This post will be a rare one for me in that in doesn’t feature any photographs that I’ve taken. I’ve been desperate to write about Ethel du Pont after stumbling on a video of her at Owl’s Nest, here in Delaware, on her wedding day (you can see the short newsreel of her wedding too, here). The only problem is that it’s now a private club and I would have seemed mighty suspicious darting around and photographing everything if I could find my way in. Plus I didn’t think any photos would have turned out decent. Then I remembered that the estate is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Jackpot. You need to submit nearly a hundred photos and they’re open record. So most of the photos of Owl’s Nest here are from that application and edited by me; their source will be noted at the end of the post. Photos of Ethel and family will also be noted with their individual sources.
In 1915 Eugene du Pont, Jr. (son of Eugene Sr. who was born at Hagley and worked in development at the gunpowder mills) built his country estate in northern Delaware. He named it Owl’s Nest. A year later his daughter, Ethel, would be born and raised in the house. Built as a Tudor Revival by Harrie Lindeberg with elaborate gardens designed as well, it’s the architect and landscape designers who we can thank for Owl’s Nest’s protection. Their unique vision in this area landed the estate on the protected National Register of Historic Places. But much more interesting are the people who lived there!
Ethel and Franklin Jr., source.
While growing up at Owl’s Nest, Ethel du Pont was known as a sportswoman with superior horsemanship and expert swimming skills. She made her society debut in an elaborate party held at Owl’s Nest and newspapers quickly dubbed her one of the “most beautiful and eligible wealthy ‘bachelor girls’ of America.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. was in attendance. (Yes, that’s President Franklin Roosevelt’s fifth child there).
Franklin Roosevelt, Jr. was quite the eligible bachelor himself. He was handsome and he had a little bit of a wild side with tons of traffic tickets accumulated in his sleek speedster.
Stepping Out With A Roosevelt and A Nefarious Plot
The du Pont family were a fixture in high society, Ethel’s family quite often earned a write-up in the newspapers. And when she started to step out with Franklin Jr. she appeared in print even more frequently. But in 1935 Ethel made the papers for a frightening reason. A man, Joseph di Giovanni, was arrested on extortion charges against a local businessman. Piquing police interest more, they found him carrying a clipped out newspaper photograph of Ethel. Police speculated whether she was an intended kidnap victim or the focus of a blackmail scheme. When the judge asked him why he was carrying the photograph he replied: “Oh, just curiosity, I guess.”
The judge wasn’t buying it. He ordered the detectives to reinvestigate. Not only was she a rich society girl but she was the girlfriend of President Roosevelt’s son. The detectives discovered that di Giovanni belonged to a blackmail gang. Members of the gang would pose as detectives, stalk businessmen until they saw something dodgy, then flash a fake badge and demand hush money. Di Giovanni isn’t mentioned in the papers again so I guess he was sent to jail and Ethel never had to hear about him again. The truth about his intentions was never revealed, publicly at least.
The next year, in November of 1936 Franklin and Ethel announced their engagement. Media attention was so intense Franklin was quoted as saying: “This is worse than campaigning with father.” The newspapers reported on every detail from their outfits to their movements (Franklin running his hands through his hair was even worth a mention). Neither of them could remember where they’d first met, or maybe they just didn’t want to tell the papers. “Some party in New York almost three years ago” is the best they offered.
Franklin and Ethel are in the middle, the President is seated in his boat.
During their official announcement they refused to hold hands for the news photographers and Franklin wouldn’t pose for the newsreel. “I don’t like the way I look in the reels,” he explained. As a Harvard senior he was also questioned about life post-college and as a newlywed. “I can tell you one thing, I positively will not go into politics!” he joked with the reporters.
[Actually, he did. He was a Congressman for New York from 1949-1955. He also campaigned for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and falsely accused Kennedy’s opponent of dodging the draft in WWII. A low blow considering Hubert Humphrey has made three attempts to join up during the war. He was rejected each time because he was color-blind. For du Pont’s help, Kennedy named him Under-Secretary of Commerce. After Kennedy’s assassination though, Franklin never quite found his political footing again.]
There was to be one final hiccup on the way to the alter, several bouts of ill health. Ethel underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis which she suffered at the White House. About to join an even higher echelon of society Ethel’s surgery was performed by a Commander of the US Navy at the Naval Hospital; the White House physician was her public spokesman to the press. Two months after that Franklin Jr. came down with a near-deadly case of strep throat. He improved with the help of a new drug just in time before the White House medical staff were set to perform a risky operation on him. Instead they operated only on his sinuses and he recovered fully.
Ethel on her wedding day, photo by Jay Te Winburn.
Something Old, Something new, Something…Engraved
In 1937, Ethel and FDR, Jr. were finally set to wed. The event was absolutely shrouded in security. And I mean shrouded. The Secret Service were the first to arrive at the rehearsal and the wedding venue was inspected thoroughly. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sr. was just a few months into his second term (of what would be an unprecedented four terms) of the presidency. It probably didn’t matter though. Ethel showed up 50 minutes late anyway.
At the rehearsal, instead of walking down the aisle, Ethel sent down her soon to be sister-in-law to walk down with Franklin, a long piece of white muslin attached to her sports dress to simulate the bridal train. The press were not going to glimpse even a moment of anything Ethel wanted to keep private.
