Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hazel Rowley on the Roosevelts

Editor's note: Hazel Rowley, a biographer whose most recent work dealt with the complicated relationship of first couple Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, died suddenly March 1 after a series of strokes related to an undiagnosed infection. I had interviewed her only weeks before for this piece, a version of which ran in the Register-Star Feb. 10. I found the 59-year-old Australian-reared writer funny, brilliant and giving. She told me she was planning on writing about the era just after FDR's death when a pall of conservatism hung over America. I only wish she could have finished.

In Hazel Rowley’s newest book she explores one couple’s “extraordinary marriage.” That couple happens to be made up of two singular Americans — Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — who helped define an era and hold a country together during the dark days of the Depression and World War II.

According to the author, she hit upon the idea of writing "Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: An Extraordinary Marriage," while visiting the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park.

She said that while on the tour people kept asking questions about the Roosevelts’ marriage. Many were interested in the couple, it seemed, as was Rowley, so much so that she spent three years writing the book.
And in her opinion, it was an extraordinary 40-year marriage and one that moved from a conventional Victorian relationship — the distant cousins were married in 1905 — to one that encompassed an openness that included romantic friendships with others, but remained rooted in abiding love and respect.

Theirs was a “community marriage,” said Rowley, filled with close-knit family, including FDR’s overbearing mother, and friends.

When Franklin contracted polio at 39 the circle grew, since he needed help almost 24-hours a day. The disease created a situation where the couple were living at close quarters with a number of aides and others who were fiercely loyal to them and in return received the same.

“They were an unconventional couple ... after Franklin got polio in 1921 their marriage opened up,” Rowley said.

Distance would seem to have been one factor in the nature of their relationship.

“There was five years — between 1923 and 1928 — where he was away from home more than at home,” said Rowley.

For example, FDR was away from home during the period between 1925 and 1928 for 116 weeks while trying to recover from his disease. His wife was with him for four of those weeks, while his social secretary, Missy LeHand, with whom he ended up having a long romance with, was with him for 110.

“He had to find himself again as a man,” said the author. “(Eleanor) understood that.”

Eleanor’s role also changed after FDR contracted polio. She pushed him to continue his political career and took on much of the burden of making his political life possible.

“It was her passion,” said Rowley. “It was the glue that held their marriage together.”

FDR apparently understood this.

“He knew what he owed to Eleanor,” she told me.

While Eleanor denied the fact that she wanted to be First Lady, saying as much in her autobiography “This is My Life,” Rowley doesn’t buy it.

“She said it in her autobiography, but that doesn’t mean we need to believe it,” the author said.

Rowley said it was written while the couple was in the White House, at a time when the Republicans were looking for fodder against the administration and already calling Eleanor a “petticoat president.”

Rowley doesn’t believe the Roosevelts could have lived the life they did in today’s world.

She said it was a different time, with the press respecting their privacy and the president’s public image, going so far as to never film FDR being lifted in and out of his car.

After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor continued to be a progressive voice in a newly conservative America, said Rowley.

This period, beginning just after the Roosevelt era, when a “fog of conservatism” fell across America, in Rowley’s words, will be the subject of her next book.

The author, who resides in New York City, has written a number of other biographies including one about the relationship of Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.