In Franklin and Lucy, acclaimed author and historian Joseph E. Persico explores FDR's romance with Lucy Rutherfurd (which was far deeper and lasted much longer than was previously acknowledged). Persico also shows how FDR's infidelity as a husband contributed to Eleanor's eventual transformation from a repressed Victorian to perhaps the greatest American woman of her century; how the shaping hand of FDR's strong-willed mother helped to imbue him with the resolve to overcome personal and public adversity throughout his life; and how other women around FDR, including his "surrogate spouse," Missy LeHand, and his close confidante, the obscure Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, completed the world that he inhabited.--From amazon.com.
The title of this book, Franklin and Lucy, is a bit misleading. Although it was prompted by the recent discovery of letters establishing that Roosevelt and his lady-love, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, were in communication during a long period of time when it had previously been thought that their relationship had ended, it is not primarily about their connection. I believe I Iearned more of interest about FDR’s dependence on his mother, Eleanor’s coping mechanisms, and the Eleanor/FDR marriage, than I did about the love affair with Lucy. I found myself disliking the man, pitying his wife, and wondering about the magnetism that bound so many women to him.
It is no secret by now that throughout his presidency, Franklin Roosevelt was “involved” with women other than his wife. He was a strikingly handsome young man, and before being stricken with polio in 1921, a very athletic one as well. He was always attractive to -- and attracted by-- women, and that did not stop when he became confined to a wheelchair. He clearly had a dynamic personality that made him irresistible to certain women, even when he treated them in a cavalier manner, as he often seemed to do. It is no surprise, either, that his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, was a dominant influence in most all aspects of his life, with the singular exception of his decision to marry distant cousin Eleanor. Nevertheless, Persico’s treatment of these and other relationships in FDR’s life is insightful, and takes the reader a bit deeper into the territory than anyone I have read before. It also treats extensively of Eleanor's own emotional attachments to various men and women who came in and out of her life over the years.
Persico makes much of Eleanor Roosevelt’s shock and disappointment upon finding letters to her husband which eliminated any doubt about his extra-marital liaison with her former social secretary. (Earlier, suspecting too much chemistry between FDR and Lucy Mercer, Eleanor had fired Lucy under pretense of economizing, only to find her employed in Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt’s office in the blink of an eye.) Although Eleanor offered Franklin a divorce at that point, and he was quite inclined to accept, his mother emphatically refused to allow it. Roosevelts did not get divorced, in any case, and it would be tantamount to political suicide for Franklin at the time. Sara controlled the bank accounts; Franklin and Eleanor saw reason. It is sobering to contemplate what the second half of the 20th century might have been like if FDR had put his personal happiness ahead of his ambition in 1918 by divorcing his wife and marrying Lucy Mercer.
If you’re looking for an analysis of Roosevelt as a politician, a world leader, or a President, this book won’t give it to you. If you’d like a more personal perspective, it’s rich with material and well worth reading.
With the private lives of current political figures laid bare in real time, it is hard to imagine a time when word of the titillating extra-marital affairs of two such prominent individuals would not be openly acknowledged in print for some years. In the case of the President, many individuals would be involved in facilitating his clandestine meetings with the charming Lucy Rutherfurd, and yet all involved protected the two.
While many books, lacking hard evidence, tiptoe around the issue of how far Franklin and Eleanor went in their affairs, Joseph Persico poses the common-sense thesis, "If we grant that Franklin Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer (Rutherfurd) were driven by the same impulses that rule other human beings, how would two people finding themselves in their situation likely have behaved?" Or, "What do a thirty-five-year-old man who has sired six children and a twenty-six year-old woman who is madly in love with him do when, by chance or design, they find themselves alone?" He follows the same reasoning with Franklin's association with Missy LeHand, his secretary, who spent time alone with Franklin on a houseboat and was almost inseparable from him for many years.
