FDR Marriage - History

FDR Marriage - History

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Franklin and Eleanor

Being distant cousins, Franklin and Eleanor had known each other their whole lives. In 1903 their friendship blossomed into romance. Sara attempted unsuccessfully to delay their marriage. They were married on March 17, 1905 with President Theodore Roosevelt giving away the bride. After a short delay for Franklin's law exams, the bride and groom left for a three-month honeymoon.

The Roosevelt's sailed to Europe on June 7, 1905 aboard the White Star liner Oceanic. On their arrival in London they stayed at the fashionable hotel the Browns. From London the Roosevelt's went on to Paris. There, they fully explored the city, with Eleanor complaining in her autobiography Franklin" I bought clothes and some prints, but Franklin bought books, books, everywhere he went." From Paris they went to Italy, first visiting Milan and then they went on to Venice. From there they went North to the Alps. Eleanor was not much of a climber so Franklin climbed with a woman a few years his senior named Miss Kitty Gandy. Eleanor wrote in her Autobiography "though I never said a word, I was jealous beyond description and perfectly delighted when we started off again and drove out of the mountains." From Switzerland, the Roosevelt's returned to Paris, and then on to Great Britain, where they visited Scotland. They returned in time for Franklin to begin his term at law school.

On their return from Europe, they moved into a house in Manhattan next door to Sara. Roosevelt's marriage produced five children. The nature of his marriage was never the same after Eleanor discovered, in 1920, his affair with Lucy Mercer.

Eleanor Roosevelt

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), the U.S. president from 1933 to 1945, was a leader in her own right and involved in numerous humanitarian causes throughout her life. The niece of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), Eleanor was born into a wealthy New York family. She married Franklin Roosevelt, her fifth cousin once removed, in 1905. By the 1920s, Roosevelt, who raised five children, was involved in Democratic Party politics and numerous social reform organizations. In the White House, she was one of the most active first ladies in history and worked for political, racial and social justice. After President Roosevelt’s death, Eleanor was a delegate to the United Nations and continued to serve as an advocate for a wide range of human rights issues. She remained active in Democratic causes and was a prolific writer until her death at age 78.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Wedding

The bride and groom were both surnamed Roosevelt and the marriage united two branches of the family, comfortably moneyed and settled in New York City and upstate at Oyster Bay and Hyde Park. The bride was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, of the Oyster Bay branch, the daughter of his younger brother Elliott, an alcoholic, womaniser and general failure. Her father adored her and was adored in return, but she was a severe disappointment to her lively and beautiful mother, who thought ‘Little Nell’ plain, serious and boring. When her mother died in 1892, Theodore Roosevelt’s wife said sadly of the eight-year-old Eleanor, ‘I do not feel she has much chance, poor little soul.’ Her father died two years later and she lived with her maternal grandmother, along with her Uncle Valentine, who in drunken rages fired his rifle out of his bedroom window, and her Aunt Pussie, who seemed permanently involved in tearfully incoherent romances.

Franklin was the scion of the Hyde Park Roosevelts. His mother was a Delano, of a French Huguenot family (originally de la Noye) which had made a large, if now rather embarassing, fortune trading in opium and then married into the Astor dynasty. As a boy he made himself a skilful sailor and boat-handler, and later on in politics, as his biographer Conrad Black remarked, Franklin knew how to tack. He wanted to go to the Naval School at Annapolis for a Navy career, but instead was sent to Groton and Harvard, where he was not popular.

What drew Franklin and Eleanor to each other, no one could understand. They met in 1902 and saw each other at parties and dances, and in November 1903 Franklin told his mother that he and Eleanor were going to marry. Taken aback, she said they were far too young and made him promise to keep the arrangement quiet for a year. Meanwhile she introduced him to as many other girls as possible, but the engagement was formally announced at the end of 1904.

