The Would-Be Great Love of FDR
By Tom Morrow
If there is anyone still alive who voted for or was a fan of Franklin D. Roosevelt, they may not like this story. Currently, a PBS “Masterpiece Theater” presentation, “Atlantic Crossing,” deals with supposed true events that occurred during World War II between Norway’s Crown Princess Martha and our American president.
Princess Martha of Sweden was born Martha Sofia Lovisa Dagmar Thyra on March 28 1901. She became the Crown Princess of Norway when she married future King Olav V, and was the mother of the present-day King Harald V.
In 1939, as war loomed over Europe, the Crown Prince Olav and Princess Martha visited the United States. During their visit they were warmly received by FDR and his wife, Eleanor. While in America, the two royals conducted an extensive tour of the upper Midwest where many Norwegian immigrants had settled.
During World War II, Martha contributed greatly toward Norway’s wartime mobilization. In radio broadcasts she encouraged Norwegian women to take part in the mobilization work.
To protect the royal children, Martha crossed the border into her native Sweden, fleeing the approaching German invasion. Showing her determination, when the Swedish border guards refused to let Martha’s entourage pass, she ordered her driver to crash through gate … which he did.
Her presence in Sweden was problematic because of that country’s declared neutrality. President Roosevelt offered her a personal invitation to the United States. Martha accepted; she and her three children crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a U.S. Army transport ship. Meanwhile her husband, Crown Prince Olav, and his father, King Haakon VII, led their government in exile to England to plead for help against the Nazi invasion of their homeland.
Once in the U.S., Martha and her children initially stayed in the White House. In August 1941, Crown Princess Martha was a busy, but unofficial Norwegian envoy as she traveled with President Roosevelt aboard the presidential yacht, USS Potomac, sailing to Newfoundland and the famed Atlantic Charter meetings with Winston Churchill.
The friendship between the Norwegian royals and the Roosevelts was further developed when in 1942, the U.S. presented the exiled Norwegian navy with the gift of a small destroyer renamed the King Haakon VII. Martha officially received the former U.S. Navy ship on behalf of her government.
Her work to assist the American Red Cross greatly impressed FDR and influenced his 1942, “Look to Norway” speech. Novelist and essayist Gore Vidal later asserted that Crown Princess Martha was Roosevelt’s “last love.” Roosevelt’s son James said later, “There was no question that Martha was an important figure in (my) Father’s life during the war … there is a real possibility that a true romantic relationship developed between the president and the princess.” Roald Dahl, who later became a well-known author, was a young British RAF fighter pilot during the War assigned to Washington. He agreed. “I was inclined to think all the smoke indicated a real fire. President Roosevelt had it in his mind he would like to sleep with her.”
Princess Martha spent much of World War II in the United States where she worked tirelessly to keep up support for Norway among the American public and government. Norwegian envoy Trygve Lie, wrote about her wartime work: “During those years of struggle, she was undeniably Norway’s Ambassador ‘number one’ because of her charm, humanity, wisdom and tact. As Secretary of Foreign Affairs, I had to turn to her many times, and the results she achieved and the advice she offered, were always of value.”
Following a lengthy period of ill-health, Martha died of cancer in Oslo April 5, 1954. Here only son, Harald, is the present-day King of Norway. A large area on the Antarctica continent is named “Princess Martha Coast” in her honor.
There’s little more evidence than White House whisperings, a few first-hand observances, and a certain amount of gossip to suggest a romantic relationship between the U.S. president and the Norwegian crown princess. However, during the War there was some animosity between Martha, Eleanor, and Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, the long-time personal secretary to FDR, who was considered part of the Roosevelt family. Reportedly, “Missy” was “infatuated” with the president and quite jealous of Martha’s unusual closeness to Roosevelt. FDR’s confinement to leg braces and a wheelchair allegedly were all that hindered him from more extensive romantic dalliances.
Apparently, there’s more truth than fiction to this historic episode of World War II, otherwise PBS’ Masterpiece Theater wouldn’t have labeled their miniseries “Based Upon True Events.”
The so-called FDR affair(s) are the stuff from which legends are developed. And, as a famous movie director once said: “If you have the choice of telling the truth over legend, go with the legend … it’s always more interesting.”