Nothing is more pleasing to the eye than a good-looking lady, nothing more refreshing to the spirit than the company of one, nothing more flattering to the ego than the affection of one.
—FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
LESS THAN A YEAR after graduating from Harvard, FDR married Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, his fifth cousin once removed, the orphaned daughter of his godfather, Elliott—a tall, striking young woman variously described by an adoring New York press as “beautiful,” “regal,” and “magnificent,” with “greater claim to good looks than any of the Roosevelts.”1 Franklin was an impressionable twenty-three. Eleanor was twenty: the same age her mother had been, yet still innocent of the birds and the bees. As she later informed her son James, the kiss she and Franklin exchanged at the close of the wedding ceremony was their first in more than two years of courtship.2*
Throughout his adult life FDR relished female companionship. Yet he was late discovering it. At Springwood for fourteen years his contact with the opposite sex was limited. At Groton he relied on his mother to organize his social life: “I wish you would think up some decent partner for me for the N.Y. dance, so that I can get someone early, and not get palmed off on some ice-cart.”3 At Harvard he was on his own but hesitated to take an unguided step. “What do you think of my taking M.D.R. [Muriel Delano Robbins], Helen [Roosevelt], and Mary Newbold to see the Harvard–West Point game Saturday afternoon?” he asked Sara. “If you approve make arrangements as to trains.”4
Gradually, his diffidence faded. By the end of sophomore year FDR was charming and relaxed, eager to ingratiate himself with the eligible young women of upper class Boston and their families. This was 1902—the apogee of Victorian restraint. Unlike John F. Kennedy and his classmates in the 1930s, who took a direct approach, the men of FDR’s generation were oblique. In refined circles contact with the opposite sex was strictly chaperoned. Touching was risqué, kissing stretched the limit, and premarital sex was absolutely prohibited. There were two outlets: the company of loose women who traded in sex, or marriage. For someone of FDR’s straitlaced upbringing, the former was unthinkable.* As a consequence Franklin proposed not once but three times to young women who caught his attention at Harvard.
FDR’s first love in Cambridge was Frances Dana, granddaughter of both Richard Henry Dana (Two Years Before the Mast) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Reportedly, Sara talked her son out of marriage because Miss Dana was Catholic and thus unacceptable to the Protestant Delanos and Roosevelts.5 After Frances, FDR was smitten with Dorothy Quincy, daughter of an equally prominent Brahmin family. Then Alice Sohier, the exceptionally beautiful daughter of an old North Shore family. Alice’s mother was an Alden, a Massachusetts clan that predated the Delanos, and her father was an astute New England businessman with a town house in Boston, an estate in Beverly, and summer homes in Maine and New Hampshire. At some point in 1902 Alice and Franklin discussed marriage. FDR was twenty; Alice just seventeen. Having been an only child, Roosevelt told Alice he wanted a large family—at least six children. That evidently alarmed Alice, who later told a friend she had decided not to marry Franklin because “I did not wish to be a cow.”6 The bond between FDR and Alice was not severed that easily, however. They continued to see each other, and in the autumn of 1902 Alice’s parents sent her to Europe—an insurance policy against teenage infatuation. Many years later, FDR put a different gloss on their breakup:
Once upon a time when I was in Cambridge, I had serious thoughts about marrying a Boston girl and settling down in the Back Bay.… By the grace of God I took a trip at that time, meeting a number of real Americans, i.e. those from the west and south. I was saved, but it was an awfully narrow escape.7
As with many of FDR’s stories, fact and fiction mingle freely. It was Alice, not he, who backed away from marriage, and it was she who undertook the decisive trip in 1902.8
In the wake of Alice Sohier’s departure for Europe, Franklin met Eleanor. Each autumn, New York society launched the social season with a gala horse show at Madison Square Garden. For so long as there had been a horse show, the Hudson River Roosevelts had been prominent participants, sometimes showing, sometimes judging, but always in attendance. November 17, 1902, was no exception. The family box, now maintained by FDR’s half brother, Rosy—a connoisseur of coachmanship and fine carriages—literally bulged with Roosevelts: Franklin, Rosy’s daughter Helen, her cousin Eleanor, Helen’s fiancé, Theodore Robinson (another cousin), Mary Newbold, a neighbor from Hyde Park, and assorted uncles and aunts from Long Island and Connecticut. After the show, Rosy took the young people to dinner at Sherry’s, New York’s most fashionable restaurant. “Dinner with James Roosevelt Roosevelt, Helen Roosevelt Roosevelt, Mary Newbold and Eleanor Roosevelt at Sherry’s,” FDR recorded in his diary—his first reference to Eleanor.9 Two weeks later he lunched with Eleanor and his niece Helen in New York, and two weeks after that, in the city with Sara for last-minute Christmas shopping, he slipped away for tea with Eleanor.
