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Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons

The Lives of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt

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About The Book

A captivating dual biography of two famous women whose sons would change the course of the 20th century—by award-winning historian Charlotte Gray.

Born into upper-class America in the same year, 1854, Sara Delano (later to become the mother of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Jennie Jerome (later to become the mother of Winston Churchill) refused to settle into predictable, sheltered lives as little-known wives to prominent men. Instead, both women concentrated their energies on enabling their sons to reach the epicentre of political power on two continents.

In the mid-19th century, the British Empire was at its height, France’s Second Empire flourished, and the industrial vigor of the United States of America was catapulting the republic towards the Gilded Age. Sara and Jennie, raised with privilege but subject to the constraints of women’s roles at the time, learned how to take control of their destinies—Sara in the prosperous Hudson Valley, and Jennie in the glittering world of Imperial London.

Yet their personalities and choices were dramatically different. A vivacious extrovert, Jennie married Lord Randolph Churchill, a rising politician and scion of a noble British family. Her deft social and political maneuverings helped not only her mercurial husband but, once she was widowed, her ambitious son, Winston. By contrast, deeply conventional Sara Delano married a man as old as her father. But once widowed, she made Franklin, her only child, the focus of her existence. Thanks in large part to her financial support and to her guidance, Franklin acquired the skills he needed to become a successful politician.

Set against one hundred years of history, Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons is a study in loyalty and resilience. Gray argues that Jennie and Sara are too often presented as lesser figures in the backdrop of history rather than as two remarkable individuals who were key in shaping the characters of the sons who adored them and in preparing them for leadership on the world stage.

Impeccably researched and filled with intriguing social insights, Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons breathes new life into Sara and Jennie, offering a fascinating and fulsome portrait of how leaders are not just born but made.


Chapter 1: Jerome Flings and Flash 1854–1867 CHAPTER 1 Jerome Flings and Flash1854–1867
Horse-drawn vehicles were everywhere in Manhattan in the 1850s—carts, carriages, wagons, phaetons. Archival photos of the city capture neither the noise of their jangling harnesses and clattering hooves—the soundtrack of the city—nor the stench of fly-covered horse droppings. Even more alarming was the clatter of a four-in-hand coach hurtling at full tilt down the middle of the newly developed Fifth Avenue. Shocked pedestrians scrambled to get out of the way, then scowled at the flamboyant speedster in a bright green coat as he cracked his whip.

Clutching the arm of the reckless driver was often a gleeful little girl: Jennie Jerome. The middle of Leonard Jerome’s three daughters, she was her father’s favorite and “tiny mite that I was, I… occupied the seat of honor next to him.”1 The horses were trained to rear and prance, and Jennie reveled in the daredevilry as they took corners too fast. She blithely put her faith in her father’s horsemanship. Leonard Jerome, part owner of the New York Times, had a citywide reputation as a risk-taking financier who rode the fluctuations of the stock market the way he drove his carriage—with dangerous bravado.

Jennie Jerome would spend most of her first thirteen years in New York City, as America’s industrial era tipped toward the Gilded Age. The phrase “Gilded Age,” which came into popular use some fifty years later, was taken from the title of a novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner that described an era of devastating social problems masked by a thin layer of gilt. The Jerome household was entrenched within that creamy gold super-rich crust. Jennie’s father was nicknamed “The King of Wall Street.” Jennie grew up in a world of lavish mansions, linen tablecloths, and uniformed servants. It was also a world riddled with assumptions about class, race, and gender that make most people today cringe.

Jennie would devote only four pages in her memoirs to her formative years (she was born in Brooklyn), but two themes emerge. First, she was a happy-go-lucky little girl who adored her father. His extraordinary energy and stylish charisma set the mold for most of the men to whom she was attracted as an adult. He instilled in her a passion for horses, and she strove to impress him with her riding skills.

