March 16, 2005
Roosevelts and the Quirks of Destiny
he jaw is pure Roosevelt, thrust out with the kind of patrician confidence that shepherded America through the Great Depression and World War II.
But in at least one surprising way Joshua Boettiger, the 31-year-old great-grandson of Franklin and Eleanor, is not a Roosevelt in the classic aristocratic mold. He is studying to be a rabbi, working with a small congregation, Mishkan Ha'am, in southern Westchester County and Riverdale in the Bronx. He credits Franklin and Eleanor's striving for social justice as an inspiration and believes Eleanor would have particularly given him her blessing.
"She was a traitor to her class in the best sense and I hope we're all following in her footsteps," he said.
Indeed, he is not alone among Roosevelt descendants in taking paths that do not seem to rendezvous with their presumed destiny. Nearly 60 years after the president's death, his descendants are spreading in directions that are both wide-ranging and, in some cases, unexpected.
One grandson, James Roosevelt Jr., spent a year as a novice at a California monastery of a Catholic order, the Christian Brothers, though he eventually became a Boston lawyer who made an unsuccessful stab at a Congressional seat against another dynastic heir, Joseph P. Kennedy II. Nina Roosevelt Gibson, a granddaughter, is an Arizona psychologist who has worked with children of drug-addicted and abusive parents. Dr. David Russell Luke, a great-grandson, is a mathematics professor who studies topics like nonsmooth analysis. And Amelia Roosevelt, a great granddaughter, is a concert violinist.
One grandson, Frank Roosevelt, flirted with Marxism in the 1970's and has made it a specialty of his economics teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. But another grandson, Elliott Roosevelt Jr., known as Tony, is a Texas oilman and has supported President Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security, the domestic program for which his grandfather is best known.
These life stories tell volumes about the flexibility of social class and ethnicity in the United States, where even a Roosevelt can become a rabbi, but if anyone is responsible for this potpourri of Roosevelt pursuits, it may be Franklin and Eleanor.
The Roosevelt biographers James MacGregor Burns and Doris Kearns Goodwin say that Franklin and Eleanor's example gave, in Mr. Burns's words, "a kind of permission to descendants to move as widely as they wished." Eleanor's example particularly encouraged many of her five children and 29 grandchildren to find friends in a variety of circles and to do battle with social inequities.To be sure, many descendants of this New York State clan have taken more predictable paths, studying at prep schools like Groton, working for white-shoe law firms, running charities, marrying upper-crust names like Havemeyer and du Pont and taking roles in their Episcopal churches. But others have veered from those paths, sometimes sharply.
Hall Delano Roosevelt, 47, a grandson, remembered three decades ago when his father, James, told him they ought to tour "the campus."
"What campus?" he asked.
"Harvard," the father replied.
But the younger Mr. Roosevelt told his father he did not want to go to Harvard like his older brothers, Michael and James.
"At that point my hair was down to my shoulders and the only thing important in my life was surfing," he said.
He enrolled in Orange Coast College, a junior college in California minutes from the beach. For a time he broiled steaks at a restaurant, but he eventually found his way into jobs in energy conservation and is now an environmental consultant. He even picked up his dynastic calling by running as a city councilman in Long Beach, Calif., serving from 1996 to 2000. "One thing I learned on my father's knee is when you get to a point in life where you've worked hard and gotten yours, we have an absolute obligation to help somebody else get theirs," he said.
Franklin and Eleanor were fifth cousins and the descendants of Claes Martenszen van Rosenvelt, who landed in New Amsterdam during the 1640's. Both Roosevelts grew up with the blueblood trappings of a Henry James and Edith Wharton novel, though Eleanor was orphaned at 10. But Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, who has an uncanny likeness to her grandmother Eleanor and is a board member of the March of Dimes, said that Franklin and Eleanor both spurned lives of genteel ease for public service.
Eleanor took uncommon roles for a woman of her time, serving as a United Nations delegate and newspaper columnist, surrounding herself with labor leaders and officials of black and Jewish groups.
John R. Boettiger, a 65-year-old grandson of the couple, said that the five children of the president struggled under the weight of their parents' achievements. They each married more than once and never quite felt comfortable in the skin of their careers. Three sons struggled with alcohol.
"How do you compete with the commander in chief of the Western world or the first lady of the Western world?" asked Mr. Boettiger, a retired professor of psychology.
But most members of subsequent generations simply gave up on emulation. "There is this legacy to live up to, but I'm never going to win a world war," said Lulie Haddad, the 38-year-old daughter of Kate Roosevelt Whitney, a granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor, who married a tabloid newspaper reporter.
Files at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., suggest that the Roosevelt maverick streak was evident early on. After an expected first marriage to a reputable stockbroker, Anna Roosevelt, the eldest daughter, took a loop out of the film "It Happened One Night" and married Clarence John Boettiger, a working-class reporter for The Chicago Tribune whom she met as he was covering Roosevelt's first presidential campaign.
The second of Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.'s five wives, Felicia Schiff Warburg Sarnoff, came from the "Our Crowd" German Jewish gentry. And the youngest son, John, seconded the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower at the 1952 Republican convention. One Roosevelt granddaughter, Sara Delano Roosevelt, caused a mild sensation in 1953 when she married a piano prodigy who was the son of an immigrant barber.
But he said that one generation later, he and the other grandchildren were able to take departures in their careers or marriages because his grandmother "had a sense of explicitly recognizing the promise of her grandchildren, whatever their leanings."
Mr. Boettiger married Janet Adler, the daughter of a small-town Jewish family from Indiana. It is their son Joshua who is studying at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.
Among Jews, Mr. Boettiger is usually asked how he can rationalize why Franklin Roosevelt did not rescue more Jews from the Nazis, and did not bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz.
"On the one hand this was the president most beloved by the Jews ever - who did more for the poorer Jewish community than had anyone - a friend of the Jews," he said. "And people are trying to square that with the fact that he didn't do as much as could have saving Jews from the Nazi machine. Somehow we have to hold both thoughts."
Whatever their doubts, the descendants seem unanimous in their pride in Franklin and Eleanor. Frank Roosevelt, the professor of Marxism, led the effort to build a monument to his grandmother in Riverside Park. But they are also proud that the way Franklin and Eleanor lived their lives made it easier to shape their own.
When he attends the next family reunion, perhaps as an ordained rabbi, Mr. Boettiger said, "I'll take my place among the other funky Roosevelts who have taken alternate paths."