The two were together again in Washington for the nation’s New Year’s festivities. FDR stayed with Cousin Bamie on N Street; Eleanor with TR’s daughter Alice in the White House. On New Year’s Day they stood in the “inner circle” to watch Cousin Theodore shake hands with thousands of well-wishers who filed through the East Room. They took tea with Alice and Mrs. Roosevelt, dined with the president in the state dining room, then attended the theater, where, Franklin noted, he “sat near Eleanor. Very interesting day.”
A month later, Eleanor was among those Rosy invited to celebrate Franklin’s twenty-first birthday at Sherry’s, an affair FDR described as “very jolly.” In late June, Eleanor came to Springwood for a four-day weekend, one of a group of six young people and accompanied by her maid. Three weeks later there was another house party, which Eleanor attended, again accompanied by her maid. On Saturday, July 7, after a quiet afternoon lounging on the lawn, Franklin took the group for a dinner cruise aboard the Half Moon, the family’s motorized sailing yacht. “Franklin was at his best aboard his boat,” his cousin Corinne Robinson remembered—“handsome at the tiller, a splendid sailor and completely confident.”10 That evening, after the others had gone to bed, Franklin wrote in his diary that the day had been great fun. “E is an angel.” Once again FDR was in love.
Whether this was vouchsafed to Eleanor is unclear. Franklin may have written and she may have replied, but no early letters survive. In 1937, when she was at work on the first volume of her autobiography, Eleanor burned all of Franklin’s letters, finding his youthful avowals of constancy too painful to reread.11 FDR carefully preserved Eleanor’s letters to him, but none date from this period. In the Victorian era correspondence between a young man and a young woman was not undertaken lightly. As Eleanor later recorded, “It was understood that no girl was interested in a man or showed any liking for him until he had made all the advances. You knew a man very well before you wrote or received a letter from him … and to have signed one in any other way than ‘very sincerely yours’ would have been not only a breach of good manners but an admission of feeling which was entirely inadmissible.”12
Eleanor’s cramped view reflected an upbringing even more sheltered than FDR’s. Her mother, Anna Rebecca Hall, died of diphtheria when Eleanor was only eight. Less than two years later her father, Elliott, succumbed to alcoholism. From the death of her mother until her marriage to Franklin, Eleanor was in the care of her maternal grandmother, first at the Hall estate at Tivoli on the Hudson, then at boarding school in England. Apart from vacations, when she occasionally met a Roosevelt cousin, she was virtually removed from the company of men. In material terms, Eleanor was well provided for. But a nunnery novitiate would have met more men than she did.
Franklin saw Eleanor off and on during the summer of 1903, always well chaperoned, and that autumn he invited her to Cambridge for the Yale game, traditionally the last football game of the season. After the game, Eleanor went to Groton to visit her younger brother. FDR followed the next morning and spent Sunday with Eleanor. As they strolled along the bank of the Nashua River, Franklin proposed and Eleanor accepted: “A never to be forgotten walk,” FDR noted that evening. Eleanor said, “It seemed entirely natural.”13
The next weekend Franklin journeyed to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, to observe Thanksgiving with the Delanos. When he took his mother aside and broke the news, Sara was stunned. “Franklin gave me quite a startling announcement,” she wrote in her journal. Sara did not object to Eleanor, whom she knew well and had often entertained at Springwood. She simply believed Franklin too young. Her father had been thirty-three when he married and had already established himself as a major player in the China trade. He could offer something to his wife. FDR was still in college. He would not enter law school until the following fall. He was largely dependent upon his mother for support, and had she wished, Sara very likely could have forbidden the marriage. Instead, she extracted a commitment from Franklin and Eleanor that they would keep their engagement secret for a year, not see each other unless properly chaperoned, and keep sufficient distance so as not to arouse suspicion. Sara played for time. She knew from experience how fragile young love could be. Twenty-seven years before, her own romance with Stanford White had dissolved when they were kept apart, and a year now might cool the couple’s ardor. For their part, Franklin and Eleanor believed the interval of a year would erode Sara’s resistance. They accepted the arrangement and resolved to make the best of it.
