Friday, January 13, 2012

Franklin & Lucy

FDR intrigues me.

In college, I stumbled across No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of FDR and Eleanor. I read the first half voraciously and then discarded it, a weakness that plagues me even with books in which I am captivated. Despite my callous abandonment, I found myself fascinated by the interpersonal sagas of the women within the magnetic force of the president.

So I was thrilled to discover Joseph E. Persico's book examining just that. Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life considers Roosevelt's life in the context of the women with whom he had relationships. Women shaped and influenced FDR in a way that is not often displayed in textbooks. His indomitable mother Sarah would occasionally and successfully rearrange the White House schedule to procure presidential meetings for her socialite companions. His longtime secretary Missy LeHand suffered multiple nervous breakdowns, arguably as a result of her emotional over-investment in the president. Franklin cavorted with witty, attractive women of stature such as Princess Martha of Sweden. However, the case is often made that his heart really belonged to Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, his one-time social secretary for whom he nearly divorced Eleanor, lost his vast inheritance, and ruined his chances for a political future.

It's funny how one's perceptions and allegiances change with time and experience. When I was younger, I was captivated by Lucy. She was pretty and charming, caught in between social convention and true love, embroiled in a star-crossed affair with this god of a man. In contrast, Eleanor seemed to me humorless, self-righteous and entirely unrelatable. Several years and many experiences later, I encountered this book with a different point of view. I sympathize for Eleanor with her tumultuous childhood and openly criticized looks. I admire her strength and ability to define herself through her social crusades as opposed to her philandering husband during a time in which beauty was highly prized and female community activism was not.

This book is a wonderful piece of narrative non-fiction. Persico is a compelling storyteller who presents historical evidence while allowing the reader to draw independent conclusions. FDR's myriad of female influences are vividly displayed as distinctive, admirable yet flawed. However, the culpability of Roosevelt's behavior is rarely mentioned; his responsibility for the way his actions affect others is treated lightly. Still, Persico addresses fascinating questions concerning the events and people within FDR's life. For example, what would the world look like today if Roosevelt had absconded all in order to be with Lucy Mercer?

Thankfully, we can only imagine.

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