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Ellen Feldman

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The Newly Discovered FDR-Lucy Mercer Correspondence

Posted: 05/09/08 11:07 AM ET

Much has been written in the past few weeks about the newly discovered correspondence between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, the woman for whom he almost left his wife Eleanor and therefore came close to derailing twentieth century history.

Current speculation posits that these formerly unknown letters, mostly from FDR to Lucy, detailed his comings and goings so carefully that they were actually coded missives scheduling assignations. I am one of the handful of writers who have seen the correspondence, and while the idea of setting up clandestine meetings is racy, I don't think the evidence substantiates the theory.

The earliest letters, dated May 22, 1926, and September 15, 1927, speak enthusiastically of his negotiations to buy Warm Springs, Georgia, "on the installment plan." He writes of the treatment he will get there which he fervently hopes will help him walk again, and the thousands of children whom he plans to have treated there.

To the end of his life, FDR never stopped searching for a way to regain the use of his legs. During the early years of his paralysis, he was obsessed with the idea. While he enjoyed the casual company of family and friends as he went through many of the agonizing exercises, it is unlikely that he would plan to combine a tryst with this intensive new treatment, especially since Warm Springs was still a small provincial community. Moreover, the second letter is addressed to Lucy in Paris, and in an era of slower transatlantic travel, she probably would not even have returned to the States in time for a meeting.

In many of the newly discovered letters, FDR speaks of his comings and goings, but then all his personal letters tell of where he has been and where he is headed. Ambulatory or paralyzed, FDR was always on the move, and he kept his wife, mother, children, and friends abreast of his schedule.

Perhaps the most moving of the newly discovered letters, a note FDR scrawled to Lucy in pencil on a piece of yellow lined paper torn from a legal pad, has nothing to do with his whereabouts. The immediacy of the writing is palpable. FDR must have dashed it off as soon as Lucy's only daughter, Barbara, left the White House after a private lunch. In it, he tells Lucy that her daughter is a delightful child and all that he expected. In fact, much of the correspondence between FDR and Lucy concerned their children and grandchildren.

I am not suggesting FDR and Lucy Mercer never had an affair. The late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote an article in the early 1970's suggesting that we had to think of the love between the two in Edith Wharton rather than John Updike terms, admitted to me thirty years later that he had changed his mind about the matter. But whatever the physical aspects of the relationship, and fortunately we will never know for certain, the love between FDR and Lucy endured. During World War II, Lucy began visiting FDR in the White House, and there is little doubt her companionship helped him sustain the overwhelming burdens of leadership during this terrible time.

There is a curious footnote to the record of their meetings, which none of the recent writing about their relationship mentions and which says a great deal about FDR, the man. Most historians date Lucy's first visit to the White House, under her secret service code name of Mrs. Johnson, to August, 1941. Their first meeting actually took place on June 5th of the same year. The difference of several weeks would not seem important, except for the incidents of the previous evening. While Lucy was having tea with the president in the oval study, Marguerite "Missy" LeHand, his personal secretary, lay in her small room on the third floor sedated but uncalm. After two decades of cruising the Florida waters and sharing a Warm Springs cottage with FDR, sitting by his side while he sorted his stamps when she knew he needed silence, and arranging impromptu dinners and late night poker games when she sensed he'd like company, Missy had suffered a stroke, brought on, some said, by her effort to keep up with FDR.

The official schedule for June 5, 1941 reads in part:
1130- To Marguerite A. LeHand's apartment
1555-1740: Returned from Office to Study White House accompanied by Mrs. Johnson
1740: To Marguerite A. LeHand's apartment

The question, of course, is what relevance all this has for our day. Just as few Americans believed FDR was paralyzed, almost no one knew of his relationship with a woman who was not his wife. In other words, the era permitted public officials private lives. One incident demonstrates this vividly.

When the country entered WWII, FDR's movements became top secret and off the record. Three reporters traveled with him and filed stories for the entire press corps. On one trip from Washington to Hyde Park in the late summer of 1944, the president arranged for the train to pull off onto a siding in Allamuchy, New Jersey. He wanted to spend the afternoon with the recently widowed Lucy at her estate. As the train stopped, the reporters looked up from their poker game long enough to ask the reason for the delay. When they were informed that the president wanted to visit an old friend, they went back to their cards. Can anyone imagine that happening today?