Dear Malia and Sasha...
FDR's grandson, Curtis Roosevelt, spent twelve years inside the White House as a child. Now, he emerges with a new book, revelations about his grandparents, and words of advice for the Obama girls.
When Malia and Sasha Obama move into the White House next year, they will be the youngest children to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in more than four decades.
Other than Caroline Kennedy and Amy Carter (who famously roller skated through the East Room), Curtis Roosevelt is one of the few living Americans who knows what it’s like to spend your earliest years under the national spotlight in the first family. Known as “Buzzie,” he moved into the White House in 1933 at age 3, and remembers a lonely childhood during which he was regularly satirized in newspapers and magazine cartoons.
Since then, he’s spent much of his life trying to escape his family legacy. Now 78-years-old and living in the South of France, he spends his days visiting the local butcher shop and the organic mushroom purveyor.
I hope the Obama children do not become the duet that emerged from the White House in the early 30s. They need their own lives.
To make peace with his childhood, he’s written Too Close to the Sun, a tell-all memoir about his grandparents and his 12 years inside the White House. In the book, Roosevelt talks about how it took him 60 years to escape the fishbowl of his youth and get over feeling so damn “special all the time.”
In a chat with The Daily Beast, Roosevelt talked about the Roosevelts’ family secrets and offered a few words of wisdom for Malia and Sasha Obama.
You lived in the White House from age three to 15, and you were in so many press photos and satires. Now, the Obama girls are already being heralded as fashion icons and mini-celebrities. What would you say to them?
Malia and Sasha are just a bit older than my sister and I were when we moved into the White House in 1933. I was three, my sister was six. I personally had no background other than a kind of cocoon, because FDR was already governor of the state of New York when I was born. I grew up at Hyde Park, and when I went into the White House, it wasn’t that impressive. I’d always lived in big houses with servants and so forth; it was our routine.
But I hope the Obama children are sufficiently prepared to have some grounding and some identity of their own. I do get the idea that Barack and Michelle are good parents. Parenting is something they have focused on and the kids show it. I hope it helps protect them to some degree from the specialness that affected me all my life. I hope they are able to ward off some of that and preserve their own identities, because otherwise, they will be affected by the people putting onto them a personality. When you are three years old, it’s not difficult to have a personality put on you. And by the time I was a teenager—bearing in mind that FDR was in office over 12 years and died in office at the beginning of his fourth term—I was addicted to it. I was totally caught up in it; that’s who I was. I was FDR’s grandson, and that was my identity. I just hope the Obama children do not become the Sisty and Buzzie duet that emerged from the White House in the early 30s. They need their own lives.
And how will they do that?
Well, my sister and I were really very isolated—I’d tell the Obamas to avoid having that happen. When children came in to the White House as our guests, it was always so formal. My fifth birthday party, for example, was listed in The New York Times with a guest list. Nothing was spontaneous. I didn’t know anything about the kind of rough and tumble that children learn about in the play yard. The Lindbergh baby had been kidnapped and killed and that was very much in the mind of the Secret Service—we had this whole South Lawn to play on, but no one to play with. I became a loner.
Secret Service and protection then was a pittance compared to what it is today, and what the Obama children will face as a consequence, I don’t know. But I think it’s going to take some very stern oversight on Michelle’s part to see that a certain level of risk is taken to allow Malia and Sasha to have some freedom and just be, not constantly under the scrutiny of Secret Service agents while they are trying to grow up into young women.
What are some of the greatest misconceptions about your grandparents?
One is, it isn’t a matter of correcting but emphasizing how much FDR’s sense of humor eased his way. He could make amusing anything that came up, and did. He liked poking fun at people, and sometimes Eleanor thought he could be a bit close to the bone. But he loved that repartee, and quite often people were the object of it. He was an attentive man—I remember being 5 years old and going to see a lot of navy ships, then returning to the White House to report back to him. There were people standing around ready to go to work with him, and this is a man who had been assistant secretary of the navy for five years, but he listened to me. And he encouraged those interests—he bought me model ships and books and maps. It was the kind of strong personal relationship that is difficult to describe.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was always reserved. She was instinctively a very judgmental person, not that she pronounced it, but you could see it on her face. She also had a hard time, and it sounds odd, giving of herself to those closest to her. But you see, the less close you were to Eleanor, the easier it was for her to relate to you, so the American public in general was terribly impressed with this woman who gave of herself, and completely. I can remember my uncles and mother sardonically joking about the fact that they didn’t get the same attention as the American public.