With Eleanor, also, Persico believes her relationship with Lorena Hickok was physical. Persico quotes a particularly incriminating letter from Eleanor after the two spent a weekend together in Warm Springs, GA. "Dearest, it was a lovely weekend...Each time we have together that (underlined) way--brings us closer, doesn't it?" Lorena as well as two other close friends of Eleanor were known lesbians. But Eleanor also had strange, strong relationships with men throughout her married life, including a state trooper who was her bodyguard for a time.
Persico documents all of these relationships on both sides with thorough research--diaries, letters, records, other biographies and discussions with descendants of the Roosevelt and Rutherfurd families. He uses Eleanor's dinner guest list, the daily log kept of Roosevelt's guests at the White House and his telephone callers as well as new letters found in 2005 which were sent by the President to Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd during the period of her marriage to Rutherfurd.
Persico takes a very forgiving view of the principle characters in this drama. However, following the great divide in Eleanor and Franklin's marriage, precipitated early on by Eleanor's discovery of some of Lucy's love letters to Franklin, we watch the sad battering of lives that results. Eleanor is devastated and takes refuge in her obsessive attachments. Missy, Lucy and Roosevelt's other loves find grief in having only partial or intermittent pieces of his affections. The defense raised by some that Roosevelt was an important man in a difficult job and needed to be entertained and indulged by uncritical, idolizing women in order to accomplish a pivotal task in history, does not balance the emotional ruin and pain he so carelessly inflicted on those who loved him best.
Nevertheless, Franklin and Lucy is a well-written and entertaining book. The well-documented research gives credibility to his thesis on the nature of the relationships of Franklin and Eleanor and gives further insight into their extraordinary lives.
But FDR’s golden aura obfuscates the complexity of his real life, his missteps and confusions, his deceits and his pains. We see something larger than life in FDR, a giant of a soul unyielding against significant physical disability and guiding a country at a violent crossroads. But what Joseph Persico gives us in “Frankin and Lucy” is not a formal story of the presidency. It’s a messier, sometimes tragic and maddening, look at the man, and the women who shaped him.
But before bringing in the ladies, Persico must chip away at the happy lore of FDR as magnanimous hero. In his early life, see, Roosevelt is jarringly unlikeable. Persico labels him a “Little Lord Fauntleroy” type, infantile and shapeless under the weight of his overbearing mother, Sara Delano. With his English-sounding accent and exclusive private school background, his golden mane and his conflict-free childhood, FDR at first seems effete and blank.
If his early life is meaningless, FDR as Harvard brat is a more deplorable character. Seemingly unburdened by any real personality, Roosevelt spent his college years joining social clubs and tippling with chums. Flirty, shallow, dandified, brutishly unaffected by anything suggesting emotion--and prone to fabrication.
FDR lied, indeed. He lied about scooping a big story at the Harvard Crimson, which led to glory for him and the newspaper. He lied about affairs. Later, he lied about his involvement in an anti-homosexual sting operation in 1920. For pleasure he requisitioned Navy ships and sailed them to his summer getaway, mistress and entire crew in tow.
By the time Persico introduces the women who will have vast influence on the rest of FDR’s life, it’s easy to feel ambivalent about the guy. Persico is impeccably aware of this. Initially he brushes off some of FDR’s shortcomings, like his tall tales, calling them “... quintessential Roosevelt, not quite dishonest, but an improvement on the truth that he persuaded himself was fact.”
But Persico is not negligent. He knows that the questions of morality are stuck in the craw of the book for its entire length, and will eventually circle back elegantly and readdress the ethical conundrums.
Persico shows us Eleanor Roosevelt: a sad, orphaned, homely, noble, pathetic, ultimately-triumphant (but always misunderstood) character who veers in and out of FDR’s inner world. We meet Lucy (though FDR doesn’t until page 83, despite her serving as the book’s namesake), and Persico can say nothing bad about her, though his descriptions of her character initially lack much dimension.
She’s good, we hear. She’s lovely and charming and keeps Roosevelt in stitches (unlike stodgy, diffident wife Eleanor). Their affair (a foregone thing from the beginning of the book) is portrayed as desperate and passion-driven, hopeless but honorable.
