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Let's face it, most of us know FDR as Teddy Roosevelt's boring cousin. He isn't exactly remembered for his personality. So you'd be surprised to find out that behind the scenes, his White House was a soap opera, all passion and melodrama, a rotating cast of love interest, many of them living in the White House residence. At the same time, a quirky housekeeper for Comic Relief. And like all soap operas, it keeps running for way longer than it should have.
But FDR was no quitter. He was literally going to be president until his dying day. Welcome to very presidential, a Spotify original from podcast, I'm your host, Ashley Flowers, you can find all episodes of very presidential and all other originals from podcast for free on Spotify.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the reason why term limits exist. He was president for 12 years and it could have been 16 if he hadn't died a few months into his fourth term.
He kept getting elected because he knew how to handle a crisis and there were a lot of them.
The Great Depression, World War Two complications from polio that left him paralyzed for life and of course, the slow motion collapse of his own marriage.
We'll dig up the truth right after this. Stay with us. When FDR first ran for president in 1932, he had one huge advantage, name recognition, he would not be the first President Roosevelt. The first, of course, was Teddy, who Franklin described as his fifth cousin by blood and uncle by law. See, not only was Franklin Roosevelt, his wife, Eleanor, was actually Teddy's niece. So you know what that means. Franklin and Eleanor were cousins.
Technically, they were fifth cousins once removed. And so that's like a really distant relation.
I mean, anyone could technically maybe be your fifth cousin once removed and you'd probably wouldn't even realize it. But Franklin and Eleanor did know they were related, like they grew up seeing each other at family functions.
It's a little weird, but it didn't seem to bother them. They got engaged after about a year of courtship when Franklin was 21 and Eleanor was 19, they made a kind of odd couple.
Franklin was charismatic and self-assured and sophisticated. I mean, he lived a charmed life. Eleanor, though, had a really difficult childhood. She was orphaned at nine years old. And as a teenager, she was shy and had zero self-confidence. When Franklin proposed, she actually asked him, why me? I have little to bring you. But Franklin was smitten. She was really smart and deep thinking. And of course, her uncle was currently the president of the United States.
There was just one problem standing in the way of their relationship.
Franklin's mother, Sarah Sarah was possessive to the extreme. Like when Franklin started college at Harvard, she moved to Boston to stay near him. She hated pretty much every girlfriend her son ever had, but she especially hated Eleanor. And here's the thing. Sarah wasn't just some distant in-law they had to reckon with on holidays. After the wedding, Franklin and Eleanor moved into a townhouse in New York City, which was right next door to Sarah's house. There were connecting doors between the two units.
And you could never be sure when Sarah was just going to pop in unannounced.
Even on Franklin and Eleanor side of the house, Sarah chose all the furniture and all the decor.
I mean, she hired the staff and once they started having kids, Sarah was constantly there with unsolicited parenting advice. At one point, Franklin walked in to find Eleanor weeping. She said she didn't like living in a house that wasn't hers in any way. Franklin responded calmly that she was overreacting and she would feel better in a little while. And then he just left her alone until she settled down. So clearly, things were not all perfect in Franklin and Eleanor marriage, the Sarah problem was just the first of many cracks in the facade.
Well, Franklin is getting started in politics.
Eleanor is left at home with their six children. Franklin wanted to have six kids specifically following in his footsteps. Eleanor was apparently down for that. But after baby number six is conceived, the couple's sex life completely stops. It turns out Eleanor has no actual interest in sleeping with her husband. She once told her daughter that sex was an ordeal to be born. She would do it for the sake of procreation, but that was it for her. So pretty soon after their last child was born, Franklin starts looking for love elsewhere, and he doesn't have to look very far around this time.
Eleanor had hired a young woman next door, Lucy Mercer, as her social secretary. Basically, she gets paid to, like, sort through invitations and send thank you cards.
Lucy is this gorgeous, charming. Twenty two year old and one of her cousins said, quote, Every man who ever knew her fell in love with her. And Franklin D. Roosevelt was no exception. Eventually, Lucy started working as Franklin's secretary at the Navy office. Whenever Eleanor is out of town, Lucy takes her spot as his dinner companion.
Now, Franklin was always kind of a ladies man. He loved flirting with pretty much every woman he met.
But the way he's acting around Lucy really raises some eyebrows. I mean, he's never looked so happy, certainly not around his actual wife. And then one day, Franklin comes home from a trip to Europe.
