An affair Aiken remembers: Accounts tie local woman to FDR

  • Posted: Thursday, May 28, 2009 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Thursday, May 28, 2009 9:56 p.m.

The scrutiny of public figures' private lives is more intense than ever. Ask former New York Gov. Elliott Spitzer in 2008. Ask former President Bill Clinton more than a decade ago.But that was not the case before the 1960s. Long before he became president in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt had a relationship with a young woman named Lucy Mercer that was kept secret at the time.At an Aiken Kiwanis Club meeting Thursday, USC Aiken history professor emeritus Dr. Jim Farmer described that relationship "as a little bit of Aiken history."In 1920, Mercer married Winthrop Rutherfurd, a New Yorker who was also part of the Winter Colony horse community in Aiken.A 2008 book by Joseph Persico, "Franklin & Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life," suggests that Roosevelt continued to meet with Lucy Rutherfurd periodically for the rest of his life. She was with him when he died in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945.Several years before Roosevelt contracted polio, which cost him the use of his legs, in 1921, he was a rising political star. He was offered a position as assistant Secretary of the Navy. He moved to Washington with his wife, Eleanor, and their five children. Lucy Mercer, then 20, was hired as a nanny and general assistant."She came from a well-known, prominent family," said Farmer, who based many of his remarks on Persico's book. "But her father, Carroll, had squandered the family fortune, and his wife and daughter needed to find a job. Lucy was a very attractive, vivacious young woman ... Her job was expanded and she became indispensable."But Eleanor Roosevelt discovered a stack of letters that Lucy had written to Franklin while he was overseas. When confronted, he admitted to the affair. Farmer said Roosevelt's domineering mother, Sarah Delano, joined the subsequent, intense discussion. Devastated, Eleanor considered divorcing him, but that would have effectively destroyed his politician career and her own prospective role as the wife of a president. They remained together, but their relationship became platonic.Following Roosevelt's election as president, there is evidence from White House logs that he and Lucy Rutherfurd talked often on the phone. She also visited the White House under the assumed name of Mrs. Thompson. The butlers and Secret Service agents were aware of this, and the press respected his privacy, said Farmer.The president never wavered in his determination to walk again. He found relief at Warm Springs, where he could simulate walking in the mineral springs. Eleanor didn't like the South and never joined him, but Rutherfurd did.Sometimes the Secret Service would drive Roosevelt around "and they would pick up Lucy as a 'hitchhiker,'" Farmer said. "He took pleasure in getting away with the relationship."She became an even more frequent visitor after her husband died in 1944. But Roosevelt's health was also failing. After Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945, Rutherfurd quickly left Warm Springs and was driven back to Aiken. When Eleanor Roosevelt arrived at Warm Springs, she soon started questioning people about her husband's last days."No one said anything about Rutherfurd until a cousin spilled the beans," said Farmer. "She had not known about it and was shocked that so many people had helped facilitate the rendezvous - including her own daughter, Anna."Contact Rob Novit at rnovit@aikenstandard.com.

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