Chapter One ONE
IN FEBRUARY 1884, JUST AS Anna Hall Roosevelt learned that she was pregnant, a blinding fog closed over Manhattan. Thicker and heavier than any in recent memory, it shut the city down for days.1
Late on February 12, the fifth straight night of precautionary bells tolling along rails and rivers,2
Anna’s husband, Elliott Roosevelt, was summoned through the filthy gray cloud to the family townhouse at 6 West Fifty-Seventh Street. His brother Theodore’s “flower-like” young wife,3
Alice Lee Roosevelt, had given birth to their first child, also Alice. Elliott wired the happy news to Albany, where Theodore, only twenty-five, was in his third term as the blond, side-whiskered “Cyclone Assemblyman,” crusading against machine politics, corruption, and “that most dangerous of all dangerous classes, the wealthy criminal class.”4
But delivery had gravely weakened the mother, and by next evening everything was falling apart. “There is a curse on this house,” groaned Elliott to his younger sister, Corinne.5
By the time Theodore burst through the front door, his wife was semi-comatose from Bright’s disease while, a floor below, his mother, fifty-year-old Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt, sank beneath acute typhoid fever. By three in the morning, Mittie was gone.
By two that afternoon Alice had died in Theodore’s arms, only twenty-two. It was St. Valentine’s Day.
The double catastrophe knocked the surviving Roosevelts entirely off course. Putting the city of death behind him, Theodore stumbled west to his Dakota ranch, leaving his older sister, Anna, known as Bamie (pronounced “BAM-ie”), to take care of little Alice.
For Elliott, twenty-four and unmoored by the loss of his mother, Alice Lee Roosevelt’s death cast a dread of fatherhood over his wife’s recently established pregnancy. Anna herself now feared that childbirth would kill her. The whole family was wracked with apprehensions.6
LESS THAN EIGHT MONTHS LATER, on a fair, breezy Saturday, October 11, 1884, Anna and Elliott’s little girl was born—at eleven in the morning, behind the brownstone front of 29 East Thirty-Eighth Street.7
Her birth coincided with the last rusty quarter of October’s “blood moon,” an orange rind rising over Gotham that night at ten minutes past eleven.8
In years to come, when editing her father’s letters, she would introduce her birth into the family epic as the first clear footprint in a dark trail: “Life treads so closely on the heels of death!”9
So painfully did she associate labor and delivery with inescapable doom that when she recalled bearing her first child in 1906, she dwelled on the resignation that closed over her: “This was something I could do nothing about—the child would come when it would come, as inevitably as death itself.”10
She had no birth certificate. Her parents somehow let her arrival go unrecorded in the municipal archives,11
instead marking her name in a family Bible, at the head of a new page of births: Anna
, for her mother and her father’s elder sister; Eleanor
, from Elliott’s childhood nicknames, Ellie and Nell.
Her father embraced her as a “miracle from Heaven,” though Elliott and Anna had been hoping for a male heir, a “precious boy jr”12
to put an end to the Roosevelt clan’s “plague,” as one biographer would term the family’s recent “sending of girls.”13
Time was on Anna’s side. She was twenty-one, with a healthy baby,14
a dashing husband, and her horizons open wide.
BUT THE YOUNG PARENTS HAD already begun to drift.
Their first discovery was that each was set on being the loved one. Each deeply needed the other’s attention and esteem: both were acutely sensitive to disapproval.15
One or the other was always pouting in a dark room, injustice hanging its sulky cloud in the hallways, meals on trays creaking with reproachful indignation upstairs.
Time, if still on their side, was carelessly weaponized. Elliott never came home in the evening when he had said he would, and Anna on no occasion appeared downstairs before nine in the morning. To compound her punishment of his lateness, she was eternally declining a previously accepted invitation with the excuse that she was “not feeling my best and… on my back.”16
One languorous midafternoon Anna admitted, “If I followed my own inclinations I would never move off the piazza,” nevertheless ruefully conceding: “But this I know would not do.”