Eleanor is unpacking his suitcase and she finds a whole trove of letters from Lucy Love letters. Eleanor is heartbroken. She confronts Franklin about it and he admits, yes, he's in love with Lucy. Eleanor suggests they get a divorce. But back in these days, divorce is really frowned upon. It would ruin Franklin's career and disgrace the whole family. So instead, they reach an agreement. Franklin will stop seeing Lucy and he and Eleanor will stay married, but they'll never share the same bed again.
From here on out, their marriage is purely a matter of convenience.
Over the next few years, FDR s political star keeps rising. He's on the Democratic ticket for vice president in 1920 as James M. Cox, his running mate, of course, Cox lost to Warren G. Harding. But still, just being nominated is a sign of good things ahead. Then one day in August 1921, Franklin starts feeling a little under the weather. He's only 39 and in pretty good health, so he doesn't think much of it. But the next morning when he tries to get out of bed, his left leg isn't working.
And by day three, he's having trouble with all of the muscles in the lower half of his body. He's eventually diagnosed with polio, a virus that causes paralysis. It's usually not fatal, but it is incurable for the rest of his life. FDR is mostly going to be reliant on a wheelchair. This is a huge change for a healthy 39 year old who was swimming and sailing and running literally just a few days ago. But Franklin stays positive 100 percent of the time.
He never shows weakness, never complains, not in public or in private. He insists he's getting better even when it's clear he's not. If he wants to stay in politics, which he does, this little performance of strength is absolutely necessary. But the truth is the constant pain and fatigue make every part of daily life difficult for him. So before he jumps back into the ring, he spends a long summer getting some answer on a houseboat off the coast of Florida, now fishing and drinking with his friends, trying to keep his spirits up.
Eleanor has no interest in coming along, so she doesn't spend much time with him on board. But you know who does? His new secretary, Mesilla Hand.
Missy had started working as his secretary the year before during the vice presidential campaign and after his illness struck, she became his constant companion. She was over a decade younger than him, only in her mid 20s, but they clicked right away. Missy knew FDR better than anyone she could sense when he was bored, what he was really thinking, which letters he wanted to read and exactly how he would frame a response. She learned his favorite drinks, his likes and dislikes.
She was completely devoted to him. When FDR was elected governor of New York in 1928, Missy moved into the governor's mansion when Eleanor was out of town, which was increasingly often Missy served as the hostess. She was basically the Stand-In wife in more ways than one. No one's sure whether Franklin and Mrs. Relationship was sexual, but it was definitely romantic and it would continue that way for decades, even once FDR was in the White House. But before you start feeling too bad for Eleanor, she had her own secret lovers and some of them would follow her to the White House to.
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By the beginning of 1932, FDR is 50 years old in the middle of his second term as governor of New York, the Great Depression is raging on, but Franklin has done a good job of handling the situation in New York. So he's an obvious choice for that year's presidential election. He wins the Democratic nomination without too much of a fight, but he still has one big hurdle in the general election. You know, his polio as he's clearly paralyzed from the waist down.
Some of his opponents question whether FDR has the strength and energy to lead America through the Great Depression. Now, obviously, you don't need your legs to solve an economic crisis, but this is politics.
It's all about optics.
So to show the people that he still has that old Roosevelt figure, he goes on a 21 day national campaign tour. Now, that doesn't sound too extreme today, but back then, candidates tended not to campaign as actively as they do now. No one would have thought it was weird if FDR had just stayed at home and run the whole campaign from his house, but he was insistent. So in September, he boarded a train and headed out west.
Eleanor only joined the tour halfway through. She really didn't want anything to do with the campaign. It was a lot of schmoozing and joking and drinking with the boys, and they were all boys. There was only one female reporter in the entire press caravan, Lorena Hickok.
Hick, as her friends called her, was one of the AP's top journalist. She usually avoided covering political wives because it wasn't hard hitting enough for her. She wanted the real news. But after shadowing the Roosevelts on tour, Haig realized there was something different about Eleanor. She immediately sent a wire back to her editor that said The dame has enormous dignity.
She's a person. From then on, he basically becomes Ellinor Shadow, she goes to all of her public appearances, spends all day sitting outside her office, joins her on the campaign trips, and soon their relationship is getting really close. Every time they say goodbye, their last words to each other in French are, I love you and adore you. Eventually, they're writing each other letters constantly with phrases like, I want to put my arms around you and kiss you at the corner of your mouth.
