In an era when presidents reveal whether they wear boxers or briefs, it seems inconceivable that during his tenure many Americans didn’t know that Franklin D. Roosevelt spent his days in a wheelchair. They were even less aware of his platonic marriage (after wife Eleanor’s discovery in 1918 of his affair with her secretary, Lucy Mercer) or his close relationships with other women.
Hyde Park on Hudson, a new movie starring Bill Murray as FDR, depicts the president as carnally carrying on with both a distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney), and his secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel), at his family residence in Hyde Park, New York. Screenwriter Richard Nelson admits to dramatic license but says that after reading historical material, particularly the long correspondence between FDR and Suckley, “given the intimacy, it is almost a logical jump toward them having had a sexual relationship.”
We went to David Woolner, a senior fellow and Hyde Park resident historian at the Roosevelt Institute, for his take on the film’s escapades.
Were FDR’s friendships with Suckley and LeHand sexual? “He was paralyzed from the waist down after having polio,” Woolner notes. “There’s no evidence in the historical record of a physical relationship with those women. None. Zero.”
But he does confirm a closeness. “LeHand and Suckley probably loved him,” Woolner says, “and I think he responded with a kind of love of his own. Missy did serve as a surrogate wife, but I don’t think that means they had physical relations. Franklin’s affection for Daisy was more profound: Near the end of his life, he started confiding to her about his frustrations as president.”
As for Eleanor and Franklin, Woolner says, “The relationship was one of great mutual respect and affection. Somewhat like one imagines Bill and Hillary Clinton, they were almost more like political partners than husband and wife.”
First published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue