A Look Behind The Real Story Of FDR And Martha

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As Atlantic Crossing comes to a close, series creator, co-writer and director Alexander Eik joins lead actors Sofia Helin and Kyle MacLachlan for an intimate exploration of the truth behind the fictionalized historical drama. Though Crown Princess Martha never became Queen, her story still has impact today.

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

It’s 1945, and World War II has ended. After years in exile, the Norwegian Royal Family has finally returned home, much changed by their experiences abroad.

CLIP

Astrid Mamma! It’s over! The war is over!

Jace V-E Day marks the end of a brutal conflict that ensnared the globe, but the end of the war also brings the end of the relationship between American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Norwegian Crown Princess, Martha.

CLIP

FDR I understand your concerns about the children, but you must also think of yourself as well. Martha You’re telling me?

FDR Yes…

Jace The real-life friendship between the two very different world leaders is, of course, lightly fictionalized in Atlantic Crossing, but the story shown in the series draws much from reality.

CLIP

FDR Did you come all this way just to ask me this favor?

Olav Well, it means a great deal to my country.

FDR Yeah…But you could have just called me. Or sent Martha. You came here to see her, didn’t you?

Jace In a special episode of the podcast, we speak with Atlantic Crossing creator, director, and co-writer Alexander Eik about his series finale, as well as with series leads Sofia Helin and Kyle MacLachlan.

Jace One of the more surprising moments in Atlantic Crossing is when FDR writes to Martha’s estranged husband, Crown Prince Olav, to convince him to spend Christmas in America with his family. Olav believes that Martha and FDR have begun an affair — so it takes the explicit invitation of the American president for him to show up at all in Maryland.

CLIP

FDR Dear Olav. I am writing these words to you in confidence, as a friend, well aware that you are busy in London these days, I urge you to consider coming to Washington for Christmas. I know that it would do your family good to see you again, and you are all more than welcome to spend the holidays with us, as always. Yours, Faithfully, Franklin.

Jace Sofia Helin, who plays Crown Princess Martha, believes that there are two reasons why Martha asks FDR to send that letter…

Sofia Helin The first reason is obviously that it’s a he’s an important person for the war, for Olav and the king and way. So that would it would put pressure on him to come. But the other side is that that she doubts he would come to see her and the children if she would ask him.

Jace But, for FDR, it is far more complicated — as Atlantic Crossing co-creator Alexander Eik explains, FDR is preparing Martha for his death.

Alexander Eik This is again something that is inspired by the things we found in our research — we found at the FDR archive, we found this letter from FDR to Olav. And we also found the response from Olav where he says that. ‘I will come if the President commands me to, if he orders me to come.’ And we were really puzzled by this because what does that mean? Why did Olav write to President Roosevelt that he will come if he orders him to come? What’s behind that? And really, we didn’t get any other clues regarding this, so then of course, this was a subject for numerous discussions over a very long period of time. And this we finally saw it as an opportunity to incorporate this in the triangle, between Olav, Martha and FDR and it is in our story, it is FDR trying to, he really wants to see Olav and Martha together again, I think he saw himself as of course, a very close friend to Martha, but he was also a friend of Olav’s. So this is him saying that, ‘I really want to see you together again and see you reunited after the war,’ and so this is how we chose to interpret this very peculiar piece of information.

Jace Kyle MacLachlan, who plays FDR, agrees — he believes that FDR recognized that he was fading.

Kyle MacLachlan I think he recognizes that he is fading, FDRI think he realizes that the they need to be together. I think he was probably very affected by how strong they remained at such distance and that I think ultimately the family needs to be together, I think was kind of where he was going with it. And, you know, I think having a bit of wisdom and recognizing some of the things that had happened to him. And he I think he tried to help other people not make the same mistakes. That was my take.

Jace I mean, FDR seems quite, I’d say, even friendly towards Olav, surprisingly so, given that they are perhaps rivals for the same woman on some spiritual level, maybe. How does Franklin see all of it? And what are his views about Martha and Olav’s marriage at this point? I mean, is he trying to bring them back together after they’ve had this sort of chasm in their relationship?

Kyle I think he is. I think he’s definitely trying to bring them back together again. I think he, you know, there is in him the belief in true love. And I think he can see the strength of their bond. And I don’t think he wants to be the person to get in the middle of that. I think he certainly enjoyed his time with Martha. But I never thought that it was it was something that he was interested in pursuing, you know, all the way or whatever. And I think it was something that he again, he really enjoys her company and, you know, her mind and the conversations and the closeness and the shared, you know, intimate moments, I think. But I think he realizes that her place is with her husband.