The pair were married in New York City by Endicott Peabody, headmaster of Groton, at the home of Eleanor’s grandmother on East 76th Street. It was the afternoon of St Patrick’s Day and the vows were drowned out by the Ancient Order of Hibernians bellowing ‘The Wearing of the Green’ as they paraded by outside. President Roosevelt gave the bride away and was inevitably far more the focus of attention than the happy couple. The bride was twenty-one and the groom twenty-three. Eleanor’s sex education seems to have consisted of her sardonic cousin Alice, the president’s daughter, reading the Old Testament ‘begat’ passages aloud to her. After a week’s honeymoon at Hyde Park the newlyweds settled in a New York City apartment. They had forty years of married life to come until Franklin’s death in 1945.

Excerpt: 'Franklin And Eleanor'

Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary MarriageBy Hazel RowleyHardcover, 368 pagesFarrar, Straus and GirouxList price: $27

Eleanor had understood the precariousness of her situation. If Franklin's mother did not like her, she risked losing Franklin. The next morning, she wrote to Sara:

Dearest Cousin Sally:

I must write you & thank you for being so good to me yesterday. I know just how you feel & how hard it must be, but I do so want you to learn to love me a little. You must know that I will always try to do what you wish for I have grown to love you very dearly during the past summer.

It is impossible for me to tell you how I feel toward Franklin, I can only say that my one great wish is always to prove worthy of him.

I am counting the days to the 12th when I hope Franklin & you will both be here again & if there is anything which I can do for you you will write me, won't you?

With my love dear cousin Sally,
Always devotedly

Franklin, meanwhile, was caught between two women. He wrote to his mother on Harvard Crimson notepaper, telling her he was very busy, working into the early hours of the morning on the newspaper and various committees. Then came this:

Dearest Mama -- I know what pain I must have caused you and you know I wouldn't do it if I really could have helped it -- mais tu sais, me voilà! That's all that could be said -- I know my mind, have known it for a long time, and know that I could never think otherwise: Result: I am the happiest man just now in the world likewise the luckiest -- And for you, dear Mummy, you know that nothing can ever change what we have always been & always will be to each other -- only now you have two children to love & to love you -- and Eleanor as you know will always be a daughter to you in every true way.

Franklin had done the unthinkable. He had stood up to his mother, squarely and firmly. "My dearest Franklin," came the reply from Hyde Park, "I am so glad to think of my precious son so perfectly happy, you know that and I try not to think of myself. I know that in the future I shall be glad and I shall love Eleanor and adopt her fully when the right time comes. Only have patience dear Franklin, don't let this new happiness make you lose interest in work or home."

Franklin wrote back: "I am so glad, dear Mummy, that you are getting over the strangeness of it all -- I knew you would." That left the battle about the following weekend.

I confess that I think it would be poor policy for me to go to H.P. next Sunday -- although, as you know and don't have to be told, I always love & try to be there all I can -- I have been home twice already this term…If I am in N.Y. on Sunday not a soul need know I have been there at all as if we go to Church at all we can go to any old one at about 100th St. & the rest of the day w'd be in the house where none c'd see us…Now if you really can't see the way clear to my staying in N.Y. of course I will go to H.P. with you, but you know how I feel -- and also I think that E. will be terribly disappointed, as I will, if we can't have one of our first Sundays together -- It seems a little hard & unnecessary on us both.

He and Eleanor won that round. But there were plenty more battles to come. Franklin was used to his mother, and had long ago chosen his way of dealing with her -- lies, evasion, and feigned docility. Eleanor swung between compliance and anger. "You know how grateful I am for every moment which I have with you," she wrote to Franklin, and signed her letter, just as she used to sign letters to her father, "Your devoted Little Nell." But she did not see why her future mother-in-law should dictate to them when and where they could meet. "It is hard for her to realize that any one can want or need you more than she does," Eleanor told Franklin, "so I suppose I ought not to mind, only I do mind terribly."