Franklin and Eleanor shared a common heritage. Both were Roosevelts. But Eleanor’s maternal forebears placed her in a celestial constellation of Livingstons and Ludlows, Ver Plancks and Stuyvesants—families who traced their provenance to letters patent from either the monarchs of Restoration England or the Dutch East India Company. Eleanor’s grandmother, many generations removed, was Amy Stuyvesant, sister of Peter Stuyvesant, Director General of the New Netherland colony.14
In the struggle for American independence, few families, save perhaps the Adamses of Massachusetts and the Lees of Virginia, could duplicate the patriotic contribution of the Livingstons of New York, whose ranks included signers of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, and two secretaries of state.15 Chancellor Robert Livingston, one of the nation’s most distinguished jurists, administered the presidential oath of office to George Washington in 1789. His granddaughter Elizabeth (Eleanor’s great-grandmother) eloped to marry Edward Ludlow, scion of an equally prominent Hudson River family, Tory rather than patriot, and among the wealthiest in America. Edward Ludlow founded New York City’s premier real estate holding company, and in 1861 his daughter, Mary Livingston Ludlow (Eleanor’s grandmother), married Valentine Hall, Jr., heir to an even larger commercial fortune. The Halls had six children, of whom Eleanor’s mother, Anna, was the eldest.16
On the paternal side, Eleanor’s father, Elliott, was the younger sibling of Bamie and TR, children of Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., and his wife, Mittie.* Just as the Aspinwalls and Delanos had infused new vigor into the Hyde Park bloodline, so Mittie, an enchanting southern belle from Cobb County, Georgia, added more than a soupçon of spice to the Long Island clan. One of fourteen children and stepchildren of Martha and James Stephens Bulloch, Mittie was a vivacious hostess and daring horsewoman who enchanted New York society. Her friends in Georgia later claimed that TR inherited “his splendid dash and energy” from his southern mother.
Eleanor’s parents enjoyed a fairy-tale romance: Elliott, the playboy prince charming; Anna, the beautiful maiden swept off her feet. Yet this fairy tale ended tragically. Unlike his brother and sisters, Elliott was fatally flawed. To this day the pathology is uncertain. Whether Elliott suffered from epilepsy or mental illness, or was driven to excess by unbridled self-indulgence, cannot be positively determined.17 What is clear is that he could not handle the rigors of formal education, dropped out of St. Paul’s at sixteen, spent a year or so out West hunting and fishing, and returned to New York just before the death of his father in 1878. The elder Roosevelt left each of his four children approximately $125,000, which would have provided an annual income of about $8,000—more than twenty times that of the average American family. When their mother, Mittie, died in 1884, each received an additional $65,000. That afforded each child an annual income of about $14,000. A simple monetary conversion equates that with an income of roughly a quarter of a million dollars today, but the money went much further in the 1880s because there was no income tax.18*
Elliott remained in New York for two years after his father’s death, playing polo, drinking heavily, and leading the sporting life of a well-connected bon vivant. A note from TR to their mother, written during a hunting trip with Elliott in 1880, provides a glimpse:
As soon as we got here he took some ale to get the dust out of his throat; then a milk punch because he was thirsty; a mint julep because he was hot; a brandy mash “to keep the cold out of his stomach;” and then sherry and bitters to give him an appetite. He took a very simple dinner—soup, fish, salmi de grouse, sweetbread, mutton, venison, corn, macaroni, various vegetables and some puddings and pies, together with beer, later claret and in the evening, shandigaff.19
In the autumn of 1880 Elliott set out on a leisurely world tour, highlighted by several months of big-game hunting in India.20 He returned to New York in March 1882, tried his hand halfheartedly at real estate, and within months met and fell in love with Anna Rebecca Hall, widely acclaimed as the most glamorous debutante of the year. They became engaged the following Memorial Day at a house party given in their honor by Laura Delano (Sara’s youngest sister) at Algonac, and were married December 1, 1883. The New York Herald described the wedding as “one of the most brilliant social events of the season.” Percy R. King, a childhood friend, was Elliott’s best man; James and Sara were among the guests.21
The Long Island Roosevelts were delighted. Anna, they hoped, would provide Elliott with the motivation to make something of himself. And for two years the couple prospered. Elliott went to work for the Ludlow real estate firm on Lower Broadway, Anna ordered her dresses from Palmer in London and Worth in Paris, and the couple maintained a well-staffed brownstone in New York’s fashionable Thirties. Repeatedly Anna was singled out in the city’s society pages for her classic, captivating beauty.22
Elliott, like FDR’s half brother, Rosy, was a mainstay of the hard-drinking horsey set: polo at Meadowbrook, riding with the hounds in cross-country steeplechase, the annual hunt ball, tennis and sailing at Bar Harbor and Newport. A keen observer of the New York scene called Elliott “the most loveable Roosevelt I ever knew,” adding that “if personal popularity could have bestowed public honors on any man there was nothing beyond the reach of Elliott Roosevelt.”23
