In his book Franklin & Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life, Joseph E. Persico used previously unpublished letters and other documents to reveal for the first time that this romance continued unbroken for nearly 30 years. He also causes us to speculate how the course of history would have changed had Franklin accepted Eleanor's offer of a divorce (nixed by his domineering mother) and married his soul mate, thus obviating his political career.
In the following excerpt, set in 1918, F.D.R. has just returned, ill, from an overseas trip while serving as assistant secretary of the Navy, and Eleanor has found the letters from Lucy.
|Newlyweds Eleanor and Franklin at Hyde Park, 1906|
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.
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.
|Eleanor & Sara Delano, 1908|
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.
|The couple with F.D.R.'s mother, Sara Delano|
"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."➤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.
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.
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?
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.