Franklin managed to persuade his mother not to move to Boston that winter. He preferred to come down to New York to see her -- and Eleanor. As a trade-off, he consented to go on a five-week cruise of the Caribbean with Mama and his best friend, Lathrop Brown. They sailed on February 6. Sara wrote in her diary: "F. is tired and blue." So was Eleanor, who found the separation quite frightening. Would Franklin still love her when he got back? She knew that Sara would be intensely relieved if her son changed his mind.

Fortunately, Eleanor had another interest that winter. She had volunteered her services in the settlement movement, which aimed, through "settlement houses," to provide social services to the urban poor. Eleanor was assigned to University Settlement House, on Rivington Street, where she and a friend taught dance and calisthenics to immigrant girls -- mostly Jews and Italians -- who lived in the dingy, malodorous slum tenements of the Lower East Side. (Eleanor once went inside one, with Franklin, when they took a sick girl home.) Unlike her friend, who came and went in her carriage, Eleanor preferred to take the elevated train and walk across the Bowery with her maid. It was a glimpse of another world -- the streets teeming with foreign-looking people, the pushcart vendors at the curb, the strange food smells. She greatly admired the spirit of her young pupils, who worked long days in a factory or did piecework at home. Her cousin Susie was horrified, convinced that Eleanor would bring tuberculosis back to the household. But Eleanor, for the first time in her life, felt as if she were doing something useful. Her classes, she wrote to Franklin, were "the nicest part of the day."

In late February, Eleanor went to Washington, where she spent two weeks with her aunt Bye, gaining some confidence in that highly sociable house on N Street. On March 10, Sara and Franklin arrived in Washington (they had taken the train up from Miami) and went straight to the Shoreham Hotel, where Bye soon called and invited them to tea. For two hours, while their maid unpacked, Sara marched an impatient Franklin around Washington. Finally, that afternoon, he and Eleanor were reunited. "Franklin's feelings had not changed," Eleanor wrote in her autobiography.

"Darling Franklin," his mother wrote from Hyde Park, "I am feeling pretty blue. You are gone. The journey is over…but I must try to be unselfish & of course dear child I do rejoice in your happiness…Oh how still the house is…Do write. I am already longing to hear."

Franklin had returned to Harvard, where he relished his job as editor in chief of the Crimson. When he was elected chairman of his class committee, Eleanor was thrilled for him. "I know how much it meant to you and I always want you to succeed. Dearest, if you only knew how happy it makes me to think that your love for me is making you try all the harder to do well, and oh! I hope so much that some day I will be more of a help to you."

They were able to see each other more when Franklin entered Columbia Law School, in September 1904. Sara had given up their apartment at the Renaissance Hotel, and rented a house at 200 Madison Avenue. She and Franklin were once again under the same roof.

On October 11, Eleanor's twentieth birthday, Franklin presented her with a diamond engagement ring from Tiffany. The secret was still closely guarded, but Sara had accepted the inevitable. "I pray that my precious Franklin may make you very happy," she wrote to Eleanor, "and thank him for giving me such a loving daughter."

The engagement was announced on December 1, 1904. "President's Niece to Wed her Cousin," the newspapers reported. This made it "one of the most interesting engagements of the season." With that vicious penchant the gossip rags had for comparing women's beauty, Town Topics commented: "Miss Roosevelt has more claims to good looks than any of the Roosevelt cousins. This she inherits from her mother, who was the beauty of Mrs. Valentine Hall's four daughters."

From the White House, Theodore Roosevelt sent congratulations to Franklin:

We are greatly rejoiced over the good news. I am as fond of Eleanor as if she were my daughter and I like you, and trust you, and believe in you. No other success in life -- not the Presidency, or anything else -- begins to compare with the joy and happiness that come in and from the love of the true man and the true woman…Golden years open before you. May all good fortune attend you both, ever.

Her uncle Ted wanted to give Eleanor away, and offered to have the wedding at the White House. Franklin and Eleanor preferred a more modest setting, in New York. Cousin Susie Parish's home on East Seventy-sixth Street, where Eleanor was currently living, was two interconnected houses (Susie's mother lived in the other one), and the second-floor drawing rooms could be opened up to make a spectacular ballroom. Pussie had recently been married there.