Elliott, bounding off to a drag-hunt, was always just getting back freshly bandaged from a fall. At one Wednesday match in 1885, his mallet went into his eyeglasses, leaving glass particles in his right eye. He raised eyecup after eyecup to cleanse it, suffering agonies until Thursday morning, when a doctor could at last come to pluck out the grit. “It still continues to be very painful,” reported Anna to Bamie, notably on the letterhead of HOTEL SHELBURN, FIFTH AVENUE, N.Y., where she retreated the following Monday.17
The summer of ’85 passed in bouts of moody concealment alternated with bursts of almost willed gaiety. Elliott’s letters are frantic, forever repeating lines already written, oblivious of what he has said to whom. Amid his frothing, not one mention of Eleanor, now ten months old. Instead, both parents endlessly analyze the quality of polo being played, while Elliott is privately consumed by Anna’s snobbery, brittleness, headaches.
At summer’s end, finally, after some “very pleasant old time days” at Oak Lawn, the Halls’ summer house on the Hudson’s east bank above Tivoli, we encounter the first recorded appearance of a one-day-to-be-world-famous feature: “Little Eleanor is looking so well, and her four little pearly front teeth have altered the entire expression of the face to quite a pretty one.”18
HER FATHER AND MOTHER TOOK their little girl upriver from Manhattan to visit Elliott’s elder Dutchess County cousin, James Roosevelt; his young second wife, Sara; and their son, Franklin, who was, Eleanor later liked to say, the first person she remembered.19
The Hyde Park Roosevelts awaited the Oyster Bay Roosevelts at their ornamental farmhouse overlooking the river. Six years before, the widowed James, fifty-two, had met Sara Delano, twenty-six, introduced by Elliott’s sister Bamie at a family dinner celebrating Theodore’s Harvard commencement. They married four months later, sailing for Liverpool on the same ship aboard which Elliott was staging his passage to India. The mixed-age newlyweds were only too happy to leave the impression of being the twenty-year-old Elliott’s “aunt and uncle”20
and to make their London hotel suite the wayfarer’s headquarters. Barely had he returned in March 1882 than he stood godfather to the newborn Franklin; and now, still dashing, he pressed a gold watch fob on his four-year-old godson.21
“Generosity,” Eleanor would write, “actuated him.”22
In the nursery at Hyde Park, the children played horsie, Franklin on all fours, gamely or under protest (the story would be told both ways) trotting Eleanor off to Boston. Afterward, they were called down to tea. Eleanor, a grave little girl with bangs falling over a worried brow, would be mocked by her mother again and again in these years for her unsmiling seriousness.
Anna wanted her daughter to be precisely as she, Anna, was; saving that, a fine reflection. “Eleanor, I hardly know what’s to happen to you,” she would say, in legend, if not in fact. “You’re so plain that you really have nothing to do except be good
But good as she was, and saddled in Anna’s eyes by what Henry Adams with flat New England relish called “the Roosevelt coarseness of feature and figure,”24
she could not satisfy her mother’s requirements. Her one legitimate and physiological flaw was a curvature of the spine, which would be fitted with a back brace and require painful treatment at the special hospital that her grandfather had established.25
Whether or not the discomfort of the brace contributed to Eleanor’s awkwardness on this visit, she was, by her own account, made nervous that day. Eleanor’s lifelong eagerness to deprecate her childhood self as “a rather ugly little girl”26
is contradicted by such contemporaneous sources as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
, out of which pops “a lovely little daughter, a dainty little maid.”27
But that afternoon in Hyde Park—as so often in these years—Eleanor almost at once lowered her eyes, as if just by being there she was disgracing her mother. Summoned to tea in the library, she stood head-down by the door. Franklin’s parents became early witnesses to the ritualized humiliation that would be inflicted upon her in the years just ahead, as often as not in front of company.
“Come in,” called Anna, focusing all eyes on Eleanor. “Come in, Granny
“From then on,” Eleanor would write, “what she had said was constantly in my mind.”29
The shame she carried shaped her relationships all her early life.
