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About Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd
Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd (April 26, 1891 – July 31, 1948) was an American woman best known for her affair with future US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Lucy Mercer was born to wealthy parents who lost most of their fortune and separated in the years following her birth. Mercer then worked briefly in a dress store before taking a position as the social secretary of Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin's wife, in 1914. Mercer and Franklin are believed to have begun an affair in mid-1916, which was discovered by Eleanor in September 1918. Though Eleanor offered Franklin a divorce and Franklin considered accepting, political, financial, and familial pressures caused him to remain in the marriage. Franklin terminated the affair and promised not to see Mercer again.
Mercer soon married wealthy socialite Winthrop Rutherfurd, a widower in his fifties, but despite her marriage and Franklin's promise, the two remained in surreptitious contact in the three decades that followed. Mercer was in Warm Springs, Georgia at the time of Roosevelt's death in April 1945, but her presence was kept secret from the public. She died of leukemia on July 31, 1948. Despite rumors, her affair with Roosevelt did not become widespread public knowledge until the publication of Jonathan W. Daniels' 1966 memoir The Time Between the Wars.
Born in Washington, D.C., Lucy Page Mercer was the daughter of Carroll Mercer (1857–1917), a member of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, and Minnie Mercer (1863–1947), an independent woman of Bohemian tastes. Lucy had one sister, Violetta Carroll Mercer (1889–1947). Though they were both from wealthy, well-connected families, Mercer's parents lost their fortune through the Panic of 1893 and their lavish spending. The pair separated shortly after Lucy's birth, and Carroll became an alcoholic. Minnie then raised the girls alone.
Affair with Franklin D. Roosevelt
As a young woman, Lucy Mercer worked in a dress shop. In 1914, Mercer was hired by Eleanor Roosevelt to become her social secretary. Mercer quickly became an established part of the Roosevelt household, and good friends with Eleanor. According to historians Joseph Persico and Hazel Rowley, the affair between Mercer and Franklin likely began in 1916, when Eleanor and the children were vacationing at Campobello Island to avoid the summer heat, while Franklin remained in Washington, D.C. In 1917, Franklin often included Mercer in his summer yachting parties, which Eleanor usually declined to attend.
In June 1917, Mercer quit or was fired from her job with Eleanor and enlisted in the US Navy, which was then mobilizing for World War I. Franklin was at that time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Mercer was assigned to his office. Mercer and Franklin continued to see one another privately, causing widespread gossip in Washington. Alice Roosevelt Longworth—daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, and a cousin of Eleanor's—encouraged the affair, inviting Mercer and Franklin to dinner together several times. She later commented, "He deserved a good time ... He was married to Eleanor."
In 1918, Franklin went on a trip to Europe to inspect naval facilities for the war. When he returned in September, sick with pneumonia in both lungs, Eleanor discovered a packet of love letters from Mercer in his suitcase. Eleanor subsequently offered her husband a divorce.
Franklin's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, was adamant against the idea of divorce, however, as it would mark the end of Franklin's political career; she stated that she would cut him off from the family fortune if he chose to do so. Historians have also debated whether, as a Roman Catholic, Mercer would have been willing to marry a divorced man. Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook expressed skepticism that this had been a serious obstacle, noting the depth of Mercer's feelings. Persico also doubts that this was a factor, observing that Mercer's mother Minnie had divorced and remarried, and that the family had come to Catholicism only recently.
In the end, Franklin appears to have told Mercer disingenuously that Eleanor was not willing to grant a divorce. He and Eleanor remained married, and he pledged never to see Mercer again. The Roosevelts' son James later described the state of the marriage after the incident as "an armed truce that endured until the day he died". Eleanor later wrote, "I have the memory of an elephant. I can forgive, but never forget." The incident marked a turning point in her life; disillusioned with her marriage, she became active in public life, and focused increasingly on her social work rather than her role as a wife.
Marriage and continued contact with Roosevelt
Mercer left Washington after the affair and became the governess for the children of Winthrop Rutherfurd, a wealthy New York socialite. Winthrop Rutherfurd was famous for winning the heart of Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1896, only to see her social-climbing mother instead force her into marriage with Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. Now in his fifties, Rutherfurd was considered one of society's most eligible widowers. On February 11, 1920, Mercer became his second wife. Franklin Roosevelt learned of the marriage by overhearing news of it at a party. The Rutherfurds had one child, Barbara Mercer Rutherfurd (1922–2005).
Despite Franklin's promise to Eleanor, he kept in contact with Lucy Rutherfurd after her marriage, corresponding with her by letter throughout the 1920s. Persico speculates that these letters may have been the cause of the 1927 nervous breakdown of Franklin's secretary Marguerite LeHand, as LeHand was also in love with Roosevelt and no medical cause for her breakdown was found.
In 1926, Roosevelt mailed Rutherfurd a copy of his first public lecture, privately dedicating it to her with an inscription. At his first presidential inauguration on March 4, 1933, Roosevelt made arrangements for Rutherfurd to attend and witness his swearing-in. When her husband suffered a stroke, she contacted Roosevelt to arrange for him to be cared for at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin speculated that an entry in the White House usher diary for August 1, 1941 included a code name for Lucy Rutherfurd, suggesting that she attended a private dinner with the president. Rutherfurd also arranged for her friend Elizabeth Shoumatoff to paint Roosevelt's portrait.
Winthrop Rutherfurd died in March 1944 after a long illness. Lucy continued to meet with Roosevelt in the months that followed. In June 1944, Franklin requested of his daughter Anna, who was then managing some White House social functions, that she help him arrange to meet Lucy without Eleanor's knowledge. Aware of Rutherfurd's role in her parents' marriage, Anna was at first angry that her father had put her in such a difficult position. However, she ultimately relented and set up a meeting in Georgetown. To her surprise, Anna found that she liked Lucy immediately, and the pair became friends.
In April 1945, Anna arranged for Rutherfurd to meet her father at his "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Georgia. Rutherfurd and Shoumatoff were there on April 12, 1945, when Roosevelt suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. The two women immediately packed and left. Eleanor nonetheless soon learned the truth, and felt doubly betrayed to learn of her daughter's role in the deception. Finding Shoumatoff's watercolor among Franklin's possessions, however, she mailed it Rutherfurd, to which Rutherfurd responded with a warm letter of thanks and condolences.
In 1947, Rutherfurd's sister Violetta committed suicide after her husband requested a divorce. Rutherfurd died from leukemia on July 31, 1948, having destroyed almost all of her correspondence with Franklin.
Public revelation of affair
Following Roosevelt's death, his administration concealed from the press the fact that Rutherfurd had been present during his death, fearing the scandal that would ensue. Shoumatoff's presence became known, and she gave a press conference to address questions but managed to hide Rutherfurd's role. Roosevelt's secretary Grace Tully, who had also been at Warm Springs for his death, mentioned Rutherfurd's presence in F.D.R., My Boss, her 1949 memoir, but gave no further hint of the relationship. Though it was reported several times in Eleanor's lifetime that Roosevelt had had a serious affair with an unnamed Catholic woman, this remained only a rumor for decades.
The Mercer-Roosevelt affair became public knowledge in 1966, when revealed in The Time Between the Wars, a memoir written by Jonathan W. Daniels, a former Roosevelt aide from 1943 to 1945. When the news of the memoir's contents broke, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. said that he had no knowledge of an affair between Rutherfurd and his father, while Rutherfurd's daughter flatly denied that any such romance had occurred. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. stated of the affair that if Rutherfurd "in any way helped Franklin Roosevelt sustain the frightful burdens of leadership in the second world war, the nation has good reason to be grateful to her".