THE WONDERFUL HUSBAND
T HE CAPTAIN of a transatlantic liner was his ship’s social arbiter as well as her commander. In consultation with the purser—and often only after contacting the home office—he carefully surveyed the passenger list, selecting from it for his own table in the great dining saloon that handful of men and women whose prominence was so obvious that even the most socially ambitious travellers would be willing to accept assignment elsewhere.
This was often delicate work, but not when preparing the seating for the June 7, 1905, sailing of the White Star liner Oceanic from New York. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were aboard, on their way to England and the Continent for a delayed honeymoon. Young Mrs. Roosevelt was the favorite niece of the President of the United States, the daughter of his late younger brother, Elliott Roosevelt; Theodore Roosevelt himself had given her away at her wedding. She was only twenty and unusually tall—nearly as tall as her husband—and surprisingly diffident, with a habit of gazing down at her hands while waiting for others to speak to her. But there was no question of her social preeminence. Franklin Roosevelt was not only her husband but the twenty-three-year-old son of the late James Roosevelt, who had been a frequent passenger aboard the ships of the White Star line and a good friend of its late founder, Sir Thomas Ismay.
Eleanor was seated in the place of honor at Captain J.G. Cameron’s right, Franklin assured his mother, in one of the first of the steady, reassuring stream of letters he and his bride would write home to Sara, “and 1 next….”
The young Roosevelts had been married for nearly three months before they sailed. They had put off their honeymoon so that Franklin could complete his first year at Columbia Law School and take his examinations. At Sara’s urging, they had started their lives together with a week at Hyde Park—”just where my great happiness began,” she told them.
We know little of how happy the young Roosevelts were that week. Franklin characteristically left no record of it, while what seems to have remained with Eleanor were a jumble of proofs of her own crippling timorousness. She remembered most vividly that Elspeth McEachern—”Elespie,” who had been the Springwood housekeeper since long before Franklin was born—had coldly looked her up and down as she arrived, as if “wondering if 1 would come up to her expectations as the wife of ‘her boy.’ “
The morning after their first night together as man and wife, standing in the Springwood parlor near the fire that took the edge off the March wind blowing around the house, Franklin had shown Eleanor one of his most precious first editions. Somehow—“in some inconceivable way,” she recalled half a century later, still horrified at the memory—she slightly tore one of the pages. (Perhaps, like a good many of the volumes on her husband’s shelves, its pages had never been cut; he was always a collector, not a reader.) In any case, she wrote, “I held it in my hands, frozen with fear…. Finally, I made myself tell him what I had done. He looked at me with bewilderment and some amusement. ‘If you had not done it,’ “ he assured her, “ ‘I probably would [have].’
“What I had dreaded, I don’t know,” Eleanor wrote, “but I remember my vast relief. That was the beginning of my becoming more mature about my fears of displeasing people.”
If so, it was just the beginning, and the depth of her fears must have honestly baffled her husband, whose own eagerness to please was accompanied by an inbred sense of his own importance at once strong and unexamined. The orphaned daughter of an erratic, alcoholic father and a distant, self-absorbed mother, and raised by relatives whose interest in her was for the most part merely dutiful, Eleanor had never been able to count on anyone’s unshakable affection, was always worried that she would somehow offend those who she hoped would love her, that her failings would drive them to abandon her. Her own lack of self-confidence had been a revelation to Franklin, she once told an interviewer: “He had always been secure in every way, you see, and then he discovered that I was perfectly insecure….”
Franklin began to call Eleanor by a pet name, at once fond and faintly patronizing—”Babs,” short for “Baby.”
After their week together at Hyde Park, Franklin and Eleanor moved into a small furnished apartment Sara found for them on West 45th Street. “Went to F. & E’s apartment at Hotel Webster,” she wrote the evening after they moved in, “arranged flowers and went to my French lecture. Returned to find my children and brought them home to lunch with me.”