THE YEAR 1886 BISECTED THE thirty-year span in which the nation’s industrial wealth soared from $30 billion to nearly $127 billion.30
As Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Rockefeller combined their respective interests into a new kind of beast—frighteningly large corporations sucking up and pumping out yet more hundreds of millions; wealth, in short, as an end in itself—such old-guard Knickerbockers as the Roosevelts and the Halls could do little better than run in place. Or run poorly for mayor, as Theodore had impetuously done, not waiting his turn, and finishing a humiliating third.31
Or they could subscribe to newly emerging closed-gate institutions—chiefly the New York Social Register
, launched in 1887—which fortified their former distinction and encouraged the almost primitive use of a “stud book,” as the Social Register
came to be called, to choose a mate with whom to maintain the “purity” of the tribe.32
Anna’s family, the Halls, were still comfortable in town and country, but not so relatively rich as when they had been in full possession of one of the larger real estate fortunes in brownstone New York.33
Anna’s grandfather Valentine Hall, Sr., among the most respected of Gotham real estate magnates, had become richer still by marrying his partner’s daughter. Anna’s father, Valentine Hall, Jr., and aunt, Margaret, consolidated the family’s upswing by marrying siblings from the still-feudal Hudson Valley gentry, the Ludlow branch of Livingstons, which took great pride in tracing its bloodline to the best-known Revolutionary-era Livingstons.
Anna’s mother, Mary Livingston Ludlow Hall, herself the only daughter of a highly esteemed Manhattan real estate broker, Dr. Edward Hunter Ludlow, had been reassured by her lawyer in November 1883 that she and her children were in very good shape. Mary, known as G’ma, or Grandmother Hall, was living on income from about $200,000 in investments, and the children’s inheritances of several million each had “not only been preserved for them wholly unimpaired, but, taken as a whole, [had] actually quite largely increased in value, and this, too, during times of extraordinary adversity and ruinous falling in prices.”34
So for the moment Anna had enough to feel secure35
—but only just: some $15,000 a year with Elliott’s income added in.36
But Elliott was in trouble. His agile, sporting dandyism only made him look
successful. Increasingly he was drawn not to his office downtown but out to Long Island—to foxhunt and play polo at the Meadow Brook Hunt Club, newly established at the edge of the Hempstead Plains. For young men like Elliott and Theodore—children during the Civil War—foxhunting in the 1880s was a test of horsemanship and, therefore, of warrior courage. Riding to hounds was their generation’s chance to practice martial leadership.
The Roosevelts had been in New York since 1649. Their fortune traced back to Eleanor’s great-grandfather Cornelius Van Schaack “CVS” Roosevelt, who became one of Manhattan’s five richest landowners and a founder of the Chemical National Bank, the city’s only financial institution that never failed to honor its obligations in gold. Dying in 1871, CVS left the largest fortune ever probated in Manhattan—ten million dollars ($222 million in today’s money). His four sons carried the Roosevelt enterprise from the old Dutch merchant community of Maiden Lane into twentieth-century investment banking, especially as key members of the great underwriting syndicates for transport and communications bonds, notably those of the Great Northern Railroad and the American Atlantic and Central and South American Cable companies, the latter acquired by the All-America Cable Company, which in turn would be snapped up by the future International Telephone and Telegraph (I.T.T.);37
all reflecting the city’s own story, as a consolidating New York flowered into the financial capital of the greatest industrial civilization ever seen. The Roosevelts came to embody, in serious part, what Edith Wharton, voice of the understated old patriciate, would denounce as “this modern newspaper rubbish about a New York aristocracy,” sharply reminding her readers in 1920 that “our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were just respectable English or Dutch merchants.”38
Sometimes styled the “Oyster Bay Roosevelts” from the summer colony CVS had established thirty-four miles eastward on the north shore of Long Island, Eleanor’s father’s family was identified by a curious dark complexion;39
startlingly pale-blue eyes; intense, captivating interest in those they met; heated, almost frothy, excitements within the family circle alongside their confidently demanding criticisms of one another; a set determination to hold on where others let go; a gift for overdoing things; and, above all other impulses, the resolve to transform private misfortune into public well-being.
