by Delia von neuschatz | September 16, 2014 | Lifestyle
A new Ken Burns series chronicles the rise of the Roosevelts, New York’s only Presidential political dynasty, widely viewed as America’s most important. Local descendants of Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor weigh in on the family legacy and the price of multigenerational fame.
Manhattan-born Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest president of the United States. He overcame a sickly childhood to become an avid outdoorsman and environmentalist.
This is an American Downton Abbey with two virtues. One, it’s all true, and two, it’s American made,” says award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns about the interwoven saga of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the subject of his latest feature, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. (The seven-part, 14-hour series premieres on PBS this month.) “These are people who, although they are bold-faced names, have an intimacy with us because of the problems they’ve had—divorces and traumas and deaths and more divorces, afflictions, and infidelities. These are things that we struggle with in our own lives,” adds Burns
Representing two branches of the prominent, centuries-old New York family, the documentary focuses on three of its larger-than-life figures who transformed the United States by cementing its prominence abroad and improving the welfare of millions of people at home. “No other American family has touched so many lives,” says Burns.
While the Roosevelts don’t dominate the headlines today like the Kennedys, another American dynastic clan of multigenerational fame, their impact remains far-reaching. “You want to go through the Lincoln Tunnel?” asks Burns. “You want to fly out of LaGuardia? You want to drive in a national park or collect Social Security? You can look to the Roosevelts for all of that. There’s almost nothing you can do in this country today that isn’t marked by them.”
Even though the Roosevelt epic played out on a global stage, the clan for 10 generations remained firmly rooted in New York. “Members of my family have been here since the 1600s, and that creates a great sense of continuity and connection to the city,” says 38-year-old Theodore Roosevelt V, the great-great grandson of the 26th president. Hailing from the Netherlands, the Roosevelts were among the earliest settlers in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, which later became New York. They arrived in the steerage section of a sailing ship and went on to build a fortune (though not on the scale of the Rockefellers or Carnegies) largely based on Manhattan real estate, banking, and West Indian sugar.
Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt entertain King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of the UK at their Hyde Park estate in 1939. FROM LEFT: Eleanor Roosevelt, King George VI, Sara Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Ken Burns notes that after these early American settlers achieved financial success, “they could have chosen to just cash their checks and be content, but that wasn’t enough for them.” Money as an end goal wasn’t sufficient—Teddy Roosevelt’s forebears took to heart the Christian ethos that a life well lived was in service to others. Teddy’s father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., was considered something of an oddity among his Gilded Age set—a philanthropist who helped found hospitals, aid societies, and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History. For their charitable activities and, in later years, their social activism, “the Roosevelts were branded socialists, communists, [in the case of FDR] betrayers of their class, and anti-American,” says Burns.
he number of detractors grew with Teddy and FDR’s ambitions for the national stage, the rough and tumble of early 20th-century politics an unlikely and often unwelcoming milieu for sons of privilege. But early-life adversity for Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor Roosevelt endowed them with something money can’t buy—an uncommon grit, says noted historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of The Bully Pulpit about Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and No Ordinary Time about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She says Teddy exhibited an extraordinary perseverance throughout his life. “He was a weakly and asthmatic child who built up his strength through punishing physical activity. He was not a gifted writer, but he churned out some 40 books, some of them quite distinguished.
After the near simultaneous deaths of his first wife and his mother, he escaped New York to become a cattle rancher in the Dakota Territory. Working and riding tirelessly, pushing himself to the limit physically, and standing up to local toughs, Roosevelt eventually won the respect of the area’s plainspoken townspeople. He emerged from the Western plains a transformed man. Over the course of a few years, the slight, bespectacled, asthmatic East Coast patrician had turned into a burly, barrel-chested, bull-necked cowboy—one with a profound respect for the environment and a zeal to protect it. (This adventure also left him a far poorer man—he lost a good part of his fortune while out West, due to bad investments. But neither Teddy or, later, FDR were interested in business.)
Inaugurated at the age of 42—the youngest person to become president—America’s “Rough Rider” would go on to pass ground-breaking legislation. His many progressive accomplishments included federal protection for hundreds of millions of acres of land, an area equivalent to the Eastern seaboard from Maine to Florida; the building of the Panama Canal; and providing a “square deal” for many Americans by busting exploitative business trusts and enacting consumer-protection legislation. “With Teddy, you had the beginnings of social justice, and FDR and Eleanor carried that momentum much further,” Goodwin says.
The Roosevelt family were among the earliest settlers of New Amsterdam, which later became New York. ABOVE: Theodore Roosevelt and sons in 1900. From left, Theodore, Kermit, Quentin, and Archibald.
