Franklin and Eleanor: The Chasm

Young Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a 5th cousin to Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Commonalities of Childhood

Descended from Dutch ancestors slightly post-Mayflower, both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelts were New York Knickerbockers, an aristocratic old-line status.

Both Franklin (1882-1945) and Eleanor (1883-1961) came from wealthy and privileged families: Franklin from the Hyde Park-Hudson River branch, Eleanor, from the New York City branch. But past the name, rank and bank accounts, there was little commonality.

young FDR

Young Franklin Roosevelt

Franklin was the only child of the second marriage of his much older father. His doting mother doted, and most of his youth was spent in adult company. He developed a self-assured and outgoing personality.

young eleanor

Young Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor’s father Elliott, was the younger brother of Theodore, man-on-the-rise. Her mother was a well-born but remote socialite who died when Eleanor was eight. Elliott, a hopeless alcoholic, died when she was ten. Raised by a somewhat dotty maternal grandmother, Eleanor had a desolate and lonely childhood. She was shy, withdrawn and lacking in confidence.

But both were intelligent, well-educated, and raised according to the late Victorian social conventions.

Franklin and Eleanor: The Early Years

The distant family connections between the Roosevelt branches precluded close or frequent contact (although young Elliott stood godfather to infant Franklin). But when Franklin was studying at Harvard, and Eleanor, having made her obligatory society debut, was volunteering her time at a settlement house on New York’s Lower East Side, they met by chance, and recognized each other from a previous gathering.

They became friends from the start, finding commonalities of character, interest and the qualities both had hidden beneath the superficialities. They fell in love.

Sara Delano Roosevelt was a doting mother.

By this time, Franklin’s father had died, and his mother was less than enthusiastic about an early marriage. She was also disapproving of Eleanor: physically plain, inward, and her inheritance (while substantial) was inadequate for Sara Delano. She made several attempts to maneuver out-of-sight to connect with out-of-mind.

It didn’t work. They maintained their relationship, and married in 1905. Uncle Theodore, now the Republican POTUS, gave the bride away.

The growing differences between their personalities was apparent early on. Franklin was naturally outgoing and accommodating, happy to live the life of ease that he had been born to. He became a lawyer, but coasted lackadaisically through junior level duties – for five years.

The young Roosevelt family

Meanwhile Eleanor, the dutiful wife, bore six children in the first ten years of marriage. One died. Her opportunities, other than the conventions of the wealthy, were limited. And boring.

Then too, they lived either with or very close to Sara Delano Roosevelt, her formidable mother-in-law. That included relinquishing household management and child-raising. Household duties can easily be done by others, and Eleanor’s maternal instincts were not as well-developed as Sara’s. “Granny,” by her own admission, raised the children; Eleanor “merely bore them.” Eleanor became resentful, and withdrew even more.

In 1911 things changed. FDR, a diffident attorney, had been recruited as a candidate for the New York State Senate – on the Democratic ticket. With “Uncle” Theodore’s blessing, he leaped at the opportunity, won, and discovered his true calling: politics. His wife shared the interest, insights, and their mutual amusement at Sara’s disdain.

Taking an active part on behalf of Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election (again with Uncle Theodore’s blessing), he earned himself a position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy when Wilson won. It was a post held 25 years earlier by TR.

They moved to Washington, DC. Without Sara.

The Widening Chasm

Lucy Mercer

While FDR (as he was beginning to be called) slipped easily into his new role, Eleanor was still at loose ends. She was expected to pay and receive social calls, which she considered a pointless waste of time. But her schedule was filled with so many obligatory activities that a part-time social secretary was engaged.

Meanwhile, according to their eldest son James many years later, after their youngest son was born in early 1916, and having done her duty in the procreation department, Eleanor announced that she did not want any more children.

In 1916, birth control was controversial – and even taboo. It had originally been encouraged for those who could not afford the children, let alone the mothers whose health and strength were ebbing quickly. Eleanor was not in that category. Finances were never a problem.

But Eleanor was a conventional woman – then. If a woman did not want children, the only solution was separate rooms, sometimes with a lock on the door.

The Roosevelt family

They were still young. FDR was 34; Eleanor not quite 33. She apparently did not care about the physical intimacy. He, perhaps, felt the void.

Her happiest times were at their summer house on Campobello Island. It was hers to run, sans Sara. FDR joined them from time to time when his duties in Washington permitted. Nevertheless, he was always the “fun” parent; she, the dependable one.

The Chasm Erodes

When the War in Europe (WWI) began, and with a half dozen servants to tend to their house and the babies, Eleanor began volunteering some time via her one true-love: being useful. She made sandwiches and poured coffee for departing doughboys, and later assumed management for some of the Red Cross stations. She found it far more fulfilling than the mundane and useless day-to-day social activities she hated but where he was comfortable.

The chasm had been there for a long time. Whether or not they were consciously aware of it, Franklin and Eleanor had grown apart.  The lifestyle he enjoyed, she loathed. Her social secretary, Lucy Mercer, still in her early twenties, was pretty, well born, and trained to societal conventions.

Lucy was enchanted by the charming and handsome FDR; he found the young woman an engaging escort when Eleanor was out of town.

It was most likely unintentional, but they fell in love.





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