It was no easy matter to arrange the date: the president had a full calendar. But he was coming to New York on March 17 for the St. Patrick's Day parade and dinner, and in between, he could give the bride away.

Two weeks before the wedding, Sara, Franklin, and Eleanor traveled to Washington to attend the presidential inauguration. Theodore Roosevelt had won the election by the largest majority in American history. Franklin and Eleanor listened to his speech, watched the parade, and danced at the inaugural ball.

The day before the wedding, there was a great deal of coming and going at 6–8 East Seventy-sixth Street. The drawing room looked splendid. An altar had been set up in front of the mantel, and the cousins were to be married under an exuberant bower of palms and pink roses, symbolizing the "field of roses" in the family name. That evening, Sara wrote in her diary: "This is Franklin's last night at home as a boy."

Excerpted from Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley. Copyright 2010 by Hazel Rowley. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan.

Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd

Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd was born April 26, 1891, in Washington, DC to a prominent Maryland Catholic family. She was educated in private schools, but because her family had very little money she had to go to work. In 1914, she became social secretary to Eleanor Roosevelt. In that capacity, she helped Eleanor with the social obligations associated with her position as spouse of the assistant secretary of the navy. When necessary she also served as the extra woman at the Roosevelts' dinner parties.

While working for Eleanor, Lucy met Franklin and the two began a romantic relationship. Eleanor learned of the affair in 1918 when she found a package of Lucy's letters in FDR's luggage. Despite the social stigma then attached to divorce, the couple considered it but eventually decided to reconcile because of family and financial considerations: FDR's political career, which a divorce would have ended, and a shared sense that they both wanted and needed to continue their marriage. Historians have speculated about the level of emotional and sexual intimacy the Roosevelts experienced thereafter, but most agree that the marriage endured as a shared partnership on many levels. They also agree that the affair changed both Franklin and Eleanor significantly. He became more serious personally and politically while she deliberately expanded the range and scope of her already considerable public and private activities.

Lucy married Winthrop Rutherfurd, a wealthy widower with six children in 1920. The couple had one daughter, and the marriage lasted until her husband’s death in 1944. Although he had promised Eleanor never to see Lucy again, FDR did ask Lucy to attend his 1933 inauguration. The two began to see each other again after her husband died in 1944 because FDR wanted and needed companionship. Eleanor did not know of these meetings, many of which her daughter, Anna, arranged, and was angered when she learned of them. She was also disturbed to learn that Lucy had been among those who were with FDR when he died in Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1945. Lucy lived in Aiken, South Carolina, until her death in 1948.

When Cousins Get Married

Sept. 5, 2006 — -- Everyone wants to fall in love.

It's the stuff of movies, songs and dreams.

But what if you fall in love with your cousin?

For two cousins, romance bloomed when they met as adults after a 20-year absence.

"We ran into each other, at a family reunion," Christie Smith said. "And we just struck it off."

Smith said marrying her cousin, Mark, brought concerns.

"It was very scary, at first. I thought that it was something that was very wrong," she said.

Einstein Kissed His Cuz

Cousins who fall in love have a right to voice concerns. After all, marrying a cousin just isn't done, right?

At least that's what we're taught to believe. Only primitive people who live in isolated places marry cousins, and it's dangerous and leads to creating stupid children.

Or does it? A new study reveals the genetic risks associated with this type of pairing are not as great as once believed.

And consider this — Albert Einstein's parents were cousins, and he married his cousin, too.

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt were second cousins, so were Prince Albert and Queen Victoria and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was briefly married to a second cousin.

In America, marrying your cousin is legal in 25 states and every year about 200,000 cousins wed.

Worldwide, it's much more common. Twenty percent of all married couples are cousins. In some Middle Eastern countries, almost half of all marriages are to cousins.

Those Who Say 'I Do'

But in America, cousins who find love also find public resistance.

