A second famous First Daughter carrying the Roosevelt name came about twenty years after her cousin, Alice Roosevelt Halsted. Eldest and only female child of powerhouse couple Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Anna Roosevelt Halsted was one of the most understated accomplished women of the 20th century. Co-editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, owner of the Arizona Times, children’s book author, one of the most trusted advisors of her father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and champion of humanitarian works, Anna lived a remarkable life.
Born May 3, 1906, Anna was welcomed as the first child of the well-to-do Roosevelt’s of Hyde Park, New York. Established in a privileged and well-connected family, Anna attended Miss Cahpin’s School, an elite independent primary school in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Growing up, the Roosevelt family lived in a house adjacent to Franklin’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt; excessively controlling of both her son and grandchildren combined with her callous disregard for Eleanor led to a very tumultuous home life. Anna’s younger brother James remembered his grandmother telling him on one occasion “Your mother only bore you, I am more your mother than your mother is”. Adding to the tumult was Franklin’s illicit affair with a woman named Lucy Mercer, Eleanor’s social secretary. Franklin wanted to leave Eleanor for Lucy but Sara intervened, threatening to cut her son out of her will. The couple remained together, but the intimacy of their marriage was over, and their bond was now one of political and social requirement only.
Perhaps it was her parents unhappiness that was a factor in Anna being married three times. Her first marriage was to Curtis Bean Dall, a New York stockbroker – they married in 1926 and divorced in 1934, sharing two children together. Anna moved into the White House with her children after this first divorce. Anna’s second marriage was to Clarence John Boettiger, a journalist who she met while aiding her father’s second run for the presidency. They shared one son, but divorced in 1948 – Clarence committed suicide in 1950 by jumping out of his hotel room window. Her last husband was Dr. James Halsted, and the pair remained wedded until Anna’s death in 1975.
When her father ascended to the presidency in 1932, Anna assumed many of the duties commonly completed by the First Lady; as her mother Eleanor was very active in the political and social spheres of Washington and beyond, and declared her time to be better spent when devoted to nourishing her crusade of “worthy causes”, Anna took up the mantle of First Lady on her behalf. She served as a social secretary to her father, keeping his appointment schedule which, both before and after the United States entered World War Two in December of 1941, permitted her to meet some of the most distinguished citizens of the world. This included people like Frances Perkins, first female Secretary of Labor appointed by her father who was absolutely critical in assimilating the labor movement into the New Deal coalition; King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain in June of 1939, a pivotal meeting that strengthened the political and social alliance between the two nations on the eve of a world war; and Crown Prince Olav (later King Olav V of Norway) and Crown Princess Martha of Norway, the latter becoming very good friends with President Roosevelt, so much so that he provided Martha and her children with sanctuary in the US after the Nazis invaded Norway and her presence in her native country of Sweden threatened to disrupt the neutrality of that nation.
In 1936, Anna, second husband Clarence, and her children moved to Seattle after her husband had been appointed editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by its owner, William Randolph Hearst. Anna became the editor of the women’s section of the newspaper and wrote numerous columns as well. Anna and Clarence ran the paper from 1936 to 1943, with Anna becoming acting editor in 1942 when Clarence joined the Army. At her father’s request, Anna left Seattle in 1944 and moved back into the White House with her children. She immediately noticed the waning of her father’s health and insisted he see a cardiologist; when President Roosevelt was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, she was the only other Roosevelt (besides the President of course) to know of his condition. Because of this private revelation, Anna petitioned to be appointed her father’s aide-de-camp at the Yalta Conference, scheduled for February 1945. As the journey there would be arduous and potentially draining for the ever-weakening President, Anna’s resolve to be by her father’s side matched her mother Eleanor’s, who also wanted to attend the conference for diverging reasons. Anna managed to beat out Eleanor, and traveled with her father to the USSR. At Yalta, she met Sarah Chudrchill, daughter of Great Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Kathy Harriman, daughter of the US’s Ambassador to Russia W. Averell Harriman who were also in attendance alongside their fathers.
With the unfortunate yet inevitable passing of her father in April of 1945, it was Anna who told Eleanor the circumstances surrounding his death. Not that there was foul play of any kind, but that the President was with his mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, when he passed; Warm Springs, Georgia was a favorite spot of the President as the warm climate aided in improving the symptoms brought on by polio which he suffered from. It was here that he passed whilst convalescing after returning home from Yalta. Anna told her mother not only that Franklin and Lucy were together in his last moments to spare her from learning about in the press, but she additionally revealed that the two had been conducting secret rendezvous for years, and that people on the President and First Lady’s staff had purposefully hidden this from her, including Anna. Eleanor was wounded that Anna would not tell her, and mother and daughter thereafter endured a period of estrangement.
For the remainder of her life, Anna would work in public relations and publishing. When her and Eleanor reconciled a few years after her father’s death, they launched a joint radio show called the Eleanor and Anna Roosevelt Program that ran for only about a year. In 1952 after she married her final husband, Dr. James Halsted, the couple moved to Iran where he aided in establishing the Pahlavi University Medical School. In October 1963, Anna was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Citizens Advisory Council on the Status of Women as well as being appointed vice-chairman of the President’s Commission for the Observance of Human Rights. Following in Eleanor’s footsteps, Anna would continue the tradition of advocating for human rights and natural freedoms in America and around the globe. Anna died in 1975 after battling throat cancer – she was survived by her three children Anna, Curtis, and John.
Written by Katie Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.