History is full of beautiful, dramatic love affairs: Cleopatra and Antony, Paris and Helen, even Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Yet for every well-known love story, there are also relationships that—given the chance—some notable figures would choose to suppress.
The cultural norms and social mores of the early 20th-century dictated discretion, so when we think of the era’s world leaders, secret love affairs aren’t necessarily the first thing that jumps to mind. However, for various reasons—hidden homosexuality, loveless marriages, pure desire—many of the past century’s power players had more dramatic personal lives than we might expect.
Mahatma Ghandi and Hermann Kallenbach
Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of India’s nonviolent resistance against British colonial rule. He is known as one of the fathers of modern India for his nonviolent resistance tactics like hunger strikes and boycotts. In opposition to the UK’s predatory monopoly, he once gathered 60,000 people to walk to the ocean and collect their own salt.
When Gandhi was 13, he married the then 14-year old Kasturbai Makhanji Kapadia, commonly shortened as “Ba.” The marriage lasted for over 60 years, but it wasn’t a happy one. Ba was frequently made into Gandhi’s verbal punching bag, and there were large chunks of separation dotted throughout the marriage.
According to Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle With India by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joseph Lelyveld, Gandhi left his wife during his 20s to be with his male lover, a German-Jewish bodybuilder and architect named Hermann Kallenbach. The couple lived together for two years in Kallenbach’s house in South Africa.
Gandhi’s letters to Kallenbach reveal the extent of his affection:
How completely you have taken possession of my body. This is slavery with a vengeance.
The letters also reveal the couple’s inner dynamics: Gandhi affectionately called Kallenbach “Lower House,” with Kallenbach addressing the father of India as “Upper House.”
These revelations haven’t come without controversy. Lelyveld’s book detailing the relationship has even been banned in Gujarat, Gandhi’s home state.
Winston Churchill and Lady Doris Castlerosse
Winston Churchill is known both for leading the United Kingdom through World War II and also for his steadfast marriage to Clementine Churchill. That’s why Richard Toye, a history professor at Exeter, and Warren Dockter, a lecturer at Aberystwyth University made waves when they revealed that Winston had an affair “by moonlight in the South of France.”
According to Toye, Winston was romantically involved with Lady Doris Castlerosse, a glamorous aristocrat and socialite, from the early 30s until 1937. Castlerosse also happens to be supermodel and actress Cara Delevingne’s great aunt.
“My mother had many stories to tell about… when they stayed in my aunt’s house in Berkeley Square,” Delevingne told interviewers. “When Winston was coming to visit her, the staff were all given the day off.”
During the war, Castlerosse lived in the U.S. with a new lover. Desperately homesick, she used a compromising painting to blackmail Winston into giving her a rare seat on a plane back to the United Kingdom.
The affair remained a secret until the late 50s, but eventually Clementine found out. “She was worried about it for months afterward,” says Toye. “Clementine would say to [Churchill’s private secretary Sir John] Colville, ‘I always thought Winston had been faithful.’ Colville tried to reassure her by saying many husbands on a moonlit night in the south of France have strayed [and that] it’s not such a big deal.”
Franklin Roosevelt and Lucy Mercer
Franklin Roosevelt was the 32nd president of the United States, presiding over the country for the majority of the great depression and World War II. His New Deal helped to bring the U.S. out of the worst economic downturn in its history, and his leadership comforted Americans throughout the chaos of the war.
Behind the scenes, though, Franklin’s marriage with Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t exactly brimming with love. In 1916, Franklin began to see Eleanor’s social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Their escapades caught the attention of Washington, D.C.’s rumor mill, and the affair became a bit of an open secret.
Two years later, Eleanor discovered a suitcase full of love letters while unpacking for her husband. She immediately offered him a divorce, but Franklin’s family refused to allow it, leaving Franklin no choice but to break it off with Mercer for good.
Franklin and Mercer’s feelings for each other persisted. They continued to write each other letters, and Franklin even made accommodations for Mercer to attend his swearing-in after his election in 1933. When Franklin passed in the spring of 1945, Mercer was at his deathbed. Eleanor was not.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock
Eleanor Roosevelt is renowned for being one of the most active first ladies in history. She worked tirelessly for racial and social justice, advocating for African Americans and women during the Great Depression and even chairing the first United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote that she had “the memory of an elephant,” and that she can “forgive, but never forget.” After Franklin’s affair, their marriage was never quite the same. A decade after the beginning of Franklin and Mercer’s affair, Eleanor fell in love with a reporter named Lorena Hickock. On the evening of Franklin’s inauguration, Eleanor wrote to Hickock:
“Hick my dearest–
I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving tonight. You have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you.”
While there is historical debate over whether their relationship was romantic, there was a high degree of affection present in these letters. Eleanor wrote, “My pictures are nearly all up & I have you in my sitting room where I can look at you most of my waking hours! I can’t kiss you, so I kiss your picture good night & good morning!”
As Eleanor became busier with her duties as First Lady, she spent less time with Hickock. Over time the two women grew apart. Their friendship continued, however, with the two co-authoring the book Ladies of Courage in 1954.
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