WHILE ELLIOTT MORE AND MORE sloughed off his city business, Uncle Ted returned from London—where he had quietly and happily married their childhood playmate Edith Kermit Carow—and took up residence at Sagamore Hill, the Queen Anne shingle-style house he had built on Cove Neck, northeast of Oyster Bay village, overlooking Long Island’s north shore. The first of five children, Theodore Jr., arrived in September 1887, and by the following summer Edith was pregnant again.40
By 1887, meanwhile, Elliott was still trying to be a New York gentleman of 1870. Booze was one test: to maintain control while poisoning oneself. Steeplechases were another: he whose hand trembled first, or whose boot slipped the stirrup, showed himself a weakling. But was it horsemanship that saw him over each of sixty post-and-rail fences, or just the headlong flight of a man too soused to be killed? Even during these good years, his polo was jaggedly uneven. Meadow Brook teammates Stanley Y. Mortimer, who would marry Anna’s sister Tissie, and Winthrop Rutherfurd, future husband of Lucy Mercer, had to be counted on for the winning goal—since, as Anna now wincingly noticed, “Elliott can barely stay on his pony.”41
“Poor Nell, I was so awfully sorry for you last night,” she wrote, reminding him of his “promise not to touch any champagne tonight. It is poison truly & how I dread seeing you suffer.”42
The more he indulged, the less Anna could be his partner, instead obliged to serve in the dominant strict-nurse role that Elliott loved best to maneuver beneath and around. “You know a chap loves to be ruled over by a lovely woman,” he once confessed to Corinne.43
In Theodore’s head-on male view, Anna was sissifying his brother.44
As for Anna’s habit of ordering dresses from Worth in Paris, Theodore felt certain that her “utterly frivolous life” was “[eating] into her character like an acid.” Cousin John Ellis Roosevelt, himself having chosen two wrong wives, “wondered why he married her”45
and blamed Anna for “making” Elliott “play in with the fast Meadow Brook set.”
In fact, Elliott had already lost more ground than his Oyster Bay clan knew, not just in the money game or at the club bar. His confidence wore away as he found himself less and less able to metabolize his abundant energies into lasting satisfactions. His acute imagination briefly moved him to gather his notes and letters from India to turn into a book, but he got no further than an article for Boone and Crockett, the hunting club he and Theodore helped found.46
He, too, saw a place for himself in Republican politics, not far behind that which his brother had already won, but he could not get going—and, not having to do anything, he did nothing, except marinate in his own simmering feelings. He took a connoisseur’s pleasure in victimized unfulfillment.
Greater planets than Elliott Roosevelt were rising. Shivering in his own shadow, he planned another solution to the overripe Long Island life of risk and liquor: to sail for Liverpool in the spring of 1887—and thereafter, who knew? He, Anna, and Anna’s closest sister, Tissie, now a ravishing twenty-one, along with the two-and-a-half-year-old Eleanor and a nursemaid, could well become Whartonian “continental wanderers.”47
Which in their case meant that, late in the afternoon of May 19, the Roosevelts found themselves lost in another fog nearly four hundred miles southeast of Nantucket, as two White Star liners misguidedly steamed full ahead,48
ALL DAY THE WEATHER HAD been calm, the sea smooth. Since eleven the night before a dense whiteness had blanketed the seaways.50
The 5,004-ton flagship Britannic
a day from New York, held course for England. The 3,867-ton Celtic
, outbound from Liverpool, had veered south to avoid the Long Island shoals, and was by now sixty miles off her scheduled track. By 5:25 p.m., these square-rigged sailing steamers had drawn to within three hundred muffled yards of each other, the fog banking so mountainously as to hide even their towering black masts from each other’s lookouts.
On the uppermost deck, Britannic
’s first-class passengers were gathering at the rail for the thrill of seeing two mutually invisible White Star consorts maneuvering past each other through a North Atlantic pea-souper. Most captains still considered it sound practice to accelerate through fog, or in this case to race to safety beyond the other vessel. The superior classes, who had just taken tea, interpreted this contretemps as a kind of transoceanic sporting diversion. In pairs they rallied on deck to cheer on their peppery-bearded captain before retiring to dress for dinner.
