The President, the cousin he was having an affair with, the cousin he was married to, and her girlfriend

Michael Rogin

  • Secret Affairs: Franklin Roosevelt, Cordell Hull and Sumner Welles by Irwin Gellman
    Johns Hopkins, 499 pp, $29.95, April 1995, ISBN 0 8018 5083 5
  • Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley edited by Geoffrey Ward
    Houghton Mifflin, 444 pp, $24.95, April 1995, ISBN 0 395 66080 7
  • No Ordinary Time. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War Two by Doris Kearns Goodwin
    Simon and Schuster, 759 pp, £18.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 671 64240 5
  • The End of Reform by Alan Brinkley
    Knopf, 371 pp, $27.50, March 1995, ISBN 0 394 53573 1

On a drive through the family estate in 1935, the married President, Franklin Roosevelt, starts up a romance with his cousin. The two imagine moving after he leaves office into a cottage he is planning to build on what they affectionately call ‘Our Hill’. The President’s secretary, who lives at the White House (and has lived with the President since he was Governor of New York), thinks her boss will be moving into the cottage with her. The President’s wife, another cousin, stays in her own fieldstone cottage on the estate when she is there without her husband. At his Inauguration she wore the ring given to her by the woman with whom she is in love, the woman she will later install in a White House bedroom across from her own. The First Lady’s passionate attachment to her woman friend has cooled, however, supplanted by her feelings for a radical student leader young enough to be her son. When the President’s wife meets her young man at a Chicago hotel during his furlough from the Army, the Counter-Intelligence Corps bugs their adjoining rooms; video technology would have provided pictures of her stroking his forehead while he slept.

The President and First Lady have not lived together as man and wife since she discovered his affair with her social secretary years before they moved to the White House. To save his marriage, inheritance and political career, the future President promised he would never see his lover again. After his own secretary suffered a debilitating stroke, however, he enlisted his daughter (also resident at the White House and the one of their five children closest to his wife) in surreptitious arrangements to meet his onetime lover. The President and his old flame took drives in the countryside together. She dined at the White House when his wife was away on her many travels around the United States. On one of the President’s own train trips from the capital to the West Coast, he invited his country cousin along. She also slept at the White House and stayed with the President at his ‘little White House’ in the South. A believer in numerology and miracle cures, the cousin had the ailing, paralysed President treated by a quack who promised not only to cure the internal afflictions of the head of state but also to have him walking again.

The cousin developed a warm friendship with the President’s first lover; the two women were sitting with the President when he spoke his now famous last words; ‘I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.’ The President had made his dog, Fala, a household word when his joke about Republican attacks on the pet revived his flagging final campaign and dispelled rumours that he was sick and no longer in command. Fala was a gift from the President’s cousin. His will bequeathed her the dog, to his widow’s dismay, and her children had to ask for Fala’s return.

The President’s closest State Department adviser, who lived in a replica of a colonial plantation mansion he had built with his immensely wealthy wife, made overtures to black sleeping-car porters when he had had too much to drink. The Secretary of State, jealous of the special relationship between the President and his own subordinate, was himself secretly ill with an advanced case of tuberculosis that incapacitated him for weeks at a time and left his rival in control of the State Department. Increasingly obsessed by a journalist’s attacks which he imagined his competitor had orchestrated, the Secretary of State used the threat of exposing the Under-Secretary’s homosexuality to drive him from office. The President’s own closest friend and adviser, who also lived at the White House, was malnourished and chronically hospitalised from the effects of stomach cancer. Long-paralysed from the waist down by polio and weakened by a soon-to-be-fatal heart condition, the President made key decisions that affected the conduct of the world war and the shape of the postwar world; these were the men who advised him.

Have the Sun and the National Enquirer, uninvited guests at the party, spoiled the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt’s death? Secret Affairs (the story of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Under-Secretary Sumner Welles, Franklin Roosevelt and the making of New Deal foreign policy). Closest Companion (Margaret Suckley’s diary and the letters she exchanged with her cousin Franklin Roosevelt, found and edited by Geoffrey Ward) and No Ordinary Time (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the home front during World War Two) are products of the current obsession with the private lives of public figures. But the books about the President’s women are written in the opposite spirit from the one about the President’s men. Letting the skeletons out of the Roosevelt family closet turns these ‘CPs’(‘Certain Person’ was the code term of affection between Margaret Suckley and FDR) into appealing flesh and blood. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s effort to redeem the Roosevelt marriage was written in entire ignorance of Franklin’s secret affair with his Suckley cousin. But to imagine that the special bond between ‘Daisy’ and ‘F.’ will discredit No Ordinary Time is to get that volume exactly wrong, for its author would have loved to add Daisy to the White House extended family, the ‘intimate hotel’ of residents whose ‘lives revolved around the President and First Lady’.

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