Second, it was her mother, Clara, not her father, who made the key decisions about how Jennie, her elder sister, Clara, and her younger sister, Leonie, would be raised. Leonard Jerome is such a colorful figure that he takes up a lot of oxygen in Jennie’s story and has obscured the considerable influence of his more reticent wife. Clara Jerome appears to have been a less conventional, more subtly assertive woman than she is usually given credit for. It was Clara who ensured that Jennie, who was gloriously attractive, would combine American self-possession with European sophistication, and be well educated and accomplished. And it was Clara who ensured that, as Jennie and her sisters matured, they were kept well clear of their father’s raffish world.
Clara Hall was a shy, dark-haired twenty-four-year-old when she met Leonard Jerome in Rochester, New York. Clarissa, as she was then known, and her two older sisters, Catherine and Caroline, were the daughters of a wealthy landowner and prominent member of the New York State Assembly, but they had been orphaned as children. A pair of elderly aunts raised them in the small town of Palmyra, in upper New York State, then moved them to Rochester, a thriving industrial city on the shore of Lake Ontario. There, Catherine Hall married Lawrence Jerome, Leonard’s younger brother.

The Halls had what was then considered a gold standard pedigree: the family was descended from at least two of the passengers on the Mayflower’s 1620 voyage, John Cooke and Richard Warren. Catherine, Caroline, and Clara, as she chose to rename herself, were among the most marriageable young women in Rochester’s stuffy upper class; they were wealthy and demonstrated exquisite taste in fashion and furnishings. But Clara, an oval-faced beauty, was said by relatives to be unpredictable; one minute she would be a charming flirt, the next minute she would withdraw into a dark mood. Her choice of partner took her contemporaries by surprise. Leonard Jerome, eight years older than Clara, was tall and good-looking, with a walrus mustache and a loud laugh, but he was her social inferior. He and his brother were remembered by a Rochester socialite as “screamingly funny… very popular with the ladies owing to the dashing manner in which they rode high-spirited horses.”2 This was not necessarily a recommendation.

Perhaps Clara knew that she would never be satisfied by staid quadrilles in mahogany-paneled drawing rooms, far from brighter lights elsewhere. If so, she must have seen Leonard’s large-hearted, noisy personality as her way out. She was mesmerized by Leonard’s high spirits. One day, on an expedition to Niagara Falls, thirty-one-year-old Leonard led her away from the rest of the party, then leaned dangerously over the cascading water and shouted, “I won’t come back till you’ve promised to marry me! Look! I’m falling! I’m falling!” Clara gasped in horror, then cried, “I will!”3 The couple was married on July 5, 1849.

There was more to the Jerome marriage than legal ties. By mutual agreement, the marriage would survive challenges that would shipwreck most alliances. They shared the conventional Victorian assumptions about rigidly gendered roles—Leonard should be the breadwinner, Clara should defer to him while she raised their children. Although Leonard was frequently unfaithful to Clara, throughout their marriage he wrote fond letters to “Clarita” and always took charge in a crisis. They would never risk the stigma of divorce.

So Clara Jerome ignored her husband’s wilder behavior and turned a blind eye to his infidelities. However, it seems that soft-voiced Clara had a hidden strength of character that ensured her husband’s respect. She saw through the hypocrisy of the age in which they lived. She never challenged the privileges accorded to men that women could never enjoy, but she recognized them and quietly worked her way around them to ensure her own comfort. She took steps to ensure her financial security, at a time when a married woman was assumed to be her husband’s dependent.

In 1848, New York had followed the example of several other states and granted women the right to own and control their own property, long before such rights were granted in Europe. The following year, Leonard settled a million dollars—at least $33 million today—on Clara. Was this at Clara’s insistence, to protect the capital she had brought into the marriage and Leonard had used to seed his fortune? Perhaps. It was a smart move, since it shielded her and their daughters from his boom-or-bust speculations. Being a man of extravagant gestures, Leonard also presented his wife with a magnificent diamond necklace.