Jace One of the most striking moments in the series is the sequence in front of the newly commissioned battleship where FDR asks Martha, “Was it all because of this?”

CLIP

FDR There’s something I need to know.

Martha Yes?

FDR Was it all because of this?

Martha Yes.

FDR You’re lying. I can tell.

Jace It’s clear to us and to Franklin that she’s lying. What do you feel Martha desperately wants to say to Franklin here, but can’t?

Sofia I think she would want to say that this terrible war, this this horror and this a period of absolute crisis in her life has been saved by this man and that she never knew she was going to meet someone who would connect to her spiritually like they did. Because in my imagination, it must have been a very special relationship between two people who are so watched all the time, who are so under pressure and are so known wherever they go, and to get to know each other in a private space and just relax together.  It must have been a warm feeling for her during the circumstances. I don’t know whether they were ever romantically involved or not, but I imagine that that bond must have been very strong over the years because we know that he spent a lot of time with her during those years. So they were close.

Jace In as much as this entire experience has been freeing for Martha, as you say, she’s still trapped by the constraints of courtesy, diplomacy and her marriage. Do you feel she was at all tempted to admit feeling something more or is that not possible under the time she’s living in her role in life, her station?

Sofia No, I think that’s an unthinkable scenario, the way she was raised, the situation she was in and as the future Queen of Norway, that was unthinkable. So I imagine this time must have been like, maybe she felt guilty sometimes for enjoying America, the freedom, the other type of life that she could lead in America compared to being a royalty in Europe.

Jace MacLachlan has his own take on the scene, one that he likens in a way to a “young love.”

Kyle You know, it’s sort of like, you know, young love in a strange way where you want to you just want to hear it. You know, she’s so difficult to read to him in some ways, which I think is part of the challenge there. And I think he just really wanted to know that she also felt for him, for Franklin, the way Franklin obviously felt for her, him being a little more demonstrative of his affections, you know, and she being, you know, a little bit more aloof. And, you know, he Franklin’s a great judge of character and of people. And I think he obviously saw that it was more but, you know, it’s just not meant to be, which is, you know, carrying that tension was part of part of the challenge and the fun, actually, of doing the series and working with Sofia.

Jace Given the amount of subtext at play and what’s not being said, it wasn’t an easy scene to write, according to Eik.

Alexander We spent so much time writing this project, this was a scene that, you know, to start out, we didn’t have that complexity at all, but it’s just like, you know, laying one bridge on top of the other and, you know, rendering each new version with new detail and, you know, and then you finally get it at something that really has a bit more complexity than you started off having. And of course, the actors bring so much to a scene like that. You know, it’s all in the way that Kyle McLachlan and Sofia Helin, how they express and interpret this this scene and how it plays out between them. So I guess writing the scene, it was just a matter of a long time in making book. But I think, you know, that smile — when I was behind the monitor and when I watched Kyle and Sofia in that scene, you know, I had goosebumps all over and it just was so much better that than I can even imagine when I wrote it. So I have to give them credit for it, really.

Jace You’ll hear more from Eik, Helin and MacLachlan after we take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsors…

Martha and Franklin’s final scene together before FDR leaves for his final trip to Warm Springs isn’t a beautiful expression of their feelings for one another. Instead, it’s him demanding that she leave the room and not see him as he was on his deathbed.

CLIP

FDR Leave. Please

Agent Jones Your Highness. Please.

Martha Franklin. I was gonna ask you if you want to take me for a ride today? You, me, and the Secret Service? Happy days, are here again…the sky above is clear again. Let’s sing a song of cheer again, happy days are here again!

Franklin Martha? Hold on to your britches! 

Sofia It was one of those moments where, you know, when we when we rehearsed, where we found that song, that could be something that they had together so that she could have. And I think that’s who she was. She had empathy. She understood people. She could relate to people’s feelings. So that’s a very generous goodbye and also something beautiful they shared together that that they could unite in, even though He didn’t want her to see him.

Jace And to me, this is sort of a final act of kindness on the part of Martha to give FDR a last glimmer of dignity in this moment. She doesn’t make it this this sort of painful scene. She just sort of very generously, as you say, sort of says goodbye and leaves. It was very touching because it was played so reservedly, I’d say.

Sofia I think that’s when you have experience from seeing someone die, it’s like from what I experience, it’s like suddenly you see the young person within that person who is dying. So it’s the same all the ages of this person who is then very old is there at the same time in a very beautiful way. Sometimes, not always.

