That Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt formed a splendid partnership is not news. While FDR superbly calculated the political consequences of nearly every move he made, Eleanor encouraged him to act on his convictions -- sometimes goading him to do the right thing at the risk of his career. And it is not surprising to learn about FDR's extramarital dalliances with other women, or about Eleanor's passionate attachments to both women and men, attachments that verged on and perhaps included romantic affairs.
But Hazel Rowley, author of acclaimed biographies of Christina Stead, Richard Wright, and Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, dramatizes in intimate detail just how close the connection between husband and wife became, and how incredibly generous they were with one another. FDR even built a home on his Hyde Park estate for two women who had become his wife's intimate friends. He took an active interest in Eleanor's female partners, such as Lorena Hickok, whom FDR employed in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.
This was never merely a marriage of convenience. Eleanor needed Franklin to involve her in a broader and more complex world than her sheltered upbringing allowed her to imagine. Initially, she had no interest in politics, but in her efforts to please her husband, she discovered that she actually excelled in the public arena. Franklin relied on Eleanor as an antidote to his manipulative, controlling mother. It was Eleanor who helped him break out of his depression after contracting polio, urging him to continue his quest to become president at a time his mother wanted to confine him to a life of pampered invalidism at his Hyde Park estate.
Even more importantly, Eleanor came to love Louis Howe, the single most important figure in Franklin's rise to the presidency. At first, Howe, a chain smoking, rumpled ex-journalist who crafted FDR's public persona, disgusted Eleanor, but the undeterred Howe encouraged her involvement in politics at a time when candidates' wives were hardly more than decorative features of political campaigns.
What united FDR and ER was their sense of community. They wanted friends and lovers around them, and they wanted to share their homes and the White House itself with those who served them and supplied the news about the world. Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, upper New York State aristocrats, became more attuned to the lives of the American people than any other presidential couple -- not a claim Rowley makes, but one that becomes evident in reading her magnificent biography.
Carl Rollyson is a biographer and professor of journalism at Baruch College, City University of New York.