The Jerome marriage would be a model for their daughters, who grew up expecting wedding vows to last a lifetime and men to make extravagant gestures. They noted their mother’s financial autonomy, but unfortunately, they also absorbed their father’s breezy insouciance about money. Jennie would never appreciate the huge costs of a luxurious lifestyle. Neither she nor her two sisters would marry men who offered either magnificent diamonds or financial stability, but they all assumed that a Leonard Jerome would always be in the background, ready to swoop in to pay bills or help them in an emergency. Jennie’s mother passed on to them, and particularly to her middle daughter, a quiet strength in the face of disaster.

Above all, Clara understood the male ego and how to succeed in a world run by men. She instructed her daughters, “Never scold a man, my dears. If you do, he will only go where he is not scolded.”4 She set them an example of how to secure an unusual degree of independence within a marriage.
Clara Jerome had correctly anticipated that Leonard, with his warmth and reckless exuberance, would take her places.

Jennie’s father came from respectable but threadbare origins. He grew up in an austere, God-fearing farming family of eleven, in a faded clapboard farmhouse outside Syracuse. Thanks to the generosity of an uncle and an elder brother, he attended Princeton University, but he was suspended after sabotaging test tubes so that they exploded in a chemistry class. He was short on means (he had to switch to the less expensive Union College, in Schenectady, New York) but never of ambition. After training as a lawyer in the same uncle’s Rochester law office, he and his brother Lawrence purchased a local paper, the Daily American, with funds from Catherine Hall, Lawrence’s wife. In addition to tripling the paper’s circulation, Leonard championed Republican campaigns to abolish slavery, build libraries, and provide free education.

Rochester was too small a pond for the Jerome brothers, so, after Leonard married Clara, they sold the Daily American and moved to Brooklyn, then an independent city of 120,000 only a ferry ride from Wall Street. Leonard was eager to plunge into the macho financial markets of Wall Street and invest in all the new economic ventures spawned by the Industrial Revolution: the steel mills, railroads, oil refineries, factories, and steamships that were making sharp-elbowed speculators rich. Mid-century Manhattan was the perfect environment for an entrepreneur with the brains and drive of Leonard Jerome. Each morning he and another brother, Addison, would catch the ferry across the East River to the Lower Manhattan office from which they ran their brokerage business.

Clara took her time to settle into the new life, and rarely took the ferry to Manhattan. But she began to track the social habits of Manhattan’s elite. She shared the aspirations of most wealthy men’s wives in the nineteenth century—dressing well, living well, and hoping to rise above her origins. By the time her first daughter was born, in 1851, the Jeromes could afford several household staff members as well as a nursemaid.

The newfound affluence of families like the Jeromes rested on top of a subterranean world of poverty. Within a stone’s throw of their handsome four-story Brooklyn brownstone lived the teeming masses who underwrote all that Manhattan wealth. Thousands of immigrants poured into the city. According to the state census of 1845, just over one in three New Yorkers was foreign-born; by 1865, the proportion had risen to almost half. In the Irish tenements on the west side, in Kleindeutschland on the Lower East Side, and within the Jewish and Italian slums to either side of the Bowery, living conditions were often appalling. Immigrants were crammed into overcrowded tenements that lacked heat, ventilation, and adequate sanitary facilities. Whole families lived together in the dim light and endured the fetid smells of single rooms. Typhus and diphtheria were rife; in 1865, smallpox alone killed more than six hundred New Yorkers.

Meanwhile, the city sucked ever more activity into its core. Railroads snaked up the island of Manhattan itself, spreading soot, ash, and noise. Pavements were laid down, dug up, rerouted; tunnels, reservoirs, and sewers were installed to provide cleaner water; the noise was incessant, the dust stifling. New York City was already the largest metropolis in America, with its economic, commercial, and cultural supremacy unchallenged. Unfettered capitalism allowed a handful of men (always men) to make vast fortunes; a few hundred grew very, very wealthy. Leonard Jerome could see opportunities everywhere.