In their gilded White Star stateroom, Elliott and Anna sensed no danger whatsoever as the fog whistles shrilled back and forth. They left Eleanor in her nurse’s care and proceeded with their dinner preparations. More than forty years after the maritime drama, Eleanor would still write, “I never liked fog.”52
OUT OF THE SHROUDED SEA like a shark’s fin drove the Celtic
Panicked, Captain Perry gave the order to put on all steam.54
Luckily the first blow struck just behind the engine room—a second earlier, and Britannic
would have gone straight down. Perry’s gamble in maintaining top speed had in that respect paid off. Still, it was a direct hit, and no two steamships had ever collided without one sinking.55 Celtic
rebounded on her own momentum. The second blow struck at a perfect right angle to split Britannic
’s quarterdeck rail, scoop away three lifeboats, topple rigging, demolish 180 feet of steerage deck, and mutilate passengers as her prow cut ten feet into an aft steerage compartment.56
Still under her own full steam, Britannic
some hundred yards forward,57
only to sustain one more swipe as Celtic
staggered away, leaving a last long gash at the waterline and opening Britannic
’s No. 4 hold to the sea. In the stove-in steerage compartment, where four passengers had been killed outright, “all was the wildest confusion.”58 Britannic
was taking on water. Celtic
, uninjured except for a dramatically holed bow that would be patched with mattresses, got lifeboats away for Britannic
Captain Perry had given the order for lifebelts and lifeboats, but panic had already swept the ship: She was on her way to the bottom
AMONG THE LIFEBELTED LADIES ON Promenade Deck it had taken a few minutes for grim dismay to pass into tight-lipped resolution. “The strain,” Anna Roosevelt would recall, “was fearful though there were no screams and no milling about. Everyone was perfectly quiet.”61
Anna’s response to crisis, whether aboard a panic-ridden steamer or at home whispering over some society scandal in Town Topics
was to conduct herself with a coldly unassailable elegance. Passionately dispassionate, her one enthusiasm lay in refusing to concede that she was subject to intense feeling, even if her husband was intemperate—as was beginning to be murmured—and most especially if two decks below lay the hideously congealing remains of a man cut in two by a force-pump.
Historians would be tempted to find in Eleanor’s diminutive presence on the sinking, class-bound Britannic
a magically receptive eyewitness, uniquely able to perceive distress. But what she grasped from the chaos of the collision (along with a lifelong preference for dry land, and chronic anxiety about open water and boats and swimming and heights) was the same frightened impression that fellow passengers reported: “I remember only that there was wild confusion.”63
For the next hour, the waters steadily brought down Britannic
’s riven stern—first two, then six, then eight feet into the slapping sea, pitching the bow ever more steeply upward. Women and children waited to be taken off in orderly clusters, while the men around them panicked.64
More than thirty minutes went by before the distressed vessel got a single lifeboat free.65
When the first fully loaded boat jammed on the port side, sailors spent fifteen minutes hunting for a blade to cut it loose. The Hall-Roosevelt women were put into a lifeboat commanded by Third Officer Mencken, and Eleanor’s turn to board came. She had to be passed down over water, which terrified her. She fought, shrieking frantically as she hung over the side, then locked onto a sailor’s neck, making it impossible to lower her down the hull to her father, who was standing in the boat below, shouting encouragement with upstretched arms.
But how had Elliott got into the lifeboat? Other family men like him were duty-bound to remain on board, obeying the spine-stiffening statutes of the Birkenhead Drill, which had established the doctrine of “women and children first” specifically to head off the rushes that had overwhelmed so many lifeboats. One eyewitness saw the shorthanded Third Officer Mencken order Elliott into the boat, not just to catch his daughter but to help row the survivors to safety. Elliott was remembered to have been cool, collected, and generous in his assistance to the third officer; and Mencken later said that had Roosevelt not
followed his command, Mencken would have had to make what then looked to be a 350-mile row with one oar short.66
Collis P. Huntington, dynamo of California’s Big Four railroad and industrial oligarchy, saw it differently: through the eyes of a sixty-five-year-old big wheel, who had repeatedly proved himself through ruthless self-reliance.67
His anger against Knickerbocker exclusiveness may have distorted his take on Elliott’s conduct.68
Huntington was then negotiating to raise a Fifth Avenue castle a few doors from the Roosevelts, but this cutthroat Western kingpin so threatened Vanderbilt railroad interests that he and his second wife had been barred from that apex of New York society where Anna shone brightest.
Whatever private animus Huntington may have felt, he took every advantage as First Mogul of the ship to tell the New York World
that Roosevelt and a fellow passenger, the Wall Street banker John Paton, had lost their heads and forced their way into a boat.69
Paton had in fact been ordered by the captain aboard a lifeboat with his
wife and daughter, but unlike Roosevelt, the well-known Scotsman had refused70
—as men like them were expected to—and would take the trouble to clear himself of the charges publicly.