Jace MacLachlan believes FDR didn’t want to appear feeble in front of Martha, even though it might well be the last time that the pair lay eyes on each other. Or…perhaps, indeed, because it might be.

Kyle I don’t think he wants to be, to appear frail or weak or, you know, not attractive, I guess, or not himself in front of her, which is understandable.  I don’t know, but I always imagined him to be you know, he’s not a vain person, but someone who definitely demands the spotlight and loves to hold court. And I just don’t feel like he was, in those moments, he was feeling comfortable to do that, you know, in his weakened state and didn’t want to look like an old man, you know, in front of her. I think, simple as that.

Jace Do you see this as a final act of kindness on the part of Martha to give Franklin a last glimmer of dignity before he died, that she is maintaining this sort of ruse, that he’s just not feeling himself today and she’s just going to make a sort of French exit?

Kyle Yes. With some nice compliments. You know, I think she didn’t know what condition he was in when she walks into that room and I think she pulls it together as one does, particularly in that position. I think he also doesn’t want to put her in that position, you know, recognizing that he is not well and that she has to sort of pretend. There’s a lot going on there in that moment and between the two of them. 

Jace But that scene was entirely invented for the production, says Eik…

Alexander That scene is entirely made up. We are not really sure when was the last time, because not all their encounters were recorded. Of course most of them were, but we don’t know for sure when was the last time they actually met. So and again, we although we tried to stay true to the core elements of the story, the core message of the story, we do have to dramatize. We do have to imagine what goes on behind closed doors. And so this is a scene we see entirely made up where she comes to visit him and she sees that he’s dying and ad they have a final meeting, a final scene, a final goodbye and then, of course, later on, he dies, in reality, I think his is death in Warm Springs came more surprisingly. I mean, his health had declined for a long period of time. And he was really, you know, just a shadow, a shadow of his former self. But he did die very suddenly and not as slowly as you might get the impression of when you watch the series. So this is one of the liberties that we’ve taken with the story.

Jace We learn in the postscript that Martha never became queen, as she died before Olav ascended to Norway’s throne. Should we see her as being a tragic figure in that light, given that she was never crowned and was somewhat forgotten until now?

Alexander I guess so, I think at least it is tragic that she never became a Queen and Olav never remarried. She was the love of his life and probably the only love of Olavs life, as far as we know and and of course.  Our King today, King Harald, he was only 17 when he lost his mother, and  it was very emotionally straining for a 17 year old to lose his mother in that way, but I know that he was very close to his mother, and it’s just recently that he actually has started talking about Martha when he’s giving interviews because it has been probably very emotionally challenging to him to talk about his mother because it was probably quite a big shock to him to lose her, and it really changed the House after she passed away, there was really, you know, the whole atmosphere and the whole dynamic in the Royal House, everything changed after that. So she’s a tragic figure in that sense. But of course, she did achieve a lot and she did receive recognition in her own time for her efforts during World War II. She did receive the St. Olav’s Cross for her efforts for Norway and mankind already during the War and at least I like to imagine that she felt that she actually had made a contribution. I’d like to think that, at least.

Sofia There was so much gossip and the papers wrote about her and Roosevelt and I think she didn’t want that to be the memory of her life or she didn’t want people to continue these speculations it might have not occurred to her that she wanted to be remembered as the hero because obviously up until now, the heroes in Norway from the war, it’s only been men up until now. So. It’s taken until now, so I guess she maybe didn’t even imagine it would happen. Or wanted it.

Jace Olav, as you say, never remarried after Martha’s death, there’s a sense that despite their fracture, their reunion in Norway isn’t just political, but romantic. Is their love the fundamental story of Atlantic Crossing — a love that overcomes everything?

Alexander I think so. I see it as a romantic story and and it starts with Olav and Martha, and it ends with Olav and Martha, so really, it is a story about their relationship and their love for each other and their children and the family, of course..

Sofia Yes, and also it’s I think it’s very beautiful when you’ve heard the story about King Olav, he said, ‘After the war, the we lost our virginity in our relationship after the war,’ but I think in every long relationship you experience very challenging things and that’s the beauty of staying together, that you experience challenges and then you accept that it’s not as bright and, you know, polished as it was in the beginning. And we continue, even though and we embrace that and go forward together anyway. I think that’s the difficult for all marriages, for all couples. And I think it’s beautiful that that’s what they did.

Kyle It’s nice that her story has been told. You know, you wonder, particularly the way Sofia has played her, whether she would have been completely comfortable as Queen, you know, I think it was a responsibility that she felt, obviously, and an obligation, but, was it her, you know, true, true passion to be to become Queen? It’s hard to say. Hard to say.

