By carolyn b. leonard

The Engineer and I have been enjoying the documentary on the Roosevelts and those years of TR and FDR’s presidencies, now showing on Public Television.  Actually it is more of a saga — but with sudden startling facts revealed. Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, were members of the most prominent and influential family in American politics and the history of our country was changed forever because of their influence.

I always admired Teddy, I suppose because of his Wild West image and the connection to cuddly Teddy Bears, invented in honor of him and his bear hunting adventure in 1902.  The documentary shows him to be hyperactive, almost a dictator, and not tolerant of other views.

Eleanor was the daughter of Ted’s alcoholic brother, Elliot. Eleanor had lost both parents by age ten, and was looked after by her “Uncle Ted,” so the two families stayed in contact.

I remember my Dad talking about FDR and his “fireside chats” during the depression and the war, which did so much to soothe the worried public. And I remember my mother-in-law talking about meeting Eleanor in Washington during the 1930s. My MIL left the farm and went to the Capitol at 17 to be a secretary.  She admired Eleanor for her independence – unusual for that day.

The young Eleanor Roosevelt

THE DUTCH CONNECTION: The Roosevelts were among the earliest to settle in the Dutch colonial settlement of  New Amsterdam in what would later become New York. Because of my Dutch New Amsterdam ancestors this is particularly interesting to me. Wikipedia says, “While evidence suggests that Claes van Rosenvelt, the ancestor to the American Roosevelt family, indeed came from the Tholen region where the Van Rosevelts were land owners, no records exist that prove that he is related to the noble family of that name. It may simply be a coincidence, or Claes van Rosenvelt may have chosen the name purposely because of its noble origins or to honor his local lord, as was common practice for peasants of the time.”  Franklin Roosevelt’s great-grandfather, Jacobus Roosevelt III, was of Dutch ancestry, and his mother’s family name, Delano, originated with a French Huguenot immigrant of the 17th century.

However that connection may be, these three individuals – “Teddy,” his fifth cousin “FDR,” and Teddy’s orphaned niece Eleanor – not only redefined the relationship Americans had with their government and with each other, but also redefined the role of the United States within the wider world. Born into a family of privilege, they could have spent their lives sailing, entertaining and spending. Instead they gave their years to service. 

The story also reveals an intimate human story about love, betrayal, family loyalty, personal courage and the conquest of fear. 

You don’t have to record it each evening on DVR as I am, you can watch on the internet the whole seven-part, fourteen hour film that follows the Roosevelts for more than a century, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962. Or you can buy the film from PBS or download it from iTunes.  I encourage you to watch it however you can.  The “Better Angels Society” funds this series in an effort to teach Americans more about their own history.

The film is interspersed with actual film clips and scenes from the day.


In 1914, Lucy Mercer was hired by Eleanor as her social secretary and they became good friends. In 1917, Mercer enlisted in the USNavy, while Franklin was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Mercer was assigned to his office and a little romance began. 

Alice Roosevelt, the “wayward daughter” of Theodore,  encouraged the affair, inviting Mercer and Franklin to dinner together several times. She later commented, “He deserved a good time.”

Lucy Mercer (later Mrs. Rutherford) when she was Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary.

In 1918, Franklin went on a trip to Europe to inspect naval facilities for the war. He returned home in the fall, sick with pneumonia and a victim of the flu epidemic.  Eleanor, the dutiful wife, put him to bed and in unpacking his suitcase for him, discovered a packet of love letters from Mercer. 

Eleanor was heartsick. In spite of having given him six children in ten years, she offered her husband a divorce. Franklin apparently wanted to do that, but his overbearing mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, did not want the scandal to touch the family.  She told Franklin if he divorced not only would his political career be over, he would not receive another penny from her, and he would not inherit the family home which he loved.

In the end, Franklin and Eleanor remained married. 

Eleanor reportedly gave him two conditions under which she would stay.  One that he never see Mercer again, and second that she would no long share his bedroom.  Franklin agreed to break off his liaison with Lucy, but he never kept his promise. His biographer said FDR continued his secret meetings and correspondence to his death.  Franklin requested their daughter Anna help him arrange to meet Lucy without Eleanor’s knowledge.  At first Anna refused, but finally complied.  

Lucy was not Franklin’s only indiscretion. Roosevelt’s son Elliott stated that Franklin also had a 20-year affair with his private secretary Marguerite “Missy” LeHand. And there were reportedly others along the way.

Franklin contracted polio in 1921 which resulted in permanent paralysis. He tried many therapies and purchased the Warm Springs resort in 1926, where he founded a hydrotherapy center for the treatment of polio patients. When Franklin suffered his fatal cerebral hemorrhage at his “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia. Lucy Mercer, then widowed from the death of  Winthrop Rutherford, was with him.

Eleanor never forgave Franklin’s betrayal. The incident marked a turning point in her life; disillusioned with her marriage, she became active in public life, and focused increasingly on her social work. The biographer said she did not suffer in silence, however.  She shared her story with close friends over the years.

The Roosevelts’ son James later described the state of the marriage after the incident as “an armed truce that endured until the day he died”.

So our esteemed leaders all seem to have feet of clay.

My sympathy is all with Eleanor!

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I am a professional writer, genealogist, photographer, reader, wife, mother, and Nana. I have several books in process and one book available on Who’s Your Daddy; Guide to Genealogy from start to finish. 

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