Lucy Rutherfurd was not FDR's Monica Lewinsky President Roosevelt's relationship with his early lover was a deep, truly romantic, tragedy

THE ARGUMENT

September 13, 1998|By THEO LIPPMAN, JR. | THEO LIPPMAN, JR.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in his mistress's arms." - Gene Lyons, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"Franklin Roosevelt died in his mistress's arms." - David Nyhan of the Boston Globe.

And so it has been going, pundit after pundit, not to mention partisan apologists for Bill Clinton, in assessing his sordid affair with Monica Lewinsky. Such statements are meant to mitigate Clinton's shame, but they are, in fact, false, and one of the most obnoxious, odious comparisons I have ever heard.

Roosevelt's private life was "Romeo and Juliet" compared to Clinton's "Deep Throat," romantic tragedy versus pornography.

The woman the Clinton excusers are referring to was Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd. She was not his mistress when he suffered his fatal cerebral hemorrhage at Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945. Nor was he was in her arms. She wasn't even there. She was an hour's drive away, heading in the other direction.

I would argue that she was never just his mistress, in the usual limited sense of that word. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines that as "a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a continuing sexual relationship." That suggests that's all there is to the relationship. But FDR and Lucy had a full-blown love affair during World War I when he was assistant secretary of the Navy and she was Eleanor Roosevelt's social secretary. There was clearly more to it than sex.

Eleanor was at the time a famously plain, shy, socially inept, sometimes dull woman married to one of Washington's handsomest, wittiest, most outgoing and flirtatious charmers. Lucy Mercer, nine years FDR's junior, navigated the social scene as deftly and successfully as FDR.

She came from an old, aristocratic Catholic Maryland family that had fallen on hard times. Thus she took a part time job. She was always in demand when a hostess needed a vivacious woman guest. She was as attractive and charming a member of her sex as FDR was of his.

Probably inevitably, when Eleanor and their children were out of town, as they often were, FDR and Lucy began a romance. And it was a romance, truly affectionate, many dimensional, not just physical.

Eleanor found out in 1918 when she discovered some love letters Lucy had written FDR. Angry and hurt, she offered her husband a divorce. FDR considered it - and marriage to Lucy. But divorce was a liability for an ambitious politician in those days. And re-marriage was complicated by Lucy's Catholicism. Most important of all, FDR's mother, who controlled the family fortune, told her son she was cut him off without a cent if he left Eleanor and his children.

Eleanor remained his wife, demanding only that he never see Lucy again. Lucy left Washington to serve as a governess for the children of a wealthy widower, Winthrop Rutherfurd, 30 years her senior. In 1920 she married him.

There are several good books about this story. Among them: "Washington Quadrille" by Jonathon Daniels (Double day), which revealed it in 1968; Joseph Lash retold it succinctly in "Eleanor and Franklin" (W.W. Norton) in 1971; so did Blanche Wiesen Cook in the first of a projected two-volume "Eleanor Roosevelt" (Viking) in 1992. Robert Ferrell sums it up in a few paragraphs in his recently published "The Dying President" (University of Missouri).

According to some of Franklin and Eleanor's children, the marriage was sexless for its last quarter century. That was not as has been suggested by some because of FDR's being stricken by polio in 1921 and paralyzed below the waist. "He was capable of maintaining an erection and ejaculation," Richard T. Goldberg wrote in "The Making of Franklin D. Roosevelt" (Abt) in 1981. Goldberg, a psychologist who had access to FDR's medical records, said he probably did not have sexual relations with anyone after 1921, but he attributed that to "psychological causes." Unlike today, he said, paraplegics and their loved ones were not taught to handle the often embarassing physical difficulties of intercourse.

Lucy and FDR eventually were reunited. That story is best told in Doris Kearns Goodwin's 1994 "No Ordinary Time" (Simon & Schuster), about the White House during World War II.

The former lovers met face to face in 1941, when Lucy came to the White House for a visit one August evening. She used a pseudonym, "Mrs. Paul Johnson." She spent two hours with the president. She came back the next night for dinner and private conversation.

"Mrs. Johnson" and her daughter returned to the White House later that year. Lucy came to see FDR at least four times in 1942. There were also visits in 1943 and 1944, including one at the Hyde Park, N.Y., Roosevelt family estate, and one to Warm Springs. In 1945 she visited FDR in Washington and Warm Springs. There were other meetings at country estates of friends and elsewhere.

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