The Beautiful Problem
There is probably no more vivid evidence of the soul at work than the experience of romantic love. We recognize the story every time. We understand it perfectly. But when it happens to us, we are astonished. We are never prepared. If the current of this love is not shared and reciprocated, we are seared and scalded, helpless and bereft. When the feeling is shared and returned, we ascend, we unfurl. There is nothing else like it. When Juliet realizes that she loves Romeo and that he loves her, that the exquisite possibility has become real, she bursts forth:
…I long but for the thing I have
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite. (II, ii, 132-35)
Romantic love is both ecstatic and restless. Souls in love, like Juliet, long for the thing they have. In The Symposium, Plato’s dialog on love, Socrates suggests that this ecstatic longing is the soul’s attempt to mediate between the earthbound condition and the divine. The beauty of one’s beloved is seen as a soulful glimpse—as is the condition of being in love itself—into the source of all Beauty. Consciously, lovers feel as though their souls are somehow trying to leave their bodies, to merge physically and finally into the soul of the beloved. The intensity of this drive often propels the lovers, especially in love’s first thrall, past boundaries of propriety. Perhaps for the first time, propriety feels insubstantial. Freud and his disciples reduce this condition to an epiphenomenon, or “sublimation,” of the erotic drive, but doing so fails to recognize the psychological independence of soulful-relatedness and Eros. Eros is indeed the agent that attracts and unites the bodies of soulful lovers in orgasmic rapture, but the union of souls can and does occur before, after, and otherwise independently of erotic feeling. It is perhaps more helpful to see Eros as the bodily expression of soulful love. In service of such love, Eros produces an altogether different dimension of experience and pleasure than it does merely discharging its own gratification.
In his novel Refiner’s Fire, Mark Helprin describes two soulful lovers engaged in a night-long sexual frenzy, each feeling as though he or she were trying not merely to penetrate or receive the other, but to pass through them entirely. The notion that souls in love are seeking to achieve a prior merger or unity is of course ancient. In The Symposium Aristophanes offers the charming myth of a pre-human race of spherical, hermaphroditic androgynes who are severed apart by the gods and who spend the rest of their days desperately seeking to reunite with their other halves. Soulful love does indeed feel this way: fated, discovered, foreordained. One not only aches for union with one’s soul mate, one aches to get back to a blissful and perfect condition. Coming to rest in the arms of one’s beloved is, among other things, a profound homecoming.
Probably because of this restless dynamic of soulful love, a number of voices in the late twentieth century are pressing the case that soulful attraction is an expression of incomplete transactions in past lives. Whether formulated by pop spiritualists like Shirley Maclaine or by contemporary interpreters of the Ohio mystic Edgar Cayce or by “multiple regression” analysts like Brian Weiss, the “past lives” view sees soulful attraction as a working out of the soul’s unfinished business in former incarnations. While it would take this reflection off course to assess the validity of the reincarnational premises of past-lives theorists, it is important to note that even if one accepts that one’s soul and its longings have a long and interesting past, such knowledge sheds little or no light on the living, waking experience of being soulfully in love. In other words, to draw on examples cited in Brian Weiss’s work, knowing that my beloved and I once trysted among the pyramids of ancient Egypt or that, more recently, she was my sister, does not help me to negotiate my way forward in love. Nor does such awareness expand or deepen the love that I feel – for soulful love by its very nature feels boundlessly rich and deep, often unmanageably so.
Perhaps no modern thinker has cast a brighter light on the phenomenon of soulful love – and its distressing consequences – than the Jungian writer Robert Johnson. His study, We, is a careful explication of the medieval story of Tristan and Isolde, and Johnson sees in the unfolding of their fabled liaison no less than the release of an entirely new psychic force in the western world. Tristan and Isolde’s fatal attraction is the prototype for romantic love itself. It is a love that comes unbidden and unexpected by lovers who are honorably committed to others. Indeed, on the world’s terms, their love is all wrong, and the pair has more practical reason to be great enemies than great lovers. But when they are fated to connect, in their case through the agency of an accidentally consumed herbal potion, they cannot and do not resist each other for the rest of their foreshortened lives. Told and translated well, the twelfth century romance is still stirringly beautiful, as is Wagner’s operatic treatment of the story.
Johnson does not claim that Tristan and Isolde are the west’s first star-crossed lovers. He proposes, rather, that their story released – irrevocably – the notion of soulful love as the ideal form of loving relationship, one that demands our ultimate allegiance, however terrible the consequences. Despite its deeply embedded place in western culture, the habit of idealizing romantic love causes enormous, unsolvable problems. Soulful lovers do not seem to live happily ever after. Tristan and Isolde themselves faced great dangers, suffered terrible wounds and illness, betrayed spouses, broke sacred promises, endured agonizing periods of isolation and loneliness before dying prematurely and unfulfilled. Tristan’s very name derives from an early French word for sadness. And this is the ideal at the heart of every popular love song! Despite such monumental evidence that Romeos and Juliets do not fare well or long in the waking world, the expectation of romantic love has become a cultural norm. In the face of terrible evidence, couples considering making a life together hold fast to the standard of romantic love – to the extent that anything that feels less soulful and profound is thought to be an indication of a bad match.
Romantic love has come to be irresistible, although, as Robert Johnson reminds us, it is a terrible problem. But a problem is not the same thing as a mistake. The release of the romantic ideal in the west is not something that can be called back or contained. Romantic love can be seen more or less clearly, but it cannot be seen through. It is real, powerful, a condition souls know and to which they fatefully conform.
The achievement of the Tristan and Isolde story, again, is not the recounting of a great, ill-starred love affair; it is the suggestion that such love, once experienced, can stand up to custom, law, honor, and duty and – heartbreakingly, catastrophically – claim a higher place. “Hang up philosophy,” Romeo rages to Friar Laurence, if it cannot produce a Juliet. Later, when he believes he has lost her to death, Romeo defies “the stars” themselves. In Wuthering Heights Heathcliffe forsakes Christian or any other salvation in his relentless, lawless pursuit of Cathy. It appears that nothing in practical, waking reality can intimidate or diminish true soulful love. In the wake of Tristan and Isolde, a terrible freedom is born. A kind of permission has been forever granted to the soul to meet its beloved other.
