FDR and Lincoln on Screen
We’ve come pretty far down since then.

Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson (Focus Features)


Conrad Black

Given the greatness of their principal subjects and the high drama of their times, there was no need or justification for Lincoln or Hyde Park on Hudson to invent history. Spielberg represents the passage by the House of Representatives of the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in the session ending in February 1865 as utterly essential to achieve the full enactment of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. To breathe life into this canard, he claims that the peace talks Lincoln had with Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens in that month would have been successful if Congress had not not already been committed to the Thirteenth (abolition) Amendment. 

This is bunk. The new Congress would easily have adopted the Amendment; there were already more than a million emancipated slaves in Union-occupied Confederate territory, and undoing Emancipation would have been out of the question. The end of slavery was bound to be a condition of readmission of the Confederate states, most of which were then in Union hands. Nor was slavery discussed at the Hampton Roads meeting with Stephens. They never got past the southern insistence on a cease-fire while reentry into the Union was negotiated. (When Lincoln declined to negotiate with “Americans who have taken up arms against [the] government,” and one of Stephens’s colleagues replied that Britain’s King Charles I had, Lincoln responded in his usual laconic way that his “principal recollection of the matter is that King Charles lost his head.”) 

Hyde Park on Hudson is set in the visit to the U.S., and specifically to the Roosevelt home, of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (better remembered now as the Queen Mother), in 1939. Roosevelt had a domineering but doting mother, who in 1939 had been a widow for 39 years. The complicated marriage with Eleanor had been launched in 1905 only because Eleanor was a sixth cousin, a Roosevelt (Theodore’s niece), and so was one of the very few people FDR’s mother could not claim wasn’t good enough for her son. 

But it was never an entirely real marriage. FDR, as he later did in politics, and ultimately in world affairs, created and managed a balance of power — a state of constant tension between his wife and his mother, which he could manipulate while continuing to enjoy social pleasures, including the company of more vivacious and prettier women than Eleanor, whom he encumbered with six children. (One died in infancy and most of them fled into unsuccessful marriages to escape from the war zone at home between their parents.) By 1939, Roosevelt was seeing a great deal of his cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (played in Roger Michell’s film by Laura Linney with her usual almost Streep-like virtuosity); and his secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, was also constantly around. Both women were unmarried and there has been much speculation on how intimate these relationships became. This film pushes it, with Missy emerging from FDR’s hilltop cottage rebuttoning her blouse as Daisy arrives, and the king and queen observing his return from their bedroom window in the middle of the night. Roosevelt’s medical records survive, and there is no doubt that he retained his sexual powers after the onset of polio in 1921, though the impact of inactive legs might have been inhibiting even to such a confident man.

Hyde Park is pretty explicit in implying that Eleanor was a lesbian. There is no more substance to this allegation than to the feminist confection that Eleanor was a virtual co-president. The only evidence of supposed lesbianism is a letter to one of her lady friends about the pleasure of kissing her dimpled cheek. It is more likely that she was simply asexual after, as she put it, “doing her [maternal] duty.”

As it happens, I own most of the correspondence between Roosevelt and Suckley. There is only one place where there is a hint of physical contact. With Missy, it is more plausible, as relations started earlier, including months on end when they were almost alone on a houseboat Roosevelt used in Florida in the 1920s while he was convalescing from his illness. The film also errs in mentioning his relationship with Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd as if it were active in 1939. (It flourished in World War I, ended on a joint ultimatum from FDR’s wife and mother, and was at least partly revived in 1942. Daisy and Lucy were both with him when he died in Georgia in 1945. Missy died in 1944 and FDR named a warship after her.)

In both films, it would have been easy to portray the presidents’ personalities in an accurate context. The Roosevelt film has a little more merit than most critics have allowed, and Lincoln, perhaps, slightly less. But both remind us of the qualities the country needs in its leaders.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected]