In “Franklin and Lucy,” Joseph Persico makes a very insightful contribution to the prolific literature about Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A historian and biographer from Guilderland, Persico shows that, in an age when women did not have the political and social prominence that they have since achieved, they had as great — or greater — an influence on Roosevelt as did his male advisers and staff.
‘Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life’
AUTHOR: Joseph E. Persico
PUBLISHER: Random House, 446 pages, ISBN 978-1-4000-6442-7
HOW MUCH: $28
At the core of this story are the women in Roosevelt’s immediate family: his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, his wife, Eleanor, and his daughter, Anna.
In the next ring beyond immediate family, Persico includes Missy LeHand, Roosevelt’s secretary and assistant and Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin and confidante of Roosevelt during his Presidential years.
Also included are sketches of Alice Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter and cousin of Franklin and Eleanor. Dorothy Schiff, publisher of the New York Post, and Princess Martha of Norway also appear as women who Roosevelt found attractive and who helped him sustain his morale during the difficult early days of World War II.
Occupying a special place in this story is Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. In 1918, when Franklin Roosevelt came to Washington to serve as the assistant secretary of the Navy, Eleanor found herself overwhelmed with the social structure of the capital. Friends recommended she hire Lucy Mercer, a young Washingtonian, to help with her social schedule and child care.
Lucy was a great success in these roles. However, she and Franklin Roosevelt fell in love. Franklin was so smitten with her that he asked her to enlist as a Navy yeoman and then had her assigned to his office. Gossips commented on the time they spent together and this may have caused Franklin’s boss to discharge Lucy from the Navy.
On the voyage back to New York after a European inspection trip in 1918, Franklin was stricken by influenza. Eleanor met the ship at the docks and brought him home. Sailors and a doctor settled him into bed; Eleanor started unpacking his luggage and discovered a packet of letters from Lucy. After she confronted Franklin, they decided to divorce. Sara Roosevelt and political adviser Louis Howe ended this plan. Sara threatened to disinherit Franklin if he was divorced. Howe convinced him that he would have no political future after a divorce.
Eleanor and Franklin remained married. However, she exiled him to a separate bedroom and kept an eagle eye on him. Lucy came to the home of Winthrop Rutherfurd, a wealthy New Jerseyite who, Persico writes, “Edith Wharton admitted . . . was ‘the prototype of my first novels.’ ” Rutherfurd was recently widowed and needed help with the household and caring for the children. About two years after meeting, he and Lucy married. She was a great wife and a loving stepmother to his five children.
This book has something not found in prior works about Roosevelt. In 2005, Lucy’s granddaughters, Lucy and Alice Knowles, discovered letters written between Franklin and Lucy from 1926 to 1928 that many family members and historians assumed were destroyed.
With these newly discovered letters, Persico develops a fuller picture of Franklin and Lucy. For example, most histories assume they stopped communicating after 1918 and did not re-establish contact until the 1940s. Persico shows they stayed in regular contact during the period.
Persico describes how Eleanor went from a troubled, sheltered childhood to becoming a towering and beloved public figure. He analyzes her relations with her close friends, such as Earl Miller, a state trooper who was Franklin’s bodyguard in Albany, and Joseph Lash, who became her biographer. He describes her relationships with Nancy Cook, Marion Dickerman and Lorena Hickock.
Persico is less certain than others about the possible sexual relations among these various people. In some cases, he seems to respect the most private events in his subjects’ lives. In other cases, he evaluates the evidence and finds it unconvincing.
Readers of Persico’s past works will find he has left many clues about his great regard for Roosevelt. In his first biography, “The Imperial Rockefeller,” about Nelson Rockefeller, Persico describes how, as a teenager, Roosevelt was his biggest hero. Roosevelt and his programs appear in practically every book after that; his ninth book, “Roosevelt’s Secret War,” is devoted to the president.
In order to tell the story of Roosevelt and his women, the author first needed to write a biography of him. He could not bring in the information about Sara Roosevelt, Eleanor, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, Missy LeHand and the other women until he had constructed the biographical house to hold Roosevelt. This biography is nimble and insightful.
For example, until I read “Franklin and Lucy,” I did not truly understand how disabled polio made Roosevelt and how hard he had to work to return to public life. I also did not understand how his health rapidly declined as he neared the end of his third term. Persico mentions how Roosevelt’s blood pressure often exceeded 200 over 120. With a few well chosen words, he shows how much effort it took Roosevelt to campaign and direct the conduct of the war.
Persico shows how, with personal determination and the help of special women, Roosevelt overcame polio to become governor and then president — and held his fragile health together until almost the end of the war.
Joseph Persico will appear at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 10, at Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Ave. , Guilderland.
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