Jace So what do Eik, Helin and MacLachlan make of the real-life dynamic between Martha and FDR then?

Alexander Well, we do know that after Martha arrived in the US, after escaping the Nazis, she moved into the White House with her children. And she stayed there for a few weeks while FDR was personally helping her to find a new home for her and the children, and they had met before, but during this early period, I think that really got to know each other quite well. Martha’s children started calling FDR Godfather for some reason. I don’t know the background for that, but they called him Godfather. I mean, they couldn’t call him grandfather still. And they had to call him something. So they they grew very close and it is documented that she was the person, the president. met or spent most time, went on the outside working hours during the whole Second World War. And we know for sure that it’s almost two hundred and fifty of their encounters are documented. And then, of course, several are not. So we’re talking a substantial amount of time that they spent together, we know for sure. We’re quite certain, based on our research, that he was infatuated with her. Some would say that he was madly in love with her. But what was her feelings towards him? No one knows. What we do know is that there was much speculation in the press and from British intelligence regarding an affair. But this might just as well be rumors which we make a point of in the series, we do, however, imply that there were deeper feelings toward her from the President’s side. And I think someone I think was Gore Vidal who expressed it like this, she was the last love of his life. And I think even his son James mentions this in a book as well. So we find this interpretation to be credible. But at the same time, we have had no interest in creating a speculative portrayal because it would completely undermine the entire purpose of the series, which is to lift up the forgotten story about Crown Princess Martha’s War efforts. I really think that first and foremost, they were, we know for sure that they were friends and I think they were soulmates. I think they shared a lot of things, they shared a lot of experiences. I mean, they were both icons. They were both superstars in their present time. They both were very empathetic. They were people’s persons, and they both lived with a lot of pain, physical pain, they were both, you know, they were both relying on medication to get through their face because of the pain she must have had. Yeah, she had different issues with her body that a lot of back pain that almost crippled her and empirics it did cripple her. And he was, of course, bound to the wheelchair. So I think they shared that, they had to keep up the facade. They had to just get through their days and perform and do their best at all times. And no, let no one know. And this all these things were I things that they resonated in the other and that really made them sort of soulmates, I think.

Jace What should viewers ultimately take away from Martha’s story?

Sofia I hope that it’s that they will be entertained, of course, and that it’s like traveling back in time, watching all the costumes and everything, but also maybe people will get to think a little bit more about history and about women in history, and about all women in history and also what I like about the stories that she’s not a, from the beginning, you know, a strong woman who is going forward in her own way or something, like parts I’ve done before, like where, you know, you can see this is a strong woman and she’s going to be a hero. This is a weak, physically weak woman with migraines and you know fears, and who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. But she’s doing it in the in the name of peace and democracy. And I think it’s a beautiful role model nowadays when democracy is threatened again. And I think it’s also a very good reminder to anyone who has any power in the world or at home or anywhere that if you have power like she actually had, you have to know how to use it in crisis. You have to know, where you going? What are you going to do if everything falls apart? How do you prioritize when that happens? All of those things I want people to reflect on, but mostly to be carried away.

Kyle You know, I come back to that theme of a sacrifice and what people had to do and endure. And the decisions that they had to make, sometimes split-second decisions that had tremendous impact on their lives and on their families and their friends. And you know, we don’t we don’t have that those situations, I mean, they exist, but not at the scope and scale of what they did during World War Two. And I’m just reminded of the courage of people to rise to the occasion when they need to, and I think that’s true of both Franklin and Crown Princess Martha.

Jace As the world slowly opens back up after a year of pandemic stay-at-home orders, you might be tempted to take a grand tour of Europe. But even if you aren’t quite up to such a tour just yet, don’t worry — a new series on MASTERPIECE will take you there from the comforts of your own home.

CLIP

Douglas Look, it’s our emotional baggage. It’s exciting! Isn’t it?

Connie It is!

Douglas All those cities –

Connie Three whole weeks –

Douglas No, no, sorry, you say it.

Connie Oh, nothing. Just, I’m glad we’re doing this.

Douglas Me too.

Connie We’ll have fun.

Douglas See the sights.

Connie You can talk to Albie.

Jace Us, a charming new adaptation of author David Nicholls’ bestselling novel of the same name, follows a fracturing family around Europe on a trip of a lifetime that goes horribly, terribly wrong. Catch series lead Saskia Reeves, already a MASTERPIECE favorite, here on the podcast after the first episode of Us on June 20.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.

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