First Lady of the World
November 7, 2012 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of Eleanor Roosevelt. How can it be that one human being could be the focus of such extremes of opinion? Depending upon whom you talk to she was the most loved - or the most hated - woman of the twentieth century. She was seen by J.Edgar Hoover as so huge a threat to the peace and security of the free world that her FBI file was larger than Al Capone's. At one point late in her life, the Klu Klux Klan would put a price on her life. One prominent pillar of the plutocracy once dismissed her life's work, referring to her as a compulsive do-gooder, "with a housewife's desire to redecorate".
African Americans of her generation, and beyond, loved her more than any other white person. To the right wing she was (and still is) the mock-inducing poster girl of American Liberalism. To insufferable lefties like myself, she was (and remains) a secular saint. To the people all over the world who struggled for human rights, she was the personification of all that was - and is - admirable about America. She was the First Lady of the world.
Born on the eleventh of October 1884, it defies the limits of human fortitude that she was able to accomplish in life what she did. Unlike the stable and loving childhood of her future husband and distant cousin, Franklin, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt's early years were an endless litany of sorrow and psychological turmoil. Her mother was the beautiful society maiden, Anna Hall, who in 1883 married Elliot, the younger brother of Theodore Roosevelt. Anna could never accept her only daughter's rather plain looks. Keeping her emotionally at bay, she referred to the little girl as "Granny". Her only solace was her drunken, drug-addicted father who was devoted to her.
FOR THE RECORD: I think she was beautiful.
When Anna died of diphtheria in December of 1892, Eleanor felt a strange indifference. "All that mattered to me was that I would soon be with my father" she wrote many years later. When Elliot Roosevelt died from injuries sustained in an alcohol-related accident in the summer of 1894, Eleanor and her little brother, Hall, became orphans, bequeathed to the care of their stern and joyless maternal grandmother in Tivoli, New York. In the years that followed her father's death, Eleanor withdrew from the world, a forlorn little girl with a lifetime of tragedy reflected in the eyes of a nine-year-old.
In 1899 at the age of fifteen, she was sent to a private "finishing school" in London, England called "Allenswood Academy" which was run by an elderly feminist educator named, Mademoiselle Marie Souvestre. The gentle and compassionate woman took the troubled teenager under her wing. It was here that Eleanor Roosevelt blossomed.
She returned to the United States in 1902 and in two years became engaged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When they were married on St. Patrick's Day 1905, her uncle, the president, would walk her down the aisle in the place of her deceased father. Now she could look forward to the role the women of her class in that era were expected to play, that of the traditional wife of a professional man on the ascent. In the ensuing eleven years she gave birth to six children (one of whom would die in infancy).
In 1918 her comfortable and serene world imploded when she discovered that her husband had been having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. She offered Franklin a divorce but his mother, the indomitable Sara, threatened to disinherit him if he accepted. She was not about to see her grandchildren soiled by such a scandal. Also, a divorce would have ended his political career. By this time Roosevelt was serving in the Wilson administration as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Even in 1918 he had his eyes on the White House. They both consented to save the marriage. Although they would never again share the physical intimacies of a husband and wife, they would forever remain devoted to one another.
Three years later in the summer of 1921, came the trauma that would change the family forever. While on vacation at their summer home on Campobello Island, Franklin was stricken with infantile paralysis. He would never again walk unassisted. It was generally agreed that the career of this rising young star of American politics was over. This was the moment that Eleanor became transformed. She was determined that Franklin's career would proceed. With the help of FDR's political adviser, an eccentric, brilliant and rumpled little man named Louis Howe, she became her husband's "eyes and ears", standing in for him at as many political gatherings and meetings as possible. This shy and reserved woman even began to make speeches, not only in New York state, but all over the country!
Considering all he had going against him, Franklin's physical and political recovery was impressive. Seven years after being stricken with polio he would be elected governor of New York. On March 4, 1933 he was inaugurated the thirty-second president of the United States.
She did not want to be First Lady. The night her husband was sworn in found her in a state of severe depression, almost to the point of despair. If only she had known then that she would be living in the White House for an unprecedented (and never repeated) twelve years. The very thought of living out the the traditional role of the president's wife - hosting teas for the ladies of Washington and other such trivial pursuits - filled her with dread. Possibly without even being aware of it, she revolutionized the role. Her tenure as First Lady of the land would set the standard against which all future ones would be compared. Eleanor Roosevelt is without peer.
