President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Personal Life, Marriage, Affairs

About the personal life of President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt, including his marriage to Eleanor and his affairs.


Personal Life: Though he was considered a devastatingly handsome young man, Roosevelt showed no interest in women until his junior year at Harvard, when he fell in love with his 4th cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor was shy, plain, and insecure; an orphan; and the product of an unhappy childhood. What it was about her that attracted the dashing and fun-loving FDR remains a mystery, since Mrs. Roosevelt, in later life, destroyed his early letters to her. It may have been that Franklin was impressed by his cousin's brilliant mind, or by her social concern: Eleanor spent her free time as a volunteer in a Manhattan settlement house. It is also possible that he was swayed by her close connection to the family's most famous member: Eleanor was the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt's younger brother, and Uncle Ted appeared personally at the brilliant society wedding in 1905 to give away the bride.

Despite this auspicious beginning, the 23-year-old FDR and his 20-year-old wife ran into difficulties almost immediately. The 1st problem was Franklin's mother, an intelligent, strong-willed widow who wasn't about to give up her hold on her only child. She had moved to Boston to be close to Franklin during his years at Harvard, and now she insisted on setting up house with the young couple. She easily dominated the unassuming Eleanor and made all crucial decisions concerning the Roosevelt home.

There were also deeper tensions in the marriage: Family papers, made public for the 1st time in 1971, show that Eleanor always considered sex an ordeal, while Franklin had an unusually vigorous sexual appetite. In the early years of the marriage, FDR usually got his way, but in 1916, after the birth of her 6th child, Eleanor put her foot down. During the 29 years of marriage that remained to them, the Roosevelts never slept together again. They maintained separate bedrooms and in the White House actually took over different wings of the mansion.

Not surprisingly, FDR looked for consolation outside his marriage. His 1st and most serious affair involved Lucy Mercer, his wife's beautiful and sophisticated social secretary. By the time Eleanor discovered a batch of love letters and found out about the affair, Franklin and Lucy were deeply in love. There was talk of a divorce and remarriage, but Roosevelt's mother squelched all such plans by threatening to cut off her boy's generous financial allowance. Franklin was forced to give up Lucy Mercer, but his interest in her continued from a distance for the rest of his life.

In a sense, Roosevelt's paralysis probably strengthened his bond with Eleanor, but their relationship was one of mutual respect and dependence rather than personal intimacy. Medical reports prove that FDR's sexual prowess was unimpaired by polio, and rumors continued to link him with other women. Wartime gossip centered on a supposed romantic involvement between the President and the glamorous young Princess Martha of Norway. Then in 1973, FDR's son Elliott published a book in which he declared that Missy LeHand, his father's tall, slim, gray-eyed private secretary, was Roosevelt's mistress for 20 years. Elliott also asserts that Eleanor not only knew about the relationship, but approved of it-allowing Missy and Franklin to occupy adjoining bedrooms.

Though some Roosevelt intimates have doubted the accuracy of this account, there can be no question that as the years went by, Eleanor became more and more her own woman. In the White House, she was without a doubt the most active and most controversial First Lady in American history. She wrote a daily newspaper column, held regular press conferences, chaired public works committees, and earned the nickname "Public Energy Number One." She also made countless far-flung inspection tours for her husband and filed the reports of her travels, in writing, in a small basket by FDR's bed. Roosevelt called her his "eyes and ears," and would often answer department heads by saying, "Yes, but, my missus tells me . . ." He was obviously proud of his brilliant wife, and she was no doubt devoted to him. The public knew nothing of the persistent problems in their marriage.

In 1944, Missy LeHand died of a stroke, and in his loneliness FDR turned once again to Lucy Mercer, now an aging but attractive widow. On several occasions, he risked exposure to spend time with her; he once ordered an unscheduled stop on a presidential train so that he could spend half a day at Lucy's New Jersey home. Privileged observers noted a romantic, somewhat melancholy aspect in this "lonely hearts" relationship. Lucy was with Roosevelt in Warm Springs on the day that he died, but after his collapse she left hurriedly, before Eleanor and the press had arrived on the scene.

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