For the trio, it was a family affair. When Eleanor married Franklin, she didn’t have to change her surname because as a distant cousin, she shared it. Since Theodore was Eleanor’s uncle, he gave his favorite niece away at her wedding and then promptly proceeded to steal the show.
Like Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and Eleanor had overcome physical and psychological hardships. “They were all wounded people,” says Ken Burns. Tall, handsome, and outgoing, Franklin was struck by polio at the age of 39, which left him paralyzed from the waist down, an illness that “made him aware of other disadvantaged people,” says Goodwin.
Franklin Roosevelt, elected to a record four terms in office, lifted America out of the Great Depression with his New Deal initiatives, which provided jobs, economic growth, and fiscal reform. And, he led the United States to an Allied victory in World War II, setting the country on a course of unprecedented prosperity. “Before FDR,” notes writer George F. Will in Burns’s documentary, “the assumption was that the government existed to produce the conditions for the pursuit of happiness. But FDR asked ‘Why stop there?’ The federal government can, in no small measure, deliver happiness, which is understood to be material well-being.”
Eleanor, for her part, had been her husband’s liberal conscience, tenaciously defending the underdog, and demonstrating an empathy for people that many believe was a result of her own unhappy childhood. She was considered an unattractive child. Alcoholism ran rampant through her family, and her father eventually succumbed to complications from his addiction, dying one year after his wife’s death. Eleanor was orphaned before her 10th birthday
Her namesake granddaughter, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, who is chair of the Roosevelt Institute in Manhattan, says that her grandmother’s own struggles helped her “understand where the other person was coming from. Eleanor was the ultimate listener, and I never forget the power of being interested in other people—how transformative that is—and of being respectful of the contribution they make.”
“No other American family has touched so many lives,” says filmmaker Ken Burns, whose latest feature chronicles the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Historian Geoffrey Ward, an author of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, along with Burns, sees Eleanor Roosevelt as “a miracle of the human spirit,” pushing through her childhood difficulties and later, through the betrayal she felt at her husband’s affair (with her former social secretary, Lucy Mercer). “She learned early on that the way to be loved is to do things for people, to help them,” says Ward, and so, she “lived to meet the needs of others.”
As first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt fought for civil rights. She improved conditions for African Americans in factories that were churning out material for the war effort. She was instrumental in getting wartime manufacturers to employ women and in providing day-care centers so they could be free to earn a living. Roosevelt held weekly press conferences at which only women were allowed, thereby forcing newspapers to hire female journalists. After the war, she fought for the disadvantaged around the world, chairing the UN Commission on Human Rights and overseeing the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “FDR and Eleanor were the most influential first couple in American history,” says Burns.
As seen countless times, decades of power and acclaim don’t translate into happiness or success for many members of legacy dynasties, and the Roosevelts weren’t spared the consequences of fame’s harsh spotlight. “One of the worst things in the world is being the child of a president. It’s a terrible life they lead,” FDR once remarked. Counting 21 marriages among them, none of Franklin and Eleanor’s five children achieved the national stature associated with the family name “and some of them, in fact, demeaned it,” observed Eleanor’s friend Abram Sacher in Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize–winning No Ordinary Time, “by exhibiting an astonishing lack of sensitivity about using their father’s influence to make money.” Her children’s sometimes scandal-plagued and often disappointing careers and broken relationships were a chronic source of despair for the first lady.
Subsequent generations had a tough go of it, too. Franklin’s eldest grandson, the four time-married author Curtis Roosevelt, writes about a lonely, awkward childhood in his book, Too Close to the Sun: “The idea that I might be suffering from growing up in the orbits of my grandfather and grandmother, whose powerful auras were double-edged, was untenable. To recognize that my family situation was actually causing harm would have forced my mother and stepfather—and everyone else in the family—to examine truths that struck too close to home.” Another grandson, Upper West Side resident and economics professor Franklin D. Roosevelt III, elaborates on those double-edged auras: “My family’s name has offered me opportunities I might never have had, and it has gotten me out of speeding tickets once or twice. But the flip side is that everyone sees you through a prism and you have to work to be taken for who you are and not as FDR’s grandson. It’s not debilitating, but it is sometimes frustrating to play this role.”
