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- November 06, 1978
- Vol. 10
- No. 19
John Boettiger Writes a Cathartic Book About His Dad's Suicide and His Grandparents, FDR & Eleanor
Goodbye my son. I love you dearly. I have faith and pride in you. You will make a great and useful man.
I wish I could watch you grow.
I love you.
John Roosevelt Boettiger was 13 years old when he found that letter in his mother's files. His father had written it two years earlier, in 1950—just before he jumped to his death from the seventh floor of a New York hotel.
Now, at 39, Johnny, a grandchild of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, has written an affecting account of his parents' star-crossed marriage entitled A Love in Shadow. "Until recently," says Boettiger, a professor of human development at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., "I lived with the experience of my father's death so powerfully marked in my consciousness that, in effect, there was no room for his life."
The life of Clarence John Boettiger was, in fact, journalism. When Boettiger was sent by the Chicago Tribune (a ferociously anti-FDR newspaper) to cover the 1932 campaign, he met the candidate's spirited eldest child and only daughter, Anna. They were married two and a half years later, and in 1939 their son John was christened in the White House.
John spent his first years in Seattle, where his parents went to run the afternoon Post-Intelligencer. That period, he recalls, was "my parents' greatest gift to me, when I felt part of a vibrant, secure family." But Anna had always yearned to play a role in her adored father's career. Indeed, both John and Anna were torn between their desire for independence and the power of FDR's shadow.
Then the war came. John went overseas with the Fifth Army for nine months. Anna and her young son moved to the White House, where she served as FDR's closest confidante. Secret Service men drove young John to school and, he recalls, provided "substitute fathering, and were fun, though I was vaguely aware they were protecting us from some obscure danger." Seriously ill with a throat infection in Bethesda Naval Hospital on April 12, 1945, young John heard over his bedside radio the news that his grandfather had died. "Somehow," he remembers, "it didn't sink in."
After the war the Boettigers moved to Phoenix, where they tried unsuccessfully to convert a weekly shopping sheet into a viable daily. "By late 1945," John says of his father, "I think he was running scared. If there was a critical event, it was probably FDR's death, though had the publishing venture succeeded he might well have recovered his earlier balance."
Anna and Boettiger were divorced a year before his suicide. Three years later she married Dr. James Halsted of Syracuse. John went to high school there, then got a degree in political science at Amherst. An interest in the U.N. brought him close to his celebrated grandmother. "We shared a cause," he says. In Eleanor he found "much of the warmth, understanding and willingness to share that her own children missed in their early years."
Encouraged by his wife, Janet, 37, a dance therapist (they have two children and he has two more by a failed earlier marriage), and spurred by the death of his mother in 1975, John spent a year and a half writing A Love in Shadow. "It was painful," he says. "It was insightful. It was confusing." But from his cathartic labor he discovered that "falling in love with a princess is a magnificent and heady experience. And it is also a dangerous one."
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