Clara must have felt that her dreams were coming true when, soon after their arrival in Brooklyn, the Republican administration in Washington plucked her husband out of Wall Street and appointed him American consul in Trieste, as a reward for using the Daily American as a Republican platform. The cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian seaport, squeezed between Italy and the Austrian Empire in the northeast corner of the Adriatic Sea, was a mecca for music and literary arts. Welcomed everywhere thanks to her husband’s prestigious position, Clara became a fervent Europhile, reveling in white-tie-and-tails dinners, diplomatic receptions, and the frothy Parisian fashions worn by the city’s elite.

But after six months, Leonard Jerome had had enough of the froth. He grew tired of Trieste’s endless parades of aristocrats who “spoke more languages than I, but none paid for their own education, and surely it is more important to think clearly in one idiom than to chatter in five.”5 He craved the financial jungle of Wall Street and the chance to make a fortune. By 1853 Clara and her family were back in Brooklyn, sharing a house with Addison Jerome at 8 Amity Street. Clara would recall that her husband “did not wait to unpack before he plunged. Every dollar he had not settled on me was in constant use on the market.”6

Jennie’s father now embarked on his swashbuckling career of making and losing fortunes, usually through speculation and shorting stocks. During the day he and his brother followed stock trades in all the emerging industries; in the evenings, he became known as a master of repartee at lively stag dinners. A contemporary recorded that in this fast-paced, tough milieu, he thrived. “I never knew him to take a drink in a bar or public place, yet he belonged to the city with all its garish brilliance. No man ever became more completely a New Yorker.”7

Money was not the only driving force in Leonard Jerome’s life. Musical from childhood, he adored opera. Sometimes he worshipped the divas from afar; other times, he took talented young women under his wing and helped promote their careers. The youngest and most beautiful were more than professional protégées, and were said to adore their dashing and generous Svengali. Clara ignored her husband’s affairs.

Leonard’s careless presumptions about women were evident when his second daughter was born, on January 9, 1854. Leonard promptly announced that she should be named after his latest passion—the superstar soprano Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale.” “Jennie?” exclaimed his wife. “Just Jennie? It’s an impossible name.” But as usual, Leonard Jerome got his way, and the daughter who would prove most like him in character was named after a celebrity performer.8

Clara gave birth to two more daughters after Jennie: Camille, who died in early childhood, and Leonie, in 1859. At the same time, she was busy navigating Manhattan’s social scene. From the late 1850s, she took her daughters each summer to Newport, Rhode Island, a small seaside town on the brink of becoming fashionable thanks to families like the Astors and the Vanderbilts. It was the right place to be, although Clara was not yet courting important friends. Jennie’s memories of Newport were simple: “We were allowed to run wild and be as grubby and happy as children ought to be.”9 Her father would appear for weekends, often with one of his glamorous young protégées in tow. Jennie trotted around the Rhode Island resort in a dogcart, given to her by one of her father’s girlfriends and pulled by two donkeys named Willie and Wooshey.

Although most schools and colleges were exclusively male, wealthy Americans did not consider educating girls a waste of money. Educational activists were starting to establish educational institutions for women—Vassar College in 1861, Wellesley College in 1870, Smith College in 1871, among others. In common with most well-heeled matriarchs, Clara Jerome had no intention of letting her daughters become overeducated (and perhaps unmarriageable) bluestockings, but she did not want them to be ignorant, either. Private tutors ensured that well-born girls were well-read, while the Jeromes’ regular trips to Europe instilled respect for classical traditions, Renaissance art, and foreign languages.

The girls attended a small private school that took academic studies seriously. From a young age, they took piano lessons and their mother oversaw their practice sessions rigorously. By the time they reached adolescence, Clara and Jennie were already approaching concert pianist levels. This was a skill much valued in the best drawing rooms.

