Is Eleanor Roosevelt’s Secretary Lucy Mercer Based on a Real Person? Did Franklin Roosevelt Actually Have an Affair with Lucy?

‘The First Lady’ follows the victories and challenges of three first ladies of the United States. The Showtime series follows Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) from their early years till their respective stints in the White House. A variety of intriguing characters and interesting anecdotes connected to these particular first ladies and their families keep the narrative interesting.

Episode 3 introduces Lucy Mercer, a highly efficient secretary to the prolific Eleanor Roosevelt. Lucy also seems to have an affair with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Just how much of what we see of Lucy in ‘The First Lady’ is actually based in reality? Let’s find out.

Is Eleanor Roosevelt’s Secretary Lucy Mercer Based on a Real Person?

As it turns out, Eleanor Roosevelt did have a social secretary named Lucy Mercer, who joined her in 1914. Lucy Page Mercer was born on April 26, 1891, in Washington, D.C. Her father, Carroll Mercer, was part of the military during Theodore Roosevelt’s campaigns in Cuba. Before being hired by the Roosevelts, Lucy worked in a dress shop.

Image Credit: FDR Library/National Parks Service

It was supposedly at the suggestion of a family elder, Anna Roosevelt Cowles, that Eleanor hired Lucy. The latter soon proved to be very adept at her job and helped Eleanor during a particularly busy period. At the time, Franklin was the assistant secretary of the Navy, and the Roosevelts lived a socially busy life. Lucy stopped working with Eleanor in 1917 and subsequently began working within Franklin Roosevelt’s office in the US Navy.

Did Franklin Roosevelt Actually Have an Affair with Lucy?

Franklin Roosevelt did have an affair with Lucy Mercer, and some of their interactions, including letters exchanged, have long been the subject of discussion. As per historians Joseph Persico and Hazel Rowley, the affair between Franklin and Lucy started in 1916 when Eleanor was away on vacation with the children. In 1917, Lucy stopped working with Eleanor, but her affair with Franklin continued, possibly facilitated by the fact that she then started working in Franklin’s office in the US Navy.

In September 1918, Eleanor discovered the affair when she came across a collection of letters while unpacking for her husband. She subsequently asked for a divorce, but Franklin’s mother, Sara Delano, did not agree. Franklin’s long-trusted advisor Louis Howe also pointed out that a divorce would be disastrous for his political career. Ultimately, Eleanor and Frankling remained married. However, she stipulated two conditions to stay married — the first was that Franklin had to break all contact with Lucy, and the second demanded that he never share the bed with Eleanor.

The affair seemingly continued even after it was discovered. In his book ‘Franklin & Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life,’ author Joseph Persico suggests as much. The connection between Franklin and Lucy did rekindle in later years for certain. After the death of her husband, Winthrop Rutherfurd, in 1944, Lucy began to see Franklin more regularly. According to some reports, Lucy was present during Franklin’s first inauguration ceremony. She was also by his side when he died in 1945.

Eleanor did find out that Lucy and Franklin had once again rekindled their connection. The fact that Anna Roosevelt, their daughter, had facilitated some of the meetings between Franklin and Lucy also reportedly caused a rift between the mother and daughter. Though the show doesn’t delve into too many details, its depiction is relatively accurate. Franklin Roosevelt did have a long-running affair with Lucy Mercer (later Lucy Rutherfurd), who, at one point, was also Eleanor Roosevelt’s social secretary.

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