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First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidentsby Bonnie Angelo
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter OneTo the Manner BornA man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success.--Sigmund Freud
A Restless young Franklin Roosevelt, under strict quarantine for scarlet fever in the Groton school infirmary, was startled by the scraping sound against the red brick wall, followed by a gloved tap on the window'and then the apparition of his mother, the regal Sara Delano Roosevelt, peering into the room. She was perched on a workman's ladder, risking her safety and shattering her dignity to circumvent the no-visitors edict.
From that precarious roost, she talked with him each day and even read to him. When she learned of his illness she had rushed home from Europe to comfort him; from the day he was born her son had been her total concern.
When he was a student at Harvard, she rented an apartment in Boston to oversee his social life. When he and his young wife needed a larger house, she provided it. When he was stricken with polio, she pampered and cosseted him, against his wishes. When he was president, she schemed to bring the White House up to her standards. And when he was contemplating divorce, she threatened (so it was whispered) to cut off his funds from the family fortune. Whether Franklin wished it or not, Sara Roosevelt was determined to do what she deemed best for him. Not that she always won. After all, she had shaped this son in her own mold'confident, determined, and pleasantly stubborn when it came to getting his own way.
From the beginning she and her husband, James Roosevelt, created a world of privilege and principle, a secure little universe in whichFranklin could grow up on the family estate at Hyde Park, covering hundreds of acres in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley. Shielded by his family's position, he was exposed to only a small circle of family, servants, the local gentry, and a few deferential shopkeepers in the village that bordered on Roosevelt land. The values and lifestyle of his parents were emblems of the world of a disappearing landed aristocracy.
At first their relatives in the other branch of the family'the Republican Roosevelts'regarded Sara and James as an odd couple. It is unlikely that Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, whose son Teddy was away at Harvard, had harbored any intention of matchmaking when she invited her daughter's good friend Sallie Delano to a dinner party that included, among other guests, cousin James, a widower of fifty-one, a rather formal man with muttonchop whiskers'and a son Sara's age. Sara was twenty-five, tall and graceful at five-foot-ten, and world-traveled. By the end of the evening, Sara had accepted an invitation to visit him at Springwood, his country home, properly chaperoned, of course.
In May 1880 Sara arrived at Springwood; Hyde Park was abloom, and before the visit ended, so was love. Years later Sara wrote a nostalgic letter to her son, then the governor of New York:
Just 51 years yesterday, the 7th, I came to visit. If I had not come then, I should now be old Miss Delano after a rather sad life!
That Sara was still unmarried when she met James was astonishing. She was one of the five beautiful Delano sisters, as New York society called them, daughters of another family in the Hudson Valley aristocracy. Numerous youngmen paid court to her, only to be rejected as not suitable by her father, Warren Delano II. (One such was Stanford White, a budding architect whom she found charming, but her father did not, ordering her to return his flowers with a cold letter that would end the friendship. Warren Delano was a good judge of character, at least when it came to this young man, who became a great architect'and a notorious womanizer who, in the great scandal of the times, was killed by a jealous husband.)
When Sara fell in love with James Roosevelt, she chose'perhaps subconsciously'a man who was very much like the father she adored, a protective man, a gentleman of substance. When James proposed, her answer was a prompt yes. Then came the awkward moment when he had to ask his old friend and contemporary Delano for his daughter's hand in marriage. James gently reminded the reluctant Warren that when he married Sara's mother he was almost twice her age. With that, he won the point and the maiden. Only six months after their first introduction, Sara and James were wed under a canopy of flowers at Algonac, the Delano estate across the Hudson, downriver from Hyde Park.
From that day forward, theirs was a happy life. A year after that first visit to Springwood, Sara was pregnant. She was a healthy young woman of twenty-seven, yet her labor was long'more than twenty-four hours'and harrowing. When the pain became more than her body could endure, the doctor administered chloroform, in much too great an amount. She lost consciousness. When the baby was finally delivered, he was limp, blue, and unresponsive. Only when the doctor desperately breathed into the tiny, quiet mouth did the infant begin to breathe. It was nearly fatal to us both, Sara recalled as the son she had almost lost became president. Happily, mother and child came through the ordeal in good shape: At quarter to nine, the relieved father recorded in his diary that evening, my Sallie had a splendid large baby boy. He weighs 10 lbs., without clothes. To the new mother's eye, he was at the very outset, plump, pink, and nice.
Sara Roosevelt was never pregnant again. Perhaps the near-death experience was too frightening to risk repeating. Or perhaps she was so confident that hers was the perfect child, there was really no need to...
Now in paperback, the stories of the mothers of 11 presidents of the 20th century are told with personal anecdotes and interviews with living relatives. A national bestseller in hardcover. 16-page photo insert.
Bonnie Angelo, a veteran reporter and writer for Time, has captured the daily lives, thoughts, and feelings of the remarkable women who played such a large role in developing the characters of the modern American presidents. From formidably aristocratic Sara Delano Roosevelt to diehard Democrat Martha Truman, champion athlete Dorothy Bush, and hard-living Virginia Clinton Kelley, Angelo blends these women's stories with the texture of their lives and with colorful details of their times. First Mothers is an in-depth look at the special mother-son relationships that nurtured and helped propel the last twelve American presidents to the pinnacle of power.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
About the Author
Bonnie Angelo is the author of First Mothers. During her more than twenty-five years with Time magazine, she has reported on the White House and has covered newsmakers and events across America and the world. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland, and New York City.
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Biography » Presidents and Heads of State