Boston Athenæum

Twice Roosevelt: Eldest grandchild of Franklin and Eleanor writes about the pitfalls of privilege

Curtis Roosevelt was in Boston recently to promote the paperback release of his book Too Close to the Sun: Growing Up in the Shadow of my Grandparents, Franklin and Eleanor. It’s an interesting childhood memoir that suggests just as every silver lining has a cloud, every silver spoon has some tarnish.

Having already travelled across the United States speaking at various engagements, the almost 80-year Roosevelt braved a rainstorm to speak to an attentive crowd at the Boston Athenæum. His accent almost too antiquatedly posh to be real, he apologized for his damp pants cuffs and facetiously expressed regret that he hadn’t brought any spare “trouse” with him. His writing is similarly sprinkled with, and made more interesting by, his occasional use of archaic, rarified vocabulary.

Curtis Roosevelt, an intelligent man well-versed in political matters, doesn’t only sound like FDR when he speaks, he looks like him as well. Despite these superficial resemblances, his grandfather’s charming, easy-going manner is something that comes very difficult to him. He admits this, just as he admits he never had the determination or strength of character that made both Franklin and Eleanor larger-than-life. However, like a member of royalty or the relic of a saint, people see in Curtis Roosevelt a special importance that exists beyond what’s observable. Roosevelt understands this too, and his conflicted feelings about it are a major theme of both his book and his life.

Eleanor being Teddy Roosevelt’s niece, Curtis’ family had celebrity even before FDR was elected to public office. After his grandfather became president, 3-year old Curtis and his sister moved into the White House with their mother. Known to the press as “Sistie and Buzzie,” this towheaded duo became what Curtis calls “a full-blown, pint-sized double act… familiar as five-year old movie star Shirley Temple to a nation hungry for distraction from breadlines and boxcars.”

The world in which he grew up was a strange one. He had a chummy relationship with FDR, his busy presidential grandfather (“Papa”), but Curtis’ mother (“Mummy”), like Eleanor (“Grandmère”), had an awkward difficulty expressing affection towards children. The person towards whom he felt the most love, his African-American nanny, suddenly and unceremoniously disappeared from his life when it was decided he was too old for coddling. He felt most at home at the White House, or at the Hudson River mansion of his staunchly Victorian great-grandmother Sarah Delano Roosevelt, but he was shuffled from the care of one person to another to such a degree that he never formed a genuine child-parent bond with anyone.

He was raised like American nobility, yet young Curtis was often plunked down in situations for which he was ill-prepared. He remembers his first week at school and his bewilderment at having to go to the bathroom without his nurse present to unbutton his pinafore, sit him on the toilet, and flush afterwards. He recalls a summer camp where kids were amazed at an 8-year old unable to tie his own shoes. He recollects his sense of relief when, at 10-years old, he was finally allowed to exchange his conspicuous short pants for long ones like those worn by other boys at his school.

In many cases, his childhood was a mirror image world where the common was extraordinary and the extraordinary common. He was comfortable riding in a car with the president as they passed cheering crowds, yet uncomfortable on play dates with other children. He knew what utensils to use at a formal dinner, but mundane activities such as playing baseball or watching a movie were alien to him. Guarded by vigilant Social Security officers, he was often barred from normal activities like bike riding and hide-and-seek.

Nature and nurture combined to make Curtis an odd child and, as he admits, “a wimp.” He describes how he was “either wildly overexcited or paralyzed with fear” in various situations. As much as he loved living at the White House and the feeling of being someone special, he was taught to be – or at least to pretend to be – embarrassed by it as well. With relatively little experience socializing with other children during his early development, some of his fondest memories are of rare situations when he did so successfully.

(Photo: John Stephen Dwyer)

Curtis Roosevelt knows the circumstances of his privileged childhood, even with its disadvantages, are more likely to provoke jealousy than sympathy. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to sympathize with the fatherless little boy crying in the bathtub off the Lincoln bedroom without a compassionate adult to comfort him. Likewise, his personal stories remind us that while money can indeed buy creature comfort, problems like divorce, substance abuse, crippling illness, and suicide spare very few families, even those brandishing such esteemed surnames as “Roosevelt.”