Her reputation is real, as someone who gave enormously and easily, but those who were close to her had a different experience. She always acted like it was something she ought to be doing—it didn’t move naturally out of her.
Did your grandparents have a loving relationship?
Looking back, you can see that obviously both of them were totally inexperienced in what to expect in married life. And intimacy, when two people are deeply disappointed in their choice of partner but go on in a marriage, is obviously affected. FDR was not the typical macho male by any means. He was a very thoughtful man—and she was expecting a lot from him, having been raised by an alcoholic addict herself.
When Eleanor found out about FDR’s passionate love for Lucy Mercer in 1918—I don’t think it was a sexual affair, if you knew Washington in those days…there was no place to go—she was deeply offended. And she brought it up and said she would give him a divorce if he wanted; obviously that was not a practical thing. But after that, the intimacy stopped completely.
Still, they were very much a couple until the end, and he wanted that. I even remember FDR saying, up until 1944: Babs, I do wish you’d spend more time here with me, and less time traveling. She did not change her schedule.
Anything else you want to set the record straight about?
My second book will be about my grandfather’s paralysis. People to this day don’t realize that he was completely paralyzed from the waist down. They make a big deal of his being in a wheelchair, but that is rubbish. He was in a chair as a vehicle, but he never sat there. He didn’t have any flesh on his buttocks, sitting on a wooden seat was uncomfortable, though he did make sure to have a swing out ashtray so he could smoke in the chair.
I have found most Americans do not realize extent to which he is disabled—I will write in greater detail what it was like to be crippled to that degree, how dependent he was every moment of the day on someone else to pick up his pencil if he dropped it. He couldn’t get out of bed himself. He required assistance, always.
Have you seen a renewed interest in FDR with Obama’s election?
You can’t look at columns like Paul Krugman’s in The Times yesterday about “ Franklin Delano Obama” and not see the new interest! Everyone is asking why doesn’t Obama simply emulate FDR? Why don’t we pick up and start a New Deal? Straight down the line, they have been comparing this recession with the Great Depression. The thing is, there is a substantial difference between now and then. Even Wall Street types were perfectly willing to give FDR dictatorial powers if he would cope with the financial crisis. Nobody’s mentioned that with Obama, and you won’t see it.
You cannot imagine how people were affected. People walked to work; the subway was a dime—John D. Rockefeller Sr. going out to the streets on 5th Avenue and handing out dimes to people. It was ludicrous. To put it in simple terms, parents would go to sleep at night hearing their children crying from hunger in their beds. And what could you do? You have not eaten yourself. That’s what I mean about the Great Depression. We are in a deep depression, but not like that.
But there are some similarities between the two.
I think there are plenty, and that’s why I got out and campaigned. I did a fundraiser in the South of France for Obama! I think there is a genuineness and lack of calculation with them both. Especially if you compare Obama with the campaigns of McCain, and even with Hillary Clinton. You can practically see the clicking of her brain. I don’t sense that with Obama, not that he isn’t a smart politician—he is, but so was FDR. They both had a sense of balance and intuition rather than any particular ideology.
Do you feel vindicated by airing out all the family secrets?
It is nice to have some recognition, yes. But I feel I have imparted enough serious information and not just told you about the fun life of a kid in the White House. It was a marvelous way to grow up. You can’t imagine the education. By the time I was six years old I had met every major leader and everyone on the scene. But I paid the price. It took me until my early 60s to move out of it and become myself out from under my family’s shadow. But I know that without my telling it, a lot of history that was off the record will never be heard. Only I can give these insights, and I intend to.
Too Close to the Sun: Growing Up in the Shadow of my Grandparents, Franklin and Eleanor is published by PublicAffairs.
Rachel Syme is Culture Editor of The Daily Beast.