The stories of Tristan and Isolde, Abelard and Heloise, Romeo and Juliet are so unutterably beautiful – but they are all disasters! Occasionally in the early Greek and Roman myths a mortal would aspire to love a god in the flesh, which is something like falling in love with the very source of love, only to perish in a flash of white heat. The unleashing of the romantic impulse in the west threatens lovers with the same fate.
In an especially apt analogy, Robert Johnson likens romantic love to plugging into a 10,000 volt current when one is wired only for 110 volt household use. But soulful lovers do not, cannot heed high voltage warnings. They have been liberated to love not just judiciously or moderately, but to seek the source of love itself. In Dante’s great vision of love in paradise, beloved persons are seen as celestial windows through which the ultimate can be glimpsed. For lovers in the thrall of romantic love, the beloved person is the ultimate.
Nothing is more transporting, more thrilling to the soul than experiencing the other as the ultimate. Yet, Johnson cautions us, this sublime condition, this peak experience is a mistake. It is a confusion of a powerful psychic inner reality with an outward form. The romantic lover projects his very soul – his anima – onto a mortal, flesh-and-blood person. Infinite desire and longing thus come to bear on a finite being, with disastrous results for one or both parties.
There is a point late in the story of Tristan and Isolde when Tristan has sorrowfully returned Isolde to her lawful husband, King Mark, and he himself agrees to marry a noblewoman from Brittany. For a moment there is a hint that the lovers will “get over it,” sadder but wiser – but no. The love of Isolde the Fair revisits Tristan in a sudden tidal wave of feeling. Defying propriety and safety, he makes yet another overture to reunite. This is the point, Johnson believes, where Tristan goes finally wrong.
He is called to give up his precious claim to the right to live his soul by projection. He is called to give up his demand that woman bear his unconscious life for him. If he could make that sacrifice, and make it cleanly, he would discover that what he thinks he has lost will be returned to him. His soul will be returned to him as an inner experience, and he will find that there is another Isolde, a mortal woman, who has been waiting for him all along… (We, 113-114)
Yes, there is another Isolde, Isolde of the White Hands, waiting for Tristan, and she is a woman with substance and beauty of her own, but she is not his soul mate. She is a valuable “other” but she is not his other. She makes perfect practical sense as a mate for Tristan, but no sense at all to a soul already in love. Johnson wonders at “the strange morality” that impels Tristan and Isolde to perpetuate a condition that hurts themselves while deceiving others. Johnson sees in this ever recurring Romantic Error a misplaced attempt to restore divine wonder in a culture that has lost its sense of divinity.
Romanticism seeks to restore our sense of the divine side of life, the inner life, the power of imagination, myth, dream, and vision. The tragedy that this portion of our story shows us is that we misuse the ideal of romanticism, misplace the divine love, and in the process we destroy our human relationships. We call “love” that which is not love, we reverse the meaning of “faithlessness,” and we pursue an ephemeral idealized image of anima, rather than loving a flesh-and-blood-human being. (We, 131)"There is the case, then, that romantic love is not love at all; the romantic experience is reduced to a projection of anima, which Johnson tells us, “must be experienced as inner person, as symbol.” (We, 133)Johson continues,"In the instant that a man falls “in love,” he goes beyond love itself and begins the worship of his soul-in-woman…Love is not love but a divine ecstasy; every sight of the beloved brings, not a quiet happiness, but unearthly bliss. But then… every mood becomes the occasion for a fight or a separation, every slight is the ultimate betrayal, every glance at another man or woman justifies blasts of anger and jealousy…"(We, 164)
What lovers held in the alternating ecstasies and agonies of soulful love can deny the condition Johnson describes? Yet to name the condition a human error is to stand outside of it, luckily (or is it unluckily) free of it. To stand apart, however, is to “know about” soulful love but not to know it. Someone could have sat Tristan down and talked perfect, uncontestable sense to him – indeed Friar Laurence did talk perfect sense to Romeo – but it would not have mattered in the slightest. The soul in love trumps analysis, trumps good sense, trumps the very will to live. The story of Tristan and Isolde is a shimmering instance of romantic ideal. It can be made into a cautionary tale, but it will have no force or power as a cautionary tale. The charge of “strange morality,” or even immorality, is both fair and beside the soulful point. With every successive popularization of the romantic love guest – in the fifties Sondheim/Bernstein’s West Side Story, in the sixties Eric Segal’s Love Story, in the nineties The Bridges of Madison County – critical eyes roll. How trite, how treacly, how sophomoric. But those who have had so much as an intimation of soulful love, and those who recall the condition, are transported every time.
As I write these words, a woman nearby is falling hopelessly in love. A happy, balanced wife and mother of three, she has always counted herself lucky in matters of the heart. She is an attractive, athletic woman of high color and high spirits. Friends and boyfriends always came easily her way – including the rangy young man she met in college who would marry her shortly afterwards. About her husband, children, place in the community, she feels somehow that all has been serenely scripted. The contour and texture of her adult life are eerily as she always imagined they would be. Her children engage and for the most part satisfy her, and she is demonstrably good with them. Her husband, should she stop to consider, makes her feel valued, right, and safe.
Together they have decided to investigate country properties on the outskirts of the city, and in the course of one morning’s excursion, she finds herself taken with the curly-headed estate agent. While mannerly and appropriately attentive, he is also very, loonily funny. “Oddly enough,” he tells her as he unlocks a home under review, “there is no kitchen, nor any bathrooms. The owners feel very strongly about this.” He made her laugh and when, laughing, she met his eyes, he seemed to be looking deep into her interior. Later, thinking about him, she felt the impulse to laugh but also something deeper and more unsettling. The first thing the following morning, she called to make another appointment.
This lovely and loving woman has begun to make a mess. Before long her husband will be by turns livid and bereft. Her parents, friends and in-laws will be incredulous. All of this will hurt her, and she will feel embarrassed, guilty, bottomlessly apologetic. She is propelled through chaotic days and nearly sleepless nights by a new kind of lift. She feels carried along by the force of her love. Occasionally she reflects with wonder on a phrase she had sometimes used to describe her condition: “safely married.”
