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Nothing was as it seemed. In the dying days of the Gilded Age, Daisy Suckley, sixth cousin, secret lover and alternative wife to Franklin Roosevelt, tells of the women behind the man: their animosities, liaisons and ambitions that sought to bear influence. Who really had the President's ear?
PART ONE - HUDSON RIVER VALLEY
CHAPTER ONE - THE INVITATION
Nothing was as it seemed.
Not just for my family, but for all the families along the Hudson River valley. It was an accepted part of life. As the eldest daughter, I was designated to be the perfect wallflower: virginal and useful, and any attempt to step outside that role was curtailed. To a lesser degree, social strictures bound the men. Appearance was everything. Although, on the whole, if a man crossed a line, mostly the women pretended not to see. Certainly, my cousin Franklin was marvellous at getting around the inconvenience of convention. He was in a wheelchair and any form of disability had to be hidden from the light of day. But he had a wonderful knack for public speaking, and so we developed ruses to make the contraption invisible. Similarly, although to all intents and purposes, I was a confirmed old maid at forty, I developed - a knack for ruses. In fact, I came to understand that all the women I met around him paid lip service to the various rules of decorum.
What united us was how much we loved him.
And as to who had the most influence on him, I couldn’t say. You catch more flies with honey, but Eleanor was not famous for her sense of humour.
To be accurate, my cousin Franklin was the 32nd president of the United States and we were sixth cousins. Our families were part of the Hudson River Valley set, related through our common ancestor, John Beekman. Sailing up river in search of fertile shores near New York, I liked to imagine Beekman was overcome with the beauty of this land, resembling the European woodlands and wetlands left behind. He moored in a natural cove on the banks of the river and within a few generations, we’d built large houses and intermarried, all English, Dutch and Scottish immigrants.
Our clan became known as kissing cousins, closely knitted in blood, combining interlinking commercial interests and status. We partied in Manhattan in winter, exchanging horse and carriage for the latest automobiles. In summer, we sailed racing skiffs from Poughkeepsie to Albany, pausing to picnic in the purple shadow of the Catskill Mountains.
Altogether, we filled the lands of upstate New York: the Delanos, the Lynchs, the Livingstons, the Montgomerys, the Suckleys and the Roosevelts. Most of those surnames now mean little, but there was a time we all featured in the rolls of Top Ten Families. When Uncle Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th president, no one ever again said: ‘Roosevelt who?’ for they had joined the ranks of the Astors, the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. Lacking in prestigious accomplishments, the rest of us faded into a mellow obscurity.
Miss Stuck-ley? Miss Sock-ley? Hoteliers peered at reservations.
Miss Daisy Lynch Suckley, I would say. Pronounced Book-ley but with an S. It’s Dutch.
As a child, our fathers attended gentlemen’s clubs, our mothers dressed in finery and someone else did the cooking. Money was a vulgar topic never spoken of. One either had it or one didn’t. The Roosevelts had plenty; not so the Suckleys. Papa’s passport listed him as a gentleman, but he was no financier, and it was a blessing he died before the Great Depression ate our funds.
Like all my female cousins, I was brought up to expect a husband and children, prevented from completing college lest I seemed overly academic. No one anticipated The Great War or Spanish influenza. But then, Franklin didn’t anticipate contracting polio. The 1920s were cruel for both of us.
Our affair started after his first inauguration, when I was a forty-two-year-old spinster and never a beauty. What? I hear you say. Why you? And him, the most powerful man in America! Believe me, I had similar thoughts when we dined with the Duke of Windsor and Wallace Simpson. You left a kingdom—for her?
We didn’t predict our first kiss either, born of the magic of opportunity; his Fedora flung on the back seat of the car, the Camel cigarette smouldering in the leaves, my hand pressed to his heart, the distillation of desire.
And after the kiss, we didn’t know what to do about it. Or what it really meant. Or what would happen next. Or at least, I didn’t.
Despite the blood connections, we were dissimilar. Franklin was an only child—if you didn’t count his half brother, James—and his mother never did. Whereas I was one of seven. The Roosevelts were organisers; the Suckleys were dreamers. You only had to look at Wilderstein, our Queen-Anne-styled mansion, to know that. When Grandpapa died, Papa set about decorating every wing in indiscriminate style. Louis XIV clashed with Victorian velvets. And then he built a water tower. And then a windmill—both of which fell down. Whereupon, he commissioned a five-storey circular tower to be added to the north side. It remained standing and for most of my life, I lived on the third floor.
While we built esoteric projects, Aunt Sara—Franklin’s mother—added a tasteful but practical extension to their summer home, Springwood, in keeping with her presidential ambitions for her son. Franklin’s father had died when he was young and she had free rein. We joked: No weed dared pop a seed on Roosevelt territory. Franklin’s marriage to his first cousin, Eleanor, Teddy’s favourite niece, secured the dynasty.
Nobody ever tried to arrange marriages for the Suckley girls.
In part, this was due to Mama’s emotional maladies. Papa said she needed a spell in a sanitarium and to hush it up, we were all taken to Swiss Alps. Leaving his children to the devices of various nurses and tutors, my father went climbing, returning occasionally to teach us how to ski and sail. By the time Mama was released and deemed well, we were bilingual and active. Unfortunately for us, she returned with a mania for all things medical.
