Franklin Delano Roosevelt did a lot of bad stuff: He set up today’s regulatory/welfare state that we can’t get rid of, and he professed a dangerously naive fondness for “Uncle” Josef Stalin. But FDR had a few things going for him, and one was that he couldn’t stand Eleanor Roosevelt. I’m usually intolerant of adultery, but it’s hard to blame someoneone stuck with the officious, limelight-hogging, vindictive, aggressively homely Eleanor for quietly looking for love elsewhere.
Now Jan Pottker has a new book out about the Roosevelt family, and its heroine turns out to be the woman in FDR’s life whom America actually loved most and mourned most deeply when she died: Franklin’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt. Sara, who died in 1941, has gotten a bum deal from history, historian Sylvia Jukes Morris writes in a review in the Washington Post of Pottker’s Sara and Eleanor: The Story of Sara Delano Roosevelt and Her Daughter Eleanor Roosevelt. According to Pottker, that was due to Dore Schary’s portrayal of Sara in his 1958 play “Sunrise at Campobello” as a controlling matriarch who tried to bully her son out of politics. Eleanor, who loathed Sara, had a hand in the writing of Schary’s play, ostensibly to bring in money for the Roosevelt children.
The real Sara, says Pottker, was a warm, cheerful, cultivated woman whom the Roosevelt children adored (she took over the child-rearing from Eleanor, because Eleanor hated it and had no aptitude for it; Eleanor once dangled an infants outside the window in a cage rather than take him for a fresh-air walk). A genuine American aristocrat, Sara had a genuine empathy with the poor, which Eleanor, for all her wailing in her newspaper column and her visits to coal-mines, could never muster. Sara was a “skilled hostess and property manager,” writes Jukes, and her charm and easy command of French and German made her a favorite with diplomats and heads of state. And it was Sara’s money (left by her father who had made a fortune in the opium trade), Pottker points out, that subsidized the FDR household to the tune of $1.4 million a year in today’s dollars–a fact that Eleanor deeply resented. Sara’s grandchildren remember her as the dispenser of maternal warmth that their mother never gave. Some 130 charities also benefitted from Sara’s generosity.
Eleanor, for her part, was jealous not only of her husband’s love for his mother but her children’s closeness to Sara. “Franklin’s children were more my mother-in-law’s children than they were mine,” she complained. There’s no doubt that Eleanor had a tough life, in some ways. Her alcoholic father and her superficial mother neglected her in childhood, and it couldn’t have been easier for her to learn that her husband had taken up with her own secretary, Lucy Mercer. But Eleanor’s reaction, writes Pottker, was to close her family out of her emotional life. She reserved her affections for her pet liberal causes–and also for several women “whom Pottker delicately calls her ‘cronies’ but whom FDR referred to as ‘he-shes.'”
Eleanor Roosevelt was apparently the role model–and even made some apparitional appearances–for another recent First Lady who specializes in dreary writing and evident estrangement from her popular, philandering husband. But I’ll take Sara Delano Roosevelt any day for my role model.