When they first married, Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt fit the definition of the typical Victorian aristocratic couple.
He was a Harvard graduate; she was a debutante. They came from the same respectable family, descended from the Dutch immigrant Claes van Rosenvelt. He expected to go into law while she would raise their future children.
Yet even the distinguishing factor of being related to President Theodore Roosevelt (he was a distant cousin and she was Teddy’s niece) didn’t forecast that the two would become one of the most powerful and influential political couples in U.S. history.
Author Hazel Rowley delves into their relationship in “Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage.” Unlike previous biographers, Rowley cheers for their union.
“When I told the chief archivist at the FDR Library that I was researching the Roosevelt marriage, he remarked ‘A touchy subject,’” Rowley wrote in the preface.
But for Rowley, that touchiness made the project more fascinating. She uses the book to defend what she calls “the most interesting and radical marriage in history.”
“In my view, the Roosevelts’ bond was political in every sense of the word: they were two politically astute people, very tough underneath their vulnerabilities, who knew exactly what they needed in order to do their best work. ...
Their marriage did not evolve by itself; they consciously shaped the way it changed.”
Nevertheless, Rowley’s take serves mostly as an overview of the marriage. She doesn’t add any new revelations, and her conjectures downplay what others have seen as major problems in their marriage, including FDR’s affairs and Eleanor’s “ruthless craving for personal publicity.”
Their relationship began in the summer of 1902. They had last seen each other three years earlier at a family Christmas party, when the gallant FDR noticed the awkward Eleanor and asked her to dance so she wouldn’t feel left out.
The two caught up on family news, with Theodore Roosevelt now president, and talked about their educational experiences, hers at Allenswood Academy in England and his at Harvard University.
That meeting led to a three-year courtship, including a secret engagement at the insistence of FDR’s mother, who was not thrilled with the union. They married and began the Victorian lifestyle of work and children, with Franklin’s mother, Sara, always nearby.
Their life together continued down this path for years, with FDR starting to advance in the political arena and Eleanor acting as the proper wife, even as she became more involved in his work.
Things shifted when Eleanor discovered that her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, was writing love letters to FDR.
Rowley naively ponders the implications of this love affair, one of the best-known presidential indiscretions in history. She acknowledges that the letters exist but insists that “we will never know the depth of FDR’s feelings for Lucy.
We will never even know whether it was an ‘affair.’” Rowley reasons that for Mercer, a devout Catholic, a physical relationship would have been a cardinal sin and she and FDR wouldn’t want to risk a pregnancy.