“Intimate” and “private” is how author and royal researcher Tor Bomann-Larsen has described the “close relationship” between Norway’s Crown Princess Martha and US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II, when she lived in exile in the Washington DC area. One thing is clear: It sealed relations between Norway and the US, and helped boost Norway’s standing internationally.
Norwegian media outlets have been full of stories this week tied to the release of the seventh volume in Bomann-Larsen’s lengthy historical series about Norway’s first modern king, Haakon VII, and the royal family he established. The new book, entitled Hjemlandet (The Homeland), covers the dramatic years from November 1940, after Norway had been invaded by Nazi Germany, until May 1945, when King Haakon’s son, Crown Prince Olav, became the first member of the royal family to triumphantly return to the newly liberated country.
Martha, a former Swedish princess who’d married Olav in 1929, fled first to Sweden right after the invasion in April 1940 with the couple’s three children including Norway’s current king, Harald. While her husband and father-in-law continued to resist the invasion and ultimately fled to London, she and her children stayed with relatives in Sweden until August, when they were offered refuge by Roosevelt himself, who also helped arrange a home for them just outside Washington DC.
Thus began what Bomann-Larsen calls Roosevelt’s “infatuation” with Crown Princess Martha. It proved highly advantageous for the Norwegian government and monarchy in exile and for the eventual liberation of their homeland. Roosevelt often invited Martha for dinner, lunch, tea and excursions, and visited her family’s home at a time when Crown Prince Olav could only come for short visits from London.
While promoting his book in recent days, Bomann-Larsen has boasted of “new sources” of information for his account of their FDR’s relationship with the crown princess, including the diaries of the palace chief at the time, Wedel Jarlsberg. “We can check into almost any period of America’s World War II history, and Martha is there,” Bomann-Larsen told reporters this week. “When the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany in June 1941, everyone was waiting for Roosevelt. Where was he? He was having dinner with Martha. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Roosevelt had to make a call to cancel lunch with Norway’s crown princess before declaring war on Japan.”
When Roosevelt also launched his idea for an international plan for peace, which became a forerunner of the United Nations, his venue was the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, in Crown Prince Martha’s honour. Norway ultimately played a major role at the founding of the UN.
‘Look to Martha’
Roosevelt boosted Norway’s profile on several other occasions as well, not least in one of his famous speeches when he urged Americans to “look to Norway” for inspiration to win the war, referring to the Norwegian resistance effort.
“I call it ‘look to Martha,'” Bomann-Larsen said this week. Yet he said he could find no proof of any love affair or sexual relationship between the two. “He was infatuated with her, everything indicates that,” Bomann-Larsen said. “And for her, it was expected that she be there for the president. She had everything to gain, even though it must have been a strain on her.”
The diaries indicate the two “did not talk politics,” though, according to the book. Bomann-Larsen thinks the crown princess provided more of a social outlet for a president under pressure, and he notes that Crown Prince Olav was a great admirer of Roosevelt.
Other royal historians disagree with Bomann-Larsen’s dismissal of Martha’s political role, contending the relationship between Martha and FDR was very much a political partnership. Trond Norén Isaksen, who has written a book about Crown Princess Martha, contends that the Norwegian Embassy in Washington used her as “a Trojan Horse, filling her with all the information they could find about what was going on in Europe so that she could take to it Roosevelt’s White House and use it to extract favours. He also claims Eleanor Roosevelt viewed Martha as more of a lady friend of her husband’s than a lover. When Roosevelt, who had a history of womanizing, died on April 12, 1945 at his holiday home in Warm Springs, Georgia, it was his longtime mistress Lucy Mercer who was with him, not Martha or Eleanor. The author could find no letters between Olav and Martha from the time and fears they were destroyed.
‘Best possible propaganda position’
The war years changed Norway’s role in the world forever, with newfound support and respect from the US and UK, and cemented the role of the monarchy within Norway. King Haakon is described in the new book as a keen strategist who became so popular during the war years that the weak government in exile actually proposed that he assume more power, but he declined.
The book has received good reviews in Norway for its story-telling of intrigue and power plays around the struggle over the occupied Norway’s political fate. The Labour Party secured its grip on power during the war while King Haakon understood the importance of the resistance fighters back home. He was the one who arranged for his son to return to a newly free Norway on May 13, 1945, alone and as the first royal to come home. That symbolically boosted Olav’s own image among Norwegians, Bomann-Larsen writes, and ensured his success as Norway’s next king.
It was Roosevelt’s relationship with Crown Princess Martha, though, that Bomann-Larsen believes played an important role in the American mobilization to fight Hitler in Europe after he’d spent years trying to stay out of the conflict. The crown princess also gave Norway “the best possible propaganda position” in Washington. Close ties between King Haakon and Crown Princess Martha further nurtured the king’s efforts to help preserve Norway’s monarchy and its strong relations to the US. The latter remains highly relevant, also in terms of current defense cooperation.