Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage

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9780312610630: Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage

A Los Angeles Times Bestseller

In this groundbreaking account of the marriage, critically acclaimed biographer Hazel Rowley describes the remarkable courage and lack of convention---private and public---that kept FDR and Eleanor together. She reveals a partnership that was both supportive and daring. Most of all, she depicts an extraordinary evolution---from conventional Victorian marriage to the bold and radical partnership that has made Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt go down in history as one of the most inspiring and fascinating couples of all time.

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About the Author:

HAZEL ROWLEY was born in London and educated in England and Australia. She is the author of three previous biographies: Christina Stead: A Biography, a New York Times Best Book; Richard Wright: The Life and Times, a Washington Post Best Book; and Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, which has been translated into twelve languages. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Franklin and Eleanor Chapter 1 OneCousins in Love


They were cousins, fifth-generation, once removed. Their common ancestor, Claes van Rosenvelt, had emigrated from Holland around 1650 and settled in New Amsterdam, as New York City was still called at that time. On American shores the family name, which meant “field of roses,” had been changed to “Roosevelt,” but the descendants still pronounced the first syllable “rose,” in deference to their Dutch heritage. However the name was pronounced, there was no ambiguity about its standing: “Roosevelt” was a pedigree name among the New York aristocracy. Indeed, when Franklin and Eleanor happened to find themselves on the same train, in the summer of 1902, it was the most famous name in the country.

The cousins were on the New York Central, traveling north from New York City, along the east bank of the Hudson River. Franklin was strolling through the coach car when he spotted Eleanor, sitting with her maid. They had not seen each other for three and a half years.

The last occasion had been a family Christmas party, held in Orange, New Jersey, at the grand country home of Corinne Roosevelt Robinson—the “little sister” of Anna, Theodore, and Elliott Roosevelt. At fourteen, Eleanor looked gangly and awkward in a short white dress with blue bows on each shoulder—a hand-me-down from one of her maternal aunts. Seeing her looking lost on the sidelines, Franklin went up and asked her to dance. “I still remember my gratitude,” Eleanor wrote years later, in This Is My Story.

At that Christmas party in 1898, the family had been celebrating Theodore Roosevelt’s latest triumphs. In August, he had returned from the Spanish-American War covered in glory for his exploits as commander of the cavalry regiment, the Rough Riders. Theodore Roosevelt had become a popular hero, the man everyone talked about. In November he had been elected governor of New York. That Christmas, he was about to move his family to Albany.

Since then, Theodore Roosevelt’s rise had been meteoric. A progressive Republican, he was governor of New York for two years and then was elected vice president, under President William McKinley. In September 1901, when McKinley was shot by an anarchist in Buffalo, New York, Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest president in American history, at the age of forty-two.

To Eleanor, Uncle Ted might be the most famous man in the land, but above all he was the elder brother of the man she would idealize to her dying day—her father, Elliott, who had died when she was nine. Uncle Ted, a sentimental man, often told her that he loved her like a daughter. Eleanor found him a little overpowering. During her adolescence, when she made her annual summer visit to the Roosevelt cousins at Oyster Bay, Long Island, he used to give her such bear hugs that her clothes once tore. “Eleanor, my darling Eleanor!” he greeted her. With alarming boisterousness, he would chase the tribe of children through the haystacks in the barn, or down the hill to the waterfront. Although Eleanor had never learned to swim, Uncle Ted told her to jump off the dock and have a go. She had come up spluttering and panicked. Uncle Ted took her in his lap and explained to her that he had formerly been afraid of many things—grizzly bears, mean horses, and men with guns—but he had found that if you acted fearless, after a while you became fearless. It was important, he said, never to fear the challenges life threw in your path.

To Franklin, cousin Theodore was quite simply a hero. Everyone in the family knew that Theodore had been a sickly, puny boy, who suffered terribly from asthma, and seemed far less promising than his handsome younger brother, Elliott. But whereas Elliott had led a dissipated life and drank himself to an early death, Theodore excelled at Harvard, wrote books, and entered politics, eager to give his life to “public service.” Calling himself a “Lincoln Republican” (Abraham Lincoln was his hero), the young president was promising to bring back the virtues of the old Republican Party—social justice and reform.

Franklin saw himself as a Democrat, just as his father had been. It was a political allegiance that set them apart in the aristocratic circles in which they moved. But it was not out of family loyalty that Franklin intended to vote Republican in the next presidential election. He considered Theodore Roosevelt more progressive than the Democrats. The new president promised a “square deal” for every man, favored suffrage for women, spoke out against lynching, defended the right of labor to organize, and believed in strict regulation of big business.