On October 11, 1884, a daughter was born, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, named after both mother and father. For Elliott, his daughter was “a miracle from heaven.” In 1889 she was joined by a brother, Elliott, Jr., and two years later by a second brother, Hall, named for his maternal ancestors.24
By then the marriage had all but collapsed. Always prone to excess, Elliott’s drinking was out of control, compounded by frequent recourse to laudanum and morphine—painkillers to thwart whatever demons stalked him. Unable to handle even the most routine assignments, he resigned from his uncle’s firm. An extended sojourn in Europe ended with Elliott confined to a Paris sanitarium to dry out. His mental deterioration was so great that TR and Bamie, with Anna’s reluctant approval, brought suit in New York court to have him adjudged insane and place his remaining property, estimated at $170,000, in trust for his wife and children. “It is all horrible beyond belief,” said TR.25
News of the Roosevelt family squabble splashed across the front pages of New York’s press. ELLIOTT ROOSEVELT INSANE, bannered the Sun.demented by excesses, said the Herald.26 Elliott fought back with a letter to the editor of the European edition of the Herald, asserting he was in Paris merely for the “cure at an establishment hydrotherapeutique.”27 In January 1892 Theodore traveled to Paris to confront Elliott. He and Bamie would drop the suit, he said, if Elliott would place most of his assets in trust, submit to additional treatment for alcoholism in the United States, return to work, and spend two years on probation apart from his family. It was a Spartan regimen for someone as undisciplined as Elliott, yet TR was relentless. After a week of browbeating and intimidation, Elliott yielded. “Thank heaven I came over,” Theodore wrote Bamie. Elliott, he said, was “utterly broken, submissive, and repentant. He signed the deed for two-thirds of all his property, and agreed to the probation.… He was in a mood that was terribly touching. How long it will last of course no one can say.”28
Elliott’s philandering did little to improve matters. Three months after he left New York for Europe, Katy Mann, a young servant girl employed by Anna at their Long Island estate, informed the family she was pregnant with Elliott’s child. When Elliott denied the accusation, Katy threatened legal action and public scandal. The Roosevelts initially sided with Elliott. “Of course she is lying,” said TR. But when they met with Katy and saw the baby, they gave up the fight.29 The Roosevelt lawyers initially offered $4,000; Katy demanded $10,000; and eventually that sum was placed in trust for her son, defiantly named Elliott Roosevelt Mann. According to the Manns, the child never received a dime, the money apparently looted by Katy’s lawyers.30 Whatever may have happened to the funds, there is no doubt that Elliott Roosevelt Mann was Eleanor’s half brother.*
While in Paris, Elliott, unknown to Anna, took up with a sophisticated American expatriate, Mrs. Frances Bagley Sherman of Detroit. They lived intimately for six months, and when TR forced Elliott to leave France, Mrs. Sherman was heartbroken. “How could they treat so noble and generous a man as they have?” she asked.31
Elliott returned to the United States in February 1892, underwent treatment for alcoholism in Chicago, then moved to Abingdon, Virginia, to manage the vast Appalachian estate of his brother-in-law, Douglas Robinson. Anna meanwhile moved the family uptown to a new and more comfortable mansion in the East Sixties and did the utmost to provide her children a normal life. She declined to sue for divorce, hoping that Elliott would recover. But she was frequently depressed, and shattering migraines immobilized her for days at a time. “I know now that life must have been hard and bitter and a very great strain on her,” Eleanor wrote many years later. “I would often sit at the head of her bed and stroke her head.… As with all children, the feeling I was useful was perhaps the greatest joy I experienced.”32
In early November, Anna entered the hospital for surgery to relieve her headaches. She recovered from the operation but soon contracted diphtheria. On December 3, she lost consciousness. Four days later she died, her health broken by two years of anguish and disappointment.33 Six months after Anna’s death, Eleanor’s three-year-old brother, Elliott, Jr., also died from diphtheria.
In Abingdon, Elliott fell off the wagon almost immediately. One evening, drunk and naked, he toppled a kerosene lamp and burned himself badly. Friends in Abingdon urged TR to come down, but he refused. “It would be absolutely useless,” he said.34 Elliott attended Anna’s funeral, drank immoderately, sang bawdy songs, and was quickly ushered out of town. He returned to New York surreptitiously in the autumn of 1893, rented a house near Riverside Park under the name of Maxwell Eliot, and took up with another married woman, a Mrs. Evans, who, like Mrs. Sherman in Paris, found him irresistible. He was now consuming half a dozen bottles of hard liquor daily. In May he spent the night in a police lockup, too drunk to tell his cabbie where he lived. “He can’t be helped,” TR wrote Bamie. “He must simply be let go his own gait.”35 On August 13, 1894, seized by delirium tremens, Elliott attempted to jump from his parlor window, fell back in convulsions, and lost consciousness. He died the next evening.
