Born on December 20, 1891, in Rhinebeck, New York, Margaret Suckley grew up in a traditional aristocratic home. A sixth cousin of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she had a close relationship with him and served as librarian for the FDR Presidential Library. It was only after her death that the extent of their relationship was revealed through letters written over a 20-year span.
Margaret “Daisy” Lynch Suckley was born on December 20, 1891, at the Wilderstein house in Rhinebeck, in New York’s Hudson Valley. Wilderstein (“wild man’s stone,” in German) had been in the family since 1852, when Margaret’s grandparents, Thomas and Catherine Suckley, built the 35-room Italianate villa. Margaret was the fifth of seven children born to Robert Bowne Suckley and his wife, Elizabeth Philips (Montgomery) Suckley. She attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania from 1912 to 1914, but her mother forbade her from graduating, presumably due to traditional views of a woman’s role in society. During World War I, Margaret served as a nurse’s aide at a military hospital on Ellis Island.
Suckley met Franklin Delano Roosevelt sometime in the 1920s. She was a sixth cousin who shared the same aristocratic upbringing as he. The two became good friends, and in 1933 Roosevelt invited Suckley to his first inauguration. Thereafter, she was a regular visitor to the White House, and he would visit her when he was at his home in Hyde Park, New York.
Suckley raised Scottish terriers, and in 1940 selected a particular one that she named “Big Boy.” She trained the dog to behave and do tricks such as “roll over,” “sit up” and “jump.” In November of that year, Suckley gave the dog to FDR as a gift. He renamed the dog “Murray the Outlaw of Falahill” after a Scottish ancestor. Before long the name was shortened to “Fala.” Suckley later co-wrote a children’s book entitled The True Story of Fala, which told the story of life in the White House through the eyes of a dog.
Fala became the subject of a short-lived political scandal during the 1944 presidential campaign, when Republicans accused the president of spending millions of dollars to have the Navy rescue the dog after it had been left behind on one of the Aleutian Islands during a presidential visit. Roosevelt made light of the incident during a campaign speech, when he said, “These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala.” The scandal was quickly defused.
In 1941, Suckley took the position of librarian for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, working with the president and organizing and selecting documents to be kept at the library. During World War II, Suckley was a frequent visitor to the White House and accompanied Roosevelt on his frequent trips across the country. After the president died in 1945, she continued her work at the library until she retired in 1963. After her retirement, Suckley returned to Wilderstein and lived there until her death of congestive heart failure at age 99 in 1991. She was just six months shy of her 100th birthday. In her will, she bequeathed Wilderstein to a preservation society to protect it in perpetuity.
After her death, friends and family members of Suckley were sorting through her crumbling mansion and found a worn silk-lined suitcase under her bed. Inside were diaries and letters, including more than 30 written to her by Franklin Roosevelt in his own hand, as well as letters from her to him. The letters revealed much about the true nature of their relationship, but also raised even more questions. Though much of the correspondence deals with mundane concerns, many letters contain romantic overtones that suggest an intellectual, if not a physical, intimacy. On more than one occasion, FDR wrote, “I wish you were here,” referring to her fondly as “Daisy.”
The letters also show Suckley to be one of FDR’s closest companions during his final years. They reveal a mutual friendship of love, trust and discretion. As a confidante, Suckley was unconditionally trusted by Roosevelt. He wrote to her about the invasion of Normandy, his doubts about the 1944 election and of his desire to leave the White House for a quieter life. He even suggested quitting the presidency to head the United Nations. As for Suckley, it is clear from her letters that she had a deep affection for Roosevelt. He also wrote to Suckley about his failing health, which she helped keep a secret from the public, the press and many of his political associates. Suckley was with Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, when he died at the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia.
For most of her life, Margaret Suckley was an unassuming woman who remained on the fringes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s entourage of friends, family and political allies. She never married and often referred to herself as a “prim spinster.” She and FDR two enjoyed one of the most secret relationships of the 20th century, revealed nearly five decades after Roosevelt’s death through the letters they exchanged for nearly 20 years.
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