Thursday, October 1, 2009

Book Review: Franklin & Lucy

Joseph Persico's Franklin and Lucy is simply a fabulous book. I can't put it more simply than that. As someone who thought he had read everything there was to read about Franklin Roosevelt, I can say that I went into the book with very low expectations. When I realized that I had read the first 100 pages at nearly one sitting, however, I realized I was - as Herman's Hermits once put it - into something good.

I won't go into the history between FDR and Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. Think John Edwards and his tramp minus the kid and the sleaze–factor. Like most other FDR-philes, I knew the story well – or thought I did. The conventional wisdom was that FDR had the affair with Lucy during World War I; once it was discovered by Eleanor, FDR was told by his mother, Sara, that if he left Eleanor she would disown him; FDR ended the relationship and never saw Lucy again until after World War II began.

Until recently, that was the standard scholarship on the FDR-Lucy relationship. Then a descendant of Rutherfurd stumbled upon a treasure trove of long-thought-destroyed letters between FDR and Lucy that spelled out that FDR and Lucy actually reconnected in the 1920s. Indeed, there is even some suggestion that he never actually ended the relationship at all. By the time he became President, they remained close enough that he sent a personal driver to take her to his first inauguration. She would be standing there, not terribly far from Eleanor, for that first - and subsequent second, third and fourth - inauguration.

In the short time between FDR's death and her own [of leukemia in 1948], Lucy told those few who knew of her relationship with FDR that she had burned all of their correspondence. Why she kept these newly discovered letters is unknown, as is how they remained unknown until nearly 60 years after her death.

The letters - and follow-up interviews by Persico of the descendants of the key players in their relationship - is truly an amazing tale. Twenty years before White House staffers would be trained to time President Kennedy’s trysts to make sure that Jackie had “left the building” before ushering in some nubile talent, people in the FDR White House knew Rutherfurd as Mrs. Paul Johnson. Her calls were to be immediately put through to FDR, her visits were to be carefully choreographed to occur either when Eleanor was completely out of town or – as time went on and FDR became less careful – at least when she was out of the White House.

Most of this was done in the open. FDR would often be put into a car and driven to Rutherfurd’s home. While FDR remained in the idling car in the street, the driver and a team of Secret Service agents would collect Rutherfurd, put her in the car, and drive the two of them up and down the streets of Washington.

Persico also looks at FDR’s relationships with Missy LeHand, Princess Martha of Norway, Daisy Suckley and Dorothy Schiff. The question of whether FDR could physically consummate sexual relations after being struck with polio is one that will never be known with 100% certainty. It does seem likely, however, that FDR was in fact sexually active with other women after being struck with polio [and equally likely that he and Eleanor never had physical relations after the 1918 discovery of his affair]. Based on some of the newly discovered Rutherfurd letters and interviews with descendants of the various women it does seem that FDR was not rendered impotent by the disease.

Persico’s book is a compelling story. It is not the book to read if you are looking for any kind of in-depth analysis of FDR’s presidency. His subtitle – President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd and the other Remarkable Women in his Life – says it all. The book is about FDR and his relationship with women - Lucy being the primary focus of the story. Persico certainly places the stories and events in the proper historical context – for example, one conversation with Lucy occurs with FDR railing against the hornets’ nest his “Supreme Court packing” plan has caused. But this is a story about an extraordinary man without delving too deeply into the events and his subsequent actions that demonstrated that greatness.

These newly discovered letters and subsequent interviews also answer the question: 'Did FDR know how sick he was?' Indeed, he did. While many tried to keep FDR shielded from the diagnosis - based on a 1944 physical exam - that FDR was suffering from a worsening heart condition that made it unlikely he would live to the end of a fourth term. Indeed, FDR not only knew it but - according to Lucy - seemed to realize that his condition was almost certainly terminal. During their last week together at Warm Springs before his death, according to Lucy, FDR told her that he planned to open the United Nations in San Francisco, finish off Germany and Japan, and then resign, hopefully by mid-1946. If true, this makes his decision to keep Vice President Harry Truman out of the loop on the Manhattan Project even more inexcusable [although Lucy also believed that the reason FDR replaced his third-term Vice President Henry Wallace - whom FDR regarded as insane - was so that he could essentially choose his successor].

FDR - like most great people - was a complicated individual. Persico's book shines a light on one of the most complicated - but long-standing - relationships of his life. While the man was complicated, this book is not. Do yourself a favor and read it.

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