This woman’s drama is real, and the consequences of her actions will be substantial and enduring for everyone involved. While it would do little to ease her passage if she knew it, her drama is also eternal, its structure embedded in the mythology of philandering gods and goddesses of creation. Only later would we discover gods, righteous father gods, bearing astringent commandments and laws. But somehow the sterner, Jehovan figures never quite succeed in supplanting the Olympians or in suppressing their unpredictable inclinations to fall inconveniently in love. Of course today’s gods and goddesses dwell in the empyrean of the tabloids: the realm where the married Prince has had a dalliance with another, while the dizzyingly beautiful princess is said to have bedded a stable hand. A beloved young president, a story-book family man, the arrangement of whose family is called “Camelot,” seems to have trysted with the Aphrodite of the film world – to have trysted, it now appears, with uncountable Aphrodites. On the undeniable evidence of the tabloids – and a strong case has been made that the whole of western journalism has become tabloid – we cannot get enough of the story of consuming, impossible love. Royalty, military commanders, presidents risk everything in its pursuit. A recent President seems to have been especially heedless in this regard, willing to chase the swirl of Aphrodite’s skirt into a White House lavatory.
We readers, viewers, critics, witnesses are simultaneously appalled and thrilled: there it is again! Prior either to our opprobrium or titillation, we know this story. Moreover, our souls know it is not always a scandal. The power and beauty of soulful love will endure long after the hiss and whisper of scandal has fallen silent. The tragedy of soulful love – of Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet – is that the heroic, if mortal, efforts of the lovers fall short. The tragedy is not that the lovers break moral rules or violate conventional standards. Truth be told, there is a persistent tendency in the western mind to scandalize and punish lovers far in excess of any offense or injury caused. Castigating lovers and debunking love itself are an integral part of the enterprise that would deny the reality of the soul and soulfulness altogether. But because the soul is true, and one of its irrepressible expressions is soulful love, the cultural forces in opposition set out to punish what they have failed to eliminate. Out come the stocks, the scarlet letters, the special prosecutors.
One does not have to be an ardent or a wounded feminist to realize that in standard western tellings, lovers who defy convention to seek their beloved – especially the women – are made to pay a terrible, unendurable price. They are scorned, cloistered, killed. Emma Bovary drinks poison. Anna Karenina jumps under a train. In our era, fatal attractions, as in the film by that name, are most likely fatal for the woman. There seems to be an abiding cultural terror of women loving forcefully and fully. That kind of power, if it cannot be suppressed or contained, elicits a deadly desire to punish and negate. Nowhere is this tendency more stridently evident than when women fall soulfully in love with other women. There is the strongest inclination to whisk such players off the stage or, like Thelma and Louise, to accelerate their automobile over the side of a cliff.
So soulful love does indeed have a hard time, but perhaps not impossibly so. Love does sometimes find a way. In fact, love may take more hope and comfort from the historical record than it can from the literary record. At least occasionally, it seems, real life partners love and win.
With the new millennium there has been an insistent and unashamed appeal to risk romantic love—no matter what the costs. To be held fast in love is to have crossed safe boundaries, to have trespassed. Just as Romeo and Juliet’s vaulting union arises out of the vulgar sexual badinage of Capulet and Montague kinsmen and retainers, the late twentieth century abandonment of propriety, standards, and restraint in sexual matters seems to want to open us up to something great and possibly unthinkable. Popular television now details the ways of “Sex in the City,” offers us sustained and unembarrassed helpings of “Real Sex.” This contemporary libertinism is novel in that is neither marginal nor counter-cultural; it is mainstream, and wants to engage everybody.
It is hard to know into what category to place the writings of Nancy Friday, but in her collections of women’s erotic fantasies and confessions, there is a strong suggestion that one doesn’t perish or go blind if one indulges forbidden ideas and urges. Pornography itself, James Hillman suggests in his essay “Pink Madness,” is a cunning aphroditic gesture to awaken dull and dormant souls. In her study, The Erotic Silence of the American Wife, Dalma Heyn offers a number of accounts of women who have loved outside the conventions of marriage and propriety – had affairs – and emerged feeling rather the better for it. Few readers with even a dull eye open to the amorous relationships of the adults they know need to be told that when already committed partners are beset by a new and powerful love, serious trouble lies ahead. But in addition to the trouble, and perhaps beyond it, may lie soulful love.
Not many affairs of the heart, including (and perhaps especially) the most inflamed, endure for life. Tristan and Isolde perish for the love of the other just before the three-year efficacy of their herbal potion was to run out. A few months to a few years seems to be a common duration for affairs. Not many souls seem to be able to bear the intensity of romantic love for long. The volatility of such love may subside into a more or less sustainable mutuality as the lovers mature. Such pairs may be said to live adaptively ever after. Those who do are likely to suppress their earlier, more soulful bond with a kind of amnesia, or, if they recall it at all, they regard it as an outgrown sentiment, a youthful infatuation. This view of soulful love has become conventional wisdom in the western world and seems to distance reasonable adults from the condition. But there appears to be no dismissing or condescending to the real thing. In middle life, especially among men, the romantic impulse is likely to reawaken the soul with a force and richness which, if anything, exceeds the intensity of first love. So-called mid-life crisis may be the price exacted for neglecting one’s soul: for forgetting that the soul, unlike the body or its persona, does not age, adapt, or grow weary.
Soulful Love Comes to the Roosevelts
Soulful love is rarely practically convenient, but the historical record suggests that, with grace and imagination, it can be integrated into even the most unlikely social configurations. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s remarkable study of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s era, No Ordinary Time, reveals, among many other things, the tragicomic interplay between soulful love and social convention. Looked at one way, the Roosevelts’ extramarital trysts carry the capricious charm of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; looked at another way, they are the stuff of tabloid scandal.