"The overbearing concept is that, you know, 'Cousins can't get married,'" said Brian Wagner, who has been married to his cousin, Caren, for 14 years.

His dad and his wife's mom are brother and sister.

"Some people see it as 'inbreeding,' or, you know, 'incest,' or something terrible like that," he said.

Caren said she didn't plan on their shared future, although her mom noticed they always liked each other.

"They played together. They fought over toys together. And they just had a happy good relationship as kids will," said Pat Bradfield. "They were real kissin' cousins."

They initially grew up in the same area, but then Brian's family moved away. Years later when Caren visited, their lives changed.

"When she showed up at the airport terminal and come off the plane, it's just like everything came rushing back again," Brian said.

"It developed beyond a 'friendship,' into a 'OK, do you want to get married this weekend or next?'" Caren said.

Her mom says the idea "floored" her a bit, but because she couldn't stop the marriage she was leery of voicing opposition in fear of losing contact with her daughter.

Instead, she offered some advice.

"In a marriage such as you're contemplating, you have to remember that you could divorce your husband but you can't divorce the whole family," Pat said.

They lost one friend whom, Caren said, they just didn't hear from anymore after they announced their union.

Legality of the Marriage

Twenty-four states forbid cousin marriages.

The United States is the only western country in the world where these laws still exist.

"A lot of these laws have been on the books forever, and they have just not gotten changed," Brian said.

The laws date back hundreds of years to the time when the Catholic Church campaigned against cousin marriages because in the Bible Leviticus says, "None of you shall approach to any that is near of kin."

Regardless, Caren and Brian had a church wedding in Virginia, one of 25 states where cousin marriage is legal.

"We talked to our minister. … And he knew and he didn't have an issue with marrying us," said Brian.

Biological Implications

One of the reasons cousin marriage is taboo, is the assumption they will have kids with birth defects.

But a new groundbreaking study funded by the National Society of Genetic Counselors revealed that some beliefs about cousin marriage were unfounded.

Robin Bennett, who headed the study, told ABC News that the risks of having a child with a cousin were about "2 [percent] to 3 percent" above the average population's risk for having a child with birth defects or mental retardation.

She says while there are risks, they're "not as bad" as people perceive.

Other risk factors are higher. For example, there's a 10 percent chance that a 41-year-old woman will give birth to kids with chromosomal defects.

If one parent has a genetic disease, like Huntington's, they have a 50 percent chance of passing it on.

Bennett gives parents the risks but will not tell them not to have kids.

She advocates that cousins who are romantically involved have genetic counseling before they get pregnant.

Brian and Caren went for counseling and were told the risk for birth defects was low, but their kids might have asthma, which runs in the family.

They now have two boys, ages 14 and 10, and both have asthma. But they don't think twice about their parents being cousins. They're also at the top of their classes in school.

The rest of the family has come around and say they couldn't be happier with how things have worked out.

Ultimately, Caren and Brian say it may have been their family connection that led them to fall in love.

"We could communicate," Brian said. "We had the same values, as far as raising children. … It's a match."

Marguerite “Missy” LeHand: FDR’s Right Hand Woman

Throughout his life, Franklin Roosevelt was surrounded by remarkable women. His mother Sara Delano, his wife Eleanor, his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins the first woman to be appointed to the cabinet, and his distant cousin Daisy Suckley. But the woman who is perhaps least remembered but most important was Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, his personal secretary and closest confidant for more than 20 years. Missy suffered a terrible stroke in 1941 and left the White House, so her assistant Grace Tully took over for her. When President Roosevelt died, Grace Tully took all of her and many of Missy’s papers with her. In 2010 when those papers finally came to the FDR Library they were known as the Grace Tully Collection, but most of them were really Missy’s papers.