Franklin had felt privileged to have a couple of personal conversations with the president earlier that year, when Theodore’s eldest daughter, Alice, had her coming-out ball at the White House. It was too bad Eleanor had been unable to attend, he told her. He had had a glorious few days in Washington. Alice was creating a sensation these days. The press was calling her “Princess Alice.” The ball, held in the East Room, had made front-page news. Franklin did not add that he had been one of Alice’s most eager dance partners.

Eleanor, who had been out of the country for three years, in England, had not felt tempted to come home—not even for a glamorous White House event. Her time at Allenswood, a girls’ finishing school in Wimbledon, outside London, had been the happiest years of her life, she told Franklin. Her aunt Bye (Anna Roosevelt) had attended Marie Souvestre’s school twenty years earlier, and had recommended that Eleanor go there. Mlle. Souvestre’s classes, held in French, were wonderfully stimulating. The Frenchwoman liked Americans, whom she thought more open and less class-bound than the British. Eleanor had become her favorite protégée. During vacations, Eleanor had even traveled with Mlle. Souvestre on the Continent.

Franklin grinned. He had heard the scandalous news that his Hyde Park neighbors, the Newboldts, had come across Eleanor in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, wandering around without a chaperone. The family elders had been horrified.

Eleanor blushed. Mlle. Souvestre was seventy now, and not in the best of health, she explained. Some afternoons, she had wanted to rest and sent Eleanor out by herself, with a guidebook. Moreover, the headmistress, a sophisticated European, did not hide her impatience with the staid conventions of New York society. Eleanor would have given anything to stay at Allenswood another year, but her grandmother would not hear of it. Eleanor was turning eighteen in October, and it was time to come out.

Franklin was about to begin his third year at Harvard. He enjoyed his courses in history, economics, and government, he told Eleanor, but he was happiest in the office of The Harvard Crimson, the campus newspaper. He hoped to be made an assistant managing editor this year. The Crimson played an important role in bringing together the Harvard community, and could exert quite a bit of influence.

His mother had been lonely since his father’s death, but she was keeping herself busy. She managed their estate at Hyde Park, in the Hudson valley, to which they were now returning. For the past two winters she had rented an apartment in Boston, to be closer to Franklin. Last summer, they had traveled together to Europe. They were on the ship home when they heard the news—by megaphone from a passing vessel—that President McKinley was dead.

His mother would be wondering where he was. Would Eleanor like to accompany him to the Pullman car to see her? Eleanor stood up. Only now did Franklin see how tall she had grown. She was five-eleven, just two inches shorter than he was. Her thick golden hair came to her waist, and in her fashionable Paris clothing she looked willowy and graceful. He had been noticing her gentle blue eyes, which had a new sparkle to them. While she was abroad, cousin Eleanor had turned into a lovely young lady.


Eighteen months after her husband’s death, Sara Delano Roosevelt was still wearing a black gown and mourning veil that went from her hat to her ankles. She had become a widow at the age of forty-six. For the rest of her life she would look back nostalgically to those twenty years of happy marriage to James Roosevelt.

It was her friend Anna Roosevelt—known as “Bye”—who had introduced them. Everyone in the family owed so much to Bye. The eldest of the four siblings (Bye, Theodore, Elliott, and Corinne), Bye had severe physical problems—her spine was deformed, and she was almost hunchbacked—but she looked after everybody, was interested in everything, her mind was razor-sharp, she was the stalwart of the family. The life of the party wherever she went, Bye had a frenetic social schedule. It was because she was always running off to another engagement that the family, who once called her “Bamie,” renamed her “Bye.”

In April 1880, Sara Delano and Bye Roosevelt were twenty-five and still single. Sara did not relish the prospect of spinsterhood, but she had little interest in young men her own age, who could not hold a candle to the father she adored. Bye, who everyone said was too busy for marriage, had just turned down a proposal from her cousin James Roosevelt, a fifty-two-year-old widower. But Bye was nevertheless fond of her cousin, and she invited him to a family dinner. Among the guests was Sara Delano—or “Sallie,” as she was known to family and friends.

Most of the evening, James Roosevelt had talked to her. Soon after, he invited Bye, Corinne, and their mother, Martha, to visit his Hyde Park estate, Springwood, adding that he would be delighted if Miss Sallie would accompany them. The women had gone there in early May and stayed a week. During that time, James ventured another proposal.

