02 February 2010

Love Affairs: FDR & Lucy Mercer

By Carrie Lofty

"The cruelty, the impolitic cruelty...of dividing, or attempting to divide, two young people long attached to each other, is terrible."

Colonel Brandon in SENSE & SENSIBILITY
Despite objections by his mother, Franklin Delano Roosevelt united the two opposing Roosevelt clans in 1905 by marrying his distant relation, Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor in turn bore six children over the subsequent ten years, with one dying at seven months. A shy woman, Eleanor contented herself with raising the children, while FDR was handsome, socially active, and politically ambitious.

He began an affair with Eleanor's secretary, Lucy Mercer, in 1914. Lucy was the product of two prominent Maryland and Virginia families, although her parents had fallen on hard times. Although he would go on to have many other private affairs throughout his marriage, FDR maintained a special closeness with Lucy.

Eleanor found letters from Lucy in his luggage when, sick with the 1918 flu, he returned home from WWI. Historians differ as to whether Eleanor then offered the chance to divorce and be with the woman he loved, or if she actually threatened divorce. No matter; Lucy refused to marry a divorced man with five children because she was devout Catholic. (Apparently her level of devotion did not preclude having a lifelong affair with that same man.) His mother also weighed in, insisting that his inheritance would be forfeit. FDR vowed never to see Lucy again.

With the possibility of divorce behind them, FDR and Eleanor reconciled after a fashion. She had never enjoyed sex--and many of her biographers have since speculated as to whether she was a lesbian--but sexual relations between the two never resumed. Eleanor soon established a separate household, and although she officially lived at the White House upon his election, she never stayed there for long. She had been a socially awkward girl, but the Depression and the war gave her myriad social causes. Her husband's power and their shared political goals became the bedrock of what remained of their marriage.

In the meantime, Lucy married a New York socialite named Winthrop Rutherford in 1920 and eventually bore one child. Somewhere during the years that followed, FDR broke his promise. He continued to correspond with Lucy throughout his trying presidency and began to see her again. He arranged for her to have a special, secret place from which to view his 1933 inauguration. The Secret Service even referred to her as "Mrs. Johnson," which indicates the level of intimacy she maintained within the White House. The split between him and Eleanor was so profound by this point that, in 1942, when he asked her to return to him in light of his failing health, she refused.

FDR's daughter Anna had arranged for him to meet Lucy at his retreat home in Georgia in April, 1945, where he suffered his fatal cerebral hemorrhage. As the Secret Service ineffectually rushed to the president's aid, Lucy retreated to another cottage on the same property to hide. She eventually died in 1947 of leukemia at the age of 57.