FDR's paramour had a Maryland pedigree


January 18, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In Ellen Feldman's recently published novel, Lucy, the narrator of the tale is none other than Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, telling of her long, romantic love affair with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

While the novel is fiction, the affair between the president and Mercer, a descendant of the Carroll family of Maryland, was not.

Born the daughter of Carroll Mercer and Minnie Mercer and educated in private schools, Mercer was 22 when she began working as Eleanor Roosevelt's social secretary in 1914.

Blond, slim and socially prominent, Mercer's quick, easy smile, low, throaty voice and porcelain blue eyes caught the attention of FDR, then assistant secretary of the Navy.

While Eleanor was away with her children during the summer at Campobello Island, an affair began to blossom as FDR entertained Mercer with yachting excursions on the Potomac, quiet dinners and drives through the Virginia countryside.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the wise-cracking daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and FDR's cousin, observed the happy couple on one of their motorized perambulations in the country.

"I saw you 20 miles out in the country. You didn't see me," said Longworth. "Your hands were on the wheel but your eyes were on that perfectly lovely lady."

"Of course, he was in love with her," Eulalie Salley, a longtime friend of Mercer's, told the Associated Press in a 1966 interview. "So was every man who ever knew Lucy Rutherfurd."

Longworth also cracked: "Of course, he deserved a good time. He was married to Eleanor."

In 1918, after her husband's return from a wartime visit to Europe, Eleanor discovered a packet of letters from Mercer while unpacking his suitcase.

"The bottom dropped out of my own particular world & I faced myself, my surroundings, my world, honestly for the first time," she wrote.

She offered her husband a divorce, but, threatened with being disinherited by his mother, FDR reconsidered and promised Eleanor he would end the affair. Also complicating matters was Mercer's Catholicism, which would have prevented her marriage to a divorced man.

Mercer left Washington and went to work as a governess for Winthrop Rutherfurd, a wealthy widower with six children, whom she married in 1920.

The couple spent time at their Manhattan townhouse and at estates at Allamuchy, N.J., and Ridgeley Hall in Aiken, S.C., a winter playground of the wealthy and socially prominent.

In his 1966 book, The Time Between the Wars, Jonathan Daniels, a former Roosevelt aide and press secretary who later was editor of the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., wrote: "Supposedly, he ended forever his relations with Lucy Mercer, to whom actually he was to be attached by ties of deep and unbroken affection to the day he died."

He describes the affair as "one of the greatest affections in the history of the presidency."

After Roosevelt won his first presidential election, Daniels related that FDR "quietly" arranged for tickets and a private automobile in order for Mercer to witness his swearing in as president in 1933.

Mercer never visited the White House while Eleanor was present or on official occasions. During World War II, FDR enlisted the help of his daughter, Anna Roosevelt Boettiger, to spirit Mercer through the southwest gate, or back door of the mansion, for private dinners.

There were also visits together at Shangri-La, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Western Maryland, and at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Ga. In 1944 alone, there were a dozen "secret" meetings.

Ordered to rest by his physicians in the spring of 1944, FDR traveled to the secluded South Carolina estate of his old friend, Bernard Baruch, the financier.

Widowed a month earlier when her husband died at 55, Mercer was invited by the president to visit Hobcaw, Baruch's elegant estate on the Waccamaw River, near Georgetown, S.C.

"In spite of all she had been through the previous month, she retained her beauty and her charm. She could still reach Roosevelt in a way that no one else could," wrote Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Home Front in World War II.

Goodwin relates that it was the first time that Mercer wasn't listed on the luncheon seating chart as "Mrs. Paul Johnson," a pseudonym meant to disguise her actual identity.

"For Roosevelt, Lucy's presence must have provided a delightful tonic, reminding him of his younger self, before his paralysis, before the illness that was now overwhelming him," writes Goodwin. "If his future was disappearing, at least he could relive the happy moments of the past."

On another occasion, FDR had the presidential train, on its way to Hyde Park, N.Y., diverted so he could visit Mercer at Tranquillity Farms, her estate in Allamuchy.

The three reporters traveling with the president, including Merriman Smith of United Press, did not write about the brief stop, fearing the possible lifting of their White House press credentials.

Mercer was also a frequent visitor to Warm Springs. In April 1945, she and her friend, Elizabeth Shoumatoff, an artist, had been invited by FDR to spend three days at the presidential retreat while his portrait was being painted.

On April 12, while Shoumatoff was working on his portrait, FDR's face suddenly became creased with pain.

"I have a terrific pain in the back of my head," FDR said, as he collapsed.

In the ensuing chaos, according to Goodwin's book, Mercer turned to Shoumatoff and said, "We must pack and go. The family is arriving by plane and the rooms must be vacant. We must get to Aiken before dark."

It was a little after 3:30 p.m., while driving near Macon, Ga., that Mercer learned over the radio that the president had died.

It was only upon her arrival in Warm Springs that Eleanor learned that Mercer had been present when her husband was stricken.

Mercer, whose correspondence with the president was never found, died in 1948. She was 57.

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