For those with interest in its subject matter, Too Close to the Sun: Growing Up in the Shadow of my Grandparents, Franklin and Eleanor is a very enjoyable read. It’s a quick and easy read too; the print is large and the illustrations are many. While one could fill a bookcase with memoirs written by members of the Roosevelt family, this one has its own niche that presents a particular set of intimidate details that won’t be found in any other volume. Most obviously, those having a particular fascination with Franklin and Eleanor will be drawn to it, but there’s also interesting content herein for anyone with an interest in blue-bloodedness, class dynamics, or the inheritable prestige of the US presidency.

An Interview

During his visit to the Boston Athenæum, I spoke briefly with Curtis Roosevelt. After walking in the pouring rain, lecturing for over an hour, and signing multiple copies of his book, the 79-year old Roosevelt was justly impatient to be on his way. Nevertheless, graciousness is so ingrained in him that he allowed me to ask a few questions.

JSD: You describe growing up in the White House as a mixed experience. Would you offer any advice to Mrs. Obama that might maximize the good and mitigate the bad for her daughters?

CR: No, absolutely none. I wouldn’t dare give advice. Those children are different as all children are different. They certainly are very different than my sister and I. And it was a totally different era than they’re growing up. Particularly with the intrusiveness of the media today. That’s why I give absolutely no advice whatsoever.

JSD: I have a particular interest in genealogy. Coming from one of the most genealogically notable families in the United States, do you have any reflections on how awareness of one’s genealogy might inspire someone, or, conversely, how it might be felt as a burden?

CR: I happen to be one of those people who prefers to read biography and autobiography more than any other style. But as far as genealogy is concerned, I was raised on it. You’d be surprised how extraordinarily adept my grandmother was in tracing back her lineage back to the Livingstons and so forth, and it had meaning. It wasn’t just dates and so forth as history used to be taught. It had real meaning. But beyond that I haven’t pursued it. Although I would say, being dubbed the family historian, that probably I know more about the family genealogy than anybody else in the family.

JSD: We have your great-granduncle Teddy to thank for the creation of the National Parks Service. But FDR also enacted measures that were of huge benefit to the NPS. Do you have any recollections about your grandfather’s particular love of nature?

CR: Oh yes! Driving around with him at Hyde Park, in his Ford, he doing the driving. [He was] fascinated with trees particularly. There are a couple books on that that are not quite old. They must be 30 or 40 years old. You can find them in the library, [these books about] FDR and conservation and the environment.

JSD: Many remember the dramatic circumstances surrounding [African-American opera singer] Marion Anderson not being allowed to perform at Constitution Hall and how it led to your grandmother’s resignation from the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution]. Do you recall any circumstances when the ethnicity of people close to you such as Beebee [Curtis’ Black nanny] or Mr. Mingo [the family’s Black butler] caused a situation which you, as a child, found confusing or uncomfortable?

CR: You probably forget that when I grew up, the nation’s capitol, Washington DC, was a Jim Crowe town. So you know, that’s the way it was. So particularly as a teenager, when I was let out, so to speak, a little more, and the leash was taken off [I realized] that’s the way it was in Washington.

No, not my most riveting interview, but talking with Curtis Roosevelt was a memorably exciting experience nonetheless. I’ve met some members of the Roosevelt family before, mostly Teddy’s great-grandkids, and I’ve even worked with the spouse of one on a daily basis. But none were “twice Roosevelt” or spent years in the White House of FDR and Eleanor. Shaking his hand, knowing that he has probably shaken hands with over a hundred world leaders whose names I’d recognize, I felt the power of notability by association – exactly the phenomenon that has characterized his life and serves as a main motif in his book. It’s an interesting thing to think about.

