The Influencers

A dual biography from Charlotte Gray

They were born the same year. Their families left Paris the same year. Their sons entered institutions that would shape their lives the same year. If Stephen Sondheim had written Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons instead of Charlotte Gray, he might have employed one of the timeless lines from his Broadway show Company to depict the lives and loves of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt: “Parallel lines who meet.”

Gray’s dual biography is among a string of recent titles about women at the sides of the two great men who found themselves at the ­centre of the twentieth century’s most brutal and most consequential conflict. Like The Daughters of Yalta, Catherine Grace Katz’s portrait of Sarah Churchill, Anna Roosevelt, and Kathleen Harriman (the daughter of the American diplomat W. Averell Harriman), and The Churchill Sisters, Rachel Trethewey’s chronicle of the lives of Diana, Sarah, Marigold, and Mary Churchill, Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons has a double purpose: to illuminate the forgotten or simply ignored contributions of women, limited though their horizons might have been by the social conventions of their time, and to underline the way women of intelligence and promise were so often forced to play subservient roles in the geopolitical arena. Its implicit argument is that, in the third decade of the current century, we cannot afford to repeat previous mistakes. (As Bill Clinton put it in a 1993 commencement address at New Hampshire Technical College, “We don’t have a person to waste.”)

Gray’s book leads us to ponder that notion and to let our minds wander — and to wonder whether it could have been a coincidence, or merely a poetic juncture, that placed both Jennie Jerome and Sara Delano, then entering their teens, in the 1867 Paris crowd that witnessed Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, travelling in a royal coach down the Champs-Élysées. Sara and Jennie likely never met, in that crowd or otherwise, but the two of them — wealthy, cultivated, ambitious — were destined to play similar roles in the lives of boys who would, at maturity, work together, plot together, and, it must be said without hesitation and with great appreciation, save democracy together. Was it similarly chance or providential destiny that thrust together two sons both reared and revered by American-born women? Ultimately, we can’t know, but Gray — one of the great women of Canadian letters — makes clear that the lessons Sara and Jennie taught their children had great consequence.

Gray’s subjects were in many ways opposites. One (Sara) felt shackled by social constraints, while the other (Jennie) ached to destroy them. One was bound by what Gray describes as the “carefully curated placidity of her existence.” The other seemed unbound by either tradition or expectation. One was decisively a figure of the past. The other’s adolescence adumbrated a raucous future. “Raised with similar values,” Gray writes in her preface, “they made dissimilar decisions as they transitioned from daughters to young wives, to mothers and then to early widowhood.”

Indeed, though they both grew up in New York, the world outside the windows of the Colonnade Row townhouse at 39 Lafayette Place (Sara) differed substantially from the intersection of Madison Avenue and Twenty-Third Street (Jennie). Coming from old money, Sara was comfortable with the self-assurance of the elite insider. She stepped along the straight and narrow and would be faithful to her husband. Jennie, meanwhile, was from new money. She was marinated in exuberance and extravagance. With the impatience of the social striver, she was accomplished in both her dance steps and her steps on the social ladder. And she would prove a serial adulterer, perhaps even with the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.

Even so, Sara and Jennie had elements in common. “They had absorbed the Victorian message that only family and motherhood could give meaning and purpose to their lives,” Gray writes, “and that a family’s material well-being was the husband’s responsibility.” Sara wed straitlaced James Roosevelt (“as courteous and dignified as an undertaker”), while Jennie married the even more established, though less stable aristocrat Randolph Churchill (“infected . . . with the confidence of those born into the loftiest level of political and social power, in a country that at the time ran the largest empire in the world”). Both began their marriages as ardent promoters of their husbands’ careers — and later played the similar best-supporting-actor roles for their sons. But while Jennie outsourced care of Winston — his affection for his nurse, Elizabeth Everest, has been well documented in Churchill biographies and in his own remarks — Sara was obsessive in her attention to her only child. “Sara’s bond with Franklin was powerful from that tentative first breath onward,” Gray writes. “Departing from the practice common within her class, she breastfed him for a whole year.” Much later, she even moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be near her son at Harvard — an eerie echo of how Mary Pinkney Hardy MacArthur, the mother of a future general, moved to West Point, New York, around the same time, to be near her son Douglas while he attended the United States Military Academy.

Both Winston and Franklin had more detached fathers. Randolph Churchill ignored the future prime minister — ignored him, that is, when he wasn’t being cruel. (He once predicted, in a letter to his son, that Winston would become a “mere social wastrel” who would find himself living “a shabby, unhappy and futile existence,” ending the correspondence by writing, “I no longer attach the slightest weight to anything you may say about your own achievements and exploits.”) James Roosevelt wasn’t quite as horrible, but he was no model parent. “Franklin never knew what it meant to have the kind of respect for his father that is composed of equal parts of awe and fear,” Sara once wrote.

The two husbands died five years apart, leaving their wives alone in their forties. “As young widows,” Gray observes, “Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt had little in common beyond their immense social privilege, and their responsibility for sons on the cusp of adulthood.” Jennie was a Merry Widow; Sara not so much. She “kept to the ordered pattern of her life” and even wore the sort of floor-length black veil favoured by Queen Victoria. Jennie, restless in the extreme, didn’t sit still, and during the Boer War she equipped a hospital ship and was in southern Africa around the time that her son was there as a journalist for the Morning Post, before he found himself interned at a Pretoria jail. Eventually Jennie remarried, aiming for the (temporary) triumph of hope over experience that Dr. Johnson called second nuptials.

In middle and late age, the two women’s differences widened. “While Jennie embraced twentieth-century challenges and continued to take new initiatives,” Gray explains, “Sara remained firmly embedded in nineteenth-century patterns of privilege and family stability.” When Franklin’s adultery threatened his marriage, Sara was in a way as devastated as Eleanor, whom he had married in 1905. “With his deceitful behavior,” Gray writes, “her precious son had betrayed the values of his family and his class, and everything that his parents had stood for. Franklin had let her down by indulging in the kind of dubious conduct that she had always felt characterized politicians.”

In 1921, at the family cottage on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Franklin contracted polio. A dozen years later, he was inaugurated as the thirty-second president of the United States. Sara lived to see all of that. But Jennie died before Winston first became prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1940.

Gray has sketched a brilliant portrait of two influential mothers, providing perspective and poignancy to the lives of men whose alliance was central to the story of the Second World War. This book is an important contribution to American presidential and British prime-ministerial history.

We actually know a fair amount about the mothers of several important leaders. Isabel Grace Mackenzie King was, in death as in life, a huge influence on her son William Lyon Mackenzie King. Hester Grenville Pitt, like Barbara Bush and Margaret Trudeau, was both the wife and the mother of national leaders. Elizabeth Milbanke Lamb was an ardent booster of her son, the Second Viscount Melbourne, known to history as Victoria’s favourite prime minister. Abigail Smith Adams helped shape two presidents named John, and Nancy Hanks Lincoln pushed her son Abraham into a ­lifetime of reading. Rose Kennedy provided stability to the family that included her second son, John F. Kennedy. Throughout his life, and especially on his last morning as president, Richard M. Nixon celebrated his mother, Hannah Milhous Nixon, as a “saint.” Lillian Gordy Carter was a vivid figure during her son Jimmy’s ­childhood and presidency. Stanley Ann Dunham, a single parent, was a huge force in the life of Barack Obama. But here is a question that Gray’s book prompts and that we might ponder as the 2024 U.S. presidential election approaches: Has anyone heard a whisper about Mary Anne MacLeod Trump?