He was luckier this time. It had not taken Sara long to warm to her suitor. She was flattered by the older man’s interest in her. He was a handsome man, and with his muttonchop whiskers and Old World chivalry, he reminded her of her father. James Roosevelt was wealthy, sufficiently so for it to be clear that he was not pursuing her for her own large fortune. And despite the twenty-seven-year age difference, they had a great deal in common. They both belonged to the Hudson valley landed gentry, who modeled themselves on the British aristocracy, spoke with English-sounding accents, hired French and German governesses and tutors for their children, wintered in Manhattan (two hours away by train), and made annual trips to Europe. The Delano family estate, Algonac, comprised sixty acres of land on the west bank of the river, at Newburgh. Springwood, twenty miles to the north, was set among thirteen hundred acres of meadows, woods, vineyards, and orchards on the east bank, at Hyde Park. Sara’s family descended from French Huguenot nobility (her ancestor, Philippe de Lannoy, was one of the earliest settlers in the Plymouth Colony); James hailed from an illustrious mix of Dutch Roosevelts and Yankee Aspinwalls. His son from his first marriage, James Roosevelt Jr. (“Rosy”), who was just six months younger than Sara, had recently married Helen Schermerhorn Astor, from the fabulously wealthy Astor family.

At first Sara’s father, Warren Delano, was taken aback by the whirlwind romance. But he liked James Roosevelt, a graduate of Harvard Law School, a director of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad, and a respected leader within the Hyde Park community, and was soon telling the family, “James Roosevelt is the first person who has made me realize that a Democrat can be a gentleman.”

The wedding was held at Algonac, on a sunny October day, amid the fall foliage. The couple spent a blissful month at Hyde Park, then sailed off on their European honeymoon. They were away ten months, and when they returned, Sara was four months pregnant. “We have had such happy days,” she wrote in her journal.


Eleanor had always found cousin Sallie intimidating, and on the train that day her mourning attire made her seem even more formidable than usual. She was a handsome, tall woman, with an aloof, regal manner, and a prominent, square jaw that suggested obstinacy. She sat bolt upright, and had a habit of lifting her chin and looking down her nose at people, which made Eleanor feel she was being appraised. “Mrs. James Roosevelt...was sorry for me, I think,” she wrote in her autobiography.


Sara Delano Roosevelt had good reason to feel sorry for Eleanor. She had not seen much of the girl’s family over the years, but she was well aware of their tragedies, one after another. Bye Roosevelt had often confided her worries about her brother, Elliott.

Sara first met Elliott Roosevelt soon after her marriage. In November 1880, she and James were crossing the Atlantic on their honeymoon. Among their fellow passengers on the new White Star liner, the Germanic, was twenty-year-old Elliott, on his way to India, where he was going to hunt big game—elephants and tigers. Like everyone else, Sara and James had found the handsome young man irresistibly charming. When Franklin was born, fourteen months later, they asked Elliott to be a godfather.

At the christening, in March 1882, Elliott, just back from India, cut a dashing figure. With his name, wealth, and good looks, he was one of the most eligible bachelors in New York City. Before long he was courting Anna Livingston Ludlow Hall, an exquisitely beautiful nineteen-year-old from Tivoli on the Hudson, whose family was among the famous “Four Hundred” who constituted the elite of New York Knickerbocker society. When the engagement was announced a year later, Elliott’s siblings were relieved that the “dear old boy” was settling down at last, “with a definite purpose in life.” The wedding, in December 1883, was hailed in the press as “one of the most brilliant social events of the season.”

Ten months later, on October 11, 1884, Anna Eleanor (known as “Eleanor”) came into the world. Sadly, the girl did not appear to have inherited her parents’ good looks, and Anna seemed embarrassed by her. Sara remembered the family coming to Springwood when Eleanor was two. The little girl stood around sucking her thumb, looking solemn and anxious. Anna taunted her, calling her “Granny.” Sara had felt grateful to young Franklin, who crawled around the nursery with his cousin on his back, making her laugh.

All too soon, Sara was hearing troubling stories about Elliott. He had suffered seizures since he was fourteen. The doctors called it “hysteria.” His family called it “Elliott’s weakness.” Because of ill health, he had left school at sixteen. His father sent him to a frontier post in Texas to toughen him up, and Elliott spent a year hunting buffalo. But now another weakness, more serious, was coming to light. Sara supposed it began among the cowboys in the Wild West and grew worse in India, where Elliott fraternized with hard-drinking young aristocrats from Europe and America. There was no longer any hiding the fact that Elliott was an alcoholic.

Elliott could not settle down to married life, or, it seemed, to anything else. He talked about writing up his India stories (his elder brother had already written several books); he talked about entering Republican politics, like Theodore. Instead he spent whole days drinking with friends at the exclusive Knickerbocker Club, on Fifth Avenue. He was often away—riding to the hounds, playing polo, and partying with friends. When he broke his leg in a riding accident, he took morphine and laudanum for the pain, and after that he was addicted to opiates.

In March 1889, Anna gave birth to a son. They named the boy after his father, calling him “Ellie.” But it was around this time that the family star...

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