Wolff at the Door: A Foray into the Boston Athenæum

She wrote, “Posh library. Sanctuary for eminent Bostonians. Brahmin enclave. There has always been a mystique surrounding the Athenæum“.

Yet when, as young woman, Katherine Wolff discovered the Boston Athenæum’s fortress-like door, she wasn’t intimidated. Curious, she entered. I asked if coming from the state of New Jersey, so far from the compass of Beacon Hill’s shadow, had much to do with her being undaunted by the Athenæum’s stately façade or, more importantly, its exclusive reputation.

“No,” she told me “I’ve always been a trespasser.”

Scholarship often requires trespassing in areas of thought which people have portioned off, re-examining institutionalized understandings, and delving into private lives. Wolff does this and opens the door for the curious in Culture Club: the Curious History of the Boston Athenæum, recently published by University of Massachusetts Press.

Educated Bostonians being some of the most textually self-referential people ever, the Boston Athenæum has already been written about, repeatedly and at length. Wolfe turns this into an advantage, as the time is right for someone to write not only a new history of the Athenæum, but also a fresh histiography as well. Wolff has some fascinating things to say about what has already been said, elucidating points by putting them in the context of her own theories.

Class-based interpretations of the Boston Athenæum dominate scholarly analysis. But Wolfe believes that prominent scholars have been distracted by rigid ideas of high and low culture. She also calls the emphasis on separating high culture from popular entertainment “a particularly American preoccupation.” So, rather than focusing her discussion on class, Wolff concentrates on culture. She examines the role the Athenæum played (or failed to play) in shaping the evolving identity of the young United States. She looks at “the vexing relationship between democracy and culture.” In these things, she places emphasis on the “emotional history” of matters personal, aesthetic, and political.

The author describes how certain early Americans looked to the lowest ranks of English aristocracy for a genteel, yet seemingly-meritocratic, model to follow. Her description of the Athenæum’s origins in “the attempt of a worried and self-conscious group of anglophilic readers to ennoble their nation through a purposeful institution” doesn’t necessarily contradict what she calls “the founding myths,” but it’s more candid, better contextualized, and easier to grasp emotionally.

While sharing a sense of stewardship, members haven’t always agreed who and what they are stewarding. Opposing personalities and contradictory ideas have resulted in conflict. The principle of accessibility versus the benefits of separation is a matter of perennial concern. Some of the most interesting pages of this book explore these various tensions.

Adding to the curious history of the Athenæum are colorful characters, some with well-known names or pedigrees that add interest. In seeking to illuminate the emotional lives of these people, Wolff poured over intimate letters exchanged between its 19th century founders, a process she likens to “going back in time only to eavesdrop.”

When Katherine Wolf lectured at the Athenæum last month, her main subject was the correspondence between William Smith Shaw and his intimate friend Arthur Maynard Walter. Shaw, formerly a private secretary for his uncle John Adams, was a bibliomaniac collector of all things written. While his relationship with the younger Walter may have not been physical, their emotion-charged messages had the tropoi of love letters.

Wolff’s revelation that Walter died at age 26 brought gasps from the audience. She opined how the Athenæum then became, in effect, Shaw’s “new lover.” She mentioned how a contemporary even kidded Shaw by referring to it as “your Grecian wife.”

Though her book is appropriately objective, Wolff is under the Athenæum’s spell as well. Standing before a truly gigantic painting of one of the Perkinses, facing a rapt audience seated between a Gilbert Stuart and busts from Jefferson’s breakfast room, she describes the Athenaeum as a “perfect space.” It does have many endearing old charms.

The building holds an art collection of unimaginable value, and galleries feature new exhibits, but it’s not really a museum. The author, who admits to being a “library addict,” reminds us that the Athenæum was and is, firstly, a library. In this, it’s very much a living place. It’s even a welcoming place, and the ranks of its membership are permeable.

