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Quirk of history

The two passionate mothers who changed history

FDR with his mother Sara and his wife Eleanor. Getty

Historians of the wartime partnership between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt have long observed the importance of the two leaders’ mothers, says Jonathan Darman in Air Mail. Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons, by veteran biographer Charlotte Gray, draws striking parallels between the two ostensibly very different characters. Both were daughters of Gilded Age American fortune-seekers. Both saw marriage as their calling, only to be “unmoored by early widowhood”. And, most importantly, “both ultimately came to see their sons as a chance to make their mark on the world.”

Lady Randolph Churchill, an American socialite born in Brooklyn, was a “beguiling, scandal-tinged beauty” known for her striking looks – “more of the panther than of the woman”, it was said – and her romantic entanglements with powerful men. Not just her husband Lord Randolph, the Duke of Marlborough’s “brawling, spendthrift, syphilitic younger son”, but also the “sexy Austrian count” Charles Kinsky, and possibly Queen Victoria’s son Bertie, the future King Edward VII. Naturally, this left relatively little time for child-rearing. His mother, Winston later wrote, was a “radiant being” who “shone for me like the Evening Star. I loved her dearly – but at a distance.”

There was never any distance between Sara Delano Roosevelt and her only son, the future American president Franklin. At Springwood, the Roosevelt estate on the Hudson River, Sara “mistrusted nannies and governesses”, keeping young Franklin near to her at all times. When he went off to Harvard, she took a flat in Boston so “nothing greater than the Charles River need keep her from her ‘dear, dear boy’”. And after he married his distant cousin Eleanor in 1905, Sara bought a pair of adjoining Upper East Side town houses: one for the young newlyweds, and one for herself. “The two households were connected by doorways on three floors.”

Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons by Charlotte Gray is available to buy here.