They also kept the guest list as hushed as possible (all 1,300 names which Franklin called a “small wedding”). Not only for security reasons but the du Ponts were well-known to dislike the Roosevelts, some quite intensely (the du Ponts backed the Liberty League, an anti-New Deal group). This wedding was a bit like Juliet marrying Romeo. Which made Wilmington high society even more anxious to know who was actually attending the wedding. When Irénée du Pont was asked if he was going he told the newspaper: “I’m home, and I’m going. Anyway, who’s going to stop me?” Even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt admitted after the wedding: “For a variety of reasons I found it a bit hard to swallow.” The President reportedly found it all very amusing and ironic.
President Roosevelt arrived a little early on the day of the wedding so that he, Franklin Jr., and his three sons could conduct a special traditional in the Owl’s Nest billiard room. They held a Harvard Fly Club party where they toasted the bride with drinks and then smashed up the glasses.
On the actual day of the wedding the busy highway that passed by the church was closed. Only those carrying engraved invitations to the wedding were permitted to pass through. And they had to show them again after the wedding for the reception at Owl’s Nest!
Ethel and Franklin Jr. at the beginning of their marriage. Ethel, Franklin and a game of golf.
Married Life and a terrible Trip to a Dude Ranch in Reno
In 1938 the welcomed their first son Franklin D. Roosevelt, III. He became an academic, professor and economist and lives in Bronxville, NY now. A newsreel clip of his proud parents leaving the hospital with him as a newborn can be seen here here.
Ethel with Franklin III and FDR, photo from US National Archives.
Once the US entered World War II, Franklin Jr. joined the Navy as a junior naval officer. Despite his family standing he didn’t sit idle on the sidelines during combat. He was awarded a Silver Star for carrying a wounded sailor to safety, the Legion of Merit, a Purple Heart, a Navy commendation medal and seven campaign ribbons for service in Europe and the Pacific. In the Pacific theater he served as lieutenant commander of the USS Moore which shot down Japanese aircraft and sunk one of their submarines as well.
In the middle of the war in 1941 their second son was born, Christopher du Pont Roosevelt. Franklin Jr. was serving at this time and reports only mention Ethel who was staying at Owl’s Nest. I’m not sure if Franklin Jr. was there or still overseas. Christopher became a keen sailor and later a lawyer. He also resides in the state of New York now.
Ethel in an undated photo by Leslie Jones From the Boston Public Library.
When the war ended Franklin Jr. used his law degree at several New York law firms. Tensions were already showing, even in the press, in 1945 when Franklin Jr. decided to enter the political world. One newspaper wrote: “His political inclinations are probably causing his slender, blonde wife some pain as she is not gregarious and has never cared for the spotlight. For a time her health was not good but she is now apparently entirely restored.” I’m not sure if her health woes were physical or mental, they don’t mention it in detail but considering her history they most likely revolved around depression.
Rumors of divorce and separate residences reached the newspapers in 1948. The next year Ethel traveled to Reno, Nevada to establish residence for a divorce (that’s 42-days if you’re curious). She made reservations under an assumed name at a dude ranch but reporters found her anyway.
The Final Chapter
In May 1949 Ethel filed for divorce on grounds of incompatibility and mental cruelty. The hearing lasted only 10 minutes. Ethel, with her lawyer, filed in a small town outside of Reno to elude reporters…which wasn’t quite successful. They had chased her car all the way to the courthouse after hounding her at the dude ranch. Reporters were waiting outside the courthouse before she could even enter the building.
Her husband was publicly hailed as the future President of the U.S. which meant interest in Ethel’s personal life was intense as well. Ethel’s lawyer distracted the reporters while she slipped out a back door and returned home.
By December of the next year Ethel was engaged and about to marry Benjamin S. Warren, Jr., a lawyer from Grosse Pointe, Michigan. He was a friend of her brother’s and she’d met him many years before. Franklin Jr. had already married again too, a mere two months after his divorce was finalized. Ethel moved to a mansion in Grosse Pointe to live with her new husband.
In 1954, Ethel and Benjamin had a son together. Benjamin Warren, III. But by 1965 Ethel and her husband were separated. Still she had been looking forward to her son Christopher’s wedding coming up in June of that year when depression crept back in. She had recently returned home from a stay at a “rest home” in Silver Hill, Connecticut. I say rest home because in our more open world now we can call it what it is (it still exists as a psychiatric facility but more for those with addictions): a sanitarium. Ethel had been suffering from depression more acutely in the last few years and Silver Hill was well-known in the area as being a “rest home” for the rich and famous who wanted discrete care.
In May of ’65 her maid served her breakfast in bed and found her glum and not feeling well. An hour later the maid found the untouched food still on the bed and the bathroom door locked. Alarmed she alerted police who broke down the door and discovered Ethel dead. She had hanged herself in her shower with the belt from her robe. I mention it not to be lurid and shocking but because all of the newspapers described the scene and events in even more detail. It was another reminder that Ethel’s life was up for public consumption no matter that she had always eschewed the spotlight. Having suffered from depression for years, Ethel has threatened suicide before but it had always been kept quiet and private. She was 49.
Franklin Jr. went on to marry four more times after his marriage to Ethel ended. All marriages ended in divorce except for his fifth wife. They were married for four years when he died of lung cancer on his 74th birthday in 1988.
Owl’s Nest photos from the National Historic Register here.