Eleanor’s autobiographical writings depict a lovable, caring father and an austere, self-absorbed mother. Those were the memories of an impressionable young child. But as Blanche Wiesen Cook, ER’s preeminent biographer, points out, Eleanor was off the mark: “She did not relate to her mother’s bitter situation, even in adulthood, after she knew the facts. And she never acknowledged the sacrifice her mother had made for her, an act of love that allowed Eleanor to maintain her romantic image of her father.”36
Unlike FDR, Eleanor was a solemn child. As a youthful relative remembered, she “took everything—most of all herself—so tremendously seriously.”37 After Anna’s death, Eleanor and her brother went to live with Grandmother Hall, dividing their time between the Halls’ stately brownstone on West Thirty-seventh Street and the estate at Tivoli in upstate New York. “Our household,” said Eleanor, “consisted of a cook, a butler, a housemaid, and a laundress.” In the country, there were additional coachmen, servants, and tutors. Grandmother Hall was only forty-eight at the time, and, as Eleanor remembers, discipline was strict. “We were brought up on the principle that ‘no’ was easier to say than ‘yes.’ ”38
Eleanor was tutored in French, German, and music. She studied piano, attended classes in dancing and ballet, and was taken regularly to the theater. Her uncles taught her riding, jumping, lawn tennis, and how to shoot. As one biographer has noted, the six years Eleanor spent with Grandmother Hall were a time of healing. She became the center of attention. From her grandmother Eleanor derived “a new sense of belonging. Out of the chaos of her parental home, Eleanor felt for the first time secure and wanted.”39
Isolated as she was at Tivoli, there was little opportunity for Eleanor to meet or play with other children. One exception was Alice Roosevelt, TR’s daughter, whose mother had died after giving birth and who was being raised by Bamie. “I saw a lot of Eleanor as a child,” said Alice. “We both suffered from being deprived of a parent. But whereas she responded to her insecurity by being do-goody and virtuous, I did by being boisterous and showing off.”40 Alice agreed that many aspects of Eleanor’s childhood were unhappy. “But she had a tendency to make out she was unattractive and rejected as a child, which just wasn’t true. She made a big thing about having long legs and having to wear short skirts. Well, as far as I was concerned, I envied her long legs and didn’t notice her short skirts, if indeed they were short. She was always making herself out to be an ugly duckling but she was really rather attractive. Tall, rather coltish looking, with masses of pale, gold hair rippling to below her waist, and really lovely blue eyes.”41*
When Eleanor turned fifteen, Grandmother Hall sent her to boarding school in England. Anna, before she died, had asked that Eleanor be sent abroad, preferably to Allenwood; and Bamie, who had studied under the school’s headmistress in France, strongly supported the choice. Located in Wimbledon Park on the outskirts of London, Allenwood was in some respects the female equivalent of Groton: a pioneering school that offered the daughters of England’s elite a liberal education emphasizing social responsibility and personal independence. Marie Souvestre, the founder and headmistress, was the daughter of the French philosopher and novelist Émile Souvestre. A committed feminist, she believed passionately in educating women to think for themselves, to challenge accepted wisdom, and to assert themselves. These were subversive doctrines to patriarchal Victorians, yet Allenwood succeeded, in no small measure because of the sparkling erudition of Mlle. Souvestre. Liberal intellectuals—Joseph Chamberlain, Henry James, the Stracheys and the Webbs—considered her a soul mate. Beatrice Webb said her intellectual rigor forged the future for a generation of young women.42 Like Endicott Peabody at Groton, Marie Souvestre was Allenwood. And for the thirty-five girls enrolled, Allenwood was Marie Souvestre.
