the most inspiring couples of all time”.
Although I have read many books about them already I keep getting astounded by the remarkable transformation of Eleanor Roosevelt, beginning in the early 1920s, from a rather conventional upper-class woman who professed her lack of interest in politics and held most of the same prejudices as so many others of her class and generation into a radical champion of freedom and a significant politician in her own right, who went on to play an important role on her own in her widowhood.
She never held elected office herself, but obviously grew into a great asset for her husband in his political career. Thus it was both a marriage and a political partnership which both of them would have been poorer without. But it was not always an easy one.
The late Diana, Princess of Wales famously remarked that there were three people in her marriage. In the marriage of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt there were a lot more than three persons. For 36 out of the forty years the marriage lasted Eleanor had to put up with a domineering, interfering mother-in-law, but a greater strain was perhaps the other women in her husband’s life.
Rumours, speculations and gossip have been ripe about various women, including Crown Princess Märtha. The President liked to be surrounded by adoring women he could charm, but Rowley concludes that only two of them really mattered to him in a way that might be called love – Lucy Mercer Rutherford and Marguerite “Missy” LeHand.
Eleanor indulged in a series of what Rowley calls “romantic friendships” with both men and women, of whom she sees Lorena Hickok as someone Eleanor Roosevelt really fell in love with. She obviously also had strong, romantic feelings for younger men such as Joseph Lash and David Gurewitsch, both of whom seem not to have reciprocated her feelings in the way she might have wished for them to do.
Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt seem not always to have cared much for the other’s companions, with Louis Howe standing out as an exception. Howe was alone in meaning as much to both of them and Rowley greatly stresses his importance for their development
Although Rowley writes much on the crowd of other people in the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, this is not a book for gossips. It is to her credit that Hazel Rowley, unlike several other authors who have dealt with the Roosevelts and their relationship, does not rush to any conclusions and rather leaves the questions open if there are no satisfactory proofs to answer them definitely.
All in all she has produced a well-written (bar some unnecessary repetitions) and balanced account of the complex partnership between these two remarkable people. As I read it just after I had finished George W. Bush’s memoirs, I could not help being reminded of the words of the filmmaker and journalist Arne Skouen, who shortly before his death in 2003 remarked on the stark contrast between the then US administration and what he described as the decency he had experienced in the White House when he worked as a Norwegian publicity officer in the USA during World War II.