For readers steeped our this particular modern American culture, with monogamy and fidelity apotheosized above most any virtue, FDR’s waywardness in romance is almost painful to read. And, though it would seem that the era in which this all occurred would be the one to suck in its breath, prudishly, with shock at his dalliances, it’s the modern context in which we shake our heads sadly.
The web expands. Other women: Missy LeHand, Dorothy Schiff, Daisy Stuckley. Some stand-in secretary-wives, others touchstones of stability.
And then, after faith in his inherent decency has been wearied: we see the president pummeled on all levels by polio, storming back at it with ferocity. Here is where FDR is truly born, where the women in his life integrate influences into a bolder character for him to bring into his greatest times of public service. Suddenly, he’s someone intriguing.
The women support, type, mull over, encourage and prod the crippled Roosevelt. They love and are ignored, often. The polio gave him something abstract to beat against. A needed hurdle. Adversity and the support of those close to him gave him the personal depth to be the president we know.
Through unflinching looks at the Roosevelts’ most intimate moments, their miseries and their betrayals, Persico will make you re-evaluate the relative import of personal foibles in the face of civic duty. We are asked to separate our personal moral convictions from those relevant to the American community--a conflict that has resurfaced, repeatedly, in recent history.
What Persico does with grace is to confuse us, charging us to reconsider. No longer is it clear who is right and wrong in FDR’s inner sanctum. Adultery, love, missed connections, lost letters, loneliness. The metamorphosis of a peevish youth of questionable depth and minimal personality into the transcendent, multi-layered man of history. Aching sacrifices of truth and love. Persico gives us this complex personal journey, with redemption, in a well-crafted story of love, longing, women and the FDR we thought we knew.
Joseph E. Persico's gentle and compassionate telling of the secrets and intimate details of President and Mrs. Roosevelt's and Lucy Mercer Rutherford's private lives cannot fail to rivet the reader to the very palm of his hand.
Persico leaves nothing to the imagination, yet does so in a fair and unobtrusive manner leaving his readers with tremendous respect for the President, Eleanor and Lucy.
The contents of the entire book are brilliantly constructed. The loyalty of those around each of these bigger-than-life persons, both family, friends and staff, is astonishing. The closing chapters are filled with the emotion which each person must have actually felt at the time it was occurring, leaving us teary-eyed and wanting to know more about these remarkable people.
"Franklin and Lucy" cries out to be immortalized unedited on the silver screen with the credits running on a split screen at the end, with the speakers in the last two chapters adding their reverential comments for a country who was privileged to have glimpsed the inside lives of three of our most courageous citizens.
The author’s commitment to objectivity first falters when he allows his desire to psychoanalyze these characters’ motivations to take over this work. Too often there is mention of Eleanor’s low self image and her need for love caused by the loss of her parents at a young age. Similarly, FDR’s dominating mother is often woven into the narrative as an excuse or an explanation for his actions. This need to rationalize all actions with anecdotes from childhood detracts from the text, albeit only slightly. The only other repeated debasement is the constant need to discuss the recurring question of whether or not any of the affairs outlined were ever consummated. By sinking to philosophizing on the physical tabloid gossip, Persico obscures the story of love in all its forms that he otherwise illuminates with great sophistication in the lives of these historical heroes.
But the true injustice lies in the title of this book. This is not just the story of "Franklin and Lucy" but a compilation of the many loves of Franklin, Eleanor, and Lucy. Perhaps a more fitting title would have been "The Roosevelts: the Women They Loved, and the Women Who Loved Them." It is through the interconnectedness of all the relationships featured in the book that one begins to feel they have entered the private world of these great public figures. Ultimately this text humanizes the Roosevelts, but it does so in a way that allows the humanity of these heroes to increase their stature.
That being said, it is a fun book to read. It's great as a social history of an era, an amazing study of character and personal choices, particularly the depth of detail the author goes into with FDR's paralysis after his polio attack. The book chronicles many affairs he allegedly had over the decades, and the damage they did to Eleanor's psyche. Lucy always remains a bit of a mystery, especially because none of her letters survived so her voice can't be heard, and the author uses her elusiveness to stand in for her allure.
