How Richard Nelson met Daisy
HYDE PARK ON HUDSON’s Writer Relates the Story Behind the Film
In the late 1980s, a friend of mine invited me to visit what had long been a private residence in my town of Rhinebeck, New York. It had recently been given to a public trust by its elderly owner, with the provision that the owner could live there for the rest of her life.
The house sat overlooking the Hudson River, and looked like something out of a fairy tale – a dark one. It was pretty dilapidated, paint long weathered away. Wilderstein, as the home of the Suckley (rhymes with “Bookley”) Family for at least two generations is called, could be, I thought, the poster child for genteel poverty in America. My friend took me on a quick tour of the first floor. While passing through the living room, with its peeled wallpaper, tired sagging stuffed sofas, and worn and ragged Oriental rugs, I caught my first and only sight of the heroine of our film, Daisy Suckley. She sat alone reading, I think, a newspaper, oblivious to the strangers passing through. Soon after, in her hundredth year, Daisy died.
Wilderstein, which has since become a public park and is in the process of being restored to its late-nineteenth-century grandeur, is only one of the two legacies Daisy left to us; the other was found, at her death, in a small suitcase under her bed. Here were her intimate letters to and from her fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, and her diaries recording in detail their relationship – a relationship that had remained a secret until her death. Pages had gone missing (burned?) from both the letters and the diary, but what remains gives a rich and moving portrait of a love affair between a woman who called herself “the little mud wren” and who saw herself as “part of the furniture,” and one of the greatest, most powerful and charismatic men of the century. Reading these letters and diary entries opens a window into a world only imagined; a world behind the façade of a presidency, where all conspired to hide the frailties and infirmities of its leader. Daisy, it now seems clear, was the person Franklin could relax with; could forget the world, the job, the troubles with; and just be himself with. It is no coincidence that the only photographs we have today of Franklin Roosevelt in his wheelchair were taken by Daisy Suckley.
The discovery of these letters and diaries was the impetus for Hyde Park on Hudson. It was a single entry in Daisy’s diary that gave the film its story; Daisy writes with wild-eyed enthusiasm and excitement of the visit of the King and Queen of England to Roosevelt’s Hyde Park home in June 1939. This was the first-ever visit by a reigning British monarch to the Western Hemisphere. She writes of being thrilled at seeing all this firsthand, as a guest at what became known as the “hot dog picnic.”
In June 1939, England was on the cusp of war with Germany, and it desperately needed America’s support. It was to help gain this support that the King and Queen were sent to America, and it was to help them with this cause that Roosevelt invited them to Hyde Park. But much of America needed convincing; the mood of the country was to stay out of another European war. Add to this an historical (and understandable) American reticence toward British royalty and all things royal, exacerbated by the recent royal abdication of Edward VIII forced by his wish to marry not only a divorced woman (Wallis Simpson) but also, “Heaven forbid,” as it was perceived by us, “an American, of all things.” The inexperienced and accidental King George VI, or Bertie, needed to show America that he admired our country and its people, and respected us as equals. That was his mission. And Franklin Roosevelt gave him just such an opportunity – by serving him a hot dog!
The two stories – the affair with Daisy and the weekend with the King and Queen – are at the center of our tale. As I worked on the script, the two stories became intertwined, each commenting upon the other; a woman painfully learns the truth behind the world-famous image of her lover, while a king learns to hide his insecurity and project courage. This allowed exploring the need to present a public front to save your country, as well as the recognition that the man you love is not necessarily the man you thought he was.
Finally, Hyde Park on Hudson is also a personal story. I have lived in Rhinebeck, Daisy’s home town, for over thirty years and raised a family here. Although this is a story with ramifications across the globe, dealing with great historical figures, it is also about a woman from my village, a woman I once saw on her sofa who for a time had a chance to see the world – the public and the private – through her own innocent eyes.Richard Nelson