josh rosner


In Book Review on February 5, 2011 at 4:31 am

I reviewed Hazel Rowley’s latest book – Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage – for the Canberra Times, published today. It was a fascinating book about two fascinating people in U.S. – and world – history. I read Rowley’s ‘Tête-à-Tête‘, about the lives of Simone de Beauvoir and John-Paul Sartre before travelling to Paris in November last year, and I enjoyed in immensely. Rowley’s biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, is as well-written and interesting as that of de Beauvoir and Sartre.

Below is my review as it appeared in the Saturday, 5 February 2011 edition of the Canberra Times’s ‘Panorama’ magazine, and I highly recommend the book.




Franklin and Eleanor. An Extraordinary Marriage. By Hazel Rowley. Melbourne University Publishing. 368pp. $36.99 pb

More than sixty years have passed since the death of America’s 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s. Next year marks 50 years since the death of his wife, Eleanor. Despite the long passage of time, biographers remain fascinated with their marriage and, in particular, their sexual escapades.

Last year I read two marvellous and insightful biographies of the Roosevelts. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time and the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s multivolume portrait of Eleanor – which covers the years from her birth in 1884 until 1933 – are enduring portraits worthy of a place in any collection of presidential biographies. But it is fair to say when an advance copy of Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage arrived, I was hesitant to devote many more hours to FDR and I was even more reluctant to dive into gossip and innuendo about their marriage.

I’m happy to admit my hesitation was unfounded. Rowley is a master analyst of human relationships. She has followed brilliant biographies – Christina Stead: A Biography, Richard Wright: The Life and Times and Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and John-Paul Sartre – with this glowing and insightful biography of the Roosevelts and their complicated lives together.

Rowley’s fascination for both Roosevelts is evident on every page. She has clearly chosen subjects who fascinate her and who she feels great affection towards. Although much of the material presented in Franklin and Eleanor has already been covered in other biographies, it is Rowley’s writing and dedication to the task that nonetheless make this a worthy addition to the burgeoning pile of books about the Roosevelt family.

Rowley recounts the Roosevelts’ relationship from its beginnings as a traditional Victorian marriage through to their political partnership in the White House during Franklin’s twelve years in the presidency. She describes their bond as, “political in every sense of the word.”

The Roosevelts’ marriage was, as Rowley sees it, as complicated and occasionally dysfunctional as any other. It was challenged by Franklin’s numerous affairs and, Rowley asserts, Eleanor’s lesbian relationships – particularly with the reporter Lorena Hickok. In fact, Rowley goes so far as to suggest that Franklin not only knew about his wife’s love for Hickok, he supported it.

Lest you be under the illusion that Franklin and Eleanor is one of those books jam-packed with sex and gossip which masquerades as a serious character study, don’t be. Rowley takes every opportunity to remind her readers that her subjects were the product of 19th-century values, during which a sharp distinction was made between love and sex. It was common to have one without the other and it was sex that was viewed as the less fulfilling of the two. If anything, Rowley takes a cautious approach presenting the more salacious aspects of their marriage.

Rowley’s thesis is simply that their emotional hunger drew people to them, enabling both of them to become dominant political players and beloved historical figures. Whether their marriage can be viewed as dysfunctional or not, it is evident they unwaveringly shared a purpose and commitment to politics and their country. Rowley writes that FDR saw it as his duty – as did Eleanor – to “do everything in his power to fulfil his promise to the people.”

On the page, Franklin and Eleanor appear as extraordinarily magnetic personalities. They both had the ability to draw acolytes into an orbit around them – many of whom served the Roosevelts for the rest of their lives, in some cases shortening their life span to remain in their circle rather than give up the warmth of the Roosevelts.

One of those acolytes was Lucy Mercer, hired as Eleanor’s social secretary in 1914, and with whom the future president had a long-term affair. Before Rowley’s exhaustive archival research for Franklin and Eleanor, it was commonly believed that Eleanor discovered their affair in 1918 after finding a bundle of love letters in Franklin’s luggage. It was said Franklin chose not to risk being cut off from his mother’s financial support by leaving Eleanor and instead he gave up Lucy Mercer, at least until they reconnected in 1930.

Rowley, to her credit, trawled through documents in the archives of the Franklin Roosevelt Library and unearthed correspondence that suggests Franklin and Lucy were back in contact as early as 1926, not 1930. Although she had married a wealthy socialite by this stage, she would visit Franklin at his physiotherapy spa in Warm Springs, Georgia, and, during his presidency, she would stay in the White House whenever Eleanor was away. It was Lucy Mercer, not Eleanor, who was with Franklin when he died in Warm Springs on 12 April, 1945.

Despite their deficiencies and all-too-human mistakes, Rowley writes of Franklin and Eleanor as “one of the most inspiring couples of all times.” Perhaps an over-statement by someone enamoured with her subject, but nonetheless Franklin and Eleanor is a well-written, extensively researched biography of two of history’s enduringly fascinating characters. There is little by way of new and revealing information about their lives in this book, but in many ways that doesn’t matter, because Rowley’s writing will sweep you away. Although the Goodwin and Cook biographies I read last year made for great reading, if you are new to the lives of the Roosevelts, I recommend Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor as a great place to begin exploring these fascinating people.

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