Sara Delano Roosevelt

By Anne Adams


Picture of Sara Delano Roosevelt

 As an important figure in twentieth century American history Franklin Delano Roosevelt is known for a variety of accomplishments. He was the only president elected to four terms, was an innovative statesman who guided his country through an economic depression and a world war, and he did it all while confined to braces and a wheelchair. Yet for all he attained there was something FDR never did –he declined to follow his mother’s suggestions for retirement. And because he did not many historians believe the nation was better for it.

 Sara Delano was born in 1854 as the daughter of an entrepreneur who had made and lost several fortunes in the China trade. However, at the time of her birth her father Warren Delano was at the height of his success, and the family enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle at their Hudson River estate. Then just three years later Warren’s fortune was gone, and he returned to China to start over. His family soon joined him and for the next few years young Sara had the opportunity to live and travel in other countries.

 As they returned to their New York estate, Sara was growing into a tall young woman who was not exactly beautiful as compared to her celebrated sisters, but with a keen intelligence and a sense of purpose some might call intimidating. As a fashionably dressed, well-mannered and diversely interested young woman of her class, Sara did not lack for male admirers and even suitors. However, as she entered her twenties she was in no hurry to marry.

 One member of her social circle was Theodore Roosevelt and it was this future president who introduced her to the man who would be her husband. At a dinner party she met a cousin of Theodore’s – a 52-year-old widower named James Roosevelt. He sat on several corporate boards with Warren Delano and his maturity was a distinct contrast to her younger suitors. Though Roosevelt had not always been financially successful his income at that point was such that he could support a country home and farm called Springwood at Hyde Park, New York near the Delano home. Roosevelt frequently visited the Delanos, and when he finally brought up the subject of marriage to Sara, Warren Delano was surprised. Not only was Roosevelt a Democrat, unusual among the local aristocracy, but also his financial holdings were only a third of Sara’s. Also, he was twice as old as she and had from his first marriage a son who was Sara’s age. Yet Sara was intent on marriage and finally Warren agreed. They were married at her Hudson River home in 1880.

 James proved a generous and devoted husband and after the couple toured for ten months they returned home to await the birth of their first child. On January 30, 1882 Sara gave birth to a ten-pound boy. It was a difficult birth but once her son was born Sara recognized the birth as a major life achievement. As it turned out, Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be an only child since while she and James remained close, they never resumed marital relations. Sara began a life long effort to retain control of her son, as he became what one biographer called “her obsession, her purpose in life, her reason for being.” However, unlike other controlling mothers of successful men, Sara did not seem to have an elevated future in mind for her son. It is possible that because he half a Delano and also born at her social level those attributes alone meant he deserved her attention and devotion.

James was a dedicated father, spending time with his son, teaching him how to sail, ride, fish, skate and also giving him a great love of nature. However, all that ended in 1900 when he died at age 72. Only in her forties at the time, Sara would outlive her husband by 43 more years and with his death she could devote her entire attention to Franklin.

 She had done much for him already. Though there were always servants present, Sarah had always bathed and dressed her infant, and she would continue to do so. In fact, Franklin did not bathe alone till he was age 8. She kept close records of all he did, dressing him in dresses till he was 5, and kept his hair in long blonde curls. When he finally had his hair cut Sara carefully saved the locks in a satin lined box along with other childhood mementos.

 Franklin’s childhood was privileged, cultured but far from average. Except for a brief period when he stayed at a German school while his parents traveled, Franklin’s education was not only home based but also closely supervised by Sara. His childhood was affectionate, but always orderly and regulated He frequently accompanied his parents in their regular routines, and yet there were times when they traveled and he remained at home supervised by governesses, but also able to follow his own interests. Then when he reached his teens and went to boarding school and later to Harvard, Sara continued with her advice and suggestions. Still, Franklin developed into his own person with a sense of mature confidence.

