The Roosevelts are a New York City institution, having lived in its boroughs since the 1800s and leaving a legacy in politics and philanthropy.
Today, Maura Roosevelt, the great-granddaughter of Eleanor Roosevelt and former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, lives in Prospect Heights and teaches writing at New York University. Teeming with ideas about the secrets kept by elite families, she penned her debut novel, “Baby of the Family,” out Tuesday.
The story surrounds a fictional patriarch, Roger Whitby Jr., who passes away and leaves his fortune to his adopted son from his fourth marriage, instead of his biological offspring.
Since the book is mostly set on the Upper West Side — and is littered with parallels to her own family’s history — we asked Maura to share some of its real-life influences:
1. Narrow streets
The tiny passageways nestled in the quieter areas of Manhattan, such as Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village, are some of her favorite places. To honor them, her protagonist Shelley lives on a small, made-up street on the Upper West Side that is bordered with brownstones. “She kind of romanticizes it,” Maura said of the character’s block. “Her house itself is this hidden, very New York and old-fashioned place, so I was really thinking about those little streets when I was building the character of Shelley and her life.”
2. James Roosevelt
Maura’s grandfather James Roosevelt, the oldest son of Franklin and Eleanor, was married four times and had or adopted children with each wife, which gave Maura a sense of the relationships between step-kids. However, “in the book the children of Roger are conflicted about their relationship with each other, which does not reflect real life,” Maura said. “My father and his stepsiblings seem very at peace, so I just took the details of the situation and then fictionalized them.”
3. The Waldorf Astoria Hotel
In the book, Maura models a fictional hotel, the Whitby-Grand, after the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue and its rich history of aristocratic galas and exclusive meetings. “I like the idea of an old-fashioned, beautiful hotel,” she said. It fits one her novel’s themes, which explores whether “old New York” was as glamorous as its legend implies. “That’s one of the questions of the book,” Maura explained. “Are people romanticizing that? Did it ever really exist?”
4. The Occupy movement
In the book, Roger’s adopted son Nick joins an activist group that grows into a movement. “People begin doing sit-ins outside this old museum and then they overtake the park outside of it, and they end up sleeping there,” said Maura, noting that her book’s version of Occupy Wall Street takes place uptown.