There were probably no more confining behavioral boundaries and social expectations in the United States than those of the New York patrician society into which Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt came of age at the turn of the century. Sara, the family matriarch, made sure her son Franklin was suitably matched to woman of his class, in this case to his cousin Eleanor, who shared the family name. Whatever mutual respect and comfort the young couple felt in one another’s company, theirs was not a love match. Under his mother’s attentive scrutiny, young Franklin rose to a distinguished post as Under Secretary of the Navy, and Eleanor began the arduous business of bearing and raising his six children. She would later confide to her daughter that the sexual dimension of her marriage was an “ordeal” she grimly endured. In September of 1918, when she was thirty-four and had given birth to her last child, she received a sudden and unsettling reprieve from her ordeal. Unpacking Franklin’s bags from a trip he had taken to Europe to review allied military arrangements, she came upon a packet of love letters to her husband from Lucy Page Mercer, her personal secretary and a much beloved fixture in the Roosevelt household. Lucy Mercer was a statuesque beauty, descended from a prominent Washington family. Just twenty-two when she came into Eleanor and Franklin’s lives, she brought with her a special intensity. Elliott Roosevelt, then only a small boy, recalled, “She was gay, smiling, and relaxed. She had the same brand of charm as father, and everybody who met her spoke of that – and there was a hint of fire in her warm dark eyes.” None of Franklin’s magnetism was lost on Lucy. Tall, fit, and exuberant in his mid-thirties, he attracted her powerfully. Years later Lucy would confess to a friend that she was drawn to him immediately. The excitement and sweetness of their mutual attraction seemed to permeate the household. Anna Roosevelt, still a toddler when the affair was discovered, recalled “feeling happy” on the days Lucy Mercer reported to work.
When the affair was discovered in 1918, Eleanor confronted her husband directly and offered to divorce him. This FDR declined to do, aware that a divorce would certainly curtail his future political aspirations as well as, given his mother’s firm disapproval, cutting off his family inheritance. Moreover, Lucy Mercer was a faithful Catholic, and his remarriage would not be allowed within the Church. For both Roosevelts, and for Lucy, it was a time of soulful reckoning. Later, Eleanor would confess, “The bottom dropped out of my particular world and I faced myself, my surroundings, my world, honestly for the first time.”
Eleanor was forever changed and deepened by her husband’s amorous departure, and so, apparently was he. Much has been written about how Franklin’s coming to terms with a crippling encounter with polio three years later brought forth an inner strength and integrity that would transform him into a fully realized man and a great leader. His closest friends saw the transformation begin earlier, in his reckoning with his affair with Lucy. Franklin’s friend Corinne Rolinson Alsop remembers, “Up to the time that Lucy Mercer came into Franklin’s life, he seemed to look at human relationships coolly, calmly, and without depth. He viewed his family dispassionately and enjoyed them, but it had in my opinion a loveless quality as if he were incapable of emotion…it is difficult to describe…to me it (the affair) seemed to release something in him.” Her husband Joe Alsop had a concurring impression: “He (Franklin) emerged tougher and more resilient, wiser and more profound even before his struggle with polio.”
But, one must ask, what of the love? What of the soulful relatedness? Franklin was sobered, contrite, hurt, deepened – and, the evidence suggests, forever and unalterably bound to Lucy Mercer in love. Eleanor was shaken to her existential roots. Consequently she chose to face the reality of her new marital circumstances honestly. Formally and politically she would continue to be FDR’s wife and, before long, First Lady of the land. Intimately, she would never have marital relations with her husband again. Lucy departed the scene promptly and discreetly, two years later marrying a rather older New York patrician, Winthrop Rutherford. For twenty-five years she would not be a physical presence in Franklin’s life, but she would return to him. She was improbably with him when he was stricken by a cerebral embolism and died. Very possibly her face was the last image he beheld on earth.
Three years after Lucy Mercer left the Roosevelts, Franklin contracted polio while on holiday at Campobello. The attack left him crippled to the extent that he was never able to walk unassisted again. The remarkable recovery of his spirits and the rest of his body has been commonly attributed to a congenital optimism and courage. There would probably have been no such regeneration, however, were it not for the soulful presence of another extraordinary woman at his side.
Marguerite “Missy” LeHand was hired on to do secretarial work for FDR in the course of his unsuccessful bid for the vice-presidency in 1920. Bright-eyed, pretty, and acutely intelligent, she made such an impression on both Roosevelts that after the election Eleanor invited Missy to come back with the family to the ancestral estate at Hyde Park where she would help Franklin with his correspondence. At these secretarial and other tasks, Missy soon became indispensable and, like Lucy Mercer, a warm and enlivening presence in the household. At Hyde Park and later at the governor’s residence in Albany and at the White House, Roosevelt’s professional colleagues, family members, and staff all sensed an uncanny personal acuity in Missy. When she spoke, she seemed to speak for FDR, and her credibility and judgment were not questioned. Without apparent effort or intention, Missy was assumed into Franklin’s most intimate confidence.
There seems to have been little that was subtle or clandestine in Missy LeHand’s relationship to FDR in middle life. “There is no doubt,” Goodwin quotes White House aide Raymond Moley as saying, “that Missy was as close to being a wife as he ever had – or could have.” Eliot Janeway confided to Goodwin in an interview, “Missy was the real wife.” Missy was a soul mate.
Being Franklin Roosevelt’s “real,” or soulful, wife would require its special compensations, and these would finally never come to Missy. Back in the twenties she had spent languorous, out-of-time months at FDR’s side as he tried to rejuvenate his legs in the spa waters of Warm Springs, Georgia, and aboard his commodious houseboat, Larooco, in Florida. Missy’s days were spent with Franklin on the beach or fishing over the rails of the anchored Larooco. In the evenings she was gracious hostess to intimate dinner parties. A photograph of the period shows Missy, Franklin, and a visiting couple seated comfortably on the sands of a vast Florida beach. Men and women alike wear the black bathing tunics of the era, and all four look familiarly at ease, glowing with health. Missy reclines to Franklin’s right, her image melding comfortably into his bronzed shoulder.
Franklin’s polio had not crippled him sexually. After his parents’ death, Elliott Roosevelt revealed that Missy and her father had most certainly been lovers. She was noticed entering and leaving Franklin’s room in her nightclothes. “I remember,” Elliott wrote “being only mildly stirred to see him with Missy on his lap as he sat on a wicker chair in the main stateroom (of the Larooco) holding her in his sun-browned arms…He made no attempt to conceal his feelings about Missy.”
