Writing

Book World: Maura Roosevelt’s novel is not about her famous family – not entirely – SF Gate

Baby of the Family

By Maura Roosevelt

Dutton. 464 pp. $28

Among the gifts you might inherit as a late-generation member of an American dynasty – besides a nifty trust fund, of course – is a truckload of daddy (and granddaddy) issues. How to live up to the lore of your family’s greatness, your titanic last name, without unraveling a time or two? The three main characters of “Baby of the Family,” Maura Roosevelt’s sprawling debut novel, spend their lives burdened by the grand, impossible privilege of being Whitbys, a once-imposing clan of shipping and real estate magnates (akin to the real-life Astors). Following the death of Roger Whitby, Jr. – who spent his life squandering the family’s money and prestige – Nick, Brooke and Shelley, offspring from three of his four failed marriages, inherit his fear of leading disappointing lives. But only Nick, Roger’s adopted son, makes out with anything tangible: Roger’s will left everything to him, including the homes where Brooke and Shelley live…as if he hadn’t given his affection-starved kids enough reasons to resent him.

Roosevelt is herself part of a great American family – she’s the great-granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor. But the dysfunction at the core of “Baby of the Family” is mostly fictional. Although her grandfather, James Roosevelt (a war hero and congressman who worked in FDR’s White House), was married four times, he sired a decidedly more harmonious bunch. Unlike the novel’s characters, Roosevelt says, “My dad’s half siblings seem to all be at peace with each other and with my grandfather. So, I think it’s really just me who’s watching them to see if there’s any kind of discord. There hasn’t been so far. But there’s not a lot of writers in my family. I’m one of the only ones who’s kind of looking around.”

Roosevelt talked to The Washington Post about the complicated family she created – and the formidable one she comes from.

(BEG BOLD)In the novel, the Whitby kids lament being asked, after introducing themselves: “So … are you related?” I imagine that was somewhat of an inside joke. Have there been any notable moments when you had to answer that question?(END BOLD)

There isn’t any particular time that stands out, but there were some moments in school, growing up, where teachers would talk to me about things my family had done that were sort of – unnerving. My fourth-grade teacher – we were learning about Eleanor Roosevelt, and she said to the class, “You know, Eleanor Roosevelt was considered to be a very homely child.” And not five, ten minutes later, she said, “You know, Eleanor Roosevelt is Maura’s great grandmother, and Maura actually looks a lot like her.” I was like: You know, I’m 10? I can put that together!

(BEG BOLD)Were you devastated? Or maybe just proud to be associated with her?(END BOLD)

Oh, no. I was devastated. I probably went home and whined or cried to my parents, and they were like, “Suck it up!” My parents did a really good job of talking about our family, and they’re very nice and down-to-earth. But they’re also of the mind of: “This is not a problem for you. It is unacceptable for you to ever think it’s a problem.”

(BEG BOLD)So, everything was always copacetic among your dad and his six half- and step-siblings?(END BOLD)

Well, actually, this is an element I put in the book: My dad’s older siblings [from James Roosevelt’s first marriage] – he didn’t find out about them until he was 10 years old. Right before his parents got divorced, he found a present under the Christmas tree that said, “To Dad. Love, Kate and Sara.” He picked up the present and said, “Um, Dad? Who’s Kate and Sara?”

(BEG BOLD)How did that play out?(END BOLD)

I think they just – it was the ’50s, so the way my dad tells the story is that his parents just explained it in a very matter-of-fact kind of ’50s manner, where it seemed like they had just forgotten to tell him. They were just like, “Oh! yeah.”

(BEG BOLD)Nick Whitby, the “baby of the family,” is 21 and disgusted by a “demonic capitalist system.” At the start of the novel, he’s running from the law after a political-activism stunt goes haywire. Being from a family known for progressive politics, do you have any activist history of your own?(END BOLD)

I’ve actually been arrested twice. The first time I was 18 years old, and I meant to get arrested. It was during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and I was protesting ICE detentions. The second time, I was a senior at Harvard, and the FBI director, Robert Mueller, was speaking at the school. The FBI was trying eco-activists as terrorists – actually, that’s another small element I borrowed for the book – and we thought it was atrocious. So we decided to go to Robert Mueller’s speech and heckle him – like, stand up and scream like utter lunatics. We thought we were going to just get kicked out of the lecture hall. Instead, the Harvard police arrested us and turned us over to the Cambridge police. I called my parents – they live in Cambridge, so they were just down the street – and heard my mom yell upstairs, “Jim, Maura got arrested again!” I’m definitely in favor of political protests and activism, but I don’t think I would do that kind of thing again.

(BEG BOLD)Roger Whitby marries, as his fourth wife, his youngest child’s teacher – as did James. Were you faithful to that story or create your own version?(END BOLD)

I completely made up all the details. I haven’t heard about that particular courtship or how the marriage happened. It was probably less sensational than [the novel’s version]. But one interesting thing that happened: My grandfather was in the Marines and had a dagger from World War II hanging above his mantelpiece. When he told his third wife he wanted a divorce – we’re not sure if that next relationship [with their son’s teacher] had started yet or not – she took the dagger off the mantelpiece and stabbed him.

(BEG BOLD)I jotted that down – it’s on Wikipedia – with the intention of asking if it’s actually true.(END BOLD)

It’s true. And actually, we don’t have many family heirlooms, but my cousin Nick is in possession of that dagger.

(BEG BOLD)You say you’re not sure if James had already started his next relationship, but considering his wife was driven to stabbing him, it’s safe to say probably?(END BOLD)

Yeah. That’s what it seems like, honestly. You know, my grandfather’s brother, and I think his sister also, had multiple divorces. So he wasn’t the only one of his family or his generation. They were kind of all doing that.

(BEG BOLD)In the novel, Brooke deals with her burden of being a Whitby by actively breaking from what was expected of her: She gets a “middle-class” job as a nurse; breaks up with a wealthy boyfriend, whose baby she’s actually carrying; and falls in love with a woman. Eleanor Roosevelt famously flipped the script of what was expected of a woman in her position and era – and had a rumored affair with a woman, journalist Lorena Hickok. Was Brooke, perhaps, an homage to your great grandmother?(END BOLD)

That’s interesting. I really was not thinking of Eleanor’s supposed relationship with a woman – which, you know, some members of my family are doubtful of the truth of that. I would be happy with it either way, but that is sort of a contentious thing within my family.

(BEG BOLD)Yes, it’s never been confirmed, yet it’s been sensationalized. Two separate books ran with the topic just last year. I imagine that’s frustrating.(END BOLD)

Yeah, I think so. She had a lot of close female friends, and the way she wrote to them and talked to them was in this, like, Victorian way. They would say, “I love you, dear,” that kind of thing. So I do think some of it has been sort of overblown. But that particular relationship, you know – who knows?

(BEG BOLD)One character is writing a book about “America when there was a ruling class” – focusing on industry titans and their New York City homes. Were you at all inspired by old family homes, like FDR’s Hyde Park estate or the Roosevelt House in Manhattan, where Franklin and Eleanor spent their early married years?(END BOLD)

Actually, right as I was beginning to write this book, I went to the birthplace of Teddy Roosevelt, which is in Manhattan. My dad and I were just in the neighborhood killing time. I was really inspired by that house and some of the furnishings and the way they preserved it. And a funny thing happened, which happens to us sometimes. At the end of the tour, we said: “Oh, you know, we’re actually Roosevelts on the other side. We’re FDR’s grandson and great-granddaughter.” And the person giving the tour thought we were lying! They were like, “Uh-huh. Okay.”

Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in New York.

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