All this whipsawed Elliott, exposing him to gloating innuendo at this moment of putting New York and Oyster Bay behind him. By following orders and fleeing to safety, Elliott had submitted to a lesser fate, with its endless sour consequences.
WENT down. Patched up but still leaking, the liners limped back to New York in consort, crawling in after two harrowing days and three tense nights. Huntington’s smear had winged ahead to the World
, filling the news vacuum with excited rumor and speculation as multitudes awaited the ships’ maimed return. Society columns in the New York Times
held that Elliott’s conduct had not been a straightforward matter of obedience to duty: “The etiquette of disasters at sea had better be compiled at once,” took up the Times
, “for there seems to be a wide difference of opinion as to the course a man should pursue, placed as Mr. Roosevelt was.”71
Tugboats dispatched to meet the ships brought the survivors in off the bar, passing the strangely reassuring new colossus just raised by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi—a handsome giantess lifting her arm to welcome anyone seeking refuge from a world of accident and trouble.
Back on dry land, the Roosevelts and Aunt Tissie paused barely a day before boarding the next ship for Liverpool. Elliott, now being called “the only man to leave the Britannic
was determined to sail at once. But Eleanor would not go. She wept at the first mention of another crossing; by one account, she “shook at even the thought of going to sea again.”73
She was certain that nothing but terror awaited her on open water. Nor was she by any means alone in her feelings: on May 23, the New York Times
prospective transatlantic tourists to take “serious thoughts” before sailing again.74
But, as so often in her girlhood, it was she who was made to feel disgraced and guilty for being “a terrified and determined little girl.”75
Going by the story that would be “told [her] many times,” Eleanor imagined that she had been responsible for putting her father’s honor on the line. Moreover, by her commonsense refusal to go back to sea, she had now cast herself as the family coward, and would ever after put herself into the collision narrative as a “timid child,” an obstacle to her parents’ smoothly resumed passage.76
Happily, one adult in the family showed every sign of being able to understand and vindicate her response. Her grandmother Roosevelt’s half sister, Aunt Annie Gracie, saw that Eleanor was “so little and gentle & had made such a narrow escape out of the great ocean… it made her seem doubly helpless & pathetic to us,” and shepherded Eleanor out to Oyster Bay. Anna Louisa Bulloch and her husband, the kindly New York broker James King Gracie,77
had served Eleanor’s father’s generation as “an extra set of parents.”78
Now Eleanor’s great-aunt would be the first in her long line of surrogate mothers.
Two or three times on the way out to Long Island, she asked where her mother and father and Aunt Tissie were. As soon as she was settled at Gracewood,79
the architecturally daring shingle “cottage” which Uncle and Aunt Gracie had just built, her aunt gave her tea on the new piazza: “the best tea I could, to make up to her for her little lonely table with only one little person at it.”80
Eleanor sat quietly eating her aunt’s stewed prunes, oatmeal biscuits, and bread and butter. But whenever she glimpsed a sail on the Sound, or heard the slopping of the sea, or later, whenever her aunt and uncle took her on a drive along the shore, she quavered, “Baby does not want to go in the water. Not in a boat.”81
From across the open Atlantic, Anna confided to “Aunt Annie” that she ached at having deserted Eleanor, “but know it was wiser to leave her.”82
Safely installed at the St. James’s Club, Piccadilly, Elliott could now report: “I have been delighted with our trip so far, though the Hall girls are a large contract to handle for a boy of my age and weight.”83
After shopping sprees in leafy Victorian London, sojourns at country houses, coaching parties, river-punting, and fashionably cosmopolitan dinners, Elliott marveled at “the girls’?” social successes, at which he was “content with a back seat.”84
The rest of her parents’ summer jottings are notable only for their entire self-absorption, the triviality of Elliott’s pursuits, and at least one six-hour British Isles edition of Anna’s headaches.85
On her side of the ocean, Eleanor asked her aunt: “Where is baby’s home now?”86
Even more pressing and unutterable: Who in the world was going to raise Eleanor?