Mary Roosevelt treasures her holiday childhood memories in England and one particular Christmas in France with her beloved late husband James Roosevelt.
Mary Roosevelt remembers with fondness a particular Christmas in Nice, France, that wasn’t supposed to be in France. The year was 1971.
“Jim was flying in from New York and because the weather was terrible in Geneva, he had to land in Nice. So, I packed up myself and our 9-month-old daughter Rebecca – and a miniature fold-up Christmas tree, which I bought at the last minute – and flew to Nice to meet him. The weather was horrible, but we made it.”
Jim arrived first and had booked the Presidential Suite in Hotel Negresco, and when Mary and Rebecca arrived, they unpacked Mary’s tiny gold artificial tree and celebrated the holiday.
“We had a wonderful Christmas,” Mary remembers. “However, compared to our usual tree, which filled our living room, this one was less than two feet high and a scrappy little thing, but it was Christmas as far as we were concerned.”
Mary Winskill’s childhood Christmas memories take her back to England, where she lived on the border of England and Wales, in farming countryside.
“We lived near the village of Bromborough in Cheshire County,” Mary says.
Since Mary was born in 1939, the year World War II started, she doesn’t remember much until she was 4 or 5, but she does remember there was very little food – certainly no special meals at Christmas and no candy or toys.
“I was a little girl, but I remember how we looked forward to Christmas, and because it was wartime, we didn’t have much. Mother would stuff our stockings with an orange and apple, a new penny and maybe some note paper. It was war time, and there certainly weren’t dolls as gifts for little girls.”
However, Mary’s mother, who was a trained teacher, was also a master carpenter, who set up a workshop in their garage to craft wooden gifts for her children and the children in the neighborhood.
“You couldn’t buy new dolls during the war, so Mother found some beat-up old dolls, redid their faces and hair and dressed them in clothes she made from her old clothes,” Mary says.
One particular gift for Mary and her brother Andrew delighted them.
“Mother made miniature copies out of wood of my bedroom furniture and a miniature train set with an engine for my brother,” she remembers.
And, since there were no party dresses for young girls at the time, Mary’s mother cut down her evening dresses and made party dresses for her and her best friend, Susan. On one occasion, Mary remembers her mother taking down the dining room drapes and making an Elizabeth I costume for her for some special event.
The family did have a Christmas tree during the war. They cut down a tree from a nearby forest every year.
“I remember the tree being in the entryway, and we loved decorating it,” Mary says. “Mother would add lights to the tree, and, as it was in a room with no windows, we did not violate the blackout law.”
Mary’s father was a machine tool engineer, who was also part of the Home Guard and managed the air raid shelters and ammunition factories in the area.
After the war, the street lights came on, and candy, toys and lights for Christmas were back.
“We had food–turkeys with all the trimmings, including fruit and mince pies,” Mary recalls.
After graduating from the Queen’s School in Chester, where many of the girls spoke Welsh, Mary decided that teaching children was what she wanted to do. She had always loved children. With her mother’s permission, she had played with groups of abused boys of all nationalities in an old manor house in Bromborough for six years and that experience solidified her decision to be a teacher.
Mary received her teaching credential from the Froebel Educational Institute in London and taught in the slum areas of the city for two years.
“I would have 40+ kids in my classroom at a time,” she says. “Many of their parents were in prison, and they had horrible lives. It was a challenging, eye-opening experience.”
Mary had a dream of teaching at the International School of Geneva, in Switzerland, in order to travel the world and explore different cultures, so she set up an interview with the director general of the school. She had been told that she needed to wear a hat for the interview, and, indeed, all the ladies being interviewed wore hats. Mary hated hats, so she didn’t wear one. The director grilled her and said she would find it difficult teaching overseas and also as a single person, versus one with a family.
“I argued that it would make more sense to have all the teachers – married and single – reside in a contingent of apartment buildings owned by the school,” Mary told the director.
Mary didn’t get the job, but six months later, after she had returned to Chester to teach at the Queen’s School, where she had been a student, she received a notice that there was a teaching opportunity available for her in Geneva and that her furniture would be shipped to a beautiful, new apartment complex on the shores of Lake Geneva. She was delighted and ended up helping develop the International Elementary Curriculum at the school. It was also fortuitous because it was in Geneva that Mary met James Roosevelt, the father of one of her students and the oldest son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They became friends.
After six years in Geneva, Mary moved to New York City to take the job as principal of the Junior House of United Nations International, and, to her surprise, Jim was there to greet her at the airport. They continued their friendship, but when Jim kept showing up at airports in many different parts of the world that she visited for her job, she got suspicious.
“I found out my secretary was giving Jim my travel schedule,” Mary says.
It wasn’t long before Jim asked her to marry him.
“I was perfectly happy with my single life and had wonderful men in my life. I wasn’t interested in being married. But, he tried for a year, and I finally gave in. It’s ironic that he became the love of my life!”
Jim insisted on traveling to England and asking Mary’s father, Joseph Winskill, for her hand. She thought it was silly and didn’t go, so Jim went alone.
“My father said, ‘You don’t have a very good track record and Mary is impossible, but if you really want to marry, it is alright with me.’”
Actually, Roosevelt was a catch as a highly decorated Marine war hero and had been a member of the famous Carlson’s Raiders of the 2nd Marine Raiders Battalion, said to be the first United States special operations forces to form and see combat in World War II. Their raid on Makin Island in the Pacific fighting the Japanese was historic.
“He loved the Marine Corps, and even after his passing, the Marines invited me to their Birthday Balls and their Raider reunions,” Mary says.
So, the unlikely pair was married in 1969 at Valkill Cottage, the cottage FDR built for Eleanor at Hyde Park, and began what turned out to be a wonderful 25-year marriage. After their honeymoon in Montego Bay, Jamaica, they returned to Geneva for their first Christmas in their new home, in the little village of Jussy. Jim was working in Geneva at the time. But, it wasn’t long after the unexpected Christmas in Nice a few years later that the couple, infant in hand, made their new home in Newport Beach, California.
To say they lived a larger-than-life marriage is an understatement. Mary fit right in, becoming friends with Prince Charles, heads of state around the world, corporate titans, and friends of Jim’s in his old stomping ground, Hollywood. Jim loved her for that.
After Jim’s passing in 1991, Mary, who had received an American California Teaching Credential in 1974, continued her work with UC Irvine, where she taught and supervised student teacher programs until she retired in 1999. Her work led to major changes in the UC Irvine teaching curriculum, and together with her work with the UCI Foundation, UCI Chancellor’s Club and as President Emeritus of the University of California Research Associates, Mary received the UCI Medal in 1990, the university’s highest honor.
Today, Mary’s life is filled with grandchildren–Rebecca and Victor have four children: Kolby, Jamie, Shannon and Ryan. They are the delight of her life, and she is a part of their lives every afternoon after school.
Mary relates that their Christmases are as follows:
“The grandkids come over to my house in Corona del Mar on Christmas morning with their parents, and we open gifts and have lunch. They go home, and I drive over to their house for Christmas dinner and spend the night there.”
It is a cherished Christmas tradition, among the many this dynamic lady has enjoyed over the years.