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"No Ordinary Time" Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Homefront in World War II.

In early 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt asked his daughter Anna to become his hostess, filling in for the peripatetic first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. World War II was at a critical stage, and FDR would have to decide whether to run later that year for his fourth term.

Anna tried to shield the already ill president from strain and stress, but Eleanor, a self-described "pest," often made this difficult. At one White House cocktail hour, Anna recounted, Eleanor appeared, wolfed down her limit of one drink, and "sat down across the desk from Father. And she had a sheaf of papers this high and she said, 'Now, Franklin, I want to talk to you about this. . .' I just remember . . . that I thought, 'Oh God, he's going to blow.' And sure enough, he blew his top. He took every single speck of that whole pile of papers, threw them across the desk at me and said, 'Sis, you handle these tomorrow morning.'"

Eleanor said, "I'm sorry," and turned to talk to someone else; Franklin "picked up a glass and started a story."

Anna explained: "Intuitively, I understood that here was a man plagued with God knows how many problems and right now he had twenty minutes to have two cocktails . . . He wanted to tell stories and relax and enjoy himself - period. I don't think mother had the slightest realization."

The relationship between Eleanor and Franklin is central to an understanding of FDR and his presidency. And Doris Kearns Goodwin, in this massive book, has made it central to her account of the World War II years.

The major events in FDR's life were (1) his conquest of the polio that crippled him, at age 39 in 1921, for life and (2) the effect on the Eleanor-Franklin relationship of the love affair he had - pre-polio - with Eleanor's social secretary, Lucy Mercer, a younger woman "tall, beautiful, and well-bred, with a low throaty voice and an incomparably winning smile."

Goodwin adds nothing new about the polio, but she does provide the most complete, and, to me, the most satisfying account of the Lucy affair and its ramifications and consequences.

For today's generation it should at once be said that Lucy was no bimbo in the Kennedy or Clinton sense. True, in 1918, when Eleanor found a packet of Lucy's love letters, her husband was 36 and physically a whole man. Still, Goodwin is doubtful that there was a sexual relationship, either then or later; the evidence is simply lacking.

Eleanor bore Franklin's six children (the first FDR, Jr. died) but, as she told Anna, sex was "an ordeal to be borne." The Lucy affair ended their marital relations, led to separate bedrooms, and freed Eleanor "to define a new and different partnership with her husband, free to seek new avenues of fulfillment." She had long cared about issues and hated small talk. As governor of New York, Franklin had taught her to be his "eyes and ears." Unable to travel easily on his own, "he had started by teaching Eleanor how to inspect state institutions in 1929. . . " She kept on doing this kind of work after entering the White House.

This working relationship was advantageous for both. FDR depended on the information she brought him, though on occasion "she irritated and exasperated him, but he never ceased to respect and admire her." And as she once wrote him: "We are really very dependent on each other though we see so little of each other."

If she was his eyes and ears, she seldom was his hostess. As first lady, she went her own way, including writing a six-day-a-week column called "My Day" from wherever she happened to be, at home or abroad. Furthermore, she developed several very close relationships that seemed to fill a need for the kind of love that had gone out of her marriage. One of these was with Joseph P. Lash, a youthful idealist who came to love her and with whom she wrote or otherwise confided the substance of her six books. Eleanor also had close women friends, chief among them Lenora Hickock, an Associated Press reporter who gave up her career when she fell in love with Eleanor. The author writes that while their letters "possess an emotional intensity and a sensual explicitness that is hard to disregard," there is no certainty they went beyond hugs and kisses.

Franklin Roosevelt, only child of a doting mother, developed a desire to please which required a pattern of evasiveness well known during his 12 White House years. Combined with this was a "sublime confidence" and a "native optimism." He was a man whose "perpetual cheer" served him well in both Depression and war. And as Eleanor once said to Winston Churchill, "When Franklin says 'yes, yes, yes,' it doesn't mean he agrees with you. It means he's listening."

A gregarious man who hated to be alone, FDR required womanly affection; if Eleanor would not provide it, he would find it elsewhere. He did so with his secretary, Marguerite "Missy" Le Hand, who adored him and who played hostess in Eleanor's absence as well as being "the important conduit to the president." When he suffered a stroke, FDR changed his will to leave Le Hand half his estate, but she died first. After Missy came Princess Martha of Norway, "tall and willowly, full of light and gaiety"; she became "one of the president's most intimate companions." She was in and out of the White House, sometimes alone and other times with her husband and children. And there were FDR's two married cousins for company, as well as his devoted friend and adviser Harry Hopkins, who lived in the White House family quarters for years. But Hopkins finally married and moved to Georgetown.

James Roosevelt, the eldest son, said that Franklin once "approached Eleanor with the idea that they should try once more to live as man and wife," as the author puts it. The request "threw Eleanor into a tumult of conflicting emotions," but in the end her answer was no. She had become a "political force in her own right," which had produced a profoundly different sense of self - of independence, competence, and confidence.

Enter Lucy once again. Now the widow of a rich man with a teen-aged daughter as well as step-sons, Lucy came to the White House first as "Mrs. Johnson," and sometimes with her daughter, who also visited on her own. On occasion FDR was driven to Georgetown to pick Lucy up for White House visits or to go to Shangri-La, now called Camp David. In 1943, after her husband's death, the visitor was listed simply as Lucy Rutherford. Literally to his dying day, Lucy provided FDR with the love and comfort he lacked from Eleanor. The way Goodwin recounts it, the reader will most likely sympathize with Franklin rather than Eleanor.

For those today who are always conscious of the health of a president, there is recounted here the terrible story of FDR's decline and the miserable White House physician who so long had attended him, Dr. Ross McIntire, an ear-nose-and-throat man. McIntire hid the truth about FDR; his blood pressure, for readers who pay attention to their own, registered 240/130 a few weeks before his fourth election to the presidency. At the recommendation of a young cardiologist, Dr. Howard Bruenn, whom McIntire was forced to call in, FDR cut his cigarette consumption from 20 or 30 a day to five or six. Of course, it was too late; FDR died at 63.

This book recounts in much well-known detail the story of FDR's wartime leadership (essentially the war in Europe, little about the war with Japan) and his struggles and agreements with Churchill and Stalin over such critical points as the second front in Normandy and the construction of the president's dream, a new world organization to keep the peace to come. There is much about Eleanor's unflagging efforts to improve American life, especially for blacks, during the war years. Those who think Hillary Rodham Clinton is too active should read about Eleanor. Goodwin has written an entrancing, indeed magnificent account of the second half of the Roosevelt saga, the war years, with enough flashbacks to the peacetime New Deal years to give background to readers who, like Goodwin, have no personal memory of FDR and his times.

Chalmers M. Roberts is a retired reporter for The Washington Post.
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Author:Roberts, Chalmers M.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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