FDR’s Love Letters to Working Women

An Affair with Lucy Mercer Nearly Rewrites History

In the early 1900’s, very few women were working outside the home. The Victorian ideal of the angel in the house, a school of thought that promoted female domesticity, had crept into the new century. Women were just earning their right to vote, rarely received higher education, and if they wanted to work, were stuck with the limited options of teacher or secretary. Among these few working women was Lucy Mercer, mistress of Franklin D. Roosevelt and secretary to his wife, Eleanor.

FDR was a man who knew adversity – he learned to live with polio at the age of 39, became president at the height of the Great Depression, was involved in two World Wars, and rescued the economy with his “New Deal.” Despite these major achievements, an affair would make it impossible to save his own marriage.

When FDR proposed to his distant cousin Eleanor in 1905, his mother, Sara Roosevelt, opposed the union vehemently. Though the future president was 23 years old, she maintained that he was too young to get married, and made herself an awkward presence in his newlywed life. The townhouse she built for them adjoined to hers on every floor, but despite these intrusions on their privacy, the couple had six children, the first four in rapid succession.

While FDR liked to socialize and was comfortable among the upper class, Eleanor preferred a simpler existence. Nevertheless, when her husband was made Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, she had many public obligations to fulfill, and hired Lucy Mercer to be her social security. Mercer was fun, vivacious, and beautiful, and it wasn’t long before she was sleeping with her boss’s husband.

Perhaps if FDR had not been such an avid letter write he would have been able to keep the affair a secret, but Eleanor found his cache of love notes in 1918. Quickly, everything unraveled. Mercer refused to marry a divorced man, and FDR’s mom promised to cut him off from the family money if he took Eleanor up on her offer for a divorce. While the couple stayed married, their romance transformed into a partnership. Eleanor established her own home and spent the rest of her life dedicated to various social and political pursuits. Although she was wealthy enough to escape her cheating husband, she never truly escaped the good wife status, and was forced to keep up appearances with FDR until his death in 1945.

Mercer went on to marry and have a family of her own, but when her husband died in 1944 she got back in touch with her former lover, who was now serving as president of the United States. Unknown to Eleanor at the time, she visited him in the White House often under the code name Mrs. Johnson, and it was she, not the First Lady, who was by his side on the day of his death. Although it is undeniable that FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer ruined his marriage, it is also clear that the bond between them was strong, withstanding the test of time and the pressure of public office.

Thanks to the discretion of his mother, wife, and mistress, FDR’s affair was not public knowledge until the 1960’s. It is to these women that FDR owes his presidency, as it is doubtful that voters of the era would have sided with a divorced man known for infidelity. It is frightening to think what would have happened in American had FDR not provided crucial leadership during one of our country’s most desperate moments. Would another politician been able to live up to his legacy? Although rumors of other affairs surround FDR’s love life, it is Lucy Mercer who will always be remembered as the woman who almost rewrote the nation’s history.