Tag Archives: julie fenster

Louis McHenry Howe – Devotion vs Love

(Reposted from 2009)

A study of the personal correspondence between Louis McHenry Howe and Grace Hartley Howe (second cousin to Lizzie Borden) cannot help but make one wonder if this man misplaced his unwavering devotion to President Franklin Roosevelt over the love for his own wife and family.  The letters reveal a man conflicted but unwilling to remove himself from the virtual shadow of  FDR where he relished being so close and so influential to the power on the throne.

Photo by Corbis

Julie M.  Fenster’s excellent book, FDR’s Shadow, is the first to reveal these letters stored at the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York.  I went there to read them myself and came away with a few differing insights from Julie’s, but my mission was focused more on those letters between Louis and his wife than those between Louis and Franklin.

In the letters, time and again Louis professed his love for Grace and his daughter Mary, and son Hartley, above and beyond anything else.

But very early on in the marriage there were problems -within its first year in fact.  Grace and her mother may have been shocked by the sudden  flat-lining of Louis’ financial promise from when he and Grace were first secretly married.

November 9, 1898 Grace Hartley & Louis Howe are secretly married by JOP; Grace returns to Boston same night & Louis to Saratoga.     (Rollins p75)
May 6, 1899 Grace Hartley marries Louis McHenry Howe in a formal ceremony at the Church of Ascension in Fall River.

Evidence of Louis’ doubt of Grace’s love and problems in the marriage are revealed in this letter dated 1900:   (Click on images for larger view)

Over a period of 20 years, Louis would occasionally bring up the names of “Ted” and “Willie” whom he suspected his wife involved with.  (And let me say right now that from reading all these letters the thought entered my mind if Hartley was, indeed, Louis’ biological son – more on that in another post). “Ted” was apparently a wealthy Fall River person whom Louis stated would have given Grace the kind of life she wanted.  Here he again mentions “Willie”:

Grace’s letters were far different from Louis.  They were not filled with terms of endearment or expressions of love.  As Julie stated in her book, they were written more like a sister to a brother.  But they do reveal a woman very much interested in local Fall River as well as national politics.  Grace wrote often of her civic and social service involvements and activities and of her family members, cousins Bessy and Bertha who visited often.

The letters between Grace and her mother (Mary J. Borden Hartley) reveal much about how Grace was raised, transparent of being a “Borden”.  Prior to her marriage, Grace lived her young life much the way Lizzie would have wanted for herself.   Grace’s passions extended to the love of animals, antiques and helping the poor – the same as those of  Lizzie.

In reading those letters over and over (the library allows you to take digital pictures of the letters and I captured them all) I was struck by another common bond between Grace and Lizzie:  Louis made the decision to live most of their married life with the Roosevelts rather than with his own family.  Could it be that Grace and Lizzie shared feelings of abandonment – Grace by her husband,  Lizzie by her sister?   Animals, anitiques, abandonment and concern for the poor – threads that bind.

An excellent biography on FDR which includes the importance of Louis to FDR’s political rise is FDR:  An American Experience Part 1 (1994) available thru Netflix.   Or, you can view it online at this link.

This documentary also has some terrific footage of LMcH, some where he actually looks handsome.

The more I read about Louis the more I myself am conflicted about his sincerity with regards to his profestations of love in those letters to Grace.  When you love someone you want to be with them – share your lives together.  Louis chose to live with Franklin and Eleanor.  Louis was totally devoted to FDR.  Did that devotion supercede his love for Grace?  Was he truly a man conflicted?  Was it a deeply torturing guilt that guided his hand to paper and write with false conviction?

I have found it written by Hartley Howe that he never felt close to his father, that he never felt he really knew him.


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New Book: FDR’s Shadow-Louis Howe the Force that Shaped Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt

I’ll be doing a review shortly on Julie’s new book that came out last month:  FDR’s Shadow the Force that Shaped Franklin & Eleanor Rooswevelt . I wanted to wait until I got a chance to review those letters – and more – at the FDR Library which I did just recently.


Julie M. Fenster’s, award winning author and historian,  new book


Julie has reciprocated in helping me with my own research at the FDR Library in Hyde Park, NY.   We now have much to discuss of our own insights from that very private and revealing correspondence.


Julie was, of course, focused on the Holy Triangle of Louis, Franklin and Eleanor – the Grace Hartley Howe connection a stunning by-product towards understanding the “inner man” of Louis.  I, of course, was interested in the Grace-Louis correspondence specific to the Lizzie connection.  Why, after all, was Grace a major legatee?  I got my answers.

When Grace died her daughter Mary and son Hartley inherited her personal papers, which included the letters written to her from Louis and these were subsequently donated to the FDR Library to be deposited with Louis’ other papers.

Side note:  Mary Howe Baker sat with Eleanor Roosevelt and other notables in this TIME Mag article May 20, 1933.   Grace was in Fall River at the time.


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