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'Franklin And Eleanor': A Marriage Ahead Of Its Time

One of the most amazing anecdotes in Hazel Rowley's crackling new biography of the Roosevelt marriage called, simply, Franklin and Eleanor, has, on the surface, nothing to do with their personal relationship; yet, it speaks volumes about the trust the first couple placed in each other: In November 1939, as the Red Scare was gathering force, the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed members of a college student group called the American Youth Congress to testify about their organization's ties to the Communist Party. Getting wind of this event, Eleanor asked Franklin's permission "to turn up unannounced" at the hearing.  He gave it, and the first lady took off.  At the noontime break, the students still hadn't been called to testify, so Eleanor invited them back to lunch at the White House.

When she found out the students had nowhere to sleep that night, she invited all 10 of them to move into the White House -- the People's House, after all -- for the duration. That evening, the students -- some of them poor, first-generation Americans -- dined with the president and discussed the HUAC, as well as other breaking news, including the Soviet invasion of Finland.

It's unimaginable now to think of a first lady or a president acting with that much autonomy, but what that anecdote also reveals is the enlightened disregard Franklin and Eleanor had for conventional categories. As Rowley vividly describes, throughout the latter two decades of their 40-year unorthodox marriage, the Roosevelts shared their private life at close quarters with an "alternative family" of aides, advisers and close friends -- most of whom were from working-class backgrounds.

Both Franklin and Eleanor also "gave each other space" to cultivate romantic friendships outside of the marriage. Whether or not these relationships were physical is still up for debate, but the language of existing letters shows there's no question they were passionate. In Eleanor's case, those romantic friendships were with men, like her beloved bodyguard Earl Miller, as well as with women, like the journalist Lorena Hickok. It was no secret to her colleagues in the press corps that "Hick," as she was called, was a lesbian; nor was it a secret that she and Eleanor seemed to be deeply in love. A few months after FDR's first inauguration, Eleanor wrote to "Hick" about their open secret: "And so you think they gossip about us ... I am always so much more optimistic than you are. I suppose because I care so little about what 'they' say." By the way, Rowley can quote those fearless words because Lorena Hickok preserved almost all of the 3,500 letters she and Eleanor wrote to each other from 1932 until Eleanor's death.

The Roosevelts' nonconformist love lives, as well as their expansive impulses to turn the White House into a World War II-era hippie crash pad, have been recounted by other superb biographers, notably Blanche Wiesen Cook and Doris Kearns Goodwin. What distinguishes Rowley's chronicle is her focus on the evolution of the Roosevelt marriage from a standard-issue high-society alliance of its day to a ... what? We don't even have a term for such an unconventional relationship -- certainly "open marriage" sounds too naughty, although "open" is what the Roosevelts clearly became.

Of course, they didn't transform their marriage out of mere happy whim. There was the harrowing tragedy of FDR's polio and his rehabilitation, which naturally forced the couple apart. During the late 1920s, Rowley points out, Franklin was away from home for 116 weeks: Eleanor was with him for four of those weeks; his secretary, Missy LeHand, was with him for 110.

And then there were the failures that loosened both the marital and family ties: FDR's affair with Lucy Mercer; Eleanor's rather strained style of parenting the couple's six children. Eleanor, an eternal daddy's girl, sadly confessed later in life that: "I do not think that I am a natural born mother. ... If I ever wanted to mother anyone, it was my father." Rowley doesn't excuse these flaws but traces how the hard times helped the couple achieve what she dubs "one of the most interesting and radical marriages in history."

Rowley has chronicled out-of-the-box relationships before: Her last book was a highly acclaimed biography of the partnership between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Nothing against the French, but there's no contest here.  While Sartre and de Beauvoir were hashing over gender roles in sequestered cafes, Franklin and Eleanor had already forged their own cutting-edge version of a marriage, despite living for nearly four terms in the fishbowl of the White House.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.