Her fervency sought sickness everywhere, and my middle brother Arthur suffered the most, being naturally pale and slender. Mama insisted on incarcerating him in various sanitariums until a young doctor took pity on us all, and told her firmly, ‘Laissez-le tranquille, there is nothing wrong with your son, Madame.’ So at the age of sixteen, we returned home to Wilderstein and I had my first glimpse of the newly married Franklin.
A multitude of family came to visit our thirty-two bedroomed house, and it was left to me, as the eldest girl with an emotionally unstable mother, to arrange fresh sheets and clean towels and sort menus. Young though I was, I became Dependable Daisy. By eighteen, I had learnt to display robust good health, even when running a temperature of a hundred and one. In short, I had learnt how to lie.
I attended a New Year’s Eve party given by Archie Crum, and I will always remember Franklin, indulged and cosseted, turning up at their mansion with a toot and a shout and a spit of stones from under the wheels of his new car. I watched as he escorted women to the checkered black and white ballroom floor: a prince.
And I will admit to envy. It would have been nice to be part of his inner circle, to saunter through a room and have people light up and touch my sleeve the way they touched his elbow: Hey Roosevelt, you old devil, when’re you coming round for dinner? And I used to imagine that I was the girl on his arm when they plucked at him.
What I couldn’t understand was why Cousin Eleanor always looked so miserable.
The Wall Street crash left us one step short of destitution. Wilderstein remained, but everything else was sold. My eldest brother, Henry, had died in the Great War and with him our hopes that someone might earn sufficient to restore our funds. Robert, my middle brother, was Robert. He could not change the hallmarks of his birth. Arthur had escaped from Mama’s side as soon as possible, taking one sister with him to Europe. Betty, my other sister, married and moved away. This left me, Dependable Daisy, to plug Wilderstein’s financial hole.
I secured the only wage to keep the family home afloat: as social secretary to a relative, Sophie Langdon. But when Cousin Franklin made it to the White House, my heart soared with hope. A Democratic president promised a better future.
Invited to the Inauguration in January, all of us distant relatives failed to catch his eye during the swearing of oaths and the public processions. I was consumed with curiosity about how he could walk. I had distinct memories of his illness in ’22 and his attempts to use his legs. But eleven years later, I was none the wiser. The charming ‘President in the Fedora’ didn’t show up at his Inaugural Ball, staying firmly sheltered behind imposing doors. He was meeting with bankers, someone said. I had visions of him sitting in a medieval European church, a Michelangelo statue, fenced off from the eager fingers of people desperate to touch the marble foot of Christ. How far the Suckley fortunes had fallen; how strong our faith that with one glimpse, we believed he could mend our broken lives.
Not that his actions had earned him the admiration of everyone: Aunt Sophie, a lifelong Republican and my employer, was one of the few who had sallied through the Wall Street Crash. Her face on his electoral win was almost humorous. Rich and widowed, I dubbed her The Deaconess.
The letter arrived in March. The distinctive insignia and thickness of Roosevelt vellum held promise.
Having looked it over, I placed a silver salver full of Aunt Sophie’s correspondence on the table at her side, ensuring the gold embossed invitation was on the top.
’Sara Roosevelt has invited us to tea at Springwood. I believe the President will be there as well,’ I murmured.
Her brow furrowed. I knew what she was thinking: should a staunch Republican be seen in a Democratic stronghold? She’d refused to attend his inauguration, feeling a need to maintain standards.
She brushed cake crumbs from her jewelled wrist. ‘Both of us?’
‘Yes, Aunt Sophie. Perhaps they have invited all the relatives.’
She looked to the window and the New York skyline. This would be a very large gathering, and she uttered a few reminisces of parties held by our extended family. For a moment, I allowed myself to recall the music, the lavish gowns, the splendour of an earlier decade. But the Suckley and the Roosevelt’s connections had diminished with our withering funds, and it didn’t do to look back.
‘Shall I send them your acceptance?’ I kept my voice neutral and waited.
‘Well, they are the niece and nephew of Teddy, God rest his soul,’ she said finally. ‘I can’t imagine why they didn’t follow in the Republican family tradition.’
This was a sentiment she had too often expressed in recent years, coupled with frequent rumours amongst her Republican friends, that the President’s ill health would render him unable to see out a term of office.
Family ties and open curiosity won. With her customary decisiveness, she instructed the Irish maid, Marie, to pack and ordered me to ring the servants at her summer residence, Mansakenning, to prepare for an early return to the Hudson River Valley.
‘Daisy, tomorrow you can go home to your mother overnight. The driver will drop you off and collect you at the appointed time.’
I added no comment of my own. My longing to speak to Franklin was… complicated.
In a state of elation, I borrowed a dress for the occasion from my first cousin, Mary. She dropped it off with her customary humourless hello. A tiny woman, she was richer than us by virtue of her stockbroker husband, who was as astute with money as my father had been foolish.
Dawdling for tea, Mary asked questions about my absent siblings.
