18 Jun ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, A REMARKABLE BUT PARADOXICAL FIRST LADY
MRS. ROOSEVELT EXPANDED THE PERSONA OF THE AMERICAN FIRST LADY IN REMARKABLE WAYS, BUT PARADOXICALLY LEFT UNFULFILLED ITS IMPORTANT TRADITIONAL ROLE – THE COMFORT AND PERSONAL SUPPORT OF THE PRESIDENT, HER HUSBAND.
In 1918, Eleanor Roosevelt, who had borne her husband Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) five children, accidentally uncovered evidence of an ongoing two-year love affair between FDR and Lucy Mercer. Mrs. Roosevelt justifiably felt betrayed, not only by her husband, but also by Mercer who had worked as her social secretary. A divorce was out of the question in the political climate of the time. Eleanor remained FDR’s wife, but disillusioned by marriage, she discarded both sexual and emotional intimacy during the remaining twenty-seven years of their marriage.
Mrs. Roosevelt independently taught, lectured, wrote newspaper columns, and traveled widely in support of the needs of the downtrodden, women, and black Americans. In her free time, she managed a custom furniture factory with her two lesbian friends. Her political activities significantly increased after she became First Lady.
FDR and Eleanor “were, in the White House years, consorts rather than bosom companions. Her relationship to him was less intimate than some wives had with their husbands after three decades of marriage.” (1) “The Roosevelts were more political partners than husband and wife. Eleanor Roosevelt’s bitterness over FDR’s wartime (World War I) dalliance with Lucy Mercer…was the catalyst for their having decided to sleep — and for the most part, live — apart.” (2). Partly as a result of his wife’s conjugal and comforting inattention, FDR was a very lonely man while he faced the international and domestic crises of his long presidency (1933-1945).
Yet, this First Lady was aware of the responsibilities of her position. “The domestic side of running the White House was left to Eleanor. She issued the social invitations, planned the family reunions and parties, saw to it that none of their friends were overlooked. She was responsible for the housekeeping.” (3)
In later years, Eleanor expressed her chagrin over her emotional estrangement from her husband. “That I was never able to be (uncritical), and he had to find it in other people.” And he did — with Missy LeHand, Crown Princess Martha of Norway, his daughter Anna, Daisy Suckley, and at the end with Lucy Mercer. (4)
The following series of posts will explore the nature of Mrs. Roosevelt’s role as the nation’s longest serving First Lady. Future posts will discuss in detail the roles of the women listed above, and whether any might legitimately be called a Surrogate First Lady.
1, 3: Joseph Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1971).
2, 4: Geoffrey C. Ward, editor, Closest Companion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945)