Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Book Review: An Untold Story

Title: An Untold Story: The Roosevelts of Hyde Park

Author: Elliott Roosevelt

Date: 1973

Publisher: Putnam

ISBN: none

Length: 327 pages

Quote: “Some people may feel that I have revealed too much of the...complications that beset the lives of these two.”

In Genesis 9:20-27, Noah of ark fame passed out drunk after brewing some unexpectedly potent wine, and his children and grandchildren found him in an embarrassing condition. Ham and Canaan laughed at him; Shem and Japheth quickly covered his nakedness. When Noah learned how his heirs had behaved, he said, “Cursed be Canaan! A servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.”

Whatever this story tells us, it's not that Africans were doomed to slavery by Noah's curse. Canaanites looked and talked very much like Israelites. That's another story. 

Writers have traditionally identified the sin of writing about family secrets as “the sin of Ham.” If charged with that sin, Elliott Roosevelt's defense would have to have been that his parents, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, were famous enough and had been dead long enough that they could no longer be said to have secrets. He tells us more about them than we may have wanted to know.

Some of the family secrets disclosed in this memoir are of course favorable to the memory of the former President and First Lady. FDR didn't want it to be known that he never quite “outgrew” the wheelchair he used after a well publicized bout with polio. In hindsight it seems touching and heroic that a polio survivor could be a tough, even dictatorial War Chief without ever recovering the ability to walk a mile. Before he'd done it, FDR thought he had to deny his disability and “pass for normal,” believing the nation would not accept a wheelchair-bound President. This may still be true. 

What obviously did more damage to young Elliott's little psyche was that, after producing five children, the Roosevelts finally remembered that they were cousins. “Never lived together as man and wife” is Elliott's phrase. Well, five children should be enough for any couple; they weren't getting any younger, and FDR had that bizarre case of polio as an adult—most adults don't come down with polio, and those who do usually don't survive. But it wasn't hard enough on a little boy to know that his parents had finally started living together as the cousins they were, in big houses full of children, employees, and other relatives. FDR had long, apparently overt, relationships with select female staff members. 

Little Elliott writes of his father's secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, as a regular part of the family; FDR, like a feudal monarch, could live with two “wives” in one house. Missy died young, though, and her place was reclaimed by Lucy Mercer, whom Elliott—and Eleanor Roosevelt—apparently found much less congenial. Ohhh, the harem intrigue. LeHand, who didn't photograph as the kind of secretary who gets hired for her looks but didn't exactly look the type who is seriously concerned about the filing either, explained everything with a gushy note telling FDR she wished she could address him as “Your Majesty.”

There are nicer vignettes in this memoir of the Roosevelts at home in the 1920s and 1930s, of course. The family had a dry, spare sense of humor, and we share inside jokes like FDR's classification of Washington status seekers' hospitality as “salon, saloon, or Salome.” Eleanor, a late Victorian lady, might have been happier with fewer social obligations even to the salon type. FDR made fun of hosts who could only attract guests with sex or alcohol, but like most politicians he appreciated those types' tendency to be campaign donors. 

Elliott Roosevelt remembers lots of wholesome family-bonding efforts that, for him, somehow failed to bond the family. FDR spent much of the 1920s sailing, swimming, and sunning in the warmest waters available, for therapeutic purposes. Never giving up his lifelong dream of being President like Uncle Teddy, he rewarded reporters like Frances Perkins for describing Roosevelt family scenes that Elliott thought were ridiculously wrong. Eleanor Roosevelt didn't like travel, warm climates, or beaches, and seemed glad to leave her husband alone with LeHand, who sat on his knee in front of his children.

The surprising thing about both Roosevelts always was that, in spite of all the many Very Bad Things that had happened to them, in spite of their natural restraint and parsimony and imperfect health, they didn't come across as unhappy people--not even to Elliott. They had plenty to be sad or angry about, and according to Elliott they felt sad and angry...and then they got over it. They were cheerful people, eupeptic, brave, adventurous. If the "Happy Days Are Here Again" theme tune sounded worn-out and tinny at times, and even to them it did, it wasn't because the Roosevelts themselves ever stopped tapping their toes and singing along. If there was a hint of relentless pursuit of fun--and Elliott's descriptions read as if there was--their pursuit of fun was still successful. No matter how much you disagreed with their politics, and at the time many people did, you had to admire the Roosevelts as human beings.

Elliott managed to betray his parents' secrets, call attention to the weak points in their character, and leave readers admiring them as much as ever. 

An Untold Story could have been shorter but I didn't find it dull. (Then again, if I'd tried reading it in 1973 I probably would have found it dull; I think this one is for adults, college-age readers at the youngest.) Its focus is mostly on the years before FDR became president, when most of the events in the family's life weren't reported as news. It contains family stories and witticisms. If it's not as lively as Cheaper by the Dozen or as intimate as Bring Me a Unicorn, neither is it as superficial as Selfish. You can buy it cheaper from other online sources, but if you send this web site $5 per book, $5 per package (two if not four books of this size would ship in one package), plus $1 per online payment, you'll be getting your $10 or $11 worth of history and entertainment.