Excerpted from Why They Stay: Sex Scandals, Deals, and Hidden Agendas of Nine Political Wives (Ogunquit Press, March 2017).
The marriage between Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt has served as a template for political couples who search for a way stay together through the husband’s serial infidelity. As the story has come down to us, the Roosevelts suffered a rift over his affair and then went on to live separate, successful and very public lives under the same roof. But a closer look shows that their reality was very painful, messy and human.
By staying in the marriage, Eleanor believed she was doing right for their five children and for her husband. Just as she was experiencing her own deep sense of betrayal, she was called on to rally behind Franklin as he stepped onto the national stage as the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate in 1920. She traveled on his whistle-stop tour, monitored his press coverage and gave him advice on his speeches. Her patriotic devotion to the public ideals the couple stood for revealed itself in her own design for a fulfilling life outside of her empty marriage. Using her position first as the wife of New York’s governor and then as first lady, she advocated for safe housing, laws against child labor, wider voter registration, birth control and civil rights. Her determination to rise above personal pain gave the world one of its great leaders.
“Never for a minute would I advocate that people who no longer love each other should live together because it does not bring the right atmosphere into a home,” she wrote.
Yet the manner in which Franklin dealt with his marriage and his own needs for intimacy reverberates throughout the lives of his children. They chose spouses with the right pedigree. Infidelities abounded. A partner who didn’t fulfill one’s needs was shortly substituted for another. And worldly success often took precedence over happiness at home. It’s almost as if the children of Eleanor and Franklin were trying to work out in their own lives the issues that their parents left unresolved in their marriage.
“At first, each of us married into moneyed families. Not because we needed money, but because we were exposed to moneyed people,” James wrote. “Eventually, we made other marriages. Some of us married outside the social register…. Hopeless romantics, we Roosevelt children married again and again.”
The eldest, Anna, briefly attended college at Cornell University but quit to marry Curtis Dall, a successful stockbroker, in 1926. She said that she married to “get out of the life I was leading,” a reference to the Roosevelt’s difficult family situation in the aftermath of Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer.
Anna and Curtis separated as Franklin was entering the White House in 1932, and Anna moved there with her two children. She met and married a reporter, John Boettiger; it was a second marriage for both. Eleanor felt Anna and John entered this marriage having learned from their sufferings and mistakes, and she commented to a friend in a letter that marriages shouldn’t be preserved for the sake of the children. “Never for a minute would I advocate that people who no longer love each other should live together because it does not bring the right atmosphere into a home,” she wrote, adding that it was very sad when a couple was unable to make a success of marriage, “but I feel it is equally unwise for people to bring up children in homes where love no longer exists.”
Excerpted from Why They Stay: Sex Scandals, Deals, and Hidden Agendas of Nine Political Wives (Ogunquit Press, March 2017). To read more about the book, and for links to purchase, click here.