I was at the New York Society Library the other day sitting between two women having a passionate discussion about Lucy Mercer, one of the most famous mistresses in American History.
They have a lovely little room off the Children’s Library used for writing groups or, just to have a little bit more privacy to sit and read, which is what I was doing before these two chatties came waltzing in.
Oblivious to me, they were talking about a woman I am very familiar with. Lucy Page Mercer Rutherford (April 26, 1891 – July 31, 1948) is mentioned in any and every book ever written about Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
She was the reason his marriage to Eleanor became in name only.
Lucy was Eleanor’s social secretary when Franklin was Assistant Secretary of the Navy beginning in 1913. It’s believed their affair began in the summer of 1916 while Eleanor was away with their children at their country home on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada, now a National Park.
Eleanor learned of the affair after discovering a packet of love letters found at the bottom of a suitcase she was unpacking describing in intimate detail what had been going on between her husband and a woman, who she thought was not just a worker but a trusted friend, for the better part of two years.
First of all, are men just naturally brain-dead? For the record, this is a sad scenario that sounds its horn recurrently. Discretion, if you could take a lead from the French, is not that hard to exercise. However, when flagrantly discarded causes pain quite like no other. One needs to ask, did Franklin want his wife to find those explicit missives to secure his freedom to go be with Lucy? How stupid can a person be to leave them anywhere they can be discovered and read.
In true fashion, Eleanor said at once she’d give him a divorce. Lucy, a practicing Catholic, apparently wasn’t too keen on breaking up a marriage. Ah…the old double Christian standard. I personally think, despite the shock and humiliation, it came as a bit of a relief to Eleanor since she had made no bones about not loving her Washington lifestyle and connubial responsibilities.
But both Roosevelts underestimated Sara Delano, Franklin’s indomitable mother who sharply said, if you leave your wife and family, I will stop your inheritance which curtly translated to our philandering boy, bye bye political career.
A man is nothing without his work. FDR could have been in love with ten Lucys, but without what defined him he would be unmoored in his life that we must remember was still pre-polio that didn’t strike till 1921. He was a strapping, buoyant, lighthearted young man…handsome and charming anxiously ambitious to make his mark on the political stage. Not the grayish figure we know slumped and crumpled more or less in a wheel chair. So the affair ends…Eleanor agrees to stay, but never sleeps with her husband again.
He has another in-house affair with his secretary, Marguerite (Missy) Le Hand, when he’s president along with his cousin, Margaret (Daisy) Suckley, we now know ironically through more letters found beneath Daisy’s bed when she died in 1991 at the age of 99.
How does a guy have so much sex in a wheelchair? Let’s just say those women should be applauded for their what had to be tender and ongoing efforts.
At the end of FDR’s life, he started to see Lucy again. Her husband, much older than she, had long since died. Anna, Franklin’s only daughter, arranged for Lucy, when her mother was away, to visit her dad.
Lucy was actually present at Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945 when FDR died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
That concludes the history lesson…but back to the two women holding court. The consensus between Hedda and Louella was, it was all Lucy’s fault. If she had only fought off FDR’s advances, history might have had a happier First Lady in the White House.
This is where I’ll weigh in. Personally I think finding out about Lucy Mercer and her husband was the best thing that could have happened to Eleanor Roosevelt who then became who she was always meant to be…a force of nature onto herself passed down to the rest of us. That affair, as painful as it had to be, launched an incredible human being.
Now to stick up for Miss Mercer.
Lucy was a very young girl when this happened. Franklin, an extremely captivating man. Have you ever met somebody like that? I have, and unless you’re Joan of Arc with a will of steel declining, despite the warning signs, isn’t really an option. You’re swept away as though you were caught in the belly of a tidal wave. Not only that, but you must remember youth has little experience to lean on. You just jump in not realizing you were more or less pushed from behind.
Franklin was a player thriving on attention. Eleanor, after giving birth to six children in rapid succession plus having to deal with a mother-in-law who ruled the roost was just too plain weary to play Geisha Girl…and let’s face it…you either have that gene or you don’t. I’m going to say Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t, but had other things that more than made up for it.
As I heard this Mercer mudslinging go on I wanted so much to put in my two cents, especially since they were making it impossible for me to read. It was as if I just wasn’t there.
I looked at their puffy faces from too much of whatever they had the night before, along with wrinkled brows sired from all that disapproval deciding to hold my tongue.
Nothing is so black and white. A young woman is dazzled by the charms of an older man who aggressively seeks stroking so we want to hang her in the town square…or at least at the Society Library in their pretty little ante room. Oddly enough, our 32nd president is exonerated concerning his part. “Men will be men,” crooned one of the women.
And mean, catty women, will be mean, catty women.
Forty-five years later we have an in-house witch-hunt from a couple of witches who you can bet, never had a man seep into their bones where they could barely stand.
If they had, their hearts, though now rusted shut, would have no doubt reopened.
Because it doesn’t matter how old you get, you remember the time when lightening struck.
Traitor to his Class: The Privileged life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt…H.W. Brands
Lucy, a novel…Ellen Feldman
Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 1, 1884-1933…Blanche Wiesen Cooke
Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 2, The Defining Years, 1933-1938…Blanche Wiesen Cooke
FDR…Jean Edward Smith
All in paper and E Book or at your local library