Eleanor flourished at Allenwood. The school was conducted entirely in French, and Eleanor was perfectly bilingual. “I remember the day she arrived at school,” said one classmate. “She was so much more grown up than we were, and at her first meal, when we hardly dared open our mouths, she sat opposite Mlle. Souvestre, chatting away in French.”43 Eleanor quickly became the most popular girl in school. She excelled in French, German, and Italian, wrote superb essays, and made the first team in field hockey. Marie Souvestre wrote Mrs. Hall, “She is the most amiable girl I have ever met; she is nice to everybody, very eager to learn and highly interested in her work.”44
For the next three years Eleanor continued to sit opposite Mlle. Souvestre.* During school breaks she traveled with her to Europe: “One of the most momentous things that happened in my education,” said Eleanor.45 Other times she toured the continent with her Aunt Tissie, Anna’s younger sister. Tissie was married to the wealthy art collector and portrait painter Stanley Mortimer, lived most of the year in Paris, and introduced Eleanor to a style of living enjoyed only by Europe’s most affluent.46 Photographs of Eleanor at the time show a tall, slender young woman with soft brown hair coiffed in a pompadour and dressed in current Paris fashions. “Entirely sophisticated, and full of self-confidence and savoir-faire,” said an admiring classmate.47
Marie Souvestre’s goal was to make her students “cultivated women of the world,” and Eleanor blossomed under her tutelage. If ER had a fault, it was her seriousness. “Totty [as Eleanor was known] is so intelligent, so charming, so good,” said Mlle. Souvestre. “Mais pas gaie, pas gaie.”48 For her part, Eleanor was despondent when at eighteen it was time to return to New York to make her social debut. “Mlle Souvestre had become one of the people I cared for most in the world and … I would have given a great deal to have spent another year on my education.”49Later Eleanor said, “Whatever I have become had its seed in those three years of contact with a liberal mind and a strong personality.”50 Throughout the remainder of her life, ER kept a framed portrait of Marie Souvestre on her desk. And when the headmistress died in 1905, Eleanor and Bamie served on her memorial committee.
Allenwood ranked as the most emancipated women’s school of the era. Yet it was totally deficient in preparing young ladies to deal with a world of men. Marie Souvestre and Aunt Tissie taught Eleanor the finer points of cosmopolitan behavior, how to present herself, how to dress. Yet her three years at Allenwood were as cloistered as the previous five with Grandmother Hall at Tivoli. At the age of eighteen, Eleanor had never dated, had rarely talked to a young man alone, and as a practical matter had seldom been in mixed company. Her mind had been finely honed, she brimmed with self-esteem, but she was naive beyond despair.
Eleanor’s lack of worldly experience appealed to Franklin. “A more sophisticated woman would have scared the daylights out of him,” said his son Elliott.51 It is not surprising Franklin was drawn to Eleanor. Aside from being young, attractive, and smartly dressed (ER’s wardrobe was meticulously put together by Aunt Tissie), Eleanor had an air of serious intelligence about her: a genuine interest in what took place around her. Her years at Allenwood imparted a maturity that FDR adored.52 She was also a Roosevelt and the favorite niece of Cousin Theodore, who was not only president of the United States but Eleanor’s godfather. By marrying Eleanor, FDR would acquire even greater access to the man he most admired. Her financial endowment was taken for granted. Eleanor was not rich like the Astors, but her trust fund provided an annual income of about $8,000 ($160,000 today), which was considerably more than Franklin’s, the principal of which was still administered by Sara.
The Roosevelt children, Anna and Elliott, believed that Eleanor “set out to win Father more than he tried to woo her.… She was stunned by the thought that here was a handsome man who would not only look at her but seek her companionship. She poured her heart out to him, undoubtedly the best listener she had ever met.”53 Eleanor wrote Franklin every evening to ensure that he did not forget her. “Oh! Darling I miss you so and I long for the happy hours which we have together. I am so happy. So very happy in your love dearest, that all the world has changed for me.”54Eleanor often signed herself “Little Nell,” the nickname her father had bestowed, and she addressed Franklin as “Boy Darling,” “Dearest Boy,” and occasionally, “Franklin Dearest.” For the most part, Eleanor’s nightly letters during their secret engagement were reports on the day’s happenings, but, as one biographer notes, they “were as full of love as any letters she would ever write.”55
In September 1904 Franklin entered Columbia Law School. He lived with Sara in an imposing town house his mother rented at 200 Madison Avenue, directly across from the marble mansion of J. P. Morgan. “I am anxious to hear about the first day [at Columbia],” Eleanor wrote from Tivoli, “and whether you found any old acquaintances or had only Jew Gentlemen to work with!” Ethnic identity was delineated more sharply at the time, and Eleanor shared the traditional prejudices of Knickerbocker society. Her friend and biographer Joseph Lash reports that FDR’s class at Columbia “showed 21 Jewish names in a class of 74.” Lash also notes that ER’s comment did not prevent her from teaching part-time at Rivington Street Settlement House on the Lower East Side, where most of her pupils were recent Jewish and Italian immigrants, nor did it “inhibit her solicitude for them.”56 FDR sometimes met Eleanor at Rivington House and once, when a child in her class became ill, accompanied her to the tenement in which the child lived. “My God,” Franklin said, “I didn’t know anyone lived like this.”57
