The Wars Of The Roosevelts
Bad blood in the family
William J. Mann has written a biography of the most influential family in early twentieth century America: “The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family.” (Harper, 609 pages)
Mann’s perspective is not a dry, political history of the Roosevelts; rather, this work presents a very personal and psychological examination of the extended family which gave America two presidents.
The author composes a character study of this wealthy clan composed of members who ran the gamut from elitists who were excessively puritanical and obsessed with their reputations to others who engaged in scandalous romantic affairs.
Their privileged status did not provide them with immunity from ill health, alcoholism and suicide which were all too common tragedies for the Roosevelts.
The family tree was split between the Oyster Bay branch which consisted of Theodore’s family and that of the Hyde Park relatives headed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Eleanor, the future wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), was the niece of Theodore. Her father, Elliott, was the family black sheep, having seduced a housemaid, Katerina Mann, and fathering her child, Elliott Roosevelt Mann.
(The author is quick to point out that he is no relation to this Elliott Roosevelt Mann.)
Worried that the scandal would affect his political aspirations, Theodore (TR) banished Elliott from having any contact with his children.
The author paints Eleanor (the daughter of black sheep Elliott Roosevelt) as a very lonely child, much distressed by the forced separation from her father enacted by Uncle TR.
This separation from her father as a child colored her character immensely. Her father was only 34 when he died.
The author suggests the loss of her father after years of separation spurred Eleanor’s animosity towards her Oyster Bay cousins and sharpened the pain of marital infidelity on the part of her husband, Franklin.
Though Eleanor’s marriage to FDR was hardly idyllic, it was, nonetheless, a politically advantageous union.
In politics, the competition between the Oyster Bay and Hyde Park Roosevelts, was keen, and at times, simply brutal. The reader might be surprised to find that as a political tactician, few could match the steely determination of Eleanor.
When TR’s son, Ted, was running for governor of New York, Eleanor concocted a scheme by which a car dressed out as a teapot would visit political rallies throughout the state of New York. This “teapot” was an obvious reference to the infamous Teapot Dome scandal of which Ted was implicated (though only marginally) in his role as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the corrupt Harding administration.
Eleanor’s “dirty trick” worked, for in the 1924 election, Republicans did well — except for Ted Roosevelt — who was defeated in his gubernatorial race, a loss that effectively ended his political career. (Ted would eventually regain his footing in the military, serving as a Brigadier Army General who led his troops in the invasion of Normandy during the Second World War.
But just a little over one month over the successful D-Day invasion, this son of President Theodore Roosevelt died of a heart attack.
Though Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were separated by political party affiliation, they were both reformers.
Theodore Roosevelt’s reform was largely directed at the entrenched GOP hacks, busting monopolistic trusts and establishing national parks. Yet for all his “progressive ways” Mann is quick to note that TR loved riding his horse around Washington, D.C., or as he puts it: “He was a nineteenth century man charging head first into the twentieth.”
As for FDR, who is remembered for championing the common man, having instituted many social programs during the dark days of the Great Depression, the author points out that it may have been Eleanor who sparked the man’s compassion towards those less fortunate.
In their early days of courtship, Eleanor did volunteer work in a poor section of New York. One day, one of Eleanor’s students was so ill that the handsome and elegantly dressed Franklin (who had come to see Eleanor work) had to carry the young girl in his arms up the narrow stairs of her tenement — an incident which opened his eyes to the poverty endured by all too many Americans.
The author ends this biography on an uplifting note, concluding that for all the infighting and bad blood between the Roosevelts, the “wars” came to an end in 1991 when the descendants of the Oyster Bay and Hyde Park branches, as well as those of Elliott’s out of wedlock son, Elliott Roosevelt Mann, met at the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club in a cordial family reunion which ended the rift that had dominated American politics nearly a century earlier.