Movie Talk

‘Hyde Park on the Hudson’ shows FDR’s complicated private life

Photo: Focus Features

Franklin Delano Roosevelt may be the subject of the upcoming movie "Hyde Park on Hudson" -- starring Bill Murray -- but don't expect to see him signing Social Security into law, addressing the nation after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, or redrawing Europe with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta conference. Instead, the movie focuses on the remarkably complicated and freewheeling personal life of the 32nd president.

The movie centers on Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), a distant cousin of the president, who gets invited by FDR's mother to stop by his country estate in upstate New York and help take his mind off the stresses of his job. Though she's at first starstruck, the president's inexhaustible charm wins her over. Soon he shows her his stamp collection and takes her on long, wandering drives in the country; eventually they become lovers. FDR's wife, Eleanor, seems strangely accepting of her husband's relationship with Daisy, and soon Daisy becomes a part of the presidential retinue. It seems like a fairy tale until she realizes that she wasn't the only mistress in the president's life. He has many, including his personal secretary Missy LeHand (played by Elizabeth Marvel).

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In real life, Roosevelt loved the company of women and did in fact have a number of female friends and assistants constantly around him. How many of those relationships were physical is a matter of debate.

FDR with Eleanor, his daughter Anna and Missy LeHand and others (Photo: Corbis)The account in "Hyde Park" is based on a diary and a bundle of love letters discovered after Suckley died in 1991 at the age of 99. Though pages are missing, screenwriter Richard Nelson -- hinting that the salacious parts have been expunged -- wrote that "what remains gives a rich and moving portrait of a love affair."

But don't expect scholars to stumble upon missing pages anytime soon. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who interviewed Suckley for her book "No Ordinary Time," described her as a "totally discreet woman."

FDR's extracurricular activities started well before he was commander-in-chief. Roosevelt's marriage to Eleanor, and his political aspirations, almost hit the rocks back in 1918 when she discovered love letters from Lucy Mercer, whom Goodwin described as "tall, beautiful, and well-bred." The news devastated Eleanor.

"The bottom dropped out of my own particular world," she wrote in a letter. She offered a divorce, but Roosevelt refused. She then demanded that they cohabitate in separate bedrooms and that he never see Mercer again. FDR went along with the first demand -- and Eleanor turned a blind eye to his shenanigans -- but not the second. Mercer (who changed her name to Rutherfurd after she married) was present, along with Suckley, when the president died in 1945.

FDR's unusually close relationship with LeHand was also the subject of much Washington gossip. LeHand lived in an apartment in the White House; she worked side by side with Roosevelt during the day and was thoroughly integrated in his family life at night. During White House functions when Eleanor was not present -- which was often -- LeHand would act as hostess. Up until the dawn of World War II, LeHand was even the de facto conduit to the president. Top government aides and Supreme Court justices would talk to her before approaching Roosevelt. "Though she relished the excitement and prestige of her position in the White House," wrote Goodwin, "she loved Franklin more."

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In June 1941, the incredible stresses of the job along with FDR's growing interest in Princess Martha, an exiled royal from Norway, overwhelmed LeHand, and she had a nervous breakdown. Soon after, she resigned to convalesce. The president rewrote his will to give her half of his estate. "I owed her that much," Roosevelt reportedly told his son Jimmy. It turned out to be unnecessary: LeHand died in 1944.

So, you might ask, how did FDR's libertine ways not make the front pages of every newspaper in the country? The short answer is that it was a different, pre-Lewinsky, time. The White House press corps felt that FDR's private life was in fact private. They even kept -- with the strong encouragement of the White House -- the fact that Roosevelt was a wheelchair-bound invalid from the public. In the face of the Depression and the Nazis, America needed a president who seemed like a hero, even if he wasn't, at the end of the day, the world's best husband.

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See the trailer for 'Hyde Park on Hudson':

'Hyde Park on Hudson' Theatrical Trailer