- by Sara Fitzgerald
As an author of romance novels, it perhaps was not surprising that when I first approached Elly Peterson, the subject of my new biography, it was with a certain amount of curiosity about the course of her love life and marriage.
Most of my book, Elly Peterson: “Mother” of the Moderates, naturally focuses on Peterson’s political career: as a national Republican leader, U.S. Senate candidate, presidential campaign staff member and feminist leader, including a stint as co-chair of ERAmerica, the coalition of organizations that lobbied for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s. But Peterson’s career was also shaped by a love story, albeit a somewhat unconventional one.
Peterson, who died in 2008 at the age of 94, was a member of the Greatest Generation, women whose lives were defined by the Great Depression, World War II—and, to a large extent—limits on the professional opportunities they could enjoy, certainly in comparison with my own generation. Peterson did not have any children of her own, and she was the first to acknowledge that she never would have been able to pursue the kind of professional career she did if she had had children.
But she also was fortunate to meet a man who was not only supportive of her professional aspirations, but also shared a view of married life that was surprisingly modern for the 1950s.
Elly McMillan met “Pete” Peterson through a friend at the University of Illinois, and over the course of 18 months of trips between Chicago and Champaign-Urbana, their relationship flowered. The romance writer in me was probably a bit disappointed when I asked her late in her life for details of her courtship and engagement and she replied: “We had just been going together and it just happened. He began going home with me, and I went home with him and we just decided to get married. But there was nothing especially romantic about it. . . .”
After their wedding—Elly wore the same dress her mother and grandmother had worn—the Petersons settled into married life, first in Chicago and then in Kalamazoo, Michigan. But then World War II broke out, Pete enlisted, and they began drifting apart. In contrast to the stereotype of the “quickie wartime wedding” before the husband headed off to war, the Petersons actually decided to get divorced.
Peterson’s memories were fuzzy late in life, but she observed, “I was in a city [Chicago] which had been captured by soldiers from all over, and everyone catered to them and life was quite a party for the young (and I guess ‘foolish’).” She felt her behavior reflected “a lack of maturity on my part.”
But Peterson increasingly felt at loose ends, and by fall of 1943, she had volunteered to go overseas with the American Red Cross. She was dating a dentist assigned to her U.S. Army Field Hospital, when she had a surprise visitor a few weeks before the D-Day landings—her former husband.
I’ve watched enough old movies set in wartime London that I could almost write the screenplay. But Peterson provided her own version, in the letter she wrote home to her Mother:
“I . . . was just heading for work [about] 10 when I got a phone call—Pete. I was about floored. He was in London until evening and could not make it out to camp so I told him I would come in there. . .whereupon I changed my clothes, got permission, got a jeep to catch the train—and it was an hour late—so I stood out in the cold for that hour and then stood on the train for two getting there. . . .
“Not having seen Pete for nearly two years, I was wondering if I would know him and he has changed—he was fat as a pig for one thing—his face so filled out and he looks so different from most over here as he still has the tan he acquired on the desert—then his hair is much much grayer—and of course I had never seen him in an officers [sic] uniform.”
Pete, she reported, had gone to church at Westminster Abbey that morning and then “decided that was all of London he wanted to see so we just spent the day visiting. . . . and had a very nice one.”
“Pete, she wrote, “thought the only change in me was I am fatter (which I am in reality not—but I think it is these darned suits) and my hair much grayer. He said I still wobbled as much as I used to!”
She concluded, “I won’t be seeing him again—but anyway it was nice to get it over for the first time.”
Pete survived the D-Day landing, and thoughout the rest of the war, stayed in touch with Elly’s family. On a visit to her sister after he returned home, he called Elly long distance in San Francisco. “When he called,” she said, “I realized I was still in love.” They remarried on Feb. 5, 1948.
Throughout her career, Pete remained a strong supporter of his wife. Whenever she was asked to take on a major new assignment, including some that would require extensive travel and living in another city, she always said she would have to ask her husband first. But Pete invariably told her that if she wanted to do it, she should go for it. And so she did.
Divorce was more unusual in those days than it is today, and in her official biographies, Peterson always dated her marriage from her first wedding. Some close friends knew the Petersons had been divorced, and one described to me how Pete would play a game by extolling the virtues of “his first wife” in Elly’s presence to friends who did not realize she was wife No. 1 AND No. 2.
Still there were others who were in the dark, including my mother, who became a close friend of the Petersons late in their lives. I interviewed another woman my age who described how Elly had given her valuable advice when she was going through her own marital difficulties—without ever revealing her own interesting marital history.
Pete was, by all descriptions, a “man’s man,” whose passions included the military, golf and hunting. The Petersons’ marriage was, by all accounts, a long and happy one, filled with respect for each other and the ability to make space so they could each pursue their personal interests.
The conventional romance novel usually ends with the hero and heroine ready and willing to make a lifetime commitment, and the expectation that they will “live happily ever after.” But in real life, “things happen,” and most “till-death-do-us-part” real-life love stories will, of course, usually involve the death of one partner before the other. In the Petersons’ case, Elly outlived her husband by 14 years.
The Petersons’ long love story was somewhat unconventional for its time—and it also lacked some of the conventions of romance fiction. Still, it was a joy to have the opportunity to explore it and to tell it to a wider audience.