FDR, Missy LeHand, and Grace Tully at Hyde Park, 1938

Kathryn Smith, author of The Gatekeeper: Missy LeHand, FDR, and the Untold Story of the Partnership That Defined a Presidency the first full biography of Missy LeHand, describes her as “…tall and slim, with wavy dark brown hair and large blue eyes under dark arched brows – the classic black Irish coloring. She had a long face and a prominent jaw and nose, but a sweetness of expression that spoke of her good nature. “

Missy came into the Roosevelt world in August 1920 when she was offered a job as a secretary to support Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice Presidential campaign. James Cox was the democratic candidate for President, and it was widely assumed he would lose to the Republican candidate Senator Warren Harding. But this was FDR’s first shot at national political office and he went at it with his trademark gusto. Although Missy had little contact with FDR, she worked closely with the inner circle of FDR advisers including Louie Howe, Steve Early, and Marvin McIntyre.

After the election, Eleanor asked Missy to come to her home in Hyde Park and help finish up the correspondence. She did such a good job that when FDR was hired to be a vice president for the Fidelity and Deposit Company he asked her to become his full time secretary. Thus was born a truly remarkable partnership. Just a few months later FDR would be stricken with polio, and Missy would become his companion and gatekeeper.

Gov. Roosevelt with Missy LeHand and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1929

To fully understand why Missy LeHand had such influence in the White House it is important to look at her role during the years FDR was out of public view recovering from polio. These were without doubt the most difficult years of his life, and those who were with him during that period became his most trusted confidants and advisers.

Polio struck without warning on August 10, 1921, while he was vacationing at his home on Campobello Island in Canada. Months of medical treatments and intense therapy followed and Missy was one of the few who were allowed to see him at his Manhattan apartment during this time. After resigning his job FDR left for an extended cruise on a houseboat in Florida with Missy, his personal valet LeRoy Jones and a rotating cast of old friends. Eleanor did not enjoy or entirely approve of the bohemian lifestyle FDR was engaging in, fishing and drinking and frivolous pastimes, and so she spent little time onboard. But when FDR returned to New York after several months at sea he displayed marked improvements both physically and mentally. FDR was convinced he had found a new form of therapy.

FDR, Frances de Rhaim, and Missy LeHand on board the Larooco, Florida, 1924

He bought an old boat with his friend John Lawrence and christened it the Larooco (Lawrence, Roosevelt Co.) and in the winter of 1924, FDR, Missy, and Leroy set sail for the warm Caribbean waters near Florida. While there has been speculation that FDR and Missy had an affair during this time, there is no evidence to support it, and her long and warm relationship with Eleanor and the children casts serious doubts on it. But there is no question that the time they spent on board the Larooco laid the foundation for a deep bond between them that lasted until Missy’s death.

Missy LeHand, FDR, Dutchess County neighbor Maunsell Crosby, and Frances de Rham, 1924

The year 1924 also introduced FDR to Warm Spring Georgia, where he would focus his efforts on finding an effective cure for polio and provide a world class rehabilitation clinic for its victims. Once again Eleanor did not care for the informal lifestyle and poverty stricken countryside, so Missy became the hostess for FDR’s Warm Springs home. Missy grew to love this special place, and between the cruises aboard the Larooco and the rehabilitation work at Warm Springs, Missy had become a critical part of FDR’s recovery efforts.

FDR, a young patient, and Missy LeHand, Warm Springs, GA, 1928

Over the years FDR would invest a good portion of his fortune into Warm Springs, and created the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation which raised millions of dollars for polio research. This eventually became the March of Dimes Foundation which funded the research that led to a polio vaccine in 1954.

But the siren call of political life drew FDR back into the arena and in 1928 he ran for Governor of New York and won. The next four years in Albany provided FDR with a powerful platform to re-establish his national profile. His team included Louis Howe, Frances Perkins, Sam Rosenman, and of course Missy. It was during this transition that Grace Tully entered the picture as Missy’s assistant. A complete collection of their correspondence can be found here: The Grace Tully Collection Finding Aid

Missy lived in the Governor’s Mansion with the Roosevelts, and was part of the family in every way. It was during their years in Albany that Missy first came to the attention of the roving pack of reporters who covered FDR. She was dubbed FDR’s “Right Hand Woman” and when Eleanor traveled Missy would act as the hostess for dinners and other social events.

