Presidential Mothers: Sara Roosevelt demanded control

Published 1:17 pm Sunday, April 23, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

When one thinks of Sara Delano Roosevelt, one word comes to mind: control.

Sara tried to control everything and everybody in her world.

Sara was born in 1884 at her home, Fairhaven, which was one of the Hudson River Estates. Her parents were aristocrats, Warren Delano II and Catherine Robbins Lyman Delano. Sara was the seventh of the Delanos’ 10 children. She was considered by many to be the most beautiful of the sisters.

Sara had every advantage that a young girl could have. She was mainly educated at home and her education was enhanced by trips to Europe and other places. Her family lived in China for a few years because her father was a successful trader in Chinese goods.

It helps to understand just how wealthy the Delano family was when you learn that the family traveled to China on a ship, not just a boat but a ship, on which members of the Delano family were the only passengers.  Sara had fun on that voyage learning the chanties sung by the crew.  Sara loved her father, Warren Delano, dearly and always did just what he wanted her to do.

When Sara was 26, she was invited to a party at the home of another aristocratic Hudson River family.  There she met James Roosevelt, a gentleman about twice her age.  The fact that James Roosevelt was an aristocrat much like Sara’s father may have been just what Sara was seeking—a father figure. Sara seemed immediately attached to James. James was equally interested in Sara even though he had a son from a previous marriage who was about Sara’s age.

Things progressed and Mr. Roosevelt asked his old friend, Warren Delano, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Mr. Delano agreed and the happy couple was married at the Delano home, just down river from the Roosevelt estate.  From all reports the Delano/Roosevelt marriage was happy. The difference in Sara and James’ ages never seemed to be a problem.

About a year after Sara and James were married, a baby was born at Springwood, the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park on the Hudson River. The baby was named Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was Sara’s way of holding on to her family name.

From the day he was born, every aspect of Franklin’s life was controlled by his mother until the genes that he had inherited from his mother began to kick in.  He then would push back at times.

Franklin was tutored at home with a schedule made by his mother that included every minute of every day.  Franklin was enrolled at Groton, a prestigious boarding school, when he was about two years older than most students. It was difficult at first, but Franklin found his footing probably more quickly than his mother. Franklin got sick and had to be quarantined in the infirmary at the school.

Sara was in Europe, when she learned that her Franklin was sick. She rushed home. Franklin heard a scratching noise on the brick outside of his room.  Then a finger pecked on the window. Franklin looked up and there was his mother standing on a ladder which she had snatched from a caretaker. She appeared there every day as long as Franklin was sick.  She even stood on the ladder and read to her son.

When Franklin graduated from Groton and enrolled in Harvard, his mother rented an apartment in Boston so she could be near her son. Franklin’s father died in 1900 when Franklin was 18. Franklin loved his father, who taught him to ride horses, shoot, ski, etc., and he missed him terribly.  Mr. Roosevelt’s death left his wife in full control of her son and the family finances – control that she used by threatening to withhold money to get her way. She did not distribute her money in a lump sums but in many large gifts through the years.

In 1903, three years after the death of his father, Franklin and his mother were celebrating Thanksgiving at Sara’s families’ home when Franklin took his mother aside to tell her some news. He told her that he was in love with Eleanor Roosevelt, and he had asked Eleanor to marry him.

Shock is not a strong enough word to describe how Sara felt.  She thought she knew everything about Franklin’s life, and she did not even know that there had been a courtship going on between Eleanor and Franklin. Eleanor was a part of the Oscar Bay branch of the Roosevelt family and was really Franklin’s fifth cousin.

The book, “First Mothers” by Bonnie Angelo, says: “Sara could not reveal the severity of the shock, even to her own diary, entering for that day only the terse line. ‘Franklin gave me quite a startling announcement’.”

Franklin thought telling his mother about his plans suddenly was the best way to handle what he knew would be an unpleasant task. Franklin and Eleanor were married. Sara built the newlyweds a big double house on fashionable East Sixty-fifth Street in New York.

Of course, Sara occupied one side of the house. She had doors cut so she could go directly into Franklin and Eleanor’s living room and maybe their bedroom.  A lovely arrangement for Sara, but certainly not for the new bride, Eleanor, who was already short on confidence.

Franklin and Eleanor had six children, one of whom died as an infant.  Sara did not think that Eleanor was capable of being a good mother so she spent the next years of her life controlling the lives of her grandchildren. The more Sara controlled her family; the less confident Eleanor felt.

In 1918, Eleanor and her mother-in-law were on the same page. Eleanor discovered that her husband was in love with another woman, Lucy Mercer. When Eleanor found out what was going on, she offered Franklin a divorce. Franklin’s mother stepped in because she thought a divorce would be harmful to Franklin’s political career. Sara told her son if he did not promise never to see the woman again, she would cut off all funds from him.  He promised, which averted a crisis, but it was a promise which Franklin did not keep. Eleanor and Franklin agreed to stay married, but, from that time on, they would be partners, not really husband and wife.

Sara gave her son’s family a wonderful vacation house at Campobello in Canada. Of course, she obtained a house for herself nearby. It was while the family was vacationing at Campobello that Franklin developed polio. After he got sick, Sara wanted Franklin to give up his political ambition, go home to Hyde Park, and live the life of landed gentry.

That, of course, did not fly.

Eleanor helped Franklin during his recovery which of course was never complete. He was crippled the rest of his life. Sara really did not want Franklin to be involved in the political world, but, when she realized that he was going to devote his whole life to politics, she supported him whole heartedly.

Franklin Roosevelt advanced up the political ladder until he was elected President of the United States. After Franklin became President, his mother spent some time living in the White House, but she was never successful at being in charge there.

Sara Roosevelt got her way many times by controlling the purse strings, but the whole truth is that she did what she did because she loved her son more than life. Franklin also loved his mother and was distraught when he received the message that she had been stricken.  He rushed from Washington to Hyde Park to be by her side. Sara lived several days after her son’s arrival.  She died on Sept. 7, 1941.

Her funeral was held in the Springwood Library, place where she had enjoyed many happy hours.   She was buried in St. James Church Cemetery at Hyde Park beside her husband, James.

Her son, Franklin, and his wife, Eleanor, were buried side by side in the garden at the Roosevelt Estate, Springwood, at Hyde Park, New York.

It was Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd who was with Franklin Roosevelt when he died at his cottage in Warm Springs, Ga. in 1945. Lucy is who Franklin promised to never see again. When Lucy was told that Eleanor was on the way to Warm Springs, she made a rapid exit.