The young couple spent just over a month on 45th Street. Eleanor’s insecurities were again apparent. She could sew—a childhood nurse had seen to that—but she knew nothing of cleaning or cooking, could not even order a meal properly, or so she remembered. The hotel staff and its kitchens helped, but it was not easy. She was humiliated by her own incompetence, fearful that she was already proving inadequate as wife and daughter-in-law. And when her younger brother, Hall, now a big hearty adolescent, came down from Groton to spend a few days with his sister and her new husband, she was embarrassed by him, too. “He seemed to fill the whole apartment,” she recalled, even though he had a room of his own.
Franklin offered her what reassurance he could, while doing his best to keep up with his studies. But it may have been with some relief that the young Roosevelts shifted to Sara’s empty, rented brownstone at 200 Madison Avenue when she moved up to Hyde Park at the end of April. Elespie was sent down from Springwood to manage their little household and supervise the cook and waitress. Eleanor was not to worry; Sara would take care of things, and while her children were abroad she would do her best to find them a house to rent for the coming year. The young wife was almost pathetically grateful. “Thank you so much dear for everything you did for us,” she wrote to her mother-in-law that spring. “You are just the sweetest, dearest Mama to your children. . . .”
More than anything in the world, that was what Sara wanted to hear. For she, too, was then full of fears. She had long before lost the father she revered, and, more recently, the husband she loved. To the end of her life she would keep near at hand the miniature leatherbound Episcopal Book of Common Prayer she had gripped helplessly the night Mr. James died; a sepia photograph of him in his last days was carefully pasted to the flyleaf, and across from it, written in her hand, the place and date of his death: “10 W. 43; December the Eighth, 1900.”
Her great worry now was that she would also somehow lose the son who was all she had left. “How can I be thankful enough to God for you,” she once wrote Franklin, “when He has taken from me the love & devotion that have so long been mine?” Nelly Blodgett, Franklin’s godmother and Sara’s closest friend since girlhood, understood his all-importance: “... now, dear Franklin,” she told him shortly after his father died, “you are everything to your dear mother.”
That was not an exaggeration. Sara had faithfully kept a journal ever since her marriage to Mr. James, recording in it much of what she and her husband and their boy had done, together or separately, nearly every day for twenty-four years. Now that Franklin was married and had begun to live apart from her, she rarely bothered to make regular entries unless he or Eleanor (or, later, their children and grandchildren) had come to visit her. In her mind, the daily events of her own life, away from her precious son and his family, were hardly worth recording.
Both Franklin and Eleanor understood her fear, and they tried hard to live up to the pledge Franklin had given her after he told her of his secret engagement. Marriage, he had said then, would “never change what we have been & always will be to each other—only now you have two children to love & to love you….”
Sara did her best to believe that, and Franklin and Eleanor did their best to demonstrate it. They spent nearly every weekend with Sara at Hyde Park that spring, and when they could not come to see her, she often came into town to see them.
But as their departure for Europe drew near, Sara became more tremulous, making plans to have old friends and members of the large Delano clan stay with her while her “dear children” were gone, and worrying over how she could endure the sad anniversary of Mr. James’s birth in July without her son to comfort her.
On June 6, Franklin saw that the luggage was put aboard the Oceanic, he and Eleanor were to sail the next morning. That evening, Sara presided at a small farewell dinner: Franklin’s half brother, Rosy, came, so did Rosy’s daughter, Helen, and her new husband and distant cousin, Teddy Robinson, just back from their more lavish honeymoon, a year-long trip around the world. After the guests left, Sara sat up with her children while they each promised to write regularly. She remained cheerful in front of them, but later, alone in her room, she was evidently overcome with emotion too strong to be expressed and could write in her diary only “My dear F and E.”
She went with them to the dock early the next morning, and saw them safely to their cabin, but she left the ship long before it sailed, unwilling to trust herself not to break down; ever since her father had been forced to leave his family for a time when she was five, partings had been agony for her, and this one was far more difficult than most. She fled the city for Hyde Park, where her nephew, Warren Robbins, and a young friend came to spend the night with her. “Sweet of them,” she wrote that night, “to come when they knew I was lonely.”
