New Book Remembers FDR's Friendship with Distant Cousin and Rumored Love Daisy Suckley: 'A Constant Presence'

As author Gary Ginsberg tells PEOPLE, the former president was "emotionally wired for this friendship and he needed it"

Margaret Daisy Suckley, Henry Hooker, and Laura Delano
From left: Margaret Daisy Suckley, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Photo: Everett/Shutterstock

While dealing with the Great Depression and fighting a world war, Franklin Delano Roosevelt found comfort and solace in a very different sort of "first friend": his distant cousin Margaret "Daisy" Suckley.

While Suckley was not in the public eye and ignored for years by presidential historians — only coming into clearer focus more recently, after her 1991 death, thanks in part to Hollywood — her role in President Roosevelt's life shouldn't be understated, says Gary Ginsberg.

Ginsberg writes about her and the former president's bond in his new book, First Friends: The Powerful Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents.

As Ginsberg tells PEOPLE, Roosevelt was "emotionally wired for this friendship and he needed it."

"I think what I came to appreciate with FDR is how lonely he was. Even though he's fighting a depression and fighting a world war, and he's a gregarious man on the outside, when the lights turned off and when he was no longer exhibit A, he felt ... entirely alone," says Ginsberg, a corporate executive and former Clinton administration official who was also the legal counsel at George, the political magazine launched by Ginsberg's own close friend John F. Kennedy Jr. "

And so," says Ginsberg, "Daisy became the antidote to that loneliness."

As Ginsberg explains, Suckley grew up 12 miles from Roosevelt in New York's Hudson Valley and was his sixth cousin, according to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Their friendship first blossomed in 1922, when he was 40 years old and was recovering from polio and she was in her early 30s. "His mother realized how lonely he was," Ginsberg says, noting that his wife, future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, had gone back to New York to take care of the couple's five kids.

As her son continued to recuperate, Roosevelt's mother called Suckley and asked if she wouldn't mind coming by to keep him company at Springwood, the name of their estate in Hyde Park, New York.

"They would sit on the lawns of Springwood ... and she would watch as he kind of lifted himself initially from his [wheel]chair onto a bar, which hung above him to kind of rebuild his body. And they would just tell stories," Ginberg says. "And she just kept him company for that summer."

The relationship continued to flourish after he was elected to the White House in 1932 and invited her to his inauguration in 1933.

The two corresponded regularly, exchanging gifts and opening up to one another in letters, according to the museum, which cites a missive dated Sept. 23, 1935, as one example of their mutual affection.

"Do you know that you alone have known that I was a bit 'cast down' these past weeks," Roosevelt wrote. "I couldn't let anyone else know it — but somehow I seem to tell you all those things and what I don't happen to tell you, you seem to know anyway!"

Suckley, whom Ginsberg describes as a "lonely woman" who was never married, found a kindred spirit in the president. She served "a constant presence and a reassuring presence and a ballast for him in an emotional way that very few people could appreciate."

Ginsberg continues: "[Roosevelt would] have 22 meetings in a day. And then the one person he would want to have dinner with was her, because she could read his moods. She could intuit things that very few others did. She knew when to talk, knew when to be silent, but he just relished her company."

First Friends The Powerful, Unsung (And Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents by Gary Ginsberg
Twelve Books

RELATED VIDEO: Andrew Cuomo's Daughter Michaela Comes Out as Demisexual — 'We're Always Evolving'

The author adds that Suckley was the last person to speak to Roosevelt before his 1945 death and was the one who tended to his health in his final days.

Whether or not their relationship ever took a turn for the romantic remains mired in mystery. Both President and Mrs. Roosevelt were known to have extra-martial relationships and have been said to have contemplated divorce. But the two ultimately decided to remain married, in part because his mother threatened to disown him, according to a 2016 biography of Mrs. Roosevelt.

While the president and Suckley have been portrayed as having had a love affair in fictionalized accounts of their relationship (such as in the 2012 film Hudson on Hyde Park, starring Bill Murray and Laura Linney), Ginsberg says the reality was likely more innocent.

According to the Roosevelt museum, the pair visited a hill in Dutchess County in 1935 — one they would later affectionately refer to as "our hill." Ginsberg says that's probably the place where the relationship became as romantic as it ever was.

"I think they just kissed on the hill," Ginsberg tells PEOPLE. "Something clearly happened, but I talked to Geoffrey Ward, who's the seminal biographer of Daisy Suckley ... And he doesn't think that Roosevelt, by 1935, could have sexual relations."

"It's pretty obvious that there was some romantic attachment, but it did not last," Ginsberg says.

The flirtatious undertones faded with time but the bond endured, with Roosevelt giving Suckley a job at his eponymous library in Hyde Park in 1941.

She worked there as an archivist for 22 years. And she was with Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Georgia, when he died on April 12, 1945, the museum says, and joined his body on the train to Washington, D.C.

Later, she wrote in her diary: "He told me once that there was no one else with whom he could be so completely himself."

Following his Hyde Park burial, Suckley returned to the library where she worked until 1963, preserving the memory of the man who was likely her closest friend.

"I think she tantalized him initially on some kind of physical level, but I think ultimately it was a very deep emotional bond," Ginsberg says.

Related Articles