THE BLOG
12/04/2012 11:01 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson

Having spent the last 40 years working in the theater as a playwright and director, I have very much enjoyed this last year in the world of movies. A busman's holiday, I suppose. Whenever I have watched one of my plays in front of an audience, my concerns have centered on: How well will my actors do on this particular night? So -- and I know this sounds silly -- what struck me most when I watched our film in front of its first audiences at the Telluride Film Festival this past September was that I didn't have to worry about the actors. They did the exact same performance every time!

In the late 1980s a friend of mine invited me to visit what had long been a private residence in my town, Rhinebeck, New York, but had recently been given to a public trust by its elderly owner, with the provision that the owner could live there for the rest of her life. The house sat overlooking the Hudson River, and looked like something out of a fairy tale -- a dark one. Pretty dilapidated, paint long weathered away, Wilderstein, as the home of the Suckley Family for at least two generations is called, could be, I thought, the poster child for genteel poverty in America. My friend took me on a quick tour of the first floor, and while passing through the living room, with its peeled wallpaper, tired sagging stuffed sofas, and worn, ragged oriental rugs, I caught my first and only sight of the heroine of our film, Daisy Suckley. She sat alone, reading (I think) a newspaper, oblivious to the strangers passing through. Soon after, in her 100th year, Daisy died.

Wilderstein, which has since become a public park and is in the process of being restored to its early-20th-century grandeur, is only one of the two legacies Daisy left to us; the other was found in a small suitcase, at her death, under her bed. Here were her intimate letters to and from her fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, and her diaries recording in detail their relationship. A relationship that had remained a secret, until her death. Pages had gone missing (burned?) from both the letters and diary, but what remains gives a rich and moving portrait of a love affair between a woman who called herself "the little mud wren" and who saw herself as "part of the furniture" and one of the greatest, most powerful and charismatic men of the century. Reading these letters and diary entries opens a window into a world only imagined; a world behind the façade of a presidency, where all conspired to hide from the world the frailties and infirmities of its leader. Daisy, it now seems clear, was the person Franklin could relax with, forget the world, the job, the troubles with, and just be himself. It is no coincidence that the only photographs we have today of Franklin Roosevelt in his wheelchair were taken by Daisy Suckley. Nor was it a coincidence that when Roosevelt established (actually he invented the idea of) the first Presidential Library, that its first employee was Daisy Suckley.

The discovery of these letters and diaries was the impetus for our film.

And it was a single entry in Daisy's diary that gives the film its story. Daisy writes with wild-eyed enthusiasm and excitement of the visit of the King and Queen of England to Roosevelt's Hyde Park home in June 1939; the first ever by a reigning English monarch to the Western Hemisphere; and of her being thrilled at seeing all this firsthand -- having been a guest at what became known as the "hot dog picnic."

In June 1939, England was on the cusp of war with Germany, and it desperately needed America's support. It was to help gain this support that the King and Queen were sent to America, and it was to help them with this cause that Roosevelt invited them to Hyde Park. But much of America needed convincing: The mood of the country was to stay out of another European war. Add to this a historical (and understandable) American reticence toward British royalty and all things royal, exacerbated by the recent royal abdication forced by the present King's brother's wish to marry not only a divorced woman, but "God forbid" -- as it was perceived by us -- "an American of all things," and support for England was by no means a given -- quite the contrary. The inexperienced and accidental King needed to show America that he admired our country, its people, and respected us as equals. That was his mission. And Franklin Roosevelt gave him just such an opportunity -- by serving him a hot dog!

The two stories -- the affair with Daisy and the weekend with the King and Queen, are the center of our story. As I worked on the script, these two stories became intertwined, each commenting upon the other: a woman painfully learns the truth behind the public image of her lover, and a king learns to hide his pain and project courage behind a public image; the need to present a public front to save your country, and the recognition that the man you love is not the man you thought he was.

Finally, Hyde Park on Hudson is also a personal story; I have lived in Rhinebeck, Daisy's hometown, for 30 years, and raised a family here. And though it is a story with ramifications across the globe, and deals with great historical figures, it is also about a woman from my village, a woman I once saw on her sofa, who for a time had the chance to see the world -- the public and the private -- through her own innocent eyes.