Franklin Delano Roosevelt married his fifth cousin Eleanor Roosevelt on March 17, 1905, St. Patrick’s Day, 117 years ago today. Eleanor’s uncle, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, had come to New York to “give the bride away” as her parents were long deceased (her father Elliott had been Teddy’s younger brother). The afternoon ceremony was held at 6-8 East 76th Street, the home of her cousins Mr. and Mrs. Henry Parish, Jr., and performed by the Rev. Endicott Peabody, the head of Groton, Franklin’s former prep school. The bride wore a white satin gown trimmed with lace and carried a bouquet of lilies of the valley while her six bridesmaids, including Alice Roosevelt, one of several cousins, carried bouquets of pink roses symbolic of the family crest. Franklin’s best man was Lathrop Brown, who had been his schoolmate at Groton and Harvard. Attending the reception were numerous members of both branches of the Roosevelt family, and representatives of old and new money New York society. After the ceremony, guests gathered around President Roosevelt, who had been inaugurated for his second term just a few weeks earlier, and he entertained them before leaving the newlyweds. Soon Franklin and Eleanor departed for a brief week of honeymoon at Hyde Park, since Franklin was attending Columbia Law School, and planned a longer sojourn in Europe for the summer after the semester ended.
The President went on to give an after-dinner speech to 600 people at Delmonico’s sponsored by the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick; he had been elected an honorary member in 1901 based on 18th century Irish immigrant ancestors of his mother. He had visited the parade with its huge crowds and 60,000 participants before the wedding and after it he and his family were escorted to the dinner by Colonel Edward Duffy of the 69th Regiment, the “fighting Irish,” who had fought, like the President, in the Spanish-American War. St. Patrick’s Day was as much a political event as cultural celebration in a city whose population was then more than 20 percent Irish by birth or descent.
The wedding took place at 6-8 East 76th Street, in the double house of Eleanor’s cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Parish, Jr., which they shared with the mother of Mrs. Parish, Mrs. E. Livingston Ludlow. This multi-generational dwelling may have influenced Sara Delano Roosevelt in her construction of the two-family Roosevelt House. The wedding ceremony and reception made use of the two second floor drawing rooms separated by sliding doors, “done alike in pale amber-yellow satin brocade, [and] thrown into one large salon running the width of the two houses.”
Entered through one doorway, the entryway had separate doors to the two side-by-side identical units, with Sara Delano Roosevelt in the west half (#47) and Franklin and Eleanor in the east half (#49). Five children grew up in the house: Anna, James, Elliott, Franklin Jr., and John.
As the years went on and Franklin and Eleanor led busy public lives, they were often apart on March 17 and as a result, news about their wedding anniversaries often reflected what was happening in their family, as well as the nation and the world. On March 17, 1913, FDR was in Washington and was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The job offer and appointment had happened so quickly that Eleanor was still in New York with their children, and a move postponed until late summer. In the 1920s, as Franklin sought to recover the use of his legs after his bout with polio in 1921, he went south for several years in the winter for the warm weather and warm water. So in 1924, 1925, and 1926, on March 17 he was on his houseboat the Larocco, swimming, fishing, and sunbathing with friends who came to join the relaxed cruising. At the same time, Eleanor was busy in New York with the many civic organizations she had joined, active in Democratic politics, and overseeing the children. In later years FDR would find comparable relief in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he created a polio treatment center, and visiting in the late spring and fall, frequently celebrating Thanksgiving there.
When FDR was Governor of New York (1929-1932), he might be in Albany working with the legislature and Eleanor teaching classes in New York City on their wedding anniversary. And of course during the presidency, he might be in Washington or Warm Springs, and she traveling the country to visit New Deal projects and programs or their now grown children’s families. On that first anniversary in the White House, March 17, 1933, FDR wrote her a whimsical letter:
Dearest Babs [his longtime nickname for ER]:
After a fruitless week of thinking and lying awake to find whether you need or want undies, dresses, hats, shoes, sheets, towels, rouge, soup plates, candy, flowers, lamps, laxation pills, whisky, beer, etchings or caviar. I GIVE IT UP!
And yet I know you lack some necessity of life–so go to it with my love and many happy returns of the day! F.D.R.
That evening, the couple hosted a 28th anniversary dinner with Sara, daughter Anna, Elliott’s wife Elizabeth, the Parishes, Henry Morgenthau Jr and his wife Elinor, FDR’s uncle Fredric Delano and his wife, and close staff Louis Howe and Missy LeHand.
In 1934, Eleanor had returned from a 10-day trip to the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico combining diplomacy and reporting, just in time for the couple to celebrate their anniversary and their son John’s 18th birthday (March 13) at a dinner with Fredric Delano (appointed by FDR as chairman of the National Resources Planning Commission), and other members of the household.
In 1935 the Roosevelts hosted a small dinner with the household, Fredric Delano, Eleanor’s aunt Mrs. Dora Forbes (Sara’s sister), and Henry Morgenthau Jr.
