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Short Takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR:
An Extraordinary Marriage

By Hazel Rowley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

368 pp., illustrated, $27

This fascinating study of the Roosevelt marriage provides an inside look at a complicated relationship. Hazel Rowley traces the progress of the marriage from its early courtship through its bitter disappointments, considered adjustments, and awkward betrayals.

From the start, the marriage included more than two. Franklin’s domineering mother controlled the money and shared the several residences (all of which she owned). But even after her influence waned, there were others who lived and worked with the Roosevelts. Franklin “was happiest when he could think of himself as the center of a close-knit community in a bucolic setting — beautiful women laughing with him, dogs chasing one another, smiling servants bearing trays of food and drink, high-spirited children playing.” From the time he first entered political life, he surrounded himself with loyal supporters, advisers, friends, and lovers. He inspired incredible fidelity and adoration in men but especially in women, several of whom gave up their personal lives to be near him, in more or less compromising positions. Eleanor, though far less charismatic, inspired dedication and devotion of her own. Rowley is cautious about the sexual aspects of the various relationships, asserting her (primly defended) belief that Franklin’s love for Lucy Mercer in 1917 was not “an affair,” refusing to speculate on what form of comfort Missy LeHand provided for the paralyzed but still sexually potent Roosevelt. Similarly, she provides the facts about Eleanor’s love for lesbian Lorena Hickok and her infatuations with Earl Miller, Joseph Lash, and David Gurewitsch. Rowley’s reticence allows a reader to draw her own conclusions.

Rowley is excellent setting in motion the competitions, jealousies, and rivalries among those vying for the president’s affection and attention. She accomplishes this while also charting the political progress of two heroic public servants, Franklin and Eleanor.

READING JACKIE: Her Autobiography in Books
By William Kuhn
Nan A. Talese, 368 pp., illustrated, $27.95

In the first half of this portrait of Jackie Kennedy as a literary editor, William Kuhn protests too much against those who believed his famous subject to be a lightweight. In example after example, he defends the literary taste, editorial judgment, wide-ranging interests, curiosity, daring, and drive she exhibited during her 18 years as a book editor. In the early chapters, he emphasizes how down to earth Jackie could be, sitting on the floor of her office selecting photographs, answering her own telephone, eating in the cafeteria.

But in the later chapters, he becomes unexpectedly and intelligently dishy. He discusses Jackie’s keen interest in European royalty, her many books on the Bourbons, the Romanovs, and courtly life at Versailles. Jackie valued elegant performance and was responsible for many books about dance, including memoirs and biographies of Gelsey Kirkland, Fred Astaire, Rudolph Nureyev, and Martha Graham. Although she wished to be understood as valuing substance over style, she highly prized style. Diana Vreeland was one of her mentors, collaborating with her on books about costume and fashion. Jackie brought out books about home decoration, table settings, and proper manners. She was interested in photography, design, and architecture as well as history, civil liberties, and women’s rights.

In the end, this is quite a fascinating portrait of a complex woman, who had the interests and enthusiasms of her class and was allowed to indulge those passions with singular force and focus.

OLD BORDER ROAD
By Susan Froderberg
Little Brown, 304 pp. $23.99

This simple story is beautifully told. It takes place in a distinct landscape, alive with intense color, dense texture, and sharp sound, but the characters are mostly nameless — Son, Girl, Rose’s Daddy. The Girl, no more than an innocent child, marries Son, scion of a wealthy ranching and farming family near the Mexican border. She is in love with him, and, after the marriage, in thrall to his family. She learns the ways of the land and the animals, but she cannot grasp the comings and goings of her wild husband. When she begins to understand him, she is advised, “Don’t go trying to hobble a man. Not a single one takes well to the rope.” She cannot and does not try to restrain him from drink, women, cars, and horses. Nothing stops him until his own recklessness brings him to a halt. By then, Girl has grown into a woman. Having struggled through adversity, she is at last ready to take charge, to reclaim herself, her name, and, one hopes, her land.

Froderberg writes movingly of the haze of happiness that is the honeymoon. “It is rapturous and ordinary, detailed and blurry, seeming to go on and on for a long time, and it is too soon over in the way all time can be.” More moving is her description of how time moves later, after the betrayals. “Days and nights go by, regardless. The days are but a form to prop us, a stay to prevent our undoing, the nights but a measure of distance and passing.”

Barbara Fisher can be reached at bfishershorttakes@gmail.com.