On October 11, Eleanor’s twentieth birthday, FDR presented her with a gift he had chosen at Tiffany’s “after much inspection and deliberation”: a large diamond engagement ring. It suited Eleanor perfectly. “You could not have found a ring I would have liked better,” she wrote. “I love it so I know I shall find it hard to keep from wearing it.”58 After eleven months, the subterfuge was wearing thin. Later that month Eleanor and Franklin were houseguests at a family party given by Aunt Corinne and Douglas Robinson in Orange, New Jersey. “E. and F. are comic,” noted young Corinne, Jr. “They avoided each other like the black plague and told beautifully concocted lies and deceived us sweetly in every direction.… I would bet they are engaged.” FDR played the scene with such aplomb that Corinne told him he had a very deceitful nature. Eleanor was equally opaque. Three days later she and Corinne, Jr., went driving. “Neither of us mentioned Franklin,” Corinne wrote, “but I think he was on both our minds.”59
The engagement was announced on December 1 and was followed by a blizzard of congratulatory letters. “I never saw the family so enthusiastic in my life,” wrote Lyman Delano. Grandmother Hall was thankful Eleanor was “going to marry such a fine man.” Alice Roosevelt, who would be Eleanor’s maid of honor, thought the news “too good to be true.” Bamie said she loved Franklin not only on his own account but because “his character is like his father’s [who was] the most absolutely honorable upright gentleman we ever knew.”60
From the White House, Uncle Theodore wrote Eleanor that only in married life is “the highest and finest happiness to be found. I know you and Franklin will face all that comes bravely and lovingly.” To FDR he wrote:
We are greatly rejoiced over the good news. I am as fond of Eleanor as if she were my daughter; and I like you, and trust you, and believe in you. No other success in life—not the Presidency, or anything else—begins to compare with the joy and happiness that come in and from the love of the true man and the true woman, the love which never sinks lover and sweetheart in man and wife. You and Eleanor are true and brave, and I believe you love each other unselfishly; and golden years open before you. May all good fortune attend you both, ever. Give my love to your dear mother.
Your aff. cousin Theodore Roosevelt61
The wedding was set for March 17, 1905, and Franklin asked Endicott Peabody to preside. “It would not be the same without you,” he told the rector. Eleanor requested Uncle Theodore stand in for her father and give the bride away. TR was delighted. He suggested that the wedding be held “under his roof” at the White House and insisted on handling all the arrangements. That was TR’s style, but it was more than Eleanor and Franklin had bargained for. It was eventually agreed that the wedding would be held in New York under Grandmother Hall’s auspices on a date when the president could attend. March 17—Saint Patrick’s Day—was the first available.
Before the wedding, Franklin and Eleanor took time to attend Uncle Theodore’s inauguration. In November 1904 TR had defeated his Democratic opponent, the conservative Alton B. Parker, chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, by 2.5 million votes—a landslide in which Franklin cast his ballot for the Republican ticket.62 Addressing the annual Jackson Day Dinner of the Democratic Party in 1938, FDR said, “My father and grandfather were Democrats and I was born and brought up as a Democrat. But in 1904, when I cast my first vote for president, I voted for the Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, because I thought he was a better Democrat than the Democratic candidates. If I had to do it all over again, I would not alter that vote.”63
On March 4, 1904, Franklin and Eleanor sat just behind the president and his family at the east front of the Capitol and heard TR’s characteristic call for vigor and effort, “without which the manlier and hardier virtues wither away.”64 Afterward they went to the White House for lunch with the president, watched the parade with him, and went to the inaugural ball that evening in the atrium of the old pension building.
The wedding was held in the twin town houses of Eleanor’s great-aunt, Elizabeth Livingston Ludlow, and her daughter, Cousin Susie (Mrs. Henry) Parish, at 6–8 East Seventy-sixth Street. The formal drawing rooms of the two houses opened into each other and could accommodate two hundred guests, an elegant yet understated New York setting often used by the family on ceremonial occasions. Outside, on Fifth Avenue, the Saint Patrick’s Day parade wound its way northward, the Ancient Order of Hibernians filling the air with “The Wearing of the Green.” Moments before 3:30, the clatter of carriage horses signaled the arrival of the president, top-hatted and buoyant, a shamrock in his lapel, to give the bride away. As the orchestra commenced the wedding march from Lohengrin, Eleanor’s six bridesmaids descended the circular staircase. Each wore a white silk gown, its sleeves embroidered with silver roses, with a demiveil and three silver-tipped ostrich feathers (the Roosevelt crest) in her hair. The six ushers wore tie pins with three Roosevelt feathers depicted in diamonds. Franklin and Lathrop Brown, his Harvard roommate who was standing in for Rosy as best man, wore formal morning attire.65 The bride’s satin wedding gown was covered with Grandmother Hall’s rose-point Brussels lace, which Eleanor’s mother had worn at her wedding. Her veil was secured with a diamond crescent that had belonged to her mother as well. As fate would have it, March 17 was also Anna’s birthday.
