WEST ORANGE, NJ - Local remnants of presidential history are often obscured by the spotlight of attention cast on a national stage. But West Orange played a forgotten role as the crossroads where the families of two former presidents gathered. It was here that the Hyde Park Roosevelts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt crossed paths with the Oyster Bay Roosevelts of Theodore Roosevelt.
Douglas Robinson Sr. and his wife Fanny Monroe Robinson came to West Orange about 1872, becoming a neighbor to General George McClellan along the ridge adjacent to Prospect Avenue. In 1882, their son Douglas Robinson Jr. married Corinne Roosevelt, the sister of Theodore Roosevelt. Douglas and Corinne soon became frequent visitors to the 72 acre estate in West Orange known as 'Overlook' and in 1886, their second child was actually born there. Douglas Robinson, Jr. inherited the West Orange property in 1893 when his father
At first it was only used as a summer retreat as they divided their time between West Orange, New York City, and another home in upstate New York. But by 1894, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson so loved the country setting of Overlook that she persuaded Douglas to make the West Orange estate their principal residence. The Robinsons and their four children then moved to West Orange and lived here year round from 1894 to 1911.
Corinne soon became known as the 'Queen of the Orange Mountain' as she hosted lavish parties and frequent Roosevelt Family gatherings. All members of the Roosevelt family came to West Orange at one time or another. Theodore Roosevelt visited West Orange several times and stayed with his sister Corinne. He attended a reception as Vice-President at the West Orange High School, then located on Gaston Street, on July 1,1901.
Perhaps one of the most fateful impacts on the future of American history occurred at the West Orange home of Douglas and Corinne Robinson. While hosting a Roosevelt Family Christmas Party in 1898, a young man asked his younger cousin Anna to dance. It likely was not the first time the two had met but it would be their most memorable. Since they were distant cousins, they had likely known of one another, though only somewhat previously acquainted at best. It was here in West Orange that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, age16, had first taken a romantic interest in his younger distant cousin Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, age 14. From this encounter and first dance together in West Orange, a romance blossomed. Their interest in one another increased as they encountered one another at various social events in New York City.They both even attended a small White House New Year's Eve dinner hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt's uncle, Theodore Roosevelt.
In doing some additional research, I found the surviving papers of Corinne Roosevelt Robinson are housed in the archives of the Harvard College Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I decided to take a trip there last week to see what else I could find. I spent two days at the Houghton Library on the Harvard campus looking through boxes of her letters, diaries and other papers, searching for additional West Orange references. I was pleased to find many and gained a deeper insight into her days in West Orange. Perhaps the most telling was a journal signed and dated by guests visiting Overlook in West Orange. There I found Eleanor's signature in the journal confirming her attendance at the 1898 Christmas party. Franklin neglected to sign the guest book, but his attendance at the 1898 Christmas party is documented in a 1971 book entitled Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P. Lash. However, I did find that both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were both present at least one other time at the West Orange home. They had both signed the guest book for a Halloween party held there in October of 1901. It gives further evidence of their continuing romance that began in West Orange in 1898.
Their relationship grew increasingly more serious and Franklin proposed to Eleanor on November 22, 1903. Franklin's mother Sara Roosevelt was concerned that they were too young and asked them to keep the engagement secret for a year. Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave Eleanor Roosevelt an engagement ring for her 20th birthday on October 11, 1904. They finally announced their engagement at family gatherings begining in early December, 1904. Eleanor Roosevelt was walked down the aisle and given away to Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
her fifth cousin once removed, by her Uncle "Teddy" Theodore Roosevelt when they married on March 17, 1905.
Franklin and Eleanor discovered their romantic awareness of one another here in West Orange while visiting the home of Eleanor's Aunt Corinne. One can only imagine how both their pivotal roles in American history might have been altered if not for that first fateful meeting deeply interwoven into our own West Orange history. To learn more about local history log on to WestOrangeHistory.com.
Joseph Fagan is the Official Historian of the Township of West Orange and has written two books on the subject. He can be reached by e-mail at JosephFagan@WestOrangeHistory.com. The Alternative Press of West Orange is pleased to present this article in its entirety.