Jennie’s mentions of her education are fleeting. She recalls being taken by her father to opera matinees “to improve our minds.” She was always a voracious reader. In a leatherbound volume she owned that is now in the Churchill Archives in Cambridge, there is a handwritten catalogue of the books that Jennie bequeathed to a descendant: the Dialogues of Plato; Montaigne’s essays; the complete works of De Quincey and of William Makepeace Thackeray; many volumes of history, including those by Agnes Strickland; plus novels by Walter Scott, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and several French authors; plus poetry by Yeats and Byron.10

Clara also raised her daughters to be as fashion-conscious as she was herself. An early photo reveals three well-groomed girls with carefully coiled ringlets, wearing versions of stylish adult gowns. Little Clara and Leonie, with fair hair and bland expressions, are only ordinarily pretty. Jennie, who was perhaps seven at the time, already dominates the threesome, with her glossy black curls, huge dark eyes, and impudent expression as she leans into the camera.11 In the opinion of Elinor Glyn, a British author of risqué bestsellers in the early 1900s, “The American woman is unquestionably the most beautiful, the best-dressed, best-turned-out and consequently the most attractive of all women.” Clara ensured that Jennie Jerome fit the description.
One of the few anecdotes Jennie told about her childhood is about weekly dancing classes during the Civil War years, where “every little Southerner I met at dancing classes was a ‘wicked rebel,’ to be pinched if possible.”12

Jennie was six years old in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the expansion of slavery, was elected U.S. president. The following year, the Southern states split from their Northern neighbors and formed the Confederacy so they could continue their vicious practice of slavery—a practice that allowed slaveholders to justify owning, controlling, torturing, lynching, raping, and often killing human beings. For the next four years, a ferocious war raged as the young Republic came close to tearing itself apart. By the time the last Confederate fighter surrendered, President Lincoln had been assassinated and there had been over a million casualties, including as many as 750,000 deaths. The Thirteenth Amendment had been added to the Constitution, outlawing slavery and emancipating the four million African Americans who had been enslaved. But this was only one step in the Black struggle for true equality—a struggle that Black activists had already been fighting for decades. Freed Black peoples’ status in the postwar South remained precarious as their legal rights were ignored and racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan emerged.

There were many vociferous supporters for the abolition of slavery in New York, including William Lloyd Garrison. The city already had a large population of free African Americans and many more would arrive from the South after the war ended. Concentrated in low-paid jobs, many were employed by wealthy families—the Jeromes had a Black nursemaid called Dobby for years. Yet the brutal battles of the Civil War or debates about how to achieve true equality for Black people barely touched everyday life for much of the New York elite. Moreover, Leonard Jerome had no fear of being conscripted. A Northern plutocrat could avoid the draft by paying a $300 commutation fee (about $9,630 today) or bribing a poor man to go in his place. Soon it was widely believed that the Civil War had become a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” While thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded at Bull Run and Harpers Ferry and Gettysburg, the hostilities made men like Jennie’s father rich.

In 1860, the year before war broke out, Leonard Jerome had purchased a large block of shares in the New York Times and was soon in cahoots with the financial editor. The Times threw its support behind President Lincoln and his Republican administration. Leonard proved his personal support for the Union side with a check for $35,000 (over $1 million today)13 toward a ship to catch Southern blockade runners, plus generous contributions toward care of the wounded. At the same time, thanks to its excellent sources within the administration, the paper made itself indispensable to the serious reader with its cool analysis of economic and political issues. Leonard now had a platform for his market tips, and reporters from other papers and speculators hung on his recommendations, especially for various railway schemes. During the Civil War, the newspaper’s circulation increased enormously, and Jerome was soon reputed to be worth $10 million—a fabulous sum back then, and equivalent to over $300 million dollars today.