Aboard ship, Franklin made friends easily, though mostly among older people who were not put off, as men and women his own age still often were, by his sometimes over-eager charm. He reported to his mother that he got along well with all the other passengers at the captain’s table: “Mr. Lancaster, an old Liverpool merchant & quite interesting ... a Mr. Evans, a rich Englishman,” and Mr. and Mrs. Monell of Tuxedo Park, who turned out to be neighbors of his aunt, Kassie Collier. “She [Mrs. Monell] is pretty and very nice,” he told Sara, “but he is rather a bore, though I fancy pretty well off.” There were distant cousins aboard, too, and older relatives of his Harvard friends and classmates.
Franklin moved smoothly among them all, Eleanor doing her best to keep up, perhaps a little startled but not displeased at the impression her husband seemed to make on everyone with whom they came in contact. Even the servants admired him. One morning in their cabin the stewardess drew Eleanor aside to ask if Franklin were English; he must be, she said, “he is so handsome and has the real English profile!” Eleanor thought this a great compliment. So would Sara, to whom she confided it. Franklin professed to be embarrassed.
The sea was his element. Everything about ships and shipboard life delighted him. The Russo-Japanese War, in which for the first time in modern history an Eastern power showed that it could more than match a Western one, was still raging, and when Franklin discovered that six Japanese naval officers were aboard, on their way to England to take command of two new warships being built for them in British yards, he left Eleanor’s side to talk with them—though “their English is not voluble, and I find myself giving out more information than I receive.” He persisted, however, and Eleanor seems to have found it a little wearying. “He is looking well,” she told his mother, “and has spent most of his time trying to talk to the Japs. He has succeeded a few times.”
And he cajoled the captain into escorting him and Eleanor on an exhaustive inspection of the ship, from bridge to engine room. Eleanor gamely pronounced the tour “very interesting,” but it had also troubled her, making her “more sorry than ever for the steerage passengers” past whom the captain had hurried them below decks.
When they reached Brown’s, the fashionable old London hotel where visiting members of the Roosevelt family traditionally stayed, they were received at the front desk with what seemed to both of them to be more than the usual flurry of deferential courtesy. “We were ushered into the royal suite,” Franklin told his mother, “one flight up, front, price $1000 a day—a sitting room 40 ft. by 30, a double bedroom, another ditto, and a bath. Our breath was so taken away that we couldn’t even protest and are now saying ‘Damn the expense, Wot’s the odds’!”l
Eleanor later said that she had been “horrified” at this extravagance, embarrassed to find that “in some way we had been identified with Uncle Ted,” but Franklin was delighted. No identification could possibly have pleased him more. He photographed the sitting room, filled with carved and polished furniture, its walls covered in silk, a cut-glass vase of complimentary roses on the central table—and so large, Eleanor remembered, “that I could not find anything that I put down.” The Roosevelts happily occupied the royal suite for five days before moving on to the Continent.
The trip was to last more than three months and to take the young couple from Britain through France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and back to Britain again before they hurried home in mid-September so that Franklin could start his second year of law school. In one sense, it was an uneventful journey, filled with quiet times and fond visits to places already familiar to either Franklin or Eleanor from their childhoods. But now and then along the way, things happened—small things mostly—which highlighted the dissimilarities between them and hinted at what would one day happen to them and to their marriage.
1. The extraordinary figure Franklin gave as the cost of the royal suite was a characteristic exaggeration; the actual price for five days was £35. To the end of her life he took delight in teasing his mother about the cost of things. Later in the same letter he announced that “we have ordered thousands of dollars worth of clothes, and I am going to send you several cases of champagne, as I know it is needed at Hyde Park.” Source: Elliott Roosevelt, ed., FDR: His Personal Letters, 1905-1928, page 11.
Excerpted from A First-Class Temperament by Geoffrey C. Ward. Copyright © 2014 by Geoffrey C. Ward. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Geoffrey C. Ward is the coauthor of The Civil War (with Ken Burns and Ric Burns), and the author of A First-Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt, which won the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography and the 1990 Francis Parkman Prize. He lives in New York City.