If Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt had an idle moment when they met in 1941 to hammer out the Atlantic Charter, they might have talked about Roosevelt’s stamp-collecting or Churchill’s painting. It is perhaps less likely they chatted about one big thing they actually had in common: Strong, intelligent American mothers, widowed young, who provided them with plenty of runway for political takeoff.
Not that Jennie Jerome Churchill or Sara Delano Roosevelt would have liked each other much. Although both were daughters of rich upper-class New Yorkers, their personalities were starkly different. Jennie had a reckless streak (like her father and Winston) and was prone to problematic romances, while Sara waited to marry until she found a wealthy, serious older man in her own social circle. Nevertheless, as well-known Canadian author Charlotte Gray shows in her dual biography Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons, 19th-century culture shaped both into women who believed influence was only attainable through men.
Jennie’s life was sufficiently flamboyant that she has attracted a number of biographers; Sara was more conventional, and she tends to be dismissed by historians as possessive and overbearing. She was indeed formidable, but her real story is more complex. Through detailed historical research and scenic retellings, Gray makes a persuasive case that Franklin and Winston depended on their mothers’ devotion, influence and money.
FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt had to battle out of what they saw as Sara’s smothering embrace, but Sara effectively raised their five children while the couple built public careers. After Sara’s death, Eleanor consistently denigrated her mother-in-law, but the children spoke of Sara with affection and gratitude. In contrast, Jennie was no grandmotherly nurturer. Aside from the important political help she provided her first husband and eldest son, her accomplishments included chartering wartime hospital ships and learning piano from a friend of Chopin.
Had they been born a century later, one can imagine Jennie as a supermodel-turned-Hollywood producer and Sara as a Fortune 500 CEO. Instead, Gray tells us, they funneled their prodigious energies into their statesmen sons, both of whom were profoundly impacted by their fascinating and formidable mothers.