Entertaining Biographies of Four Epic Couples

imageI love biographies, and biographies of dynamic couples are particularly entertaining. I read Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie when I was a teenager and learned a lot about the last Tsar of Russia and his ill-fated family, the Russian Revolution, hemophilia, genetics, and the tangled family ties of Queen Victoria and her descendants.  Mr. Massie deftly intertwines the drama of overpowering international events with the equally overpowering and more personal tragedy of NIcholas and Alexandra’s very sick child and heir, the Tsarevich Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia.  The takeaways, apart from the fascinating historical background, were that you really need to be careful about who you marry and also that a couple can really love each other and their children and still make absolutely horrific decisions.  Of the four couples discussed here, Nicholas and Alexandra may have been the most loving and consistently faithful, but their blindness to their changing world literally doomed them and their children.  This is a great read with lots of juicy family details, and you can pick up some wonderful historical background at the same time.

Apart from the march of history, the fatal flaw for Nicholas and Alexandra would be their lack of foresight and resilience.  When things went wrong, they just clung to the vestiges of their autocracy for dear life —  until they were executed along with their children and servants.  In welcome contrast, Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin, the biography of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, presents a case study in foresight and resilience, not to mention a legendary ability to think outside the box.  Joseph Lash was a long time friend and political soul mate of Eleanor Roosevelt, and his loyalty and admiration toward Eleanor is evident.  Still, this is a great recounting of the lives of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and all that they accomplished.  Neither one of them seemed destined for greatness.  Franklin was rich and spoiled, he fooled around, and he was struck by polio early in his political career. His domineering mother exerted economic blackmail to keep him in his marriage and then tried to turn him into an idle invalid after he got polio.   Eleanor lost her mother as a young girl, had an alcoholic father who couldn’t take care of her, and ended up living with a grandmother and some creepy uncles.   She felt unloved and very ugly and never received a college education.

The way in which Franklin and Eleanor rose above these obstacles makes for a great story, and of course the world has never been the same.  Despite their privilege, they both somehow grasped that other people were not so fortunate and that there was a need to level the playing field in some fashion.  Old ways were not going to work.  Domestically, FDR’s administration accomplished so much so quickly that it makes your head spin.  He faced enormous opposition from his privileged peers and other champions of the status quo, but he pressed on.  He was not an economist, but he grasped and pushed the idea that to get out of the Depression, it was essential to inject money into the pockets of those who would spend it.  When his most ambitious plans were thwarted, he just took another approach.  Of course some of his tactics proved problematic, and it is likely a good thing that his Supreme Court packing plan never went anywhere.  His international prowess was equally inventive and ultimately successful.  He knew the country needed leadership and reasonable explanations, and he provided that.  It is hard to imagine what the world would have been like if FDR had not supported England through Lend Lease.

Eleanor also overcame a bleak and sheltered life of privilege to become one of the most important figures of the Twentieth Century.  She had enormous energy, empathy and perseverance and deserves much of the credit for getting her husband’s political career back on track after he contracted polio.  Famously, when he was President, FDR got tired of her indefatigable pressing on social issues, such as Civil Rights and the Anti-Lynching Law, but he knew he needed her, and often he ultimately moved in her direction.  FDR’s election to the Presidency was not welcomed by Eleanor, who was really unhappy at the prospect of giving up the independent life she she had created for herself.  But Eleanor was resilient, and so she developed a significant and unprecedented role as First Lady.  She traveled, she inspected mines and poverty-stricken areas, she wrote her column, she took positions, and pushed for a host of progressive causes, not the least of which was Civil Rights.  They may not have been the happiest of couples, but Eleanor and Franklin were a formidable team.

One of the mysteries is how they got together in the first place.  FDR had a rather frivolous reputation as a young man, but he must have had unsuspected depth because he knew he wanted to marry Eleanor.  He had apparently seen something in Eleanor that drew him to her.   Eleanor appeared to have loved him, too, at the time they were married.  They had six children together, but ultimately, the marriage had huge problems.  He persistently cheated on Eleanor.  She was terribly wounded and didn’t get over it.  She stayed in the marriage, but she also created her own purposeful life and circle of friends.

The Roosevelt children may have suffered the most from their parents’ marital strain.  Eleanor apparently was not a particularly warm or loving mother and seemed content to let servants and nannies pretty much raise the children.  That was pretty easy to do in that day and age.  FDR might have been a warmer presence, but there is no indication he took up the slack.  The five children who survived to adulthood struggled in their personal and professional lives, and Anna in particular was critical of Eleanor as a mother.

So, the Roosevelts were flawed individuals in a flawed marriage, but they were probably the best thing that could have happened to the United States in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  They presented a stable and highly successful political partnership, and they didn’t allow their marital issues to detract from their public contributions.  Part of what made them tick was undoubtedly their ability to find friendship and affection outside their marriage.  Mr. Lash’s book tells a wonderful story, and it is very helpful to look at the Roosevelt both as individuals and as a couple.

In Portrait of a Marriage, Nigel Nicolson writes about the 49 year marriage of his parents Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson.  His book includes the journal his mother wrote in 1920 at the age of 28, when she was trying to end her very passionate love affair with Violet Trefusis and save her own marriage.  Nigel Nicolson discovered his mother’s jounal, as well as many personal letters, after her death.  These sources provided rich and highly emotional detail to a story that he had known only as a “bare outline.”  He made his mother’s journal and her struggle the centerpiece of his book and then provided narrative and context from letters and other sources in the parts he wrote himself.   In this story, politics are far less important, and personal relationships take center stage.  Sackville West was a famous Bloomsbury poet and novelist, who also designed gardens.  Harold Nicolson was an equally distinguished career diplomat, who wrote a famous account of the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles.  In fact his son had previously published his father’s legendary diaries, which were more historical in nature.   Neither party was faithful in the Nicolson/Sackville West marriage, and they both seemed to have been bisexuals.  One might think that their son would have been greatly traumatized by the drama of his parents’ relationship, but Nigel Nicolson is remarkably sympathetic to both his parents.  This book was written after his parents’ deaths and when he was in his mid-fifties.  The son takes great pains to explain why he feels justified and even obligated to publish his mother’s diary and tell his parents’ story.  The moving result is a thoughtful and sensitive biography of an unusual marriage between two accomplished, aristocratic individuals who neither practiced nor expected marital fidelity.  Yet their son presents a convincing case that they truly loved and depended upon each other.  The story of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson covers a fascinating historical period with great insight into an unusual yet ultimately successful relationship.  This book is well worth reading.

Finally, on a more frivolous note, Tracy and Hepburn, by Garson Kanin is another great book about a famous duo.  Kanin knew and worked with both Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and has great stories to tell about his friends.  As is now well known, although Tracy and Hepburn were not married to each other, they had a long standing affair that lasted until his death. This book examines their unique personalities and the spark of their relationship in a very entertaining fashion.  In so many ways the admiring characterizations presented in the book mirror their screen personalities and screen relationships, and it is all great fun.  Movie buffs will particularly love the stories from the sets of their movies.  This book is a great read for many of the same reasons that the Tracy Hepburn movies are so much fun to watch.

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