Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons: The Lives of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt
“Gray’s most important accomplishment is to show that Jennie Churchill and Sara Roosevelt were far more than just mothers of history-making sons.”
Charlotte Gray, an award-winning Canadian author, has written a book that seeks to rehabilitate the reputations of the mothers of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt—women of substance and strength who greatly impacted the lives and careers of their more famous and celebrated sons. Jennie Churchill is best known for her promiscuity and unconventional lifestyle. Sara Roosevelt is known as an imperious, domineering mother. Gray shows in this book that both women “were far more complicated and interesting than that.”
Gray does not deny that Jennie Churchill was promiscuous and Sara Roosevelt was imperious, but both were determined women who shaped their own destinies in a male-dominated world and used their talents and influence to advance the political careers of their sons. And their sons would shape events at the pinnacles of political power in their respective countries during some of the most eventful years of world history.
Both women were Americans born to wealth and privilege. But Jennie Jerome Churchill’s wealth was episodic and fleeting. Her father was a New York-based investor and stock market player who alternatively won and lost fortunes. Sara Delano Roosevelt, on the other hand, came from “old money.” Gray notes that some of the Delanos came to America on the Mayflower. Sara’s father, Warren Delano, Gray writes, was “one of the wealthiest businessmen” in mid-19th century New York, and some of that wealth derived from the opium trade.
Both the Jeromes and Delanos frequently traveled to Europe where they mixed with Old World high society. Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Churchill, a rising star in Conservative Party circles in Great Britain. It was a complicated marriage given Jennie’s penchant for attracting male admirers and Randolph’s erratic behavior and illnesses that caused his early death at the age of 46. They often treated their son Winston with indifference and belittlement. But after Randolph died, Jennie used her feminine wiles to promote his political career.
Jennie, Gray writes, provided Winston with a “network of government ministers, royalty, financiers, aristocrats, editors, and writers” that opened the doors to political power. Churchill’s own impressive talents combined with Jennie’s influential contacts helped Winston enter Parliament and rise to positions of influence. What Jennie lacked, however, was money—mostly because she spent far more than she had. This was a trait she shared with Winston. Jennie married two more times, and to younger men. Victorian mores and rules simply didn’t apply to her.
Sara Roosevelt never lacked for money, and she used hers to promote her son Franklin’s political career. Sara lived to see her son become governor of New York and President of the United States. She was the dominant figure at Springwood—the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park, where she lived with Franklin and Eleanor until her death in 1941. Eleanor—increasingly distant from both Sara and Franklin—lived in a stone cottage called Val-Kill.
Jennie Churchill died in 1921—long before her son became Prime Minister of Great Britain and played an oversized role in saving Western civilization. But, as Gray notes, Jennie always believed that Winston was destined for greatness. Indeed, Gray contends that it was Jennie that “instilled in her son a conviction that he had been singled out since birth to be a great leader.”
Gray also explores the relationships between Sara, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt, which at times were strained and difficult. Gray believes that Sara’s poor reputation derives from historians’ favorable opinion of Eleanor who is often viewed as a victim of Franklin’s infidelities and Sara’s imperiousness. Yet, as Gray notes, it was Sara who often acted as more of a mother to Eleanor’s children than Eleanor did. All the Roosevelt children had fond memories of Sara, but complicated memories of their mother. And it was Sara, not Eleanor, who, in Gray’s words, “had been FDR’s rock-solid source of support throughout his grueling journey to the White House.”
Gray shows in this book that both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt were devoted to their mothers. But Gray’s most important accomplishment is to show that Jennie Churchill and Sara Roosevelt were far more than just mothers of history-making sons.