Polly Delano, FDR's Eccentric Cousin

Laura "Polly" Delano with her one of her beloved dogs. 

Laura Franklin Delano was the very definition of eccentric: as a little girl she, most notably, refused to drink anything other than Apollinairis Water, an imported carbonated mineral water, earning her the nickname "Polly," while as an adult she dyed her hair purple and bounced around her house in silk pajamas while dripping in jewels. But it was for that very reason that she was the favorite of her famous cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom she served till his death as a longtime confidante and friend.

Read any biography on FDR, and you will quickly learn that Polly Delano, along with another cousin, Margaret "Daisy" Suckley, was always at the President's side. Polly was born in 1885, the fourth child of Warren Delano III, President of the Delano Coal Company in Pennsylvania, and Jennie Walters Delano, daughter of a famous Baltimore art collector. The couple had met at Cambridge, and because Jennie's father had disapproved of their eventual marriage, he left her considerably less money than he originally had intended in his will, leaving them to rely on the Delano family wealth for sustenance. Polly grew up with her five siblings on the Delano family estate Steen Valetje in Rhinebeck, New York, which her father had inherited from his uncle, not far from where her cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the son of Warren's sister, Sara Delano, grew up. As a child she displayed an affinity for animals, particularly dachshunds and horses, winning numerous awards for carriage driving at the annual Duchess County Fair. It was at one of these events, many years later in 1920, that Warren Delano III was killed in a freak carriage accident.

Laura's parents: Jennie Walter Delano, circa 1876 by George A. Baker, and Warren Delano III, circa 1896, by William Baer. 

(Right) Laura Delano with Eleanor Roosevelt near Campobello Island, circa 1909. (Left) A young Laura Delano.
Growing up, she developed a close relationship with cousin Franklin, often traveling with him and future-wife Eleanor when they were older to Campobello Island, quickly becoming a confidante to her cousin. Once, while they were there, FDR informed her that there was to be a solar eclipse, but that she shouldn't be afraid of the darkness. The following morning, she arrived for breakfast dressed impeccably, clutching her jewelry box. "Despite what you have said, Franklin, this is clearly the end of the world," she said simply. "I have dressed for the occasion. I have my jewels and am ready to go to Heaven."

When he launched his campaign for the White House in the 1930's, she often accompanied him on his stumping, along with other members of the family.

During this time, she also became an active breeder of Irish Setters and Dachshunds, something she would do for most of her life, and a member of the Westminster Kennel Club. Polly was often a judge at leading dog shows through the country, and frequently won many awards herself for her pooches. In later years, she could often be seen with an Irish Setter in her lap in the presidential motorcade alongside FDR and his famous dog, Fala.

Laura Delano pictured with her dogs. 

Polly Delano in her element. 

As the member of a large and prestigious family, Polly Delano had learned early on to establish herself as an individual from everyone else, such as the instance with the mineral water. She was loud and outspoken, both with her words and her dress. Her style was diverse, eclectic and experimental, often dressing herself in brightly-colored velvet pants, patterned suits, heavy furs, or silk pajamas, while she adorned her fingers and wrists with heavy Brazilian rings and thick, decorative bracelets, and from her neck always clung several ropes of pearls. Even in her later years she was still considered a beauty, powdering her high cheekbones white, dyeing her hair a blue/purple-ish tint, and applying a thick, sharp widow's peak on her forehead every morning, which became her trademark. Her family found her fashion sense odd; upon seeing Polly wearing red nail polish, the first in the Delano clan to do so, sister Sara asked: “Polly, dear, have you been disemboweling a rabbit?”

One of Polly's rings, which she donated to the Walters Art Gallery in Maryland.

Often she was labelled the troublemaker of the family, a loose cannon as many, including Eleanor, referred to her as. Case-in-point when she began an affair with her chauffeur, or when she fell in-love with the first secretary of the Chinese Embassy, Saburo Kurusu, a prince in the Japanese royal family, and tried to marry him, though pressure from both families forced them to end it.

