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.
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.
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.