Leonard Jerome’s success mirrored the expansionary boldness of his country. While the Civil War would leave the South’s economy in shambles, the North was becoming the world’s industrial powerhouse. Higher tariffs to protect domestic industries, government subsidies for railroads, and land grants for settlers profoundly shaped the development of the American economy for the rest of the century. Railroad mileage doubled between 1865 and 1873, and increased by a further 50 percent by 1881, boosting demand for iron, steel, and coal. The iron pathways through forests, prairies, and mountains, which funneled immigrants westward in vast numbers, finally reached the Pacific in 1869.

The frenetic activity spawned vast opportunities for bold entrepreneurs to seize. The term “robber baron” entered the American lexicon in 1859 when it was used to describe the ruthless business practices of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who amassed a huge fortune in the shipping industry. Soon the derogatory term was being applied to men who would become some of the richest Americans in history, including Andrew Carnegie, who built a steel empire, and John D. Rockefeller, who made a fortune from oil refineries. In the late 1860s, Vanderbilt recruited Leonard Jerome as an investor in a bold new scheme: the merger of several existing rail lines into the lucrative New York Central & Hudson River Railroad.

Clara must have been proud of her successful husband, but she also watched his rakish reputation spread alongside his wealth. He never did things by halves. He built an extravagant six-story red brick and marble mansion, at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Twenty-Third Street, adjacent to the residence of one of Manhattan’s greatest snobs, the redoubtable Mrs. Schermerhorn, and he celebrated his arrival there with a sumptuous ball. At each end of the ballroom stood a fountain—champagne bubbled in one, cologne spouted from the second. Next door to the mansion stood the family’s three-story stables, filled with horses, grooms, and carriages. According to the New-York Tribune, “Except for the Emperor’s Mews in Paris, it is doubtful if any stable in the world is as fine… Black walnut, plate glass, carpeted floors and other costly decorations ornamented the place. Above the stable he built a private theatre, handsomely adorned…”14 Leonard Jerome’s stage was a launchpad for his young, talented sopranos as he aspired to be a Medici of American music patrons.

Jennie and her sisters would have heard from the servants about some of their father’s more extravagant gestures. He once hosted a dinner at Delmonico’s, the city’s top restaurant, at which, as each female guest unfurled her starched white napkin, a gold bracelet fell into her lap. (Clara does not appear to have been present.) He cofounded the American Jockey Club and established a racecourse just outside the city. As his friend August Belmont, another high roller, said of his good friend, “One rode better, sailed better, banqueted better when Mr. Jerome was of the party.”15

Leonard Jerome was never sufficiently wealthy to be considered an A-list robber baron, but he was in their ranks. However, Clara had now been in New York long enough to realize that she and her daughters were never going to be acceptable to Manhattan’s old guard, despite her Mayflower ancestors or her daughters’ arpeggios. Her husband’s flashy extravagance branded them as nouveau riche, which made the Jeromes marginal to the city’s social establishment.

So who belonged to this establishment? The most obvious members were descendants of the original Dutch colonists who had arrived in the New World well before the American Revolution: Schermerhorns, Roosevelts, Schuylers, Brevoorts, Van Rensselaers. Such families gloried in the label Knickerbockers (a term that was either an Americanization of a common Dutch surname or a reference to the early settlers’ knee-length breeches), and they deeply distrusted glitter. Pious and personifying the Dutch virtue of thrift, most did not flaunt the fortunes they had made over the years through banking, trade, and real estate. Instead, this self-styled elite preferred to live quietly, manage their country estates in the Hudson Valley, and husband their resources for the next generation.

Old guard friendships were restricted to people who shared the encrusted dignity of established wealth. Their fortunes were as solid as the mahogany furniture and their family ties as sturdy as the drawing room bell pulls in their brownstone houses on Washington Square. They worshipped together at Grace Church (Episcopal) and belonged to the same exclusive network of clubs and cultural associations. Alongside the Saint Nicholas Society, there was the Union Club, the Arcadian Club, the Lotos Club, and the Century Association, each with membership limited to a few hundred men, high entrance fees, and a practice of blackballing unsuitable applicants. John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America, barely qualified for membership in the exclusive Saint Nicholas Society because his family had not arrived in New York until 1784. Jews, Catholics, and Blacks never crossed their thresholds.