When the stock market crashed in October 1929, Governor Roosevelt immediately took action. After his reelection in 1930 he became the most activist governor in the country. He started the first unemployment program and fought a corruption scandal with the mayor of New York. Missy later told an interviewer that “Albany was the hardest work I ever did” (The Gatekeeper). During this period Missy had a serious medical issue with her irregular heartbeat and Eleanor grew deeply concerned about her health. She spent time in Warm Springs getting FDR’s new cottage ready for him. When he arrived in May of 1932 the local Meriwether Vindicator became became the first newspaper to endorse FDR for president, and locals began calling his new home, the Little White House.

Portrait of Missy LeHand, 1936

Missy arrived in Washington to much fanfare and excitement. She would be the first woman to hold the position of the secretary to the president. In a short period of time she became the most famous secretary in America. She was also romantically involved with the dashing and daring William Bullitt who served as FDR’s secret spy and later as Ambassador to Russia and France. Their long distance relationship proved both exhilarating and frustrating for Missy.

Grace Tully described Missy as “the Queen” of the White House staff, and her authority was rarely challenged. Many cabinet secretaries, congressmen, senators and ambassadors courted favor with Missy in an attempt to gain access to the president. Missy’s role as Gatekeeper gave her enormous influence in who the president spent time with. And while she clearly had her favorites, she was widely respected for her fairness and devotion to the president’s needs.

Missy LeHand and FDR at the White House, 1940

The White House staff grew quickly as the work load of the “First 100 Days” and the ever growing volume of correspondence demanded attention. Missy was part of FDR’s most inner circle, those few people who crossed over from the political to the personal worlds of the Roosevelts. This small group included Grace Tully, Louis Howe, Harry Hopkins, Marvin McIntyre, and Steve Early. Several of them actually lived in the White House at one time or another. And every day they would gather for “Children’s Hour” and FDR would mix martinis or some other cocktail and they would drop the world’s woes and spend time gossiping, chatting, and generally having fun.

They provided FDR with an important escape from the pressures of the White House, and their personal bonds allowed them to speak truth, sometimes uncomfortable truths, to the Boss.

After a major White House renovation in 1934 Missy was moved into a prime office with a view of the rose garden, and a door that opened directly into the new and improved Oval Office. Hers was the ONLY office with such a door. Her office also had a door leading to the garden, allowing “unannounced” visitors direct access to FDR when he didn’t want their names showing up on the official White House registry.

In her book The Gatekeeper, Kathryn Smith describes Missy’s role this way:

“Missy was the Swiss Army Knife of the White House. A formidable, multitalented multitasker.”

Missy LeHand and FDR at the White House, 1940

From March 1933 until May 1941 Missy assisted FDR and the family in every imaginable way. She traveled with them and paid their bills, acted as hostess when Eleanor was away, provided advice on personnel, personal and political matters, and kept the White House secretarial staff operating at a remarkably high level of effectiveness under constant stress. It was a virtuoso performance.

But in 1941 Missy’s health problems finally caught up with her, as they would with FDR four years later. Missy had suffered from a bad heart from the time she was a little girl. FDR himself was suffering from a range of medical problems during the spring of 1941 the pressure of the war in Europe was taking a toll. On June 4 th , at a party in the White House, Missy collapsed, probably from a combination of a stroke and a heart attack. She was laid up in her bed for weeks, then transferred to a hospital. Despite all of her work in helping bring FDR’s dream of a presidential library to fruition, on June 30 th , 1941, when it was dedicated, Missy was not there. Partially paralyzed and barely able to speak she was confined to the hospital in D.C. She was later moved to Warm Springs, Georgia, to help in her recovery. She was there when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. She called the White House and her former assistant Grace Tully took a message for the President, but he did not call her back that day. But FDR never gave up on her. He paid all of her medical bills and changed his will so that half of the proceeds of his estate would go to help support her until she died. Then it would revert back to Eleanor.

