Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Wars of the Roosevelts, by William Mann

Today I'm looking at a biography of not one Roosevelt in particular, but more about the Roosevelt family in general. Like anyone who has any familiarity with the Roosevelt family, you're probably aware of the history of mental illness within the Roosevelt family, with several members succumbing to alcoholism. More specifically several members including Eleanor and Theodore show signs of depression or bipolar disorder. The Wars of the Roosevelts is a delve into the ''dirty laundry'' of the Roosevelt family and the revelation of the deep emotional issues that plagued multiple members of the family.

Because I've read so much about Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor a lot of the subject matter was familiar to me. Because the book focused more on Eleanor's father (and Theodore's brother) Elliot, as well as Theodore's children there was more information than what I knew before. Mann specifically talks about the son Elliot had with Katy Mann, Elliott Roosevelt Mann, an illegitimate child and one of the dirty secrets of the Roosevelt family. Mann talks about Elliot's rise as a banker and eventually enter the ranks of the middle class. Despite his success, Elliot Roosevelt Mann never got acknowledgement from his more prestigious relatives. However at the 1991 Roosevelt family reunion the Manns were finally accepted into the fold.

Personally I think it's hardly surprising that the Roosevelt family, like so many families, had its share of internal division and strife. There are plenty of happy families, but there are just as many dysfunctional ones as well. Considering the high amount of pressure put on the Roosevelt family to succeed and the ambitions for political power it's hardly surprising that so many of them struggled emotionally. Throw in a family history of alcoholism, depression, and bipolar disorder and it's a recipe for emotional molotov cocktails.

From the description of this book on the library's website Mann implied that the struggles among the Roosevelts would reach the level of warfare or bloodsport. I will admit that the struggles between the Hyde Park and Oyster Bay branches of the Roosevelt families during Franklin's election runs certainly reached the level of warfare, but that at least makes sense considering the partisan and occasional ideological divisions between the two branches. Within the respective branches of the Roosevelt families, I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it outright war. Let me try to explain.

Mann talks a lot about the non-conformists of the Roosevelt families, people who refused to follow the paths and expectations set by their relatives, usually Groton, Harvard, and then some sort of career in business or politics and a drive to succeed. Specifically Mann points to Elliot Roosevelt, Kermit Roosevelt (one of Theodore's sons), and James ''Tadd'' Roosevelt Jr (Franklin's nephew and son of his much older half-brother Rosey). Elliott and Kermit both struggled with alcoholism and were engaged in extramarital affairs. (Although they were far from the only Roosevelts to do so.) Elliott was eventually forced to separate from his family under pressure of his brother Theodore who threatened multiple times to have him incarcerated in an insane asylum. Elliott died at the age of thirty-four after a suicide attempt. Kermit, Theodore's second son, did not receive the same pressure to succeed as his older brother Ted, their father's namesake and crown prince to the dynasty. Kermit always seemed unsure of what he wanted to do in life and also fell prey to alcohol and publicly flaunted his mistress, leading to additional shunning by his own family. Much like his uncle, Kermit eventually committed suicide while serving in Alaska during World War II. Really the only non-conforming Roosevelt who did fairly well was Tadd who, thanks to being an heir to a slice of the Astor fortune through his mother's side, was financially independent enough to ignore his family after he married a common factory girl. Tadd's marriage eventually soured and he spent the rest of his days living in Florida.

The thing you have to understand is that mental illness was highly stigmatized in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact to this day organizations such as NAMI are still fighting to end social stigma associated with mental illness. For a socially prominent family such as the Roosevelts, it's hardly surprising that they would shun or attempt to hide members of their families who showed signs of mental illness and failed to meet the high expectations of the family. I wouldn't call it a war within the family so much as a family of high-achievers reacting like many people in the same time and place would react to family members that failed to meet expectations.

Overall in spite of a good portion of this book being review for me, I still thought it was interesting and worth checking out. This definitely goes into the lives of the less prominent figures such as Elliott, Kermit, Theodore Jr., and Alice whose lives are overshadowed by the giants of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. If anything, it shows that the Roosevelt family was much like any other, dirty secrets and all.

- Kalpar

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