Old money families were entirely confident about their place in the world; a sense of superiority was bred in their bones. Despite living in the nation’s most boisterous democracy, they fought to protect their exclusivity with elaborate rules and rituals borrowed from European aristocracy. Outsiders like Clara and Leonard Jerome were given the cold shoulder. In 1854, Frank Leslie’s Ladies’ Gazette of Fashion advised readers to go through the formalities of an introduction “with the most bland expression… yet insensibly [to] convey to the introduced an impression that a further intimacy would not be agreeable.”16

Why did newcomers even want to move into these circles, however grand the lineages and refined the manners? In a New World republic supposedly founded on principles of equality, what was the attraction in joining a self-declared aristocracy that seemed determined to establish an Old World class system? Some of the recent arrivals in the city were indifferent to Knickerbocker pretentions. Nothing signaled Leonard Jerome’s disdain for tight-lipped snobbery as much as those spirited rides along Fifth Avenue.

But others, especially the wives of the new class of entrepreneurs, smarted at the sneering condescension of society matrons. Clara knew, for example, that Jerome money was as good as that of Mrs. William Astor (née Schermerhorn), Manhattan’s most powerful hostess. Her newly purchased Meissen tea set was just as delicate as those owned by members of the Van Rensselaer clan; her ornate bonnets and elaborate gowns were styled by the same milliners and seamstresses as those sported by wives of Knickerbocker grandees.

Clara Jerome came to dislike Manhattan. After being presented to Emperor Napoleon III and the elegant Empress Eugénie on one of the family trips to Paris, she wrote, “I have found the court I want.”17
In 1867, Jennie’s mother announced her intention to sail to Europe with her three daughters, now sixteen, thirteen, and eight years old. According to Jennie, Clara moved for health reasons, to consult a physician in Paris. “Finding that the educational advantages were greater in Paris than in New York, we decided to remain there.”

This was only half the story. Up to this point, Clara chose to ignore her husband’s infidelities, but Leonard had recently taken up with a New York widow, Mrs. Fanny Ronalds. Diarists who met Fanny gushed about her beauty, her voice, her style. In Memories of an Old Etonian, Greville Moore wrote, “Her face was perfectly divine in its loveliness, her features small and exquisitely regular. Her hair was of a dark shade of brown and very abundant.”18 Fanny Ronalds dressed impeccably and sang beautifully, and Leonard Jerome was besotted.

Gossip flared. When Mrs. Leonard Jerome was introduced to Mrs. Fanny Ronalds at a ball one evening, a hush fell on the others in attendance. Clara could have cut Fanny with the curled lip of an Old New Yorker. Instead, as she took her white-gloved hand, she reacted with gentle tolerance. “I don’t blame you,” she whispered. “I know how irresistible he is.”19

However, Clara evidently had had enough of her husband’s dalliances. Moreover, Leonard’s fortune was starting to sag, and her American dollars would go much further in France than they did in Manhattan. She had always wanted her daughters to be multilingual, and she knew that in Paris, where the American colony numbered over four thousand, wealthy Americans were welcomed.

But there was even more to the move than this. The marriage prospects of the Jerome sisters must have worried their mother. The salons of France’s Second Empire, where Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie held court, were easier to penetrate than Knickerbocker circles. In Paris, her daughters could acquire a sophistication to match their American self-assurance, while Clara could carve out a new life for herself, away from Leonard’s boisterous triumphs.

The four Jerome women and a retinue of servants, including Dobby, who had looked after the girls since they were small, crossed the Atlantic and settled into spacious, well-furnished lodgings at 70 Boulevard Malesherbes.