 Sara continued to do her best to assert her influence on her son, even when he wanted to announce his engagement to a distant cousin named Eleanor Roosevelt, niece of Theordore. Franklin was 21 and Eleanor 18 when they became engaged but Sara insisted they delay announcing it, even sending Franklin on a cruise to separate the couple. However, even after the marriage in 1905 Sara continued to be closely involved with the couple. She gifted them a townhouse in New York City, and the only possible drawback was that the house adjoined her own, and there was a connecting door. Sara also remained in control by directing the young couple’s household staff, their finances, home furnishings, and then the rearing of the children as they came along. Eleanor could only feel neglected, frustrated and very much an outsider, something Franklin did not seem to understand. Yet it would take two major crises in the lives of the family before both Franklin and Eleanor began to develop into the dynamic people they would later become.

 In the autumn of 1918 Eleanor discovered love letters that seemed to indicate that Franklin had been having an affair with her social secretary. Divorce was a real possibility but that would have meant the end of Franklin’s political career. However, when Sara realized what was happening she handled the matter by simply forbidding a divorce and threatening to cut them off financially if they ended their marriage. Her social class code and desire to avoid scandal demanded she take such a stand and whether it because of her firmness or a reconsideration by Eleanor or Franklin, the divorce did not occur. Franklin and Eleanor would remain married, and eventually become more political partners than husband and wife, but it was a turning point for Eleanor who began to grow into her own person.

The second crisis came in 1921 when Franklin was stuck with a crippling case of what may have been polio, and eventually he would be confined to the use of a wheelchair or braces. Almost from the first diagnosis Sara urged her son to retire to Hyde Park where she could supervise his continued care. Yet when she encouraged him to stay at home after his paralysis developed, was she actually forbidding him to continue to seek public office? There has been speculation that Sara saw her son’s future only as an invalid confined to Hyde Park and that she thought that she could control him more completely if he remained at home. However, it is more likely that Sara had fully accepted Franklin’s political aspirations and she may have only felt that if he could spend some time resting out of the public eye it would “hasten even the remote policy of recovery, “as a biographer put it. Yet whatever her motivation, it is possible that if Franklin had followed Sara’s urging to remain at home for a long period at that time then his political career might not have developed. Of course Sara’s desire was only what she thought best for Franklin. And in a way it was her earlier support and devotion that helped him develop the confidence and tenacity to continue his political plans and seek public office.

So Sara adapted as best she could and may have even come to enjoy the notice that came with his choice. She spoke with reporters, and attended political gatherings. Also, dressed in her long skirts, she appeared in the newsreels of the period shaking hands with political figures, perhaps serving as a reminder of traditional values in the “Roaring Twenties” period. Later when Franklin won the presidency Sara issued a statement saying, “I shall be glad if every mother will pray God to help and preserve him.” She may also have come to enjoy her status as the president’s mother, and even wrote a book called “My Boy Franklin.”

In 1939 when Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Hyde Park as part of their American tour Sara elegantly presided over the meals and receptions. She may well have preferred to serve something other than the typically American hot dogs that were on the menu at one time, but her royal guest was quite accustomed to a regal maternal figure in his mother Queen Mary. According to one story Franklin offered the king an American cocktail.

“My mother really would have preferred I offer you tea.” The President told the king.

“So would mine.” The king returned.

As she neared her 87 th birthday, Sara was now confined to a wheelchair like her son, and finally died on September 7, 1941. Soon after, Eleanor wrote to her daughter: “Father has begun to forget all that was disagreeable in his relationship to Granny.” Franklin did not weep at least in public, but reportedly cried uncontrollably when he discovered the locks of his baby hair his mother had carefully saved.

Roosevelt once wrote “Those of us who enjoy the companionship of our mothers beyond the average number of years are indeed fortunate, for we know the good influence they exert…The greatest pleasure we can get is to observe them rejoicing in our achievements.” And delighting in his Franklin’s accomplishments was what Sara enjoyed most.