The author probably never intended anyone to say this about his book, and wouldn't even know what I was talking about anyway, but this book is a lot like the HBO series Entourage. Both, in addition to being titillating, are really good instructions for women on how to behave around powerful men. Both teach women to never be demanding, except by asking their big strong lovers for help in ego-boosting ways, and to always listen, to always greet their men like gods, to never bore their men or wear them down with stories about themselves, to find their men handsome and charming, hilarious and intimidating, and to service their every need and vanity. And most importantly - to go away when they are not convenient and pick up exactly where they left off when men want to reach back in time and embrace the lovers of their youth to feel young again themselves, like Lucy did for Franklin. Ick!
According to the author, Eleanor always wanted Franklin to show some interest in her pet causes, always disturbed him with talk of work at breakfast and cocktail hour, and often browbeat him into working on something the moment she mentioned it instead of later. He casts her as a villain for putting the country's affairs before her husband's and trying to get him to do things instead of just serving him. It's pretty disgusting to read, actually, so I clearly don't have what it takes to be a presidential mistress myself, but it's fascinating to know what Not To Do in a marriage to a self-important man.
An exception to this is the formidable Eleanor. She is by far the most interesting character in the book. I was amused, however, by the author's constant insistence that ER could never, never have been physically intimate with any of the men or women in her life. After a while, it became almost a running joke - FDR remains vigorous until his dying day, while Eleanor becomes more and more frosty.
Overall, this book is a nice introduction to FDR and ER. It's a fairly easy and quick read. I just didn't find it particularly memorable, and I think the author protests a bit much about ER's personal life.
Nor was Lucy Mercer the only important woman in his life. Obviously, there was Eleanor, an extraordinary woman who, we learn, did not much enjoy sex with men (at least not with Franklin) and who did not satisfy his sexual desires. Missy LeHand, his devoted and longtime secretary, apparently served needs and desires other than shorthand and typing. Toss in a Norwegian princess and perhaps a few other dalliances, and we have a pretty complete list of his sexual experiences.
Persico properly points out that the woman who may have influenced Roosevelt most was Sara, his doting mother, who provided him an extremely privileged upbringing which gave him the extraordinary self confidence that was his hallmark. His mother's domineering probably interfered with his relationship with Eleanor significantly, driving the married couple apart. However, once Eleanor discovered Franklin's affair with Lucy, Sara argued strongly against a divorce--after all, it would have ruined FDR's political career.
Persico raises, but is unable to answer, the frustrating question of what drove handsome, charming, and rich Franklin to pursue homely, awkward, (but quite rich) Eleanor in the first place. In any event, the fact that they were not happily married may have given both of them extra incentive to find satisfaction in other milieus. It seems only natural that they would have found some romance in other relationships.
Although the book is entitled "Franklin and Lucy," it is almost as much about Eleanor as it is about Franklin. We find that she had at least one long term lesbian relationship and possibly a fling with a young, virile policeman when she was in her 50's.
Persico vividly describes the times in which the protagonists lived and the extraordinary wealth and privilege of their families. Impressively, both Franklin and Eleanor pursued remarkably active careers rather than simply enjoying the easy life of country squires. Persico speculates convincingly that their characters were annealed by the physical and emotional hardships they overcame.
The Roosevelts lived in a time when secrets could be kept from the general public. In fact, FDR successfully kept his debilitated physical condition from most voters. Imagine how today's voracious media and Republican party would play up a president's affair or a first lady's same sex relationship.
This book is very well written and thoroughly researched. I gave it only 4 stars instead of 5 because of its limited scope. Although interesting for its insights into the psychology that drove the Roosevelts, this perspective (interpersonal and romantic interaction) doesn't interest me as much (or seem as important as) the political, military, or economic issues of the day.
Objection from JAF (wife of JAB) to paragraph 4: why would Franklin marry "homely, awkward" Eleanor? Maybe she had more depth and intellectual acuity than women more fixated on their appearances. Maybe she could be a spiritual companion to Franklin even if he were too shallow to eschew liaisons with attractive women who flattered his ego. Eleanor was one of the most humane and courageous figures of the 20th century. Maybe Franklin married her because he got lucky!!!