Granddaughter Anna Eleanor Roosevelt sees the enduring celebrity associated with a name like Roosevelt as a chronic headache. “It’s difficult to escape, because when you’ve got the name, you can’t hide,” she says. “The problem is in understanding your place in that celebrity. [For me, it helps] to weave in my own views on what my forebears contributed to our country and our world,” says Roosevelt, who in addition to chairing the Roosevelt Institute is CEO of Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. But Phoebe Roosevelt, FDR’s great-granddaughter and a former attorney for the City of New York’s Affirmative Action Division, takes the significance of her last name somewhat in stride. “It’s not who you’re related to,” she says. “It’s who you are. At the end of the day, you are who you are and you have to live your own life.”
Millennial heritage: Maura Roosevelt (LEFT), a writing professor at New York University, and Rachel Roosevelt, a director of a policy intelligence firm in New York, are both involved in Brooklyn-based community causes and nonprofits. ON MAURA: Davineta dress, Escada ($1,225). 7 E. 55th St., 212-755-2200. Gold-plated earrings, Gerard Yosca ($325). Chuckies, 1169 Madison Ave., 212-249-2254. Gold-plated tribal cuff, Michelle Campbell ($220). latestrevival.com. Queen pumps, Stuart Weitzman ($375). 118 Spring St., 212-226-3440. ON RACHEL: Asymmetrical herringbone dress, Stella McCartney ($835). Barneys New York, 660 Madison Ave., 212-826-8900. Brass-silver extra-large triangular stud cuff, Jennifer Fisher ($1,155). Barneys New York, SEE ABOVE. Ari velvet pumps, Jimmy Choo ($675). 716 Madison Ave., 212-759-7078
Successive generations of Roosevelts have resolutely pursued their own lives, with one member, Joshua Boettiger, becoming a rabbi. A uniting thread, however, is “the feeling of responsibility to do valuable work in politics and the community,” according to Maura Roosevelt, a great-granddaughter of FDR and Eleanor. The 30-year-old NYU writing professor, currently at work on her first novel, has been involved with various community activist movements since her college days, when she campaigned for fair labor practices on the Harvard campus and more recently, in her Williamsburg neighborhood, where she was an advocate for the development of mixed-income housing. This sense of duty prevails regardless of political allegiances, which are generally split along ancestral lines. Teddy Roosevelt’s descendants often vote the Republican ticket, while scions of the FDR branch of the family largely support Democratic causes—this despite the fact that “today, Teddy Roosevelt’s politics would be considered to the left of Barack Obama’s,” according to Ken Burns.
“My family history has instilled in me a sense of responsibility to give back to the community,” says Rachel Roosevelt, the 30-year old managing director of a New York City policy intelligence firm and a great-great-granddaughter of the president’s first cousin. It has also imparted in this former member of the US Ski Team a love of the outdoors. “I have a real appreciation for nature, and I share Teddy Roosevelt’s love for wide-open spaces,” she says. Rachel’s enthusiasm for the environment and her sense of civic duty are both channeled in volunteer work at Stoked, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit whose aim is to empower inner-city youths through action sports.
Roosevelt Island, the site of the new memorial, Four Freedoms Park, honoring FDR.
“With family members like Teddy, FDR, and Eleanor, it’s hard not to be reminded that you can always do more,” says Ted Roosevelt, managing director of a hedge fund based in New York City. Like his great-great-grandfather, Ted is committed to environmental conservation and is involved with ecoAmerica and the New York League of Conservation Voters. Franklin D. Roosevelt III, who as a college professor of macroeconomics teaches about “what the government should be doing with its money,” shares his grandmother’s concern for outsiders. His life’s major “extracurricular activity” has been supporting the racially diverse Manhattan Country School, which was founded nearly 50 years ago with the mission to aid the underserved.
Granddaughter Anna Eleanor Roosevelt says her work at the Roosevelt Institute is devoted to preserving Franklin and Eleanor’s progressive legacy of social justice and equal opportunity. It is only fitting the Roosevelt Institute is located in New York, rather than DC, because this is where the Roosevelt saga began. “Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor were men and women of Manhattan. They were Gothamites,” says Ken Burns. “They were people involved in the business of Manhattan, and the business of Manhattan is two things: money and politics and therefore, by extension, power.”
The Roosevelt dynasty is the only presidential political dynasty to have originated in New York, and it is arguably America’s most important one.
photography courtesy of library of congress (roosevalt); Clint Spaulding/patriCkmCmullan.Com (theodore rooSevelt v); gregg delman (two women); ap photo/mark lennihan (roosevelt island); jaCquelyn martin (anna eleanor roosevelt). Styling by lauren finney. hair by andre daviS for julien farel Salon. makeup by riCky wilSon for dior. photographed on loCation at dear irving.