Hazel Rowley, Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage

First Family of the United States

Roosevelt Family, 1919 (Courtesy: Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, via Wikipedia

I wonder what would make an Australian biographer decide to write about an American couple? And I wonder, having now read Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage, what she would have made of, say, Joseph and Enid Lyons, Australia’s own political power couple. Unfortunately we’ll never know as Rowley died just around the time this, her latest biography, was released. There is, of course, good reason for writing this story: Franklin and Eleanor are an interesting couple, and they did have an impact on the international stage, as well as their national one.

In her acknowledgements at the end of the book, Rowley writes:

I learned quickly that all sources, both primary and secondary, were unreliable. There was so much that could not be said, even in private letters…

Therein lies the rub for the would-be biographer of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. There’s a lot of primary source material available. They wrote copiously to each other and to others, others wrote copiously to them and to others about them. There are diaries written by many in the Roosevelt circle. There’s Eleanor’s newspaper column, My Day, which she wrote for nearly three decades. And there are memoirs, interviews, and sundry other items documenting their private and public lives. Indeed, even though it’s known that some significant letters were destroyed, the biographer of Franklin and Eleanor is challenged by a surfeit of records, unlike those poor biographers of Jane Austen who try to make a lot out of what is a rather small historical record.

And yet, there are still gaps. This is, in the end, what makes fact different from fiction, isn’t it? When you are writing about real people you cannot know everything in their hearts, you cannot be sure of their real motivations, and so whatever biography we read, no matter how thoroughly researched and well written it is, there are things we will never know. With fiction – and maybe I’m being a little ingenuous – the character only exists in the author’s mind and on the page. Whatever the author tells us is all we can know and we must work with that …

Enough intro, let’s get to the book. Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage is an extraordinary read. The research Rowley did was clearly comprehensive – as the endnotes demonstrate. Rowley takes, she says, a different tack to the other biographies out there by choosing to focus specifically on the marriage. Her thesis is that it was not simply a patched up compromise (after Franklin’s betrayal with Lucy Mercer) or simply a political marriage, but “a joint endeavour, a partnership that made it possible for the Roosevelts to become the spectacular and influential individuals they became”.

And that’s certainly how she presents it … and, moreover, how the evidence she presents suggests it was, though we’ll never know, really, what interior compromises the couple made in terms of their personal happiness. Eleanor was devastated by Franklin’s love affair with Lucy Mercer in 1918, and divorce was apparently mentioned. Threats of disinheritance and of loss of his political career plus, it seems, his love for Eleanor resulted in reconciliation and the marriage continued. However, it did shift gear, particularly after Franklin’s polio attack in 1922, and began to encompass a variety of “romantic friendships” for both. Eleanor wrote, many years later in her book You learn by living that

You must allow someone else to meet the need, without bitterness or envy, and accept it.

That tells us, I think, that the “new” marriage was not easily come by. But it also tells us that it was come by. And so, in the mid-1920s during Franklin’s “recovery” from polio,

Franklin had Warm Springs [resort bought by FDR]; Eleanor had Val-Kill [cottage]. Franklin had Missy; Eleanor had Nancy and Marion. Both had Louis Howe.

The fascinating thing about the Roosevelts is the loyalty they inspired in the people who worked with them. Many of the long-standing friendships and relationships chronicled in the book are with the secretaries, body guards, campaign managers, journalists who were in their employ or worked alongside them. There are stories galore in the book about how they opened their homes, including the White House, to others, enjoying communal living way before the 1960s.

The book is, as I’ve already mentioned, well-researched. Most of what Rowley tells us appears to be based on primary records (that are well documented in the extensive endnotes at the back of the book), and she occasionally indicates when she thinks the “facts” have been modified with an eye on posterity. But there are also times when she makes assumptions, such as her belief that Franklin and Lucy did not have a real “affair” because they had little opportunity to be alone; because Lucy was Catholic, single and probably a virgin; because they would have feared pregnancy; and so on. All logical enough but the facts aren’t known.

While the book is about their marriage, we don’t learn a lot about their parenting style. However, their political life is told at a general level – FDR’s New Deal, CCC and Lend-Lease programmes, his relationship with Churchill, and Eleanor’s political works including her involvement in the creation of the United Nations. We learn a little of how Eleanor’s more radical ideas were tempered by the supportive but more political Franklin. I loved a government official’s description of Eleanor at the United Nations General Assembly:

Never have I seen naiveté and cunning so gracefully blended.

As a 21st century reader, I was also interested in the behaviour of the press and how the extent of FDR’s handicap was either hidden from the press or, sometimes, hidden by the press from the public:

From today’s perspective, it is astounding that the press stuck to the rules. Even journalists who disliked Roosevelt respected the dignity of a handicapped man.

They weren’t perfect though. Towards the end of his life when he was sick and convalescing in the South, FDR was driven in his car one day in front of the press simply to halt the rumours that had started to fly. He apparently said:

Those newspapermen are a bunch of God-damned ghouls.

Little did he know!

It’s a great read – for its analysis of the “extraordinary marriage” and for its picture of the times. I thought, as I read of Eleanor’s debut early in the book, that her young womanhood was somewhat close in time and place to the women who populate Edith Wharton’s novels, but Eleanor, through either luck or good judgement, escaped the lives and fate of those characters. How lucky, really, for the world that she did.

Hazel Rowley
Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage
New York: Farrer, Strauss and Giroux, 2011
ISBN: 9780374158576