To a whole generation of Americans, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the most accessible of figures. Millions felt intimately familiar with all the details of his life: his wife Eleanor, his Scottish Terrier Fala, his cigarette holder, his stamp collection. Yet F.D.R.'s Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. described him as simultaneously evasive and frank, frivolous as well as grave, "a man of bewildering complexity." The playwright Robert Sherwood, who served for years as the President's speechwriter, admitted that he had never been able to penetrate Roosevelt's "heavily forested interior."
Geoffrey Ward, former editor of American Heritage, is the latest of many to explore those thickets. He does so by returning to F.D.R.'s origins. The Roosevelts, it turns out, were a strange and sometimes bizarre family, and their history illuminates many of F.D.R.'s foibles. The future President's father James was widower of 52 when he suddenly proposed marriage to the equally lofty Sara Delano, age 26. The reason the Delanos were so privileged was that Sara's father was one of those 19th century entrepreneurs who had made a fortune smuggling Turkish opium into China.
Sara Delano Roosevelt was in labor more than 24 hours before her 10-lb. son Franklin was born, blue and breathless. The doctor urged that she avoid further pregnancies, which she may have done by totally abstaining from sex. Her dedication to young Franklin was of an intensity bordering on the morbid. She kept him in girlish skirts and long blond curls until he was nearly six. Every hour of his day followed a strict schedule: up at 7, breakfast at 8, lessons from 9 to noon.
When the boy was eight, a temporary depression aroused his mother's anxieties. "A little alarmed," she later recalled, "I asked him whether he was unhappy. He ... said very seriously, 'Yes, I am unhappy.' When I asked him why, he ... exclaimed, 'Oh, for freedom!' "
Ward soberly records these efforts to turn Roosevelt into a model boy, waiting for the explosion that never comes. F.D.R. turns into a complaisant youth, somewhat spoiled but eager to please. Schooling at Groton does not greatly change him, and neither does Harvard. When he is Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he claims that his failure to get into Harvard's Porcellian Club 15 years earlier was "the greatest disappointment of my life."
He proposes to his cousin Eleanor, who comes from an even weirder branch of the family. Her father Elliott, younger brother of President Theodore Roosevelt, was afflicted by alcoholism and drug addiction. Her mother's brother, Vallie Hall, liked to get drunk and fire his shotgun out the window.
Ward writes smoothly and pleasantly about all these eccentrics. Even so, his young hero remains a remote, undeveloped figure. It might be argued that anyone who thought his failure to make the Porcellian Club was the greatest disappointment of his life had not led a very interesting life. The fact is that at the time of Roosevelt's marriage, when Ward's book ends, F.D.R. had not yet become F.D.R. It was only his later struggle with polio that added the necessary steel to his character. Ward is already at work on sequel. It cannot fail to reveal a stranger, stronger character, but it will build on this odd foundation. --By Otto Friedrich