If there is credit to be given to any single white person for the mass migration of black people from the "party of Abraham Lincoln" to the Democratic party, that credit should be given to Mrs. Roosevelt. Within a few years African Americans would come to realize that they had a friend in the White House. Franklin had to contend with the headache of dealing with a Democratic party that at that time was filled with southern racists. If he remained publicly passive on the subject of civil rights, privately was a different matter. She had his blessings - although at times she added to those headaches.
In 1937 a newspaper photographer caught her gently bending down and embracing a little "negro" girl in her Sunday best who was presenting the First Lady with a bouquet of flowers. In exchange for the gift, Eleanor offered the child a radiant smile one could read at midnight by. Disgusted newspaper editorials all over the land (particularly in the south - SURPRISE!) stood up as one in horrified, righteous indignation.
HOW COULD THE FIRST LADY OF THIS GRAND AND GLORIOUS LAND OF OURS ALLOW HERSELF TO BE SEEN BOWING TO AND SMILING AT SOME WRETCHED LITTLE PICKANINNY???
Eleanor Roosevelt did not apologize. I hope that child (whoever she was) never found out how grown adults reacted to her sweet and innocent gesture. It would have broken her little heart. It was that kind of time in America. We've changed - for the most part....I think.
When in 1939 the African American singer Marian Anderson was refused permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution the opportunity to sing in Constitution Hall - for no other reason than the color of her skin - Eleanor promptly resigned her membership in that organization in disgust and made the arrangements for Ms. Anderson to sing at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It's one of those moments in American history that one longs to have been alive to witness, a moment forever engraved into America's soul and consciousness. It illustrated, more than any other single event of that time, America's essential goodness.
On that sacred Easter Sunday, under the statue of the great emancipator, as Marian Anderson sang Schubert's Ave Maria before an integrated audience of seventy-five thousand people - and millions more across the land via the new medium of radio - whom among the multitudes gathered would have dared to dream that they were bearing witness to the beginning of a long chain of events which would lead to the inauguration of the first African American president three score and ten years later?
When Franklin Roosevelt died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, even her friends were predicting that she would drift away into quiet obscurity. They were wrong. In fact her most monumental achievement was ahead of her.
In 1946 President Harry Truman appointed Mrs. Roosevelt as a delegate to the General Assembly of the newly formed United Nations. On December 10, 1948, they adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document whose creation she, more than anyone, was responsible for. It is one of her most impressive and enduring gifts to humanity.
At the end of her life she was depressed at what she saw as her failure as a mother, her children being the very picture of dysfunction with nineteen marriages between the five of them. She was also tired, and yet she lamented to a friend in her final hours, "I still have so much to do." She quietly passed from this world on November 7, 1962. She was seventy-eight.
Eleanor Roosevelt was a complex and, in many respects, tormented women, the psychological scars of her childhood always lingering at the peripherals of her consciousness. She sought emotional intimacy from a husband who was unable to reciprocate. All her life she would seek it elsewhere from her closest friends. She could be loving and kind to some; cold and aloof to others. Given all that I have read, I'm not too sure I would have been content with her as a wife or a mother or a sister - but I would love to have been her friend - just to hang out with her. That would have been very cool. Can you understand why I love this woman so much?
Tonight let us all tip our hats and raise a glass to the memory of the First Lady of the world.
by Eleanor Roosevelt
Here is a link to a little eleven-minute video tribute to Anna Eleanor Roosevelt that was released by the FDR Library in Hyde Park, New York:
She speaks to us from across the decades. We should listen to her, you know? We really should.
"Beautiful young people are accidents of nature. Beautiful old people are works of art."
Young or old, she was beautiful.
AFTERTHOUGHT 11/15/12: This amusing, unpublished photograph of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt was taken around 1938 I think. It was provided to me by my Facebook friend, Joyce Clemons. It was given to her by the late Dick Bingham who uncovered it from the photo files of the old Dispatch of Columbus Ohio. The First Lady is making what seems to me to be a particularly good point.
|"You have to accept whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it with the best you have to give."|