For obvious reasons, Hick's articles for the AP are a lot less effusive. But even on the record, Eleanor opens up to her in a way she never does with other reporters. In one article, Eleanor is quoted as saying, I never wanted to be a president's wife and I don't want it now. Of course, on principle, she believes FDA's election is the right thing for the country. But as for herself, she says, I shall have to work out my own salvation on the night of the election.
HYC joins Roosevelt's inner circle in New York to wait for the results as the returns come in. It's an astounding victory for FDR. He wins 42 of the forty eight states. Everyone's shouting and celebrating and calling for Eleanor to give a speech. She finally agrees and HYC remembered quote, Through it all, she kept smiling. But once she looked directly at me, she shook her head ever so slightly, and the expression in her eyes was miserable, end quote.
FDR took the news a little differently when they got home. He told his mother, This is the greatest night of my life. He would have to hold on to that energy for a while. When he took office in March of 1933, the economy was at rock bottom. There were 13 million people unemployed. So FDR had to get things done and fast. In his first 100 days, he pushed Congress to pass more legislation than ever before in U.S. history, bills to regulate the banks, create jobs, prevent foreclosures.
It was a whirlwind to the outside observer. FDR was the picture of strength that he promised to be. And everyone worked hard to keep it that way. There were strict protocols no one was ever supposed to see the president being moved in his wheelchair. When guest entered the White House dining room, he was already in his seat if photographers snuck a picture of him in his wheelchair. The Secret Service confiscated the film again.
Everyone knew about the president's disability, but if they didn't see him struggling, it's as if it didn't exist.
And the same logic goes for the Roosevelts, rocky marriage and the entourage they brought with them into the White House. So on the second floor of the residence, FDR had his own bedroom. There was a sliding door connecting it to Eleanor Suite, but he blocked the doorway with a huge seven drawer dresser, Eleanor, his bedroom connected to his bedroom where she lived on and off throughout the whole presidency. Why is an AP reporter moving into the White House?
Good question. Within a few months, HYC actually leaves her job because it's clear that she can no longer be objective in her reporting. And Missy, the secretary, lived upstairs on the third floor. And before you ask, no, it's not customary for the president secretary to live inside the White House. But if they all pretended this living arrangement wasn't weird, maybe the world would believe it. Also on the third floor was a hidden kitchen FDR had installed since he couldn't quite deal with what was coming out of the official White House kitchen.
See, Eleanor had hired their former housekeeper, Mrs. Nesbitt, to run it together. They drew up a menu of nutritious economical meals, the kind of food a regular family could make during the Great Depression. You know, to set an example. Some of the favorite dishes were creamed fish broiled kidneys on toast and prune pudding and something called milk corno, which was a combination of cornmeal and powdered milk. This was served at actual White House dinners. FDR tried to complain, but Mrs.
Nesbitt just ignored him. Nobody's going to tell her how to do her job, not even the president. So out of desperation, Franklin had a kitchen built on the third floor where he could cook his own meals in peace.
You would think that all of this would be enough excitement for Mr. and Mrs. President, but that was just the beginning of the White House drama. Eleanor was also in a long running flirtation ship with her bodyguard, Earl Miller. Now, it's not clear whether they actually ever had an affair, but they were close enough that it sparked rumors. Earl actually got married not once, but twice solely to stop the gossip about him and Eleanor. Now, both marriages fell apart very quickly.
And then there's FDR, other other woman, Crown Princess Martha of Norway. Martha was beautiful, regal, exactly what you picture when you hear Princess of Norway. She stayed at the White House for a while without her husband. She was around thirty nine at the time, so almost 20 years younger than FDR. But she fawned over him like openly flirting in front of the whole White House entourage. He told her to call him Dear Godfather, which I don't love.
But what do I know? As for Martha FDR, his aides started calling her the president's girlfriend. So the president of the United States hitting on foreign royalty. What's the worst that could happen? Right, an international incident. Luckily, there were no world shaking consequences here. However, the same can't be said about FDR, his flirtation with his own daughter in law.
Franklin and Eleanor, his oldest son, James, worked as an aide in the White House, meaning James, his wife Betsy was around all the time. Well, FDR supposedly couldn't restrain himself from flirting with Betsy, as usual. It's hard to say how far this went, but it apparently went far enough that it ruined James and Betty's marriage in the middle of all this drama. James is hospitalized for an ulcer and his parents and Betsy are there at his side by now.