In March 1942 Missy returned to the White House, a shadow of her former self, and moved back into her apartment on the third floor. FDR would visit her for short periods of time while he fought a global war, and the old “Children’s Hour” gang kept her company. But after she accidentally started a fire while lighting a cigarette the decision was made to send her home to Somerville, Massachusetts.

Missy lived with her sister and two nieces for several years, and finally passed away on July 31, 1944. FDR was on a military tour of the Pacific, and issued this statement:

The great esteem in which Missy was held is reflected in the list of people who attended her funeral on August 2, 1944. It included Eleanor Roosevelt, Joe Kennedy, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and 1,200 others. But with a World War raging Missy’s passing was soon lost in the swirl of news about battles, victories, and another presidential campaign.

Missy’s very capable protégé Grace Tully took over the administrative responsibilities, but her personal relationship with FDR was not the same as Missy’s. When FDR died, Grace Tully ended up with all of the papers that she and Missy had collected over the years. The remained with her until her death, and in 2010 they finally arrived at the FDR Library as the Grace Tully Collection. But many of those papers belonged to Missy.

Kathryn Smith’s new book goes a long way to correcting the error of omission that history has made regarding Missy LeHand. In an era when it was very difficult for women to rise to the highest levels of government, she was truly FDR’s “Right Hand Woman.” Hopefully The Gatekeeper will finally put to rest the sexist gossip that Missy gained her power because she was FDR’s mistress. Because it was not her looks but her extraordinary talent, commitment, and dedication that earned her the privilege to work by FDR’s side for more than 20 years.

Did FDR Have Kids?

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had six children, but only five of them survived infancy, the first FDR, Jr. died within a year of his birth. A brief biography of the children follows.

  • Anna was born in 1906, the first child and only daughter of Franklin Roosevelt's six children. Anna was married three times, and pursued a career in writing and editing. As her mother became increasingly involved in promoting social programs, FDR asked Anna to move into the White House as his official hostess she was present with Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference as well as other political functions during World War II. Anna remained active in politics, especially in the area of labor relations for the workforce.
  • James Roosevelt was Franklin's first surviving son. James attended law school, but left to manage his successful insurance company. He worked on Roosevelt's 1932 campaign and was his father's Presidential Secretary in 1937. James eventually became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps and retired as a brigadier general in 1959. He also served as a U.S. Representative from California for ten years.
  • Another son of FDR's, Elliott, followed James into the military during World War II as a pilot and commander in the Air Force, who flew over three hundred combat missions. He retired as a brigadier general at the conclusion of the war. Elliott was never as successful in his private life as he had been in the Air Force, generally having to rely on his work as a horse breeder and financial support from his mother.
  • The second FDR, Jr. was Roosevelt's third surviving son. FDR, Jr. is best recognized as one of the first people to be treated with sulfonamide antibiotics for a strep infection his rapid recovery and public prominence as Franklin's son helped promote the use of antibiotics as an accepted medical treatment. FDR, Jr.'s career was centered on law and political involvement, but he also dabbled in the importing of cattle and cars. He served six years as a congressional representative for the state of New York.
  • John Aspinwall Roosevelt was the last born of FDR's children. He served in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant and was decorated with the Bronze Star after World War II. After marrying the daughter of a Republican, John joined the Republican Party, which did not bear well with his strong Democratic family. He campaigned for both Eisenhower and Nixon against his families wishes. Although he was active in politics, John never sought public office he worked with an investment firm and chaired many charity organizations.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's children knew him more as a president than as a father FDR was not an active parent, although he appeared to have loved his children deeply. The closest child to him was Anna, who is purported to have supported Roosevelt's extramarital affair, even going so far as to arrange secret meetings between him and his mistress without her mother's knowledge. Both Franklin and Eleanor were most proud of their sons' participation in the military during the war, and they both supported those who elected to serve in public office. The children of FDR carried on the tradition of being a public servant, which their father had begun and their mother supported.

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