When Reverend Peabody asked, “Who giveth this woman in marriage?,” TR answered emphatically, “I do!” Hands were joined, rings and vows exchanged, and the rector pronounced Franklin and Eleanor man and wife. The president reached out to kiss the bride. “Well, Franklin,” he exclaimed, “there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.” TR then strode off to find the refreshments and the guests followed in his wake. Franklin and Eleanor trailed along. “We simply followed the crowd and listened with the rest,” said Eleanor.66 TR had upstaged the stars of the wedding and stolen the audience. Even the cutting of the wedding cake failed to attract many onlookers until the president was persuaded to come and get a slice. As TR’s daughter Alice observed, “Father always wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.”67
* Eleanor’s cousin Alice, who was the same age yet far more worldly, reports trying to impart the facts of life to Eleanor, but “I almost came to grief.… She suddenly leapt on me and tried to smother me with a pillow, saying I was being blasphemous. So I shut up and I think she probably went to her wedding not knowing anything about the subject.” Michael Teague, Mrs. L: Conversations with Alice Roosevelt Longworth 57 (New York: Doubleday, 1981).
Eleanor was not alone in her naiveté. Corinne Robinson Alsop, ER’s younger cousin, remembered having once been kissed by a boy in the stable of her family’s home in Orange, New Jersey. “It frightened me to death, and I discussed with my intimate friends whether I would immediately have a baby.” Alsop Family Papers, Harvard University.
* FDR’s resolve was reinforced by the behavior of his nephew Taddy (James Roosevelt Roosevelt, Jr.), the son of Rosy and Helen Astor. Almost three years older than Franklin, Taddy dropped out of Harvard in 1900 to marry Sadie Messinger, a habitué of the Haymarket Dance Hall in New York, better known by her trade names, “Dutch Sadie” and “Sadie of the Tenderloin.” The press had a field day (to the chagrin of the Roosevelts and Astors); Rosy tried to have the marriage annulled, but Taddy, who had just turned twenty-one and come into half ownership of his late mother’s Astor legacy, held tight. After a brief stay in Florida, Taddy and Sadie returned to New York, where they took two rooms over a garage in which he repaired automobiles. They remained together until Sadie’s death in 1940. Taddy never touched his legacy and on his death in 1958 left his millions to the Salvation Army. FDR blamed Taddy for bringing on James’s fatal heart attack in 1900. “One can never again consider him a true Roosevelt,” he wrote Sara. “It would be well for him not only to go to parts unknown, but to stay there and begin life anew.” FDR did not see or speak with Taddy again. Letter, FDR to SDR, October 23, 1900, FDRL.
* Bamie, whose real name was Anna (Bamie was short for “bambino”) was born in 1855; TR in 1858; Elliott in 1860; and a fourth child, Corinne, in 1861.
* With the exception of a brief period during the Civil War, there was no federal income tax until 1894, when a Democratic Congress amended the Wilson-Gorman Tariff Act to provide for a general tax of 2 percent on incomes above $4,000 (28 Stat. 509, 553 ).
The following year, a sharply divided (5–4) Supreme Court struck down the income tax as unconstitutional. Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan and Trust, 157 U.S. 429 (1895). “We are reversing one hundred years of error,” said Chief Justice Melville Fuller, speaking for the Court. Fuller’s reference was to the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions in Hylton v. United States, 3 Dallas (3 U.S.) 171 (1796), and Springer v. United States, 102 U.S. 586 (1881), both of which would have sustained the tax. As a result of the Court’s decision in Pollock a federal income tax was not instituted until after adoption of the Sixteenth (“Income Tax”) Amendment to the Constitution in 1913.
* After FDR was elected president in 1932, Elliott Roosevelt Mann and Katy wrote Eleanor to congratulate her. ER replied, “I was very interested to receive your letter and to learn that you were named after my father.… I shall hope sometime to see both you and your mother.” No invitation was ever extended, nor was any further correspondence from the Manns answered by ER. Blanche Wiesen Cook, 1 Eleanor Roosevelt 65n. (New York: Viking Penguin, 1992).
* James Kearney, an early biographer, suggested that when Eleanor wrote This Is My Story in 1937 she deliberately emphasized the unhappy aspects of her childhood because she wished to identify with the “agonizing insecurity and aspirations of American youth in the thirties.” Anna Eleanor Roosevelt: The Evolution of a Reformer 6 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968).
* Sitting opposite the formidable Marie Souvestre, then in her seventies, was considered the place of honor. According to ER, “The girl who occupied this place received [the headmistress’s] nod at the end of the meal and gave the signal, by rising, for the rest of the girls to rise and leave the dining room.” Eleanor Roosevelt, Autobiography 26 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961).