James is fully aware of what's going on and so is Eleanor. But Franklin and Betsy both refuse to acknowledge that anything is wrong. Typical FDR. Just pretend it's all fine now. Eleanor is basically just sitting in the corner acting like this is none of her business. And she writes a letter to her daughter describing the situation as incredibly unreal. It seems like James finally snapped, and while he was still at the clinic, he struck up a romance with his nurse.
Eleanor was so mad that she had the nurses boss called, which broke up the lovebirds, but it was too late. Betsy filed for divorce and James eventually remarried to the nurse. So thanks FDR for sparking that flame. Even by presidential standards, even by Roosevelt standards, stealing your son's wife is pretty extreme. FDR is a need for companionship, was borderline compulsive. The wife of one of his secretaries once called him the loneliest man in the world.
He was constantly surrounded by people and he could entertain with the best of them. But it was all a performance. And when he turned the charm off, there were very few people he could actually be real with. He once confided to a friend, I'm either exhibit A or were left completely alone. Unfortunately, FDR wasn't going to get a break from the spotlight because after his first term, he was elected again and again and again. Coming up, I'll look at FDA's many reelections.
Now back to the story. In 1936, FDR was up for reelection. He won in an unprecedented landslide, 523 electoral votes to his opponents, eight easy enough. There were no term limits back then, but everyone assumed that this would be it. Every president before had called it quits after two. But then three years into this second term, Nazi Germany invades Poland and then Denmark and Norway and France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
By the time of the Democratic Convention in July 1940, World War Two was in full force and the U.S. was desperate to stay out of it. Maybe not the best time to be switching out. Commander in Chief's right. The people trusted FDR to handle the war as smoothly as he handled the Depression. So at the last minute he announced that he was running again. He won election number three by promising to keep the U.S. out of World War Two. And surprise, surprise, that isn't the only promise he broke in 1941 that June his secretary turned girlfriend, Mesilla, had suffered a stroke.
She survived, but it left her unable to speak. Now, one day later, a new name appeared on FDA's calendar.
Mrs. Johnson, if one were to snoop on that meeting, you'd realize that Mrs. Johnson is actually Lucy Mercer, Eleanor's old secretary. Yeah, she's back 23 years after promising Eleanor that he'd never see her again.
At the very same moment, while Missy is upstairs recovering from a stroke in her White House bedroom, FDA's official schedule for the day breaks down like this.
Eleven thirty to mycelia hands, apartment 15. Fifty five to 17 40 returned from office to study, accompanied by Mrs. Johnson 1740 to misalliance apartment.
So, wow, Missy dedicates her whole life to working for you, and you can't even give her a full afternoon. In fairness, though, whoever replaced Missy as the new personal secretary must have had a rough time trying to squeeze in this visit from Lucy. They had to plan carefully around Eleanora schedule because, you know, she isn't supposed to find out that her husband's having an affair with the same woman he promised to stop having affairs with two decades ago.
This led to some tight scheduling. Eleanor would leave the White House at 430 and Lucy would arrive at five thirty. Oh, and Princess Martha is still in the mix, too. Throughout November, FDR was balancing two visits from Martha to visits from Lucy and some very threatening messages from the Japanese government. So lots of balls in the air. But that was FDR always on, always upbeat. He knew how to compartmentalize, just like he'd been doing with his polio for the past 20 years.
He could walk right out of a cabinet meeting where the fate of the world hung in the balance and then immediately sit down to watch Dumbo with Martha in the White House theater room.
And it was only going to get worse that December when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Suddenly staying out of the war was no longer an option. Within hours, FDR called a meeting with his military advisers and told them to get ready for battle. And he issued three proclamations authorizing the arrest of any suspected enemy aliens, that is anyone from Japan, Germany or Italy. Two months later, he expands on that with an executive order. This one authorizes the military to round up anyone they want, citizen or not, and send them to concentration camps or as they were officially called, relocation centers.
Over the next few months, somewhere around one hundred and twelve thousand Japanese Americans were taken from their homes and imprisoned indefinitely without trial. Two thirds of them were U.S. citizens, and not a single one was ever found guilty of espionage or sabotage. To be clear, the attorney general had told FDR from the jump there's zero evidence that this is necessary. These are shop owners. Stay at home mothers and actual children, school kids, they're not a threat.