Jennie would note in her memoirs that “my mother went out a great deal in French society, where her beauty attracted much attention, la belle Américaine at that time having all the charm of novelty.”20 Leonard visited regularly, but for most of the year Clara was on her own, making new friends and sizing up potential suitors for her daughters. If she had stayed in New York, she would have been trapped in a social cul-de-sac. In Paris, she could reinvent herself. She remained a loyal wife and a conscientious parent, as Victorian custom demanded, and she shrank from scandal. But she relished her escape from Manhattan’s snobbery.

About The Author

Michelle Valberg

Charlotte Gray is one of Canada’s best-known writers and the author of twelve acclaimed books of literary nonfiction, including The Promise of Canada. Her bestseller The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial That Shocked a Country won the Toronto Book Award, the Heritage Toronto Book Award, the Canadian Authors Association Lela Common Award for Canadian History, and the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Nonfiction Crime Book. It was shortlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, the Ottawa Book Award for Nonfiction, and the Evergreen Award, and it was longlisted for the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Nonfiction. An adaptation of her bestseller Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike was broadcast as a television miniseries. An adjunct research professor in the department of history at Carleton University, Charlotte has received numerous awards, including the Pierre Berton Award for distinguished achievement in popularizing Canadian history. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Visit her at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 12, 2023)
  • Length: 432 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982141967

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Raves and Reviews

“Gray has managed to do the virtually impossible, and that is to say something new and perceptive about Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With her usual keen eye for the telling detail and her sympathy for her subjects, she argues for the importance of the statesmen’s relationships with their two very different but forceful mothers.”
MARGARET MacMILLAN, New York Times bestselling author of Paris 1919 and War

“Gray hopes her book will encourage people to think more about the breadth of women’s lives. With her own passion for historical detail, she has reclaimed the vibrant, extraordinary ones of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt.”
Toronto Star

“Fascinating, engaging, and thought-provoking insight into the lives and influence of two women whose impact on the course of world events has all too often been reviewed from the male gaze. This book made me develop a greater appreciation for many of the so-called ‘secondary’ characters we read about in history books.”
ELIZA REID, internationally bestselling author of Secrets of the Sprakkar

“[A] book that seeks to rehabilitate the reputations of the mothers of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt—women of substance and strength who greatly impacted the lives and careers of their more famous and celebrated sons. . . . But Gray’s most important accomplishment is to show that Jennie Churchill and Sara Roosevelt were far more than just mothers of history-making sons.”
New York Journal of Books

“Charlotte Gray has put two truly remarkable women—Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt—in the spotlight. Brilliantly conceived and wonderfully written, their lives and times are illuminated as never before.”
BOB RAE, diplomat and author of What’s Happened to Politics?

“[A] terrific and insightful double biography.”
Wall Street Journal

“[E]ntirely original and brilliant. [Gray] weaves together the parallel but remarkably different lives of Sara Roosevelt and Jennie Churchill, as wives as well as mothers, and explores their fascinatingly dissimilar guidance of their famous sons’ futures. Fresh, original, superbly researched, intimate, compelling, perceptive, sensitive, and immensely readable, it is not to be missed.”
RONALD COHEN, author of the three-volume Bibliography of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill

“This is a spectacular book, brilliantly and magnetically written. It’s a story about the passionate love of two remarkable mothers and their two remarkable sons, but it’s also transcendently about all mothers and their sons.”
ROSALIE ABELLA, former Canadian Supreme Court justice and professor of law at Harvard Law School

“A compassionate and vivid double portrait of Jennie Jerome and Sara Delano. . . . Gray strikes an expert balance between the big picture and intimate glimpses of each woman. It’s an enlightening study of two mothers’ crucial influence upon sons who would make history.”
Publishers Weekly

“In this provocative biography, Charlotte Gray bestows revisionist interest on two 'passionate mothers' whose 'powerful sons' proved themselves worthy of the maternal love and devotion showered on each.”
Washington Independent Review of Books

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