In 1927 Franklin determined that is was past time to return to public life, and Missy had a severe nervous breakdown. She underwent bouts of delirium, and for eleven days she was unreachable. It would be months before she could return to her duties and to Franklin, who was now on the brink of accepting the gubernatorial nomination for New York. “Don’t you dare,” she is said to have told him. But of course he would dare, and Missy held on, serving in Albany and later in Washington as personal advisor, secretary, hostess, general factotum – and “real wife.” The compensation, she must have believed, would come later. Certainly it would come after two excruciating terms as President during the Great Depression and the ominous onset of world war.
As the President entered his historic third term, Missy LeHand faced the unendurable fact that her beloved would not descend from the public sphere into the private sphere of her longing. She had worked beyond her capacity on his behalf, but there was no end to this work. On June 4, 1941, after accompanying FDR to a musical party, she collapsed. Exhausted, she apparently suffered a kind of stroke, exacerbated by opiate medicines, which disoriented her. As in her previous breakdowns, she wept and wept, calling for the president: “FD, FD!”
She would never really recover. Sent back to her sister in Somerville, Massachusetts, to get well, she would live only a few years as an invalid in body and spirit. On the New Year’s eve of 1941, hopelessly exiled, Missy let the door of her soul open wide. Her sister wrote to the President:
"She started crying about 11:30, and we couldn’t stop her. And then she had a heart spell and kept calling 'F.D., come, please come. Oh F.D.' It really was the saddest thing I ever hope to see, we were all crying…"
In the summer of 1944 Missy LeHand went to the movies with her sister in Harvard Square. A newsreel featured shots of the President, and Missy was stricken to see his care-worn and ravaged condition. When she returned to her room, she rifled through an old photo album for pictures of Franklin vigorous and sunburned, of them together in the sun. Then her left arm, paralyzed for three years, began to move. Soon after she convulsed and died. She was forty-six.
Eleanor Roosevelt was not troubled by her husband’s relationship to Missy as she had been by the attachment to Lucy Mercer. She too was awakening to soulful love. In her new, purposeful immersion in political life, she had met and befriended a new kind of woman. These new friends included journalists, teachers, high ranking political operatives. They made their way in the world with a dashing independence, without husbands. Some of them lived together in, to use a term from the period, “Boston marriages.” Some of them sported mannish hair-cuts, male attire. Mother-in-law Sara was appalled that such company actually came to call at Hyde Park. Franklin and his cronies were not, according to Doris Goodwin, above joking about Eleanor’s “she-men” and “squaws.” Clearly unthreatened and far from disapproving, Franklin built a twenty-two-room “cottage,” Val-Kill, on the Hyde Park grounds intended exclusively for Eleanor and her female friends.
In 1932 as the Roosevelts were about to make the dramatic transition to the White House, one of those friends became, for the first time in Eleanor’s life, a beloved best friend. Lorena Hickock, then thirty-nine, was a remarkable woman. Arising from modest circumstances and an abusive household in Wisconsin, she looked after her own education and emerged, first in the Midwest and then nationally as a newspaper commentator of the first rank. An extroverted two hundred-pounder, she was comfortable in men’s attire, enjoyed bouts of poker and an occasional cigar. When Hickock was first assigned to “cover” the first-lady-to-be on a daily basis, Franklin cautioned Eleanor, “Watch out for that Hickock woman – she’s smart.”
More than smart, Lorena, called familiarly “Hick,” recognized Eleanor’s latent gifts as a promoter of liberal causes and as a writer. At first humbled by women who could make a mark in the world outside the domestic realm, Eleanor would, with Hick’s robust support, become such a figure herself. The first lady and the reporter assigned to reveal her to the nation fell soulfully in love.
As Doris Goodwin points out, no one before had pursued Eleanor in love, no one had put her first. By the time Franklin was inaugurated in March of 1933, Eleanor was wearing Hick’s sapphire ring. “I want to put my arms around you…to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it and think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it.” While apart, they corresponded daily. On the telephone in earshot of her family Eleanor could not tell Hick the depth of her feeling: “ Jimmy was near,” Eleanor wrote, “and I couldn’t say je t’aime and je t’adore.” When she could not kiss Hick, she confessed, she would kiss her picture.
Within a year Hick was consumed with her love for Eleanor to the exclusion of other worldly concerns. Too close now to her subject to risk betraying her “objectively,” Hick resigned her post as an AP reporter and took a government job with the WPA. Work of any kind came to feel like an intrusion on her time with her beloved. “Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time,” she wrote to Eleanor, missing her. “Most clearly I remember your eyes with a kind of teasing smile in them and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips.”
Elated to be loved and in love, Eleanor rose to distinction and popular celebrity in the course of her first two terms as first lady. She commanded a then unprecedented $1,000 for speaking, and her column, “My Day,” was widely syndicated nationally. Confident now and gently charismatic, her straightforward and persistent concern for outsiders and underdogs, while consistent with New Deal politics generally, sometimes impelled her to press an issue on which her husband was reluctant to move.
But as Eleanor grew in private confidence and public stature, Hick, as is so often the case with those soulfully in love with someone the public adores, felt inevitably diminished. No longer a by-line in the national news, Hick was periodically identified in photos as a bodyguard or secretary to her beloved. Eleanor still treasured her special friend, but increasingly she seemed to love her public duty more. Predictably, Hick over-compensated, petulantly demanding more solitary time with Eleanor, time which Eleanor found impossible to commit. In 1941 some pressing financial concerns, combined with a desperate desire to see Eleanor at least glancingly, moved Hick to seek lodging at the White House. A small room near the President’s second-floor suite was made available, and for four years, Hick dwelled at least in Eleanor’s orbit, although her eccentric presence there became the object of increasing amusement. White House ushers called her “the enduring guest.”
In time Hick’s under-answered longing would flag. Her marginal place in the great household and the loss of her professional status only added to her conviction that she had lost her love. Once on a tour of Yosemite, she pitched a full-blown tantrum when she believed Eleanor was too preoccupied by reporters to attend to her. While she and Eleanor would remain forever close, Hick met another woman, a judge in the U.S. Tax Court, and shifted her ardor accordingly. For her part, Eleanor would no longer have to offer the prayer: “God give me depth enough not to hurt Hick again.”
Where does soulful love go? Souls touched by love – even the sting of love lost – seem to be so marked for as long as they live. Eleanor Roosevelt was thirty-four in 1918 when she read Lucy Mercer’s love letters to her husband. When she died forty-four years later in 1962, a faded clipping of a poem, “Psyche,” by Virginia Moore, was found on her night table.