As the years went on, celebrations of their wedding anniversary tended to be small affairs with friends or family as Eleanor reported in her newspaper column My Day. In 1936, for example, on her 31st anniversary, she had dinner with a few old friends, including Adolph Miller, appointed to the original Federal Reserve Board in 1914 and reappointed by FDR in 1934, Undersecretary of State William Phillips, a Harvard classmate of FDR who also served in the Wilson administration during World War I and whom FDR would soon appoint as Ambassador to Italy, and Sara Delano Roosevelt, who had come for a visit to the White House. For the next few years Eleanor was traveling on March 17. In 1937, she was in Oklahoma, and FDR was in Warm Springs and speaking over the telephone to an Irish charitable group, the Boston and Hibernian Society. In 1938 Eleanor was in Los Angeles on a combined lecture and family trip, and in 1939 Texas. But in 1940, the couple quietly celebrated together. Eleanor had just returned from the Midwest and FDR had a cold:
I am back in Washington today and, for the first time in some years, at home on our wedding anniversary. There is no special celebration, for we are rather an ancient married couple, but the President is going to see: “Gone With The Wind,” [screened in the White House] which ought to be enough entertainment for any day in the year!
And in 1941 they were again in Washington–Eleanor just back from a stay in Florida–when she presented FDR with shamrocks. In no apparent connection, representatives of Ireland would give President Truman shamrocks in1952 creating a new tradition that continues to this day with President Biden.
After a dinner with family and friends, including the Morgenthaus, Malvina “Tommy” Thompson, Eleanor’s devoted secretary and assistant, and members of the Pope family, they all went to dedicate the new National Gallery of Art. Although sadly John Russell Pope, the architect of the building, and Andrew Mellon, who had financed the building and given his art collection for it, had both died in 1937, Paul Mellon was on hand to represent his father at the ceremony. FDR accepted the gift on behalf of the nation. In a beautiful speech, he spoke about how Americans had come to understand the public stewardship of great works of art from the past and a new appreciation of what had been created in the present in a nod to the publically funded arts projects of the New Deal: The people of this country know now, whatever they were taught or thought they knew before, that art is not something just to be owned but something to be made: that it is the act of making and not the act of owning that is art. And knowing this they know also that art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another land, but part of the present life of all the living and creating peoples—all who make and build; and, most of all, the young and vigorous peoples who have made and built our present wide country. And he concluded with an allusion to the ongoing war around the world: To accept this work today is to assert the purpose of the people of America that the freedom of the human spirit and human mind—which has produced the world’s great art and all its science shall not be utterly destroyed.
In 1942, with the US now fully engaged in the war after the devastating event at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the dinner guests joining the Roosevelts for the anniversary dinner included the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway in exile after Hitler occupied their country, and Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s closest advisors.
In 1943, Eleanor had just returned to the White House from New York City on March 17 and reported in her newspaper column that: A very great honor was accorded me in being allowed to lunch with some members of the Supreme Court on my wedding anniversary. I felt a little awed to be lunching with all these gentlemen, but they joked with each other in quite normal fashion. Though they often disagree on intellectual standpoints, they tell me that, to an amazing degree they are able to make the distinction between intellectual disagreement and personal liking. In the evening the Roosevelts hosted a small dinner for their close circle: the Morgenthaus with their son Lt. Henry Morgenthau, the Harry Hopkins, and Malvina Thompson.
On March 17, 1944, FDR was at the White House and Eleanor on an extended trip through the Caribbean and South America. That day FDR sent a brief missive to Leighton McCarthy thanking him for his letter remembering the anniversary. McCarthy was a friend and also the Canadian Ambassador to the United States. FDR wrote on March 17: Thank you much for your note on our anniversary. That a war is on is shown by the fact that my Missus is in Recife, Brazil; Anna is in Boston; Jimmy is in Hawaii; Elliott is in a camp near London, Franklin, Jr. is at the Miami camp and Johnny is on an aircraft carrier headed out….
On March 17, 1945, their last anniversary together, both Roosevelts were at the White House hosting a dinner for 18. Among the guests was Crown Princess Juliana of Holland, who had been living in exile in Canada with her family for five years since the Germans invaded the Netherlands.
After FDR’s death on April 12, 1945, Eleanor makes no reference to her anniversary until nearly a decade later. In her newspaper column of March 20, 1954, Eleanor fondly recalled her wedding day and its association with the holiday:
St. Patrick’s Day always brings us one of the most colorful parades of the season and it has a special meaning for me because it played a part in my wedding. Many people on that day arrived saying just what my guests said at luncheon!
One of my luncheon guests, a bridesmaid on that 17th of March so many years ago, brought me some flowers, saying, “I was reminded of the day and I wanted to mark it.” We waited a little while for a French lady who had been invited but finally we sat down and I rehearsed the excuses I would make if she arrived breathless and extremely late. She would say, “I am so sorry, Mrs. Roosevelt, but I did not know how long I would be held up by the parade,” and I would reply, “I am more than sorry, Madame, for of course I should have told you about the parade.” Then we proceeded to eat everything that was before us and I doubt if she had come whether there would have been any luncheon left for her!
No doubt Eleanor would be amazed that the parade, the oldest in the country (founded in 1762), has in recent years featured 150,000 participants and draws an estimated two million spectators. The parade was cancelled in 2020 but a small group marched to maintain continuity and the same in 2021 with virtual aspects. The full parade is back in 2022. If Eleanor were writing today on St. Patrick’s Day, she would probably remark on the city’s resilience and its reopening after the devastating years of the pandemic.