Wolfe points out the sort of lectures and reading groups increasing seen in public libraries is similar to what the Athenæum has been doing all along. It’s true, but the Athenæum retains a refined and idiosyncratic character that keeps it distinct. Photography is forbidden past the threshold, but one may enter with a well-behaved dog. In the reading room, the air is disturbed only by the perfume of fresh floral arrangements–the pitterpat of laptop use is not allowed.

Shaw’s “Grecian wife” is so fetching, one might overlook that serious research takes place here. The Athenæum has important resources for inquiry into local, American, and English history. As Wolff mentions, most of the interior is reserved for paid members and researchers with proper credentials. While the annual membership fee is more than a token sum, it’s not exorbitant. Easily, one could spend as much on just a few hours of diversion (dinner and a show, a sporting event) rather than a year’s access to one of the city’s most pleasant and fascinating places.

Katherine Wolff, who received her doctorate in American literature and history from Boston University, began formal analysis of Boston Athenæum history while she was still a student. When asked what she would work on next, she laughed and said “maybe a children’s book” before hinting that she had ideas for more grown-up books as well.

Culture Club: the Curious History of the Boston Athenæum is engagingly and written and full of intelligent analysis. If your personal library has well-worn texts by Thomas H. O’Connor, this book deserves a place alongside them. It could be an appropriate text for courses in Boston history, post-colonial identity, and various topics in American Studies.

Editor’s Note: The Boston Athenæum offers heavily discounted memberships to those under 41 and does open up its doors to the public for art exhibitions and some of its lectures. Those with more interest might be interested in this 1851 history or this 1907 one (both now in the public domain and thus downloadable) as well as this video on the Brahmin accent, featuring two old blue bloods in, I’m pretty sure, the Athenæum.

Going down at the Boston Athenæum…

You don’t have to be a member of the Boston Athenæum to enjoy some of its offerings. “Poetry at Noon” presents thirty-minute lunch-hour poetry readings on the first Wednesday of the month freely to the public.

February 3rd, Sam Cornish
Samuel James Cornish grew up in Baltimore, but has lived in Boston for much of his working life. He was a teacher at the Highland Park Community School in Roxbury, and was also active in the “Poetry in the Schools” program in Boston and Cam­bridge. In the early 1980s, he was the Literature Director of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities and a Creative Writing Instructor at Emerson College. Among his many awards and achievements are grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts. The author of nine books of poetry and two children’s books, he has been published in many periodicals, including Essence, Plough­shares, the Harvard Review, and the Christian Science Monitor. In 2007 he was chosen to be the first Poet Laureate of Boston.

March 3rd, Robert Farnsworth
Robert Farnsworth has published two collections of poetry with Wesleyan University Press: Three or Four Hills and a Cloud (1982), and Honest Water (1989). His poems have appeared widely in periodicals across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. For seven years he edited poetry for The American Scholar. His most recent book, Rumored Islands, was released in January from Harbor Mountain Press. He was awarded a NEA Fellowship in poetry in 1990, a PEN Discovery citation in 2005, and the poet’s summer residency at the Frost Place in Franconia, NH in 2006. Farnsworth teaches at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where he lives with his wife and two sons.

The Boston Athenæum presents Poetry at Noon, a series of readings on the first Wednesday of each month. Readings take place at the Boston Athenæum, 10 ½ Beacon Street on Beacon Hill near the State House. The 30 minute events begin at noon, and are free and open to the public. No reservations are required. For more information, visit bostonathenaeum.org or call (617) 227-0270.

The Athenæum’s first-floor exhibitions are always open to the public. Artist + Poet: George Nama & Charles Simic opens February 10th and runs through April 10th. Selections of Nama’s recent etchings, sculptures, gouaches, and artist’s books inspired by Simic’s poems will be on view.

George Nama. Study for Wonders of the Invisible World and Other Poems, by Charles Simic, 2005. Gouache with black chalk.

George Nama. Study for Wonders of the Invisible World and Other Poems, by Charles Simic, 2005. Gouache with black chalk.