Besides, this is totally unconstitutional. But who cares? Not FDR, not Congress, not most of the American public. The only person who actually did care is Eleanor. She was against this from the beginning, but she didn't actually speak out publicly until over a year later when she visited one of the camps herself. It was basically a village of shoddy wooden barracks in the middle of the Arizona desert. It was overpopulated. There wasn't enough water. It was over 100 degrees on an average summer day, as if that wasn't enough.
There were rattlesnakes and scorpions crawling everywhere. Eleanor came back and said, we've got to close these camps now. She even published an article calling the imprisonment a mistake. FDR wouldn't go that far, but he did agree that maybe some of these innocent people should be allowed to go back to their homes by the end of that year. A third of the prisoners had been released, which some might say is better than nothing. But there are still two thirds that were kept.
And here's the real kicker. While the president was so focused on targeting Japanese American schoolchildren, he failed to realize that his own administration was chock full of Soviet spies.
Now, during World War Two, the Soviet Union was part of the allied powers, so they weren't top priority. The FBI and the State Department had bigger problems at the moment, namely the Nazis. So they completely ignored reports that Soviet agents had infiltrated the government, like, for example, Harry Dexter White, a top Treasury Department official who was in charge of all the Treasury's international matters during the war. He was passing those details along to the Soviets or Lauchlan Currey, the White House economic adviser, Soviet spy, allegedly.
Or Victor Perlow at the War Production Board, nor field at the State Department, Alger Hiss, who was in charge of creating the United Nations, all accused of being spies. So you get the point, lots of espionage going on right under FDA's nose in his defense. By 1944, he'd been president for more than 11 years. He was 62 years old and his health was slipping. At this point, did he really need a fourth term as president?
No, but he wanted one just so he could fire old Mrs. Nesbitt and get some quality White House dining in his last few years on Earth. At least that's what he told his friends. But he also wanted to see this war through to the end. So he ran again. And once again he won. He didn't even hold a big inaugural ceremony in 1945 because really, what's the point? He did have an inaugural luncheon, though, and Mrs. Nesbitt was still there for it.
He told her he wanted to serve chicken, allocate a pretty small request for an event like this. Instead, he got cold chicken salad on a lettuce leaf and some of the chicken was spoiled.
Really, the most important consequence of FDR winning a fourth term is the 22nd Amendment, that's the one that says no one can be elected president. More than twice the backlash had less to do with FDR actual behavior as president and more to do with the fact that by the beginning of the fourth term, he was already hanging on by a thread and anyone who saw him was shocked.
He was only 63, but he looked like a dead man. Walking at the end of March, just two months into the new term, he went to his vacation home in Warm Springs, Georgia, for a few weeks of R and R.. Eleanor stayed in Washington because someone had to keep the country running. She had a packed schedule of meetings and speeches and press conferences. But you know who did join Franklin in Warm Springs? Yup, Lucy Mercer.
The time away in the company seemed like just the thing FDR needed by the afternoon of April 12. He was looking better than he had in days. He was sitting in the living room reading through the mail and eating a bowl of oatmeal.
Then all of a sudden he said, I have a terrific pain in the back of my head. And then he just slumped over unconscious. He was dead just 11 weeks into his fourth term, Lucy sped out of there as fast as possible, but it was too late. When Eleanor flew in from Washington that night, she learned the truth. Lucy was with Franklin when he died. What a gut punch. People around the world were stunned by FDs death.
Winston Churchill said, I feel as if I had been struck a physical blow. Even Hitler heard the news while hiding out in his underground bunker. His reaction was, See, the war is not lost. Of course he was wrong. Germany would surrender in less than a month and by September, World War Two would officially be over.
FDR might not have been there to see it through, but really he did more than enough. From the Great Depression to Pearl Harbor to the near end of World War Two, he handled more crises in 12 years than most people have to face in a lifetime. He didn't handle them perfectly, but he at least never stopped trying, not until his dying day. Thanks for listening. If you want to hear more episodes of very presidential, you can find them all for free on Spotify.
Very presidential was created by Max Cutler and Ashley Flowers in his Apakan Studios original, starring Ashley Flowers. It is executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Carrie Murphy with production assistance by Ron Shapiro and Carly Madden. This episode of Very Presidential was written by Kate Gallagher with Writing Assistants by Drew. Cool to hear more stories hosted by me, check out Crime Junkie and all audio Chuck Originals.
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