Re-Examining Roosevelt

Article excerpt

Over the course of the eight years it took me to write two books on Franklin Roosevelt's first fortysix, I had a recurring dream. in it, FDR and I played endless games of cards across his big presidental desk. He was, as you might imagine, a genial, if intimidating, card player--hearty, voluble, willing to take enormous risks and utterly confident he would win, no matter what cards he was dealt. And from time to time as we played --usually while he told me a long, involved anecdote whose details I often missed by which invariably reflected well on himself--he would wink, take a card from his hand, and slip it inside his jacket.

All of Franklin Roosevelt's cards were never on the table. Still, by the time I'd finished burrowing through Roosevelt's papers and interviewing a good many of the surviving men and women who had known him, I was pretty sure that while no one could ever know everything about my cheerfully elusive subject, the important secrets of his personality and private life had mostly been revealed. And, for what it's worth, once my second book was published in 1989, I stopped having that card-playing dream altogether. I'd finally taken most of the Roosevelt tricks--or so I thought.

Then, a couple of years ago, I got a telephone call. Friends cleaning up Wilderstein, the Rhinebeck, New York, home of Roosevelt's sixth cousin Margaret "Daisy" Suckley following her death in her one hundredth year, had discovered beneath her bed a battered black suitcase filled with papers. Since some of them mentioned the President, I was asked whether I would be willing to come up and have a look at them to see if they might make a book.

I agreed to go. Daisy Suckley's was a familiar name in the Roosevelt literature. No one was more often with FDR during the war years than she--attending picnics; riding in his car; working over his papers with him at the Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park or in the White House study; walking the celebrated Scottie, Fala, which had been her gift to him; and, finally, at the President's side when he was fatally stricken at Warm Springs. Even members of Roosevelt's staff, put off by her constant but mostly silent presence, and fooled by the skill with which she played what she herself once called "my part of prim spinster," dismissed her as the "little mud wren."

She told two generations of scholars who came calling that she had very little to add to the Roosevelt story, had simply been privileged to be a social friend of the President's. When asked whether she had kept a journal, she smiled and answered with a question of her own: "What makes you think I would keep a diary? "

But, I now discovered, she had indeed kept a diary--thousands of pages of diaries in fact, covering virtually every day she spent with the President. And she had kept thirty-eight of his handwritten letters to her, as well, along with scores of her own letters to him, letters which revealed that they had been far closer to each other than anyone seems ever to have imagined. The book I've cobbled together from her papers--Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley--has just been published by Houghton Mifflin; most of the proceeds from it will go toward keeping her remarkable but derelict house from rotting away. …