Is it just our presidents that engaged in this life style?
A fascinating read that explained the history of his illness.
Joseph Persico, the author of this book, does a great job using narrative and sources to tell the stories of FDR, Eleanor and the women in their lives, including the infamous Lucy Rutherford. This book could have easily fallen into the category of Tabloid Nonfiction, but instead, Persico uses letters and other accounts to piece together the various stories -- he does not dive into the rumors of history. Furthermore, he also avoids falling into the scheme of soap opera fiction -- the historical characters are real and at least in my eyes, sympathetic.
The only weakness I found was the title -- the book was simply about more than Franklin and Lucy. Other family members, including Eleanor, often took center stage leaving both Franklin and Lucy as mere supporting players.
All in all, this is one book I would recommend -- especially to those who enjoy biographies and American history.
I have only read a couple of other books on Franklin Roosevelt but this gave me a good feel for the many challenges he faced and how he handled them.
I probably learned more about FDR's sex life than I cared to know, though it's no competition, in the writing, for a modern novel. Persico gives that information to help complete the portrait of the man. I appreciated that he would make statements to the effect of We can't know for certain what went on behind closed doors, when pointing out logical speculation.
The primary focus of the book is, as the title suggests, about FDR's affair with Lucy Rutherfurd. While I can't go so far as to condone his affairs, by the end of the book, I'm aware of enough to see FDR as human and to understand him better. Of all the women described in the book, I felt that Lucy perhaps was the most elusive, however. The perspective is more of how this love affair affected the life, marriage and politics of FDR.
The woman most clearly presented, not surprisingly, is Eleanor Roosevelt. I knew only a little more about her than about FDR, prior to reading this book. For the first time I see her as a woman, a human being, rather than just a social figure. Although I came to understand FDR, I felt most for Eleanor (which may or may not be simple gender identification). The tensions and problems in their marriage were as much her fault as his and any blame comes out so equally that, even though I feel most for her, I can't dislike Franklin, Lucy or any of the other women mentioned. His mother, who tried to be far too involved in his personal life, marriage and even politics (the one area in which she seemed to have the least direct impact) was easier to dislike, but even she was not totally unlikable.
This book left me with a desire to read more. I want to know more about Eleanor Roosevelt and more about the first half of the 20th century. I may or may not look specifically for books about FDR, but I certainly won't think "boring" the next time I see one.
Mr. Persico begins with accounts of both Franklin Roosevelt's and Eleanor Roosevelt's early years, up-bringings, and family backgrounds. These facts are vital to the understanding of the resulting marriage which becomes a powerful political partnership but does not become a love affair of the century. He continues to explain President Roosevelt's handicaps fully without appealing to purient interests. The central point of his book is to say that President Roosevelt had to be surrounded by women who adored him and provided him relaxation, companionship, and love when he was able to take breaks from his hugely demanding public role. Mr. Persico provides enough detail so that each of the women involved, and particularly Lucy Rutherfurd, can be understood and appreciated.
I think it is needless for me to state that I very much enjoyed reading the book and come away with affection and appreciation for all the people involved. Perhaps not every reader will have this reaction due to previous judgments about the era and this president however I recommend any one interesting even slightly should at a minimum take a good look at the book before deciding not to read it. I hope most of you will read it and enjoy it as much as I did.
Whatever your feelings are about Franklin's personal life, he was good for this country at a time when a leader with solutions to problems was needed. I asked my mother if she remembered Roosevelt and she said yes, that he was a strong, good looking man. I reminded her that he had polio and was in a wheelchair most of his adult life. She said that you didn't think of it when you saw him or heard him speak.
Eleanor was made of strong stuff, indeed, to survive life with Franklin's mother. How did she ever put up with such a meddlesome woman?
I was surprised at how quickly I was able to finish the book, given its length. The book was difficult to put down and I was up several nights later than I should have been.
October 5 2009
With so many books available on this topic, I wondered what new information Joseph Persico would provide. I was happily surprised by the result. The book is filled with interesting stories that have been overlooked by other authors focusing on FDR's life.
Let's explore three elements that make this book particularly effective.
First, the conversational approach made the book read more like a novel than a word of nonfiction. Persico's writing style made the book easy and enjoyable reading.
Second, the broader focus on the women in Franklin's life provided different perspectives than is often found in books about FDR. I'd recommend changing the title to Franklin and his Remarkable Women because Lucy is only one of many women in Franklin's life.
Third, Persico did an outstanding job making the players in Franklin's life feel multidimensional. Rather than whitewashing unpleasant aspects their lives or promoting the scandalous elements, the author finds the humanity in each character.
Franklin and Lucy is an excellent addition to the many wonderful works related to FDR and the women around him.
In the end though I felt an enormous sympathy with his wife, Eleanor, and hope she understood that a man of Franklin's ego requires that sort of adoration from many and it had nothing, really, to do with her.
Reading Joseph Persico's 'Franklin and Lucy' invited me into a circle of the Roosevelts' acquaintances, friends, family, and hangers-on. I felt as if I were visiting each character, attentively listening as he or she related the role played, the relationship imagined or manifested, and observations of other players in the lives of these two great people. In these many visits and conversations, certain facts were repeated once or twice, as experienced by different people. At first I found this a bit annoying, but chose to see the repetition as an emphasis of specific information, reflecting on the character of subject.
Perhaps Eleanor gave the best description of herself and of her husband when she wrote, "You build a facade for everyone to see and you live separately inside the facade." Because a person doesn't emotionally react to rumors, vile comments, or a philandering husband, doesn't ignore the depth of pain on the inside. Yet Eleanor chose to live behind the facade and stay her path.
Franklin Roosevelt, born with gifts of wealth, status, and apparently an undeniable magnetism and charm, used all his 'inheritance' to fulfill his political plans and sexual needs - but all on his terms.
With all the false names, paramours, back roads, secrets, and clandestine meetings, Persico avoids a seamy web and straight-forwardly presents a well documented and very human portrait of the Roosevelt relationship.
On a side note, as a library worker, I appreciate that in his acknowledgements, Mr. Persico specifically thanks the many libraries and staff. I also appreciated the keyed notes to primary and secondary references. sage Feb. 28, 2009
I find it fascinating how the childhoods of presidents and first ladies effect the way they govern the people. The backgrounds of both FDR and Eleanor are fascinating. I also quite enjoyed learning more about Lucy Rutherford's background as well.
I prefer that history celebrate the whole person. This book does not paint anyone in a positive light, rather it shows the people for who they were, flawed or not.
Writing on a president's "other" women, an author can fall into several tempting mistakes. One is presenting hear-say and innuendo as fact. Typically, these have no place in serious historical writing, but given the subject matter, it is appropriately included. Persico does a fine job presenting these rumors, feelings and notions exactly as they are: inconclusive, but persistent. He is also careful to include his sources, a refreshing practice lately. My understanding of FDR and his relationships with the women around him is fuller after finishing this book. The title, which may not be Persico's choice, is misleading. Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd occupies little of the text, but remains a compelling figure throughout, providing a common link outside of Eleanor to the different phases of FDR's life. The second common mistake historians make writing these types of books is allowing the text to run in the gutter. A recent example being Ellis' American Sphinx which took opportunities to discuss not only sexual relationships, but in what way they could be conducted. I did have one pet-peeve with the book: the persistent description of FDR's body as virile, lithe, etc. Persico can be partially forgiven, as many readers think of FDR as the old man at Yalta, not the active sailor and golfer he was before polio paralyzed his body. Another thing I would have liked included are photos of the highly influential yet publicly unknown people mentioned, like Louis Howe and Lorena Hickock. Perhaps this will be remedied in the trade edition.
If you are interested in the influences women had on FDR, or interested in the complexities of the FDR-Eleanor Roosevelt marriage, this is an excellent exploration. Persico is concise but does not shy from detail, intimate but not gossipy or lurid. Top-notch historical writing.