The soul that has believed
And is deceived
Thinks nothing for a while
All thoughts sad and vile…
The soul that had believed
And was deceived
Ends by believing more
Than ever before.
Over the top of this verse Eleanor had inscribed : “1918.”
Franklin Roosevelt lost consciousness in the parlor of his Warm Springs retreat on April 12, 1945. In the mortal grip of events shaping the world at war, Franklin’s last year was lightened and sweetened by the reappearance of the widow Lucy Mercer Rutherford in his life. With his daughter Anna’s collusion Franklin and Lucy had been, unknown to Eleanor, seeing one another for months, always discreetly, always when the first lady was away. Anna, aware that her behavior approached treachery with respect to her mother, also sensed the deep communion his father felt in the presence of Lucy. Not without self-recriminations, Anna chose to serve love over propriety.
Lucy had come to Warm Springs with a portrait artist who was painting the President when he collapsed. Lucy was sitting across from Franklin when he fell. She evacuated her lodgings quickly, aware that family would soon descend. What good-byes she said or felt were abrupt and incomplete. Thoughtfully, Anna telephoned Lucy acknowledging the sadness Anna knew she must feel. Grateful to be able to express her loss to someone who might begin to understand it, Lucy Mercer wrote to console Anna on her loss – and in doing so seems to have revealed her own:
"It must be an endless comfort to you that you were able to be with him so much this past year. Every second of the day you must be conscious of the void and emptiness where there has always been – all through your life – the strength of his beloved presence so fitted with loving understanding…I have been reading over some very old letters of his – and in one he says: 'Anna is a dear fine person – I wish so much that you knew her' – Well, now we do know one another – and it is a great joy to me and I think he was happy this past year that it was so.
Forgive me for writing of things you know so much better than I – and which are sacred – and should not ever be touched by a stranger. I somehow cannot feel myself to be that, and I feel strongly that you understand.
My love to your husband – and to you – Anna darling, because you are his child and because you are yourself."
Like Eleanor’s verse about the soul deceived, Lucy’s letter to Anna remained on her bedside table for the rest of her life.
In the media climate of the late twentieth century, the amorous communions of the Roosevelts would have dominated the tabloids. Lucy Mercer would be revealed shielding her face from paparazzi as she alighted from a taxi. Hick would be belligerent with her former press colleagues when they asked exactly what kind of friendship she and the first lady shared. Some White House usher, lured by cash or the glimmer of celebrity, would tell all about late night goings and comings between the sleeping quarters on the second floor. Such exposure would certainly have aggravated the principals, but it would not have diminished or otherwise altered soulful love. The contemporary mania to expose private lovers is only partly driven by the desire to debunk public figures. More urgently, if less consciously, the media seem to want to expose the mystery of romantic love itself: its simultaneous personal necessity and public impossibility, its inevitability and disastrous consequences, the paradox of its rightness and wrongness.
Love comes to the New Yorker
Happy, by contrast, are the lovers – they exist! – who are able to live out the mystery safely distanced from the probes and glare of publicity. William Shawn, the decorous and very private editor of the New Yorker and Lillian Ross, a gifted staff writer for the magazine, were soulful lovers for over forty years. Their passionate and unconventional liaison – he was married, she was not – was deeply, soulfully gratifying and renewing to each until Shawn’s death in 1992 at eighty-five. Still wondrous at what they shared, Lillian Ross, since returned to the New Yorker, has written a memoir of her life with Shawn: Here But Not Here.
The genius of Shawn’s editorial work at the New Yorker has been widely remarked. Brendan Gill and the gnomic J. D. Salinger, among many other literary luminaries, have described and praised Shawn’s editorial gifts, but the practical, working man remains strangely elusive, mysterious. Outwardly reserved, but apparently unshockable, he welcomed a phenomenal range of originality and talent and seemed to bring out the truest and most distinctive in each writer. He wrote almost nothing himself: a few love poems for Lillian, scraps of song lyrics. His gift may have been to call out of artists the best that was in them, to let them know, usually haltingly and modestly, that he saw and felt what they did.
Shawn was a peculiar sort of heroic lover. He stood five feet six inches tall and was largely bald for most of his adult life. Photographs reveal an impassive, often bewildered face, lips rather full, eyes decidedly sad. He tended to both claustrophobia and agoraphobia, yet dwelled most of his life in Manhattan. He especially dreaded severe weather: thunderstorms and blizzards.
Lillian Ross was more robust. The New Yorker was a men’s preserve until the Second World War created staff openings which Lillian and a few other brave young women managed to fill. Since her school days she had been a resilient soul, a go-getter. A compact woman with lively features under a bob of dark curly hair, she was a hearty, life-long tennis player, comfortable living and working on her own for long spells of time. Among her family and other intimates, she was considered “cute.” Shawn saw her as “beautiful.” In college and as a young woman making her way in New York, she attracted the interest of young men, but she was always cautious about how a committed partnership might confine her.
She loved the New Yorker from the outset and felt at home writing her short, eccentric items. Shawn was part of the texture of the place. He was from the beginning an agreeable, welcoming presence for Lillian, but his full impact would only emerge gradually, rather in the manner of a photographic image becoming slowly recognizable under a bath of chemicals.
Shawn took an immediate interest in Ross’s work – but an interest clearly commensurate with its merit and promise. Later it would be Shawn who encouraged her to write sustained longer studies, such as her celebrated account of the making of a motion picture or her famous profile of Ernest Hemingway. Such projects would take Ross away from Shawn for months at a time, separating them even as Shawn was falling in love with her. With no record as a philanderer, this least impetuous of married men with three small children was supremely awkward in expressing himself to his beloved. When her long awaited piece on Hemingway was published in the magazine, Shawn took her to lunch at the Algonquin, an unprecedented treat for her, and in the course of congratulating her addressed her as “darling.” Ross was startled.
That afternoon Ross noted a gesture of Shawn’s – “choking back a sob” – that she would come to know well in the years ahead. In the weeks that followed, poems from Shawn began to appear on her desk. One evening, working together, he awkwardly blurted out that he loved her. To which, Ross wrote, “I tried to pretend I hadn’t heard what I had heard and got away as soon as possible.”
