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Franklin Roosevelt and his mother, Sara Roosevelt. Carl Anthony Online
Franklin Roosevelt and his mother, Sara Roosevelt. Carl Anthony Online

11 of History's Most Notable Mothers-in-Law

Franklin Roosevelt and his mother, Sara Roosevelt. Carl Anthony Online
Franklin Roosevelt and his mother, Sara Roosevelt. Carl Anthony Online

It’s said that Aboriginal men have a strict policy when it comes to their mothers-in-law: They don’t look directly at them or address them in any way. It’s a tradition that has roots in the culture’s earliest days and probably has done more to ease familial tensions than any in history.

Of course, most families don't have any such traditions in place, leading to several instances of historical figures who have been influenced—or browbeaten—by their in-laws. Here are 11 examples.

1. SARA ROOSEVELT

Upon hearing her son—and future president—Franklin wanted to marry Eleanor, Sara Roosevelt tried to convince him to break it off. When that didn’t work, she coerced him into keeping it a secret for a year. Sara had a hand in every facet of his life, even ordering construction of a double townhouse after the wedding so that Franklin and Eleanor could live on one side and she could live on the other. Eleanor and Sara were often at odds, including how best to move forward after Franklin’s diagnosis of polio. When Sara died in 1941, Eleanor wrote that it was hard to have known someone for 36 years yet "feel no deep affection or sense of loss."

2. SOPHIE OF BAVARIA

Born in 1837, Sisi Wittelsbach became an empress by marrying Franz Joseph, a seeming promotion in life quality—were it not for her mother-in-law, Sophie. The Archduchess was also Sisi’s aunt and campaigned for her son to marry Sisi’s sister, Helene, instead. When that failed, she made a habit of correcting Sisi’s every move, including how best to mother her own children. Even her own son, Franz, was too laid-back for her liking; Sophie has become known as the "only man in Hofburg."

3. MARIE WOOLF

Welcoming the famed writer Virginia Woolf into her fold was something Marie Woolf had no reservations about, but the same wasn’t necessarily true of her new daughter-in-law. Although Marie admired Virginia's intelligence and considered her her favorite in-law, Virginia perceived Marie’s presence as a reminder of her own tumultuous upbringing that was marked by possessive relatives. "I felt the horror of family life, and the terrible threat to one’s liberty that I used to feel with father," she once wrote in her diary. "To be attached to her as daughter would be so cruel a fate that I can think of nothing worse."

4. MARIA CLEMM

Awkwardly, Clemm was both writer Edgar Allan Poe’s aunt and his mother-in-law: the shift in relations came when Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia. (Poe was 27.) While Poe and Clemm were believed to have largely gotten along, she did create friction between her nephew and a friend of his named William Duane. Poe had borrowed a book belonging to Duane that Clemm subsequently sold, forcing Duane to track it down through third-party sellers. With the Poe clan unapologetic, Duane never spoke to them again. Following Poe’s death, Clemm reportedly burned a bunch of valuable correspondence that belonged to him.

5. BONA SFORZA

A woman of considerable influence in 16th century Poland and Lithuania, Bona Sforza prompted many of her son’s associates to tread lightly. When Sigismund II, the heir to the Polish throne, married Elizabeth of Austria, Sforza made her disdain for the bride known—and Elizabeth died two years later. Sigismund’s second wife also became ill and died a short time after exchanging vows. Although it's unlikely she had anything to do with the deaths of her daughters-in-law, Sigismund eventually grew very wary of his mother and saw her off to Warsaw, where she could presumably no longer interfere with his romantic relations.

6. CATHERINE DE MEDICI

When Mary, Queen of Scots was just 5, she was sent to live in France with her newly betrothed, the 4-year-old dauphin. Though her future mother-in-law, Queen of France Catherine de Medici, wasn't overly warm towards her, Mary was a court favorite and loved her time in France. However, just two years after her wedding at Notre Dame, an 18-year-old Mary, who had only been Queen Consort for 17 months, was widowed and subsequently shipped back to Scotland by Catherine. And despite accusations of murdering her second husband, Mary, Queen of Scots garnered a better reputation over the years than her former mother-in-law. The Medici matriarch had little use for human nuisances, being implicated in the killing of courtiers and orchestrating the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre that helped to suffocate the idea of Protestantism in France.

7. DOWAGER CIXI

Born in 1835, Dowager Cixi kept a firm grasp in China’s Qing Dynasty for half a century. For some time, her influence was directed through her son, Tongzhi, who became Emperor at the age of 5. When he married Xiaozhe 11 years later, an irritated Cixi guaranteed she would remain his primary influence by allegedly encouraging Tongzhi to keep concubines. Soon after Tongzhi died of smallpox (which is rumored to have actually been syphilis), Xiaozhe and her unborn son also passed away under suspicious circumstances—The New York Times reported at the time that "the circumstances of her death have aroused general suspicion … and there is but little attempt to conceal the belief that the fear of complications in case her expected child should be a son led to the sacrifice of her life." Without an heir, Cixi was able to retain her influence, leading some to speculate she had been responsible for their deaths.

8. ROSE KENNEDY

As the matriarch of the most famous political family in American history, Rose Kennedy was perceived a model of behavior for the women who married her sons. According to Jackie Kennedy, Rose did not fit the stereotype of the overbearing scold: She offered advice when asked but refused to burden Jackie with demands. After the assassination of JFK and Rose's husband Joe Kennedy’s stroke, Jackie said it was her relationship with Rose that helped keep her a symbol of strength while her grief was under a microscope.

9. YVONNE MACNAMARA

The discovery of a work-in-progress notebook once owned by acclaimed poet Dylan Thomas in 2014 shed some light on his relationship with mother-in-law Yvonne Macnamara. After marrying Caitlin Macnamara, Thomas was apparently under significant duress when in Yvonne's presence. He wrote: "I sit and hate my mother-in-law, glowering at her from corners." Her house, he said, "levels the intelligence." Adding credence to his opinion, it was considered a minor miracle his notebook was found at all: After finding it, Yvonne had ordered a servant to burn it.

10. MADGE GATES WALLACE

Following the death of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman became President of the United States in 1945—and promptly equipped the White House with another domineering mother-in-law. Madge Gates Wallace, the mother of Truman’s wife, Bess, apparently didn’t hold the office in high regard, believing that her daughter was still too good for the most powerful man in the free world. When Truman ran opposite Thomas Dewey in 1948, Wallace told Truman she admired Dewey greatly.

11. PRINCESS ALICE OF BATTENBERG

Despite having been a royal her whole life (she was the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and was married into the Greek royal family), Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, had little use for the pageantry that surrounded regality. She gave some of her jewels to be set into the engagement ring when Philip was betrothed to Princess Elizabeth, but when her daughter-in-law was crowned Queen in 1953, Alice attended the Westminster Abbey coronation wearing a wimple and habit. Alice largely stayed out of their business, rejecting their lavish bubble and devoting herself to helping the poor in Greece (for her earlier role in saving a Jewish family during World War II, she was declared one of the "Righteous Among the Nations," a high honor given by Israel to those who risked their own lives to save Jews during the war), and she even founded her own religious order of nuns before settling in with her family at Buckingham Palace for two years prior to her death in 1969.

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Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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