Everyday must have seemed like Mother’s Day to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Sara Delano Roosevelt wouldn’t have permitted it any other way.
“Am I proud of being an historic mother?!” she waspishly repeated a question rudely thrown her way by reporters. “Indeed I am!”
When FDR was elected President in 1932, the national media lavished enormous publicity on the aristocratic matron who was his mother. She was a phenomena, and a rarity.
It had been a third of a century since the nation had seen a mother who’d lived to see her son become President (Nancy McKinley) and over half a century since one had insisted on public attention (Eliza Garfield).
With the synching of film and sound which marked the era, Sara Roosevelt had all the venues she needed to build her unique brand of obnoxious domination.
Its all the more amazing that this President, so acutely sensitive to the power of imagery, permitted this elitist millionaire, who lived on a baronial estate with a staff of servants, to assume a public profile at the height of the Great Depression.
He just couldn’t say no to dear old mamma.
Sara Delano was only 26 years old when she met 55 year old widower James Roosevelt, but she fell quickly and genuinely in love. They married months later, in October of 1880.
Within less than two years, she took full control of his estate located in Hyde Park, New York, in the Hudson River Valley and gave birth to their only child, Franklin Delano, named for her uncle.
She only wanted one child and she indulged and spoiled him to no end, making him the center of her entire world.
He lavished equal love and devotion on her, earning him the reputation of being, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth put it, “a mamma’s boy.”
When her husband died in 1900, Sara could fixate on Franklin without distraction.
Although he was already eighteen years old, she was so unable to be apart from him, she moved to Boston and took an apartment there while he was enrolled at nearby Harvard University.
The mansion which the world knew by the shorthand of “Hyde Park,” and presumed was owned by the President, she’d christened with the formal name of “Springwood.”
It was always her house and she intended to live there with Franklin. They decorated it together. She expanded the entrance hall so that there was enough room on the walls to display as many of his naval prints as he wanted.
It was no surprise, therefor, that when he became entranced by his distant cousin Eleanor after meeting her on a train for the first time as an adult, Sara began demeaning her, focusing on the fact that the young woman’s father had been alcoholic and that any children she bore might carry that proclivity.
Initially considering their romance a farce, she was soon enough threatened and did all she could to put the brakes on their talk of marriage before he had graduated and established a career. Franklin finally insisted that Eleanor would be his wife but relented to his mother’s wish that they keep it secret for a year. And Sara made another condition of her approval, presented as a gift.
Using not only just her inheritance as a widow but great wealth from her own family made in the opium trade, Sara readily employed money to arrange life as she wanted it. Upon the 1905 wedding of her son, she announced that she’d purchased two adjoining East 65th Street brownstones in New York, one for them and one for her.
Then, she had doors cut between them, to ensure her own full access to them whenever she wished.
Even after Franklin entered state politics and fathered five children who lived into adulthood, he continued to be give way to the woman the New York Times dubbed “formidable and domineering.” When she couldn’t emotionally manipulate him, she again used her wealth to get him to heel.
After he fell in love with his wife’s social secretary Lucy Mercer and wanted to divorce Eleanor so he could marry his lover, Sara Roosevelt could not tolerate the thought of the potential humiliation such a public scandal would provoke.
Firmly, simply, coldly, if he didn’t change his mind, she promised to entirely cut off not just the income she was providing to permit him an indulgent lifestyle but remove him from her will.
He did as he was told.
Sara inevitably sought to control his own family in the same way.
When Franklin Jr. wrecked a car while speeding home from prep school, for example, his mother convinced his father to tell him they would not buy him a new one, hoping to instill a moral lesson on consequence.
Sara thought it made them look petty, and knowing that it was her daughter-in-law and not her son who had determined this, she relished defying her and bought her grandson the new automobile.
Whether it was a subversive, even unconscious effort to spite Eleanor for having entered the scene and ruined Sara’s intention of remaining the primary woman in Franklin’s life, she never ceased to undermine her.
Even under the guise of thoughtful encouragement, her bite was sharp. “If you’d just run your comb through your hair, dear,” she chided Eleanor in front of a full table of dinner guests, “you’d look so much nicer.”
It was only after FDR contracted polio in 1921 that Eleanor got an upper-hand. Sara insisted that her son must now lead a quiet invalid’s life. Eleanor crossed her, insisting that FDR’s talents must not be stifled and that he belonged in the public arena. Franklin followed Eleanor on that lead.
Sara lost no pride, however, always hovering close to Franklin in publicity photographs during his years as New York’s Governor, from 1929 to 1932, as if she’d been behind him having a political career all along.
Sara Roosevelt continued to contradict Eleanor Roosevelt by questioning her judgement on decisions, particularly those affecting her son.
What was especially insidious was that her bullying preyed upon the deep emotional insecurities which Eleanor Roosevelt was striving to overcome.
If the First Lady persisted in raising political issues which seemed to exasperate the President, Sara nodded to the butler, signaling him to bring around FDR’s wheelchair and she then rose in dramatic silence to roll him out and away from his wife.