Ross’s efforts to resist Shawn’s love were substantial. Neither marriage nor an affair with a married man were part of her plans. She wished, in her words, to “go on being a selfish, quiet, dedicated, and free writer.” Slow to awaken, she knew also that she “was beginning to feel connected to him.”
In 1950, with Shawn’s assistance, Lillian took an assignment to go to Hollywood to profile the director John Huston who was then filming The Red Badge of Courage. The profile grew into a book, published the following year as Picture. The day before her departure for California, Shawn invited her to his summer residence in Bronxville to share a meal with his family. In the course of saying good-bye to her, he made his first physical gesture of love:
"He asked me to write regularly – I promised, feeling self-consciously as though I were being treated like a college-bound kid. He took my hand. His hand was clammy. He was trembling – Cecille, standing back at the house, was calling him. I was nervous and uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be there at all, yet I didn’t want to act uncaring about him. I found myself feeling sorry for him, but I admired him and loved what he was, and I was incapable of doing or saying anything falsely patronizing about him. I was bewildered. He suddenly kissed me on the mouth and made a hopeless gesture with his arm. I was in a kind of daze. Then I escaped."
Physically removed to opposite coasts for months on end, each of them preoccupied and busy, Ross and Shawn managed to grow more intimate. Hearing the sound of her ardent friend’s voice over the telephone made Lillian feel “comfortable and safe.”
"We had perfect communication. We didn’t confine ourselves to the subject of movie-making; we talked about everything. Without realizing what was happening to me, I began to cherish our talk. This man continued to understand every word I said."
When she returned to New York, her movie book a gratifying success, Lillian knew some kind of reckoning with William Shawn lay ahead. His poems began to reappear on her desk at the New Yorker. Then, quite definitively, it happened.
One day I was in my office, reading my New York Daily News, when Bill appeared. We looked at each other. It was late morning. Neither of us spoke. We went outside, got into a taxi, and, still without a word, went directly to the Plaza Hotel, got a pretty room, went to bed and stayed there for the rest of the day and evening. Everything between us was so natural, so easy, there wasn’t anything to say about it. It seemed that we had been together for years.
Now, irrevocably, they were lovers. They remained lovers for life – although not always easily or conveniently, especially at first. Almost at once Lillian felt everything a thoughtful woman feels when she finds herself actively in love with a man married and committed to someone else. They talked openly and at length about the impact of the affair on Shawn’s children. Both felt the sour weight of being dishonest. Shawn explained that he could not possibly divorce his wife and leave his family, even though what he called his “real self” was not at his home. His real self was with Lillian, and he could not imagine his life without her. Ross recalls wrenching moments from this period, especially when they would bid each other goodnight on the cold streets of Manhattan and proceed alone to their respective apartments. “Was I a dope?” Ross asks herself. “Was there a vacancy in me? Why was I not beset with guilt – or with resentment – about the woman who remained Bill’s wife?”
Something about the character and depth of Shawn’s and Ross’s love carried it beyond such common and understandable resentments. “Neither of us,” Lillian writes, “acted in these well-worn ways because we weren’t adversaries; we were lovers. We were unable to solve our problems, although we persisted in asking each other most of the unanswerable questions. I wouldn’t be spared rage or disappointment from time to time, but never, not for a moment, did I feel humiliation or pain.”
Shawn, the married one, most certainly felt humiliation and pain. Finally unable to bear the weight of so much deception, he confided his feelings for Lillian to his wife and proceeded to make arrangements to accommodate the affair into the established structure of his life. These included the installation of a separate telephone with a private line next to the bed in his room at home. From this phone he would greet Lillian on waking and would wish her a loving goodnight upon retiring. Later, he and Lillian would acquire an apartment of their own. They furnished and decorated it together, although Shawn could not always sleep there, and in time Lillian found, and the two of them raised, an adopted son from Norway.
In this greatly fulfilling, highly unconventional arrangement, Shawn and Ross managed to breakfast together frequently, take long, brisk walks in the afternoon, share intimate dinners in favored restaurants, attend the theatre, sit in jazz clubs, skate the city’s ponds and rinks, motor to country retreats on weekends. “I wasn’t aware of making any kind of fateful ‘decision,’” Ross writes. “He was in my life, as I was in his, and both of us moved ahead together. ‘For the time being’ turned out to be forty years.”
Over the course of that forty years Ross and Shawn were apparently able to sustain the pitch of devotion and intensity with which they began their soulful journey. Ross writes:
"After forty years, our love-making had the same passion, the same energies (alarming to me, at first, in our early weeks together), the same tenderness, the same inventiveness, the same humor, the same textures as it had in the beginning. It never deteriorated, our later wrinkles, blotches, and scars of age notwithstanding. We never changed."
If there is a formula for such sustained loving, Ross believes that it is “never knowingly doing anything hurtful one to the other.” “We must hold each other close,” Shawn told her, “as if there were no circumstances but only the single circumstance that we love each other and belong together.”
William Shawn was an extraordinary character. Unlike Lillian, who was a little slow reading the outward signs of his ardor and who, quite understandably, was at first bewildered once she did, Shawn never wavered in his soulful trajectory in her direction. His gift for recognizing and nurturing writers seems to have been matched with a gift for soulful love. Moreover – and consonant with the reports of many other romantic lovers – Shawn did not quite seem to feel himself, or much of a “self” at all, outside the thrall of his soulful connection to Lillian. She herself sensed this, although it is a difficult quality to transcribe. Often beset by deep melancholy, and a feeling he was somehow confined in a personal “cell,” Shawn would also experience ecstatic intimations, as when, perhaps, he would periodically “choke back a sob.” His writers sometimes felt he gave them their voice, that they were writing for him. Lillian felt that by loving her, he “gave her” what became her life. Touchingly, she refers to his “daily, improbably being.” He was grateful to her for helping him to maintain “belief in his own reality.”
“'Do you know who I am?'” he would ask me when we had made love. He would know the answer and he would say to me again, 'Please do not let me forget my own life.'”
