Curtis Roosevelt is the Grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE interviewed the former U.N. diplomat and professor on his great-grandfather, James Roosevelt.
James Roosevelt, FDR's Father
In the house he was called, Mr. James. In the same way that after I reached a certain age of about nine or ten years old I was called, Mr. Curtis. You know, my mother thought it was a little out of date, but that was the routine.
He was a person of the mid-19th century. He met Sara Delano Roosevelt in Theodore Roosevelt's house, where he was invited for supper. They were distant cousins. And he was very much an older man. But she was getting beyond the age of marriageability, beauty though she was. And so she accepted his proposal.
He was a kind of man who would have the routine of a country gentleman, of inspecting his property and keeping track of his estates. And he knew what went on on his estates. He knew the lives and the -- what was happening with all of his tenant farmers, were they making it or not? And he was a -- while he had an estate manager, he was very much on top of his things. Now he also had investments. He served on the boards of the various railroad companies and was in mining interests and so forth. Again, a typical American 19th century entrepreneur, but not taking it quite that seriously. Much in the English tradition, business was not something you allowed to interfere with your other obligations, which were family, and in this case, his son and so forth.
He had had one son before. FDR had an elder half-brother. But I would have described him -- and I only know in retrospect; he was long dead when I was born -- I would describe him as stiff, somewhat unbending, formal, but that was the style. And I am sure that in his own way he was warm towards his son. Always dutiful towards his wife. But that is what a husband was supposed to do, be dutiful, provide, and produce children. And he was not gregarious to put it in another way, because after all FDR was. No, he was not gregarious. I don't think he let down his hair.
But one thing I don't know about James Roosevelt and I don't think anybody knows is -- was he a club man in New York City? I have the impression he wasn't. I have the impression he was very much tied to Hyde Park and his estate there. And when he did go down to New York City, or elsewhere in the country for his ... relating to his financial interests, on his private car of course, he got back as soon as he could. I think his life and his soul, so to speak, lived at Hyde Park.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?