Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Another argument for not getting your history from films

Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Relationship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret SuckleyClosest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Relationship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley by Geoffrey C. Ward

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I saw the film Hyde Park on Hudson a few months ago, I had never heard of Margaret Suckley (pronounced "Sookley"), but I do know something of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his era, so I found myself questioning what I was seeing.  Of course, the thing with so-called historical films is that there is a time constraint and a need to create dramatic tension, so you know the facts are going to be meddled with.  Still, the President getting a blow-job in an automobile in a secluded field?  A bit Bill Clinton, isn't it?  The King and Queen of England becoming anxious at the idea of consuming hot dogs?  A bit over-the-top, wouldn't you say?

As the credits rolled, I noted that the movie was based on a play, and the play was based on a book.  I went home and placed a hold on the only copy in the library.  It took three months for my turn to come up.

At first, I thought the wait had been a waste of time.  Geoffrey C. Ward, a well-known biographer who has collaborated on occasion with the documentary film-maker Ken Burns, is not the author of this book, but the editor and annotator of this collection of the letters and diaries of Margaret Suckley, whom he had met while researching his own books on FDR.  My disappointment gradually abated as I read further.  Margaret (known as "Daisy") was articulate, idealistic, and absolutely in love with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was her distant (sixth) cousin.  (His wife Eleanor Roosevelt was her fourth cousin, while FDR and Eleanor were themselves fifth cousins once removed.)

Daisy is very much a product of her time and class.  Although her family had lost much of their wealth during the twenties and thirties, she speaks from a viewpoint of privilege and her attitudes towards people of colour, although liberal for the times, would get her into a lot of trouble today.  She does, however, come across as sweetly naive, and you will not find a word of criticism against FDR whom she worshiped. 

It was this very lack of criticism and her willingness to keep in the background that, no doubt, kept her in the very inner ring of FDR's circle long after the intensity of their friendship slackened. It was a friendship that lasted more than thirty years, and she was present at his death.  Did this relationship ever involve a Bill-Clinton-ish encounter in an automobile?  After reading Daisy's letters and diaries (some of FDR's letters and notes are included), I somehow doubt it.  Both FDR and Eleanor had intense and romantic friendships, and I supposed some of them may have involved physical intimacy.  However, Daisy's starry-eyed adoration over many years doesn't seem to fit in with that.  We need to remember that it was a very different time.

For anyone interested in Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his era, this is indispensable, and Ward's annotations are even-handed and unobtrusive.

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