Ross did not let him forget his life. Nor has she forgotten it. The year after Shawn’s death, she returned to work at the New Yorker. In 1995 she wrote a short incidental piece about private school fifteen-year-olds on the upper East Side. The piece, titled “The Shit-Kickers of Madison Avenue,” pleased her because the children interviewed were so forthcoming, so funny, such good company. “It was three years after Bill died,” Ross writes “and I could feel his delight in them. I could feel it.”
That real life lovers sometimes find deep, sustained fulfillment in one another – without forsaking the ecstatic pitch of their initial communion – contradicts the notion, proposed by Robert Johnson and other thoughtful Jungians, that romantic love is inherently unrealizable. Again, Johnson sees the problem lying in the lover’s projecting the very stuff of his or her immortal soul onto a mortal being. Mortals are assumed to be unable to bear such intensity and weight. In her 1993 study, Impossible Love: Or Why the Heart Must Go Wrong, Jan Bauer makes the strongest possible case for the inevitable failure of romantic love in real time in a real world.
The lovers go from the tropical heat of desire and fusion into the arctic cold of misunderstanding and separation. Work, familiar routine, and lukewarm, safe houses of friends no longer offer any comfort as the lovers ricochet back and forth between the equator and the antipodes. Not only the temperature goes through violent changes, but also our very sense of space. One moment all is huge; our hearts, our love, our souls, our minds expand to contain the entire universe…
Then, in other moments, it all retracts. We cannot share our life with that of our lover and feel a prisoner of tiny moments and tiny rooms…There is never enough time, never enough space – out there. And so the time and space grow greater within, and the passion takes up more and more room as it turns into obsession.
The point, Bauer feels, of romantic – what she calls “impossible” – love is never its own realization. The point, rather, is a necessary psychic transformation in one or both of the lovers. Just as Robert Johnson suggests that souls starved by a secular culture for intimations of divinity call on the power of romantic love as substitute, Bauer proposes that we fall into the grip of impossible love in order to change ourselves, to liberate some psychic potential which the lover is now ready to bring fully to consciousness. “Every love is a revolution,” Bauer writes, “in that genuine love always brings about deep change.” Romantic lovers are at once mesmerized by and worried sick over the startling inappropriateness of their situation: My student! My doctor! Wrong age! Wrong sex! Wrong race! Ineligible! Too good to be true! The abject unacceptability of one’s soul mate in the waking world hurts and chastens lovers miserably, but these very miseries and dislocations may ultimately awaken one to what is really coming to birth and what must necessarily die in one’s emerging self.
Seen this way, romantic love is a means or symptom of some larger, deeper psychological process. For actual lovers, however, it is always an achingly sweet yearning for the beloved. Moreover, as Lillian Ross’s memoir attests, that yearning is sometimes resolved in a beautiful communion. That communion is both in-the-world and out-of-this-world: in Ross’s words, “here but not here.”
It would appear that achievable soulful love is more likely to occur to lovers who are relatively lightly tethered to the “real” world in the first place. William Shawn, for instance, seems not to have been kidding when he asked Ross to help him remember he existed.
Tracy and Hepburn
The legendary film star Spencer Tracy seems also to have had trouble coming to terms with his existence. Outwardly, he was phenomenally successful. His long career first as a Broadway actor and then a movie star took no downward turns. His nine Oscar nominations for Best Actor are still the industry record, and critics were and are uniformly admiring. Fellow actor James Cagney noted Tracy’s uncommon ability to shed his own identity in a film role and enter completely into a character – a gift which made him, nearly alone among his famous contemporaries, impossible to mimic. This very gift made the characters he played seem utterly real on screen, his acting somehow effortless.
A heavy drinker given to periodic binges, Tracy was less gifted in managing his life away from the sound stage. He was unhappily and unfaithfully married when he met the love of his life, Katherine Hepburn, when they co-starred in the 1941 hit romantic comedy, Woman of the Year. They would never marry but remained devoted romantic partners until Tracy’s death twenty-six years later. Tracy and Hepburn were paired romantically in nine films over the course of their life together. Critics and viewers alike were stirred by an unmistakable authenticity in the underlying bond between their screen personae. Always discreet and undisclosing about their personal lives together, they managed somehow to convey a robust, legitimate, irrepressible love on screen.
In 1966 Tracy, who had been seriously ill for years, emerged out of convalescence to co-star with Hepburn in what would be his last film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In it Tracy and Hepburn play established, well-to-do parents of a much cherished only daughter who falls in love with a young black doctor and wants to marry him. As the film plots the course of the young couples’ parents coming to terms with an interracial marriage, Tracy’s character has occasion to tell the mother of his daughter’s suitor the depths of his feelings for his screen wife (Hepburn). To her accusation that he’s “a burnt out shell of a man who can’t even remember what it’s like to love a woman,” Tracy responds:
"You’re wrong as you can be…I know exactly how he feels about her, and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that your son feels for my daughter that I didn’t feel for (Hepburn). Old? Yes. Burnt out. Certainly. But I can tell you the memories are still there. Clear, intact, indestructible. And they’ll be there if I live to be110…The only thing that matters is what they feel and how much they feel for each other. And if it’s half of what we felt, that’s everything…"
At which point on film, on the set, and surely in Tracy’s deep personal interior, he is overcome; his voice cracks and his face is clenched at the brink of real tears. Everyone in the cast and crew was electrified, transported. No one in the studio doubted Tracy was talking about his experience of Hepburn. It is a remarkable moment, at once story and real life. Three weeks after the picture was completed, Tracy died.
Not long afterward, in a television interview, Katherine Hepburn observed, “He found life difficult…he found acting easy.”
Soulful love is never easy. The soul aches to love, but the searching, the longing, the ecstatic communion, and the unbearable prospect thereafter of anything less are often unbearable. So finally, love is indeed a problem, but a problem fervidly and fatefully sought. To deny or suppress love will send the soul into a frenzy. Outwardly moderate and disciplined lives will be undermined by strange callings, wanton desires. Puritanical regimens, whether personal or cultural, will inexplicably fester with promiscuity, pornography, every manner of forbidden desire.
To do the opposite, to affirm love, releases its own set of trials and rigors. Where there is love, there is trouble. But it may be trouble we need, and, blessedly, there is more than trouble. There is the release, the vivid experience of the most transporting ecstasy the soul can know. The beloved, like Dante’s Beatrice, can lead a soulful lover to the brink of real paradise and beyond.