Horrified by her daughter-in-law’s alliances with social reformers and those from the working class, she was particularly resentful of how Eleanor had helped a New York state trooper, Earl Miller, rise through the ranks and then befriend him.
Speaking with the same intonations of their class, the President’s mother viciously mimicked the voice of the President’s wife, to complain, “First it was Private Miller. Then it was Sergeant Miller. Then it was Commander Miller. Now it’s Earl dear!”
Early in the Administration, however, she crossed the line.
During one of her unannounced and lengthy stays at the White House, Sara Roosevelt began sniping that it was somehow improper for the presidential mansion to be serviced by an African-American domestic staff, Eleanor Roosevelt confronted the grand dame.
“I have never told you this before, but I must tell you now,” she stated steadily and smilingly. “You run your house, and I’ll run mine.”
It left Sara stunned silent – but it didn’t stop her.
At the annual March of Dimes Ball fundraisers for polio held on FDR’s birthday, the First Lady could preside at the Washington event, but the First Mother made it clear that she would be headlining the regional one held in New York.
Although she found newspaper reporters to be “detestably vulgar,” she sure didn’t mind flattering publicity.
Practically the day after FDR won the 1933 election, Sara Roosevelt hired a ghostwriter to whip up her memoirs, My Boy Franklin so it could hit the market just as her son had entered the White House.
The first memoirs ever written by a First Mother, the book thrust her further into the limelight and she relished every moment of it.
She was on the train down from New York in a moment’s notice if Franklin was to be honored and she was sure to be in attendance whenever a celebrity was mixing with the Roosevelts, even if Eleanor was in the picture.
Whenever Franklin was in New York, Sara could be counted on to appear, invited or not.
She was especially ubiquitous at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair.
She jammed her way onto the podium to pose with him, Eleanor, granddaughter Anna and grandson James for the opening of the fair, and came back the following year for the 1940 opening.
After touring the British Pavilion, she glided out on the arm of two escorts like the Queen Mother of America, as crowds stood back in gawking awe.
On her own, she did the honors of unveiling a large bust of her boy in the Romanian Pavilion.
She also made her own decisions about appearing in newsreels and on radio shows, without direction from of the president’s press secretary.
Here is one newsreel Sara Roosevelt made on her 80th birthday.
In it, she expounds on the happiness of “brightening and making beautiful” the home and how doing so would make for a more “prosperous” nation, her motherly take on his controversial New Deal policies:
She showed up at social events, sailing like a “grand old war-horse,” as one niece put it, into the den of his most bitter partisan critics.
Notoriously tightfisted, she was outraged when she discovered she would have to pay full price to take a private railroad car when she journeyed to Washington; after all, she was going to comfort the President with her presence and that was in the national interest.
During the famous 1939 visit to Hyde Park by the King and Queen of England, Sara Roosevelt insisted that she must be granted the official protocol status of the president’s hostess.
Yes, FDR wearily conceded, it was her house they were visiting.
When she pushed for similar standing at the White House, he raised his voice to insist she could not overrule standards regulated by the State Department. Indignantly, she threatened to contact the Secretary of State unless he apologized for using that tone of voice with her. He apologized.
If the First Mother learned to avoid the First Lady, she never stopped trying to influence the President, even if it publicly embarrassed him.
While he maintained a policy of neutrality as war broke out across Europe, Sara Roosevelt signed a public letter printed in national newspapers calling on him to come to England’s defense. Her unrelenting lobbying succeeded in getting him to send a warship to retrieve her sister, stranded in Hitler’s Europe.
Whether she was clueless or willfully ignorant of the inclusive spirit FDR was attempting to cast his Administration as having, Sara Roosevelt remained blinded by her privilege, unable to socially accept some of her son’s guests as her own, even if they were crucial allies or advisers to him.
“Who is that dreadful man sitting next to Franklin?!” she loudly whispered across the Hyde Park dinner table about the colorful Senator Huey Long.
She disapprovingly referred to FDR’s ally, Governor Al Smith as “That man,” and witheringly dubbed Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and Assistant Treasury Secretary Jo Roche as “These women!”
Sara Roosevelt was not just the first mother able to vote for her son as President of the United States but to do so three times.
If that seemed to make her a symbol of a more modern American woman, it was not long after her death that she became the Victorian relic of a bygone era. She died on September 7, 1941.
Three months to the day, the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and “my boy Franklin” committed his nation to World War II.
As he signed the declaration of war, President Roosevelt was photographed still wearing a black mourning band on his arm.
Eleanor Roosevelt had a very different reaction. She had once hoped Sara could be to her the mother she had lost as a child, but soon enough realized that her mother-in-law was really only ever in love with Franklin.
The First Lady went public with her feelings, writing in her daily newspaper column that “there was a streak of jealously and possessiveness in her when her own were concerned.”
More poignantly, she confessed to a friend at the time, “It is dreadful to have lived so close to someone for 36 years & feel no deep affection or sense of loss.”