Polly Delano with her favorite Irish Setter, "Sister." Her heavy widow's peak can be seen on her forehead. 1944. 

Polly Delano and "Sister," her Irish Setter who often joined Laura, FDR and Fala in the presidential motorcade. 

Laura didn't get along with her brother Lyman, who had inherited Steen Valetje upon their father's death, and when her uncle Henry Walters, founder of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, died, she used the money she inherited from him to hire John Russell Pope to design an estate of her own in the Hudson Valley: a cottage known as Evergreen Lands, which would become the scene of her famed cocktail parties, which many a dignitary visiting during the FDR presidency. Built on 136 acres, it the home was small and simple compared to the massive estates her family dwelled in, though comfortable and fitting for the unmarried Polly, who used the grounds to raise her animals, allowing her dogs to run-free across the grounds everyday at four o'clock. The place supposedly swarmed with bugs because she refused to use screens since they ruined the view.

Evergreen Lands around the time of its construction.

Evergreen Lands in the winter time.

The porch at Evergreen Lands, where Polly often entertained dignitaries including Winston Churchill.


Polly was a frequent visitor to the White House along with Daisy Suckley. FDR found his cousin's eccentricities humorous, her endless gossip entertaining, her presence a comfort and her insight invaluable. It was often said that the only person with an ego as big as FDR's was Polly. But while Franklin delighted in her, Eleanor was disgusted and annoyed. She found Polly superficial - after meeting Winston Churchill, all Polly could ask Eleanor was if he was sexy, to which Eleanor replied "I just don't know, Laura, I just don't know" - and detested the way Laura and FDR gossiped. Polly was no fan of Eleanor's, either, finding her a boring, unsuitable match for her sparkling and charismatic cousin. She often arranged, along with FDR's daughter, Anna, encounters between the President and his mistress behind Eleanor's back for years. In fact, as the President lay dying at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, Laura told Eleanor, who was not among the select group present, that it was merely a fainting spell and she shouldn't be worried, not notifying her till hours later of his passing so as to allow time for FDR's mistress to slip out. After his death, it was Laura who bluntly revealed to Eleanor what had been going on, claiming that she would've found out one way or another, and also letting her know that her very own daughter had been an accomplice.

It was to Laura that FDR uttered his final words, as she and the others carried him to his bed: "be careful!"

Laura Delano escorted by Nelson Rockefeller at Eleanor Roosevelt's funeral on November 10th, 1962. 

Laura Delano, second from right, at Eleanor Roosevelt's funeral on November 10th, 1962. 

Polly continued living and operating as she always had even after FDR's death. She was an active member of the Walter Art Gallery, and continued to raise her animals at Evergreen Lands. She attended Eleanor Roosevelt's funeral in 1962, and upon her own death in 1972 the New York Time issued the following obituary:

Laura F. Delano, a widely known judge of dog shows and a cousin of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, died today at her home in Rhinebeck, N.Y., after a long illness. Miss Delano was 86 years old.

The daughter of Warren Delano and Jennie Walters, Miss Delano attended school in New York City. Always interested in dogs, she was a breeder of Irish setters and dachshunds of and was called on to serve as judge at major shows here and a abroad.

Miss Delano also was an active member of the Walters Art Gallery, a museum in Baltimore.

She is survived by two sisters, Mrs. Frederick B. Adams and Mrs. Sara D. Redmond.

Evergreen Lands, and its contents, were auctioned off after her passing. Today, the estate still stands, and is, in fact, for sale.

Laura Franklin "Polly" Delano, 1885-1972

Sources:
Rhinebeck Historical Society
The Delano Papers Project
No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Upstairs at the Roosevelts': Growing Up with Franklin and Eleanor by Curtis Roosevelt
Hissing Cousins By Marc Peyser, Timothy Dwyer

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