‘Arthur still away?’
‘Still living in Monte Carlo.’
‘In Paris, working as a nurse.’
As my other sister, Betty, was married with children, Mary felt no need to ask about her, instead surveying the dusty library. ‘Won’t someone come home to help?’
This did not require answer. Everyone knew about Mama’s inclinations, and Robert’s vaguenesses had long since been accepted.
‘And how is your sister, Jeanne?’ I asked, to be polite.
‘She writes and complains. She hates her husband, she hates the fact she had to find a husband in Italy.’
‘She was never happy wherever she was.’
‘True. We Montgomery sisters have had to marry whether we wanted or no. A trial for us. At least my Frank is a good man. Separate bedrooms from the start. He doesn’t want children.’
Keen to see her gone, I waved her off. I was desperate to try on her offerings. She had given me a boucle suit in Prussian blue, the latest fashion from Paris. It was tight, but suitable. I admired the bobbles for jacket buttons and inhaled the smell of newness. Fishing out the remains of a crystal bottle with eau de parfum, I puffed some onto the inside lining. I wanted him to notice me, to see me as the woman who had stood by his side one long, hot summer. The woman charged by Aunt Sara of sitting in place of his absent wife.
My only decent white blouse had seed-pearl buttons that needed a stitch, but mission accomplished, I twisted in the mirror. Something was lacking. I wandered through a handful of our thirty-two bedrooms, the majority vacant and shrouded in sheets and dust. In a cupboard I found some left over blue shoes, a newer hat and a rope of jewellery.
My mother had one of her head colds and as I set a tisane at her bedside, she counselled me that Aunt Sophie and I were not going to Washington, but only to a tea. I needed nothing too fancy. No pearls. My Aunt Sara had insisted Franklin come home for the weekend for a complete rest as she feared for his health, so he would not be gallivanting around. Health, in Mama’s view, could not be taken seriously enough.
I wanted lipstick for greater sophistication—after all, I was forty-two—but there was none. So I set about brushing my short hair and placing pins to give a shingle style wave, and looked at the overall effect. Was it adequate to renew my acquaintance with the President of the United States? I wasn’t vain. I had the sort of even features that were easy on the eye. Instantly forgettable—my brother Robert liked to say—but I did so want Franklin to remember me. Fiddling with the filigree clasp of an old sapphire pin on my lapel, I ignored my mother and threw the pearls around my neck.
Aunt Sara’s lawns were as I remembered: cut to velvet. The front portico, with imposing columns, and the heavy brocade furniture in the rooms were the same as a decade ago, although the walls were newly painted.
Eleanor was there. My heart sank as we’d been told she would be absent. She had a way of looking at distant family as if we were the rats surging up from the cellars, which since the election may have in part been true. Eleanor looked equally surprised to see us. She was smartly dressed, very much the First Lady who had marched stiffly around at his inauguration, flanked by the same two suited assistants. Aunt Sara came forwards to explain that Eleanor had to leave, just as Franklin was wheeled in and put by the window. It gave me a shiver of deja vu from the summer eleven years ago.
I wanted to greet him warmly, but politeness meant I had to focus on Eleanor, who made a superficial show of apologies, her voice high, as if calling from the other side of the estate. She had a pressing photographic opportunity, she said, and left without a goodbye to Franklin. Nor did he meet her eyes, sitting quietly, a cigarette in the holder between his fingers. From the hall, she beckoned a man I recognised from the papers, Louis Howe, the campaign manager. He lingered in the doorway, energy in a grey suit. As Eleanor walked away, he plunged forward into the room, shaking Franklin’s hand with enthusiasm, saying he would see him in a week.
‘Fantastic, we’ve had the Prohibition bill stamped and approved. Shall I give the say to stock up on the liquor trolley at the White House?’
Franklin threw back his head and laughed with a ‘sure’. I saw a flash of his old ballroom spirit, the way he used to coast into a room at parties and own the room. Then Louis darted out like a dog catching up to his mistress, and I looked at Aunt Sophie wondering if she had found the exchange distasteful. But she surprised me by turning to Aunt Sara. ‘Well, I for one have missed my medicinal sherry. Marvellous initiative from young Franklin. Well done, Mr. President.’
Shoulders relaxing at Eleanor’s departure, he smiled at us all,
Much to Aunt Sara’s annoyance, another man came in. Taller than Mr Howe, he hung his head and introduced himself as Marvin McIntyre, on secretarial business, and glided to Franklin’s ear, murmuring for several minutes.
‘It never ends,’ complained Aunt Sara. ‘How is he to get some rest?’
Franklin rearranged his features upon the man’s departure from sombre to cheerful, and his mother made a show of closing the double doors firmly herself. She would shut out the world, she said, if only for an hour or two.
Southern Gothic Romance in the White House
Good intro. I'd like to read more.
Congratulations fellow Novelry member!
Congratulations on getting onto the Longlist - me too!
I don't remember seeing this on the Novelry - a very interesting idea.
Congratulations on getting…
Congratulations on getting through to the shortlist x
Congratulations, Justine, for your selection for a screenplay adapation of your book! Well done...