Affair between FDR and a crown princess?

There’s no there, there

Scott Larsen - FDR

Photo courtesy of Scott Larsen
FDR, aka Scott Larsen (right front), in 1987 in Portland, Ore., as the winner of a Roosevelt contest to help celebrate Timberline Lodge’s 50th anniversary.

New Westminster, B.C.

In April, North American viewers will be introduced to the claim that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Crown Princess Märtha of Norway had a romantic relationship during World War II.

“Atlantic Crossing” is an eight-part 2020 series that will begin airing on April 4 on PBS Masterpiece. Norwegian director Alexander Eik created, co-wrote, and directed “Atlantic Crossing.” The series was co-produced by Beta Film (Germany), DR TV (Denmark), Sveriges Television (Sweden) and the Nordisk Film & TV Fund (Nordic cooperation based in Oslo, Norway).

I’ll leave the political inaccuracies in the series for others. My interest is in the friendship—not relationship, because relationship is fraught with mixed meanings—between FDR and Princess Märtha. It was forged during World War II after she and her three children came to America.

fdr affair

Photo: Scott Larsen
An excerpt from the book Time Between Wars by Jonathan Daniel was published in Life magazine.

In 1966, Life magazine published “FDR’s Secret Romance” from the book Time Between Wars by FDR’s last press secretary, Jonathan Daniel, revealing Roosevelt’s extramarital affair with Lucy Mercer. Ever since then there has been a consuming interest around FDR and women, from his secretary, cousin, to even a New York publisher. A recent Norwegian journalist called the president a “womanizer,” which only goes to show—how can I put this?—alternative truth sometimes takes over.

Roosevelt sons James and Elliott also helped fuel speculations about their father’s affairs in a series of articles and books from the 1970s and 1980s.

“Both were in search of companionship,” wrote Doris Kearns Goodwin about FDR and Princess Märtha in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book No Ordinary Time (1994). “And they found it in each other,” she wrote. But even companionship does not equate a romantic relationship.

Let me be clear: Princess Märtha WAS a standout. She was “good looking, effervescent, with her never-failing smile,” who looked “adoringly” at Roosevelt, said one, who added there was a “flirtatious intimacy” between president and princess. That still doesn’t mean there was romance, but people see what they want to see

FDR enjoyed lighthearted conversation over cocktails at the end of the workday, usually with his secretaries, male and female. Eleanor felt uncomfortable attending because she wasn’t good with small talk. Her absence was filled by secretary Marguerite LeHand, Princess Märtha, his daughter, Anna, and others.

While FDR at times was lonely, he was rarely alone. Secret Service agents, servants, a personal valet, or bodyguard were always nearby. And let’s not forget he couldn’t walk unaided. Texas medical researchers determined in 2003 that Roosevelt had Gullain-Barre Syndrome, not infantile paralysis or polio. If true, add another fallacy about this president.

“The Princess and the President” was a feature I wrote for The Norwegian American (March 27, 2015). I also spoke on it in British Columbia and Oregon. One question I knew readers and listeners wanted answered was: Did they have a romantic relationship? While they might have had an engaging and at times flirtatious friendship, I didn’t find romance between the two. Not because I didn’t try.

fdr affair

Photo: Scott Larsen
Scott Laresn reviewed a baker’s dozen of books mentioning Crown Princess Märtha of Norway

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was kept in the dark about FDR seeing Lucy Mercer by the Secret Service and staff, and even daughter Anna was in on the deception. But FDR’s and Märtha’s comings and goings were largely an open book, recorded in the White House usher’s log.

Latter-day authors and filmmakers have used the “where there’s smoke there’s fire” analogy about romance between FDR and Märtha. They’re wrong. Still, romance and scandal are selling points—like the dreadful 2012 movie, Hyde Park on the Hudson, starring Bill Murray and Laura Linney. 

Also overlooked is that Märtha and Anna were close in age: Märtha born in 1901, Anna in 1906.

Director Eik concludes a romantic relationship took place based on “speculation” from a press article he told Agence France-Press. However, noted Norwegian historian Tor Bowmann-Larsen found “no proof of any love affair or sexual relationship between the two.”

Eik said he “found plenty of sources confirming that Roosevelt was infatuated with Märtha, and some sources even claimed he was madly in love with her,” he said to Nordisk Film & TV Fund.

“We did speak to many firsthand sources, survivors, and relatives of people who were close to the events,” said Eik. “The main challenge was to imagine what went on behind closed doors.” 

Behind closed doors comes the imagination of screenwriters—not reality.

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This article originally appeared in the March 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Scott Larsen

Scott Larsen is a longtime Roosevelt historian. A freelance journalist, he wrote about Scandinavians aboard the RMS Titanic ("Norwegians on the Titanic" in The Norwegian American, April 12, 2012). He immigrated to Canada in 2006 and lives in New Westminster, B.C.