Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lucy, by Ellen Feldman

Reviewed by Brittany Mangus

I don't really remember how I stumbled upon this book, but I'm glad I read it. This is a biographical fiction novel about FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer Rutherford (Eleanor's personal social secretary and FDR's mistress).

It's written in the first person, from Lucy's (rose-colored) point of view. It takes place from 1914-1945, focusing mostly on the time period (1914-1918) when FDR met Lucy, which was before FDR was stricken with polio.

As a fan of similar period novels (The Age of Innocence, The Buccaneers, Ethan Frome, etc.) I was fascinated by this book; the characters exude the New England Victorian culture and Lucy mentions the strict social rules of the era. (For example, a patrician woman must never occupy a man's newly-vacated chair, for fear that his body heat may still be felt.) This book even weaves in some newly-discovered and very interesting information about FDR and another mistress, Missy LeHand.

I have read other biographies about former presidents so it was especially fun to read this "sort-of" biography in the form of a fictional novel. What was very interesting to me was how each chapter began with one or two actual quotes from people who knew FDR, Eleanor and Lucy. Often, they contradicted each other, which added a human element to the story.

FDR first met Lucy Mercer around 1914 when she was working in their home as Eleanor's social secretary. A not-so-secret romance blossomed. The affair was well-known to everyone in their social circle... everyone except shy, reserved, and repressed Eleanor.

However, in the fall of 1918, Eleanor discovered love letters from Lucy to her husband in his suitcase. Historians and this author agree that "the Lucy Mercer affair" was the catalyst that defined the great leaders who FDR and Eleanor herself would one day become. At the time, Eleanor forbade FDR from seeing Lucy ever again. Lucy, however secretly came back into the President's life near the end of it (the Secret Service gave her a code name "Mrs. Paul Johnson"), and was with him on the very day he died in Warm Springs, Georgia in 1945. What was not known until very recently was exactly when she re-entered his life. They now believe that it was much sooner than earlier thought.

It was interesting to compare the choices made by the women who loved FDR. Lucy married Winthrop Rutherford (a man 29 years her senior), whereas Missy never married and devoted her life to FDR. Daisy Suckley likewise never married and shared a similar expectation (with Lucy and Missy) that she would someday "retire" with FDR once his 4th term in office was over. Eleanor chose to remain married to FDR, despite accounts that she "did not act like a wife." (In fact, she frequently lived separately from him.)

There are many more secrets and interesting personality quirks and flaws that I will leave for you to discover. It is a fascinating novel about fascinating people- I recommend it!

"Lucy: A President, A Marriage, A Love Affair" By Ellen Feldman
Even though this book is about an affair, true to Lucy's patrician nature, there are no "details."
Biographical Fiction/Historical Fiction
304 pages
Published by WW Norton & Co. (2004)

3 comments:

Tristi Pinkston said...

I know everyone has their skeletons to hide in closets, but this one sort of makes me sad. Not FDR!! :)

Brittany said...

Maybe it's the three-initial thing. JFK, FDR... they both had their mistresses! :p

While reading "Lucy", I also read a non-fiction book called "Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherford and the other remarkable women in his life" by Joseph Persico.

It was a nice companion book to "Lucy" and fleshed out other parts of the story for me. I recommend both. Yeah, you see FDR, warts and all, but I feel like I understand him a little bit better.

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