“Too Close to the Sun: Growing Up in the Shadow of my Grandparents” by Curtis Roosevelt (Book Review)

I have visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Museum back in 2003 and I’ve watched Curtis Roosevelt on many documentaries about FDR and I was always interested to know more about his perspective on his grandfather. It is very fascinating to learn in this book some new information about the president from an intimate source.

This book is ostensibly written as a memoir of the first grandson of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. He shares with his readers among his richest treasure trove the memories of his famous grandparents. He gives us a glimpse of the American upper class’ savoir-faire and his story captured the zeitgeist of America in the 1930s-40s. He had the virtue of reminding us of a lost world of propriety, tradition, breeding, high culture and noblesse oblige philanthropy.

Born Curtis Roosevelt Dall, he was the second child and first son of Anna, the oldest and only daughter of Franklin and Eleanor’s five children. He was barely a toddler when his grandfather was elected president of the United States. He moved to the White House at age 3 with his 6 year-old sister, Eleanor, after his grandfather’s inauguration. Though unusual for the grandchildren of the president to inhabit the White House, “Sistie and Buzzie” as he and his sister were called, moved into 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue and instantly became media celebrities, always being photographed by the papparazzi. He writes that just like any other presidential family, growing up under the glaring eyes of the press wasn’t easy and he recounts an honest and moving story living in a gold fishbowl. His parents were in the middle of a hostile divorce and his grandparents provided a safe and secure environment for him and his sister. They had nannies as substitute parents who did everything for them. He never went to the bathroom alone or bathe himself or even flashed the toilet until he was five or six. And it wasn’t until he went to a summer camp at the age of eight that he learned how to put his clothes on and tie his shoes.

His recollection is abetted by innumerable correspondence between his mother and grandmother and also some insightful perspective of his family and friends. It’s full of rich details about the Roosevelt White House complete with the secret service agents, secretaries, nannies and servants, and the whole rigmarole of dressing up for dinners and evening cocktails, and of course, his rambunctious Roosevelt uncles with their self-indulgent excess of changing wives more than the average American would, at the time, change a car.

The author recounts stories that made me conclude he was a precocious and solitary boy sentient of the wealth and privilege he grew up in. He loved the morning rituals of visiting his grandfather in his bedroom and sitting in his bed listening to him read a comic book while the president is surrounded by his staff discussing the day’s agenda. He recalls fondly not just the morning rituals but also the evening cocktails where they all watch FDR with a kind of suppressed excitement as the president became risible with his every word and gesture.

The author’s perspective of his grandfather, grandmother and great-grandmother was quite fascinating. Perhaps rather too effusive in his praise and affection for his grandpa, FDR was portrayed as a fun-loving, jovial and gregarious man. Whereas he has given a succinct appraisal of his grandmother and portrayed her as being cold and not very affectionate. Likewise, he relates the story behind his grandmother’s aloofness and apparent lack of warmth. The author obviously admires his grandmother but he adores his granny (FDR’s mother) more that he tells us of his abiding love for her.

Because of paternal truancy, the author always looked to his grandfather as a father figure. My heart ached for him who, to some extent, was abandoned and left to the care of his first nanny, an American black woman, followed by a French lady who were both inexplicably dismissed by his mother. It was heart-wrenching to read some of the tragedies in the author’s young life. For one thing, he’s always being made to suppress any natural loyalty to his father. Every time he talked about him, his mother and sister would snarl at him. Also, when he once shared his secret dream of wanting to become like his grandfather his mother gave him a snort of disgust and told him, “who do you think you are?”

Though fantastic and riveting as his stories may be, his life itself is so much more complex and full of mystery. When his mother remarried and moved to Seattle, he and his sister joined them and were put in a public school where they, for the first time in their lives, were surrounded by boisterous middle class kids. His grandmother, he claims, was hypocritical towards the media and always avoiding the press whenever possible. But when Shirley Temple visited her she made sure that a picture of “Sistie and Buzzie” with the child actress was taken and published by the press. They weren’t allowed to watch any movies and had no clue who Shirley Temple was until they met her. He and his sister were shielded from normal childhood things like playmates, games or pop culture influences. He had very little exposure with children of his age that he didn’t play with kids in his neighbourhood until he lived in Seattle but was stopped abruptly for security reasons. Just as he feels he was on the cusp of something new in his life and trying to suss out the intricacies of fitting into a new environment, he is being uprooted again moving houses and schools every year. He performed poorly at school and his mother didn’t have the discretion to find out there must be extenuating reasons for his lower grades.

The frequent relocation didn’t allow him to foster friendship with other children and he find himself retreating into a labyrinthine phantasgamoria from which to escape. He writes, “Life outside the protection and isolated White House cocoon became hugely distorted, especially for an impressionable youngster like me. Intoxicated by the exhilarating environments I created a dream world that protected me and it became a form of addiction.” In his fantasy world, he claims that satisfaction comes easily simply because he is the master and he could do just as he wished. “In the real world, he says, he is either overexcited or paralysed by fear.”

Though he enjoyed the grandeur and formality in the White House and was adept at behaving around adults, he equally loves spending summers with his great-grandmother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, at The Big House in Hyde Park where the expectation of decorum and style is less stringent. Though he also lived in New York and Seattle growing up, The Big House and The White House were always “home” to the author.

Having read several books about the Roosevelt family and having watched several documentaries about FDR, I got the impression that the president, though loves being surrounded by people, is also very aloof and incapable of showing his emotions. But reading this memoir enabled me to discover the more warmer human side of FDR. The author tells about his grandfather putting his arms around his adult boys and giving them kisses and hugs as a greeting, and it was extended to other family members and close friends as well. Also fascinating is FDR’s demand, much to the dismay of the White House staff, to always have a live 20 foot christmas tree at the White House lit up by real candles.

I reckon that the author didn’t besmirched the good name of his family yet he was brutally honest in writing the book. He treats his memoir and the Roosevelt family with a fair amount of reverence. He recapitulated his stories with care and offered very little criticism at any one person yet he simultaneously share humiliating events like the failed marriages amongst his family and the tragic death of his stepdad who committed suicide. He didn’t stigmatised his family but offered a modest admittance that he followed the family tradition by marrying four times.

The book only chronicles the early life of the author and ends with the death of his grandfather while he was at the military school in Wisconsin. He recounts how his mother dissuaded him from attending the funeral which he relented but later on expressed with deep regret. He talked us into taking part of his journey, and then left us lurched into a place of wanting to know more. It would be interesting to find out how the author managed to navigate through life without the “Sun” and how his relationship with his grandmother turned out after she left the White House. Though I was left with more questions about Curtis Roosevelt’s life and about a more detailed perspective on his grandmother, this was an enthralling and very revealing memoir. One of his triumphs, I think, was being able to show deference to his grandfather, but not make a meal of it.

If you’re looking for scandalous stories about FDR’s surreptitious affair with other women or the way Sara Delano Roosevelt treats Eleanor or the way SDR extends unreserved generosity to gain control and favour from his grandchildren then this is not the book for you. Also, if you haven’t read any of FDR’s biography, you’d be better off reading a book or two related to the president. Otherwise, you’d be clueless about the people who were mentioned in this book.

This memoir, in my own humble opinion, is not a paean to Curtis Roosevelt’s privileged life but rather an illumination of a man who had been influenced and overshadowed by his famous grandparents, and who lived a life of emotional repression with an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as happiness. It was an intimate and compelling memoir that reveals how his privileged life growing up in the White House is no more perfect than any of our ordinary lives.