Wednesday, November 14, 2012

First Lady of the World

“Do not stop thinking of life as an adventure. You have no security unless you can live bravely, excitingly, imaginatively; unless you can choose a challenge instead of competence.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

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.


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.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY 


My Life
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." 

Eleanor Roosevelt 

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're seeing it here for the first time on "The Rant", Folks!

 "You have to accept whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it with the best you have to give."


At 1:51 PM, Blogger Joanne Noragon said...

There have been and are many great women and Eleanor Roosevelt is first among firsts. I believe I have read every thing available about her, but never tire of more. I hope your tribute sends some Eleanor Roosevelt novices to the library.

At 4:13 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Thank you for that, Joanne. We should all know the life and work of this extraordinary human being.

I'm just crazy 'bout that gal!


At 6:48 PM, Blogger Mycue23 said...

While I think Mrs. Roosevelt was an extraordinary person, I think you give her too much credit when it comes to changing racial voting patterns in this country. Given the fact that blacks were routinely denied the right to vote up through the civil rights act and the voting rights act, I think that the fact that there was a democrat in the white house (pushing through those pieces of legislation) had much more to do with the changing voting patterns of blacks. Certainly in a much more meaningful way than Mrs. Roosevelt's gestures.
She was extraordinary because she was a decent person when people in power most often were not. Especially when it came to their treatment of blacks. Being decent, does not translate in my mind to being heroic. You could look to any civil rights worker during her day and see much more heroic deeds on a day to day basis. People who faced lynching, police abuse, daily intimidation, fire bombings, the Ku Klux Klan, etc. While her deeds may have been grand (because of the position her husband held), I'm not sure they rose past the level of common human decency. The problem was that common human decency was apparently in very short supply at the time.I do understand the lionization of Mrs. Roosevelt, but I think we should have a little bit more perspective.

Although, perhaps displaying common human decency when all those around you refuse to, is heroic.

At 11:50 AM, Blogger charles moore said...

Tom, thank you for a wonderful tribute to an incredible woman.

One of my favorite Roosevelt anecdotes is that one morning when Franklin came down to breakfast he asked where Eleanor was and was told that she was off to a prison. His reply, was "I am not surprised, but what for?"

At 12:07 PM, Anonymous James said...

It seems all the great figures in politics lived in the past, nowadays most politicians are shallow as paint. In the past it was not unusual for a Dem or Repub to cross the isle and sit with their friend for a session of congress, that would be unthinkable today.

Big money and lobbyist have corrupted our political system beyond repair. Coupled with an uninformed and divided public has the makings of a disaster in the years to come. I can not see any solutions to our downfall, can you?

At 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


How about this for a start, the Senate passing a budget for the 1time in for 4 years.

At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Romney was right. The Welfare President delivered.

One only need look in the big democrat controlled cities..... millions of people so poorly educated they are nearly useless for employment. Yet there is a gigantic infrastructure built around their needs at the expense of those who do right in life. And who will they vote for? hmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Democrats victimize people so you can control them. They are like drug dealers selling to children. Barry has been a freeloader his entire life and is a composite utopian fantasy person created under the influence of drugs and corruption. No intelligence to be found (nice job sealing your academic records Barry!)

In Obamaland you can tax the "rich" to the tune of an extra 80 billion or so and delusionally solve our trillion dollar budget problems.

In Obamaland, the federal governent has endless "revenue" to "invest" in sacred things like "green energy" that have sent billions of taxpayer money down the toilet.

In Obamaland, it is perfectly reasonable to expect people to leave their religion at the church door, thank you very much, and not be troubled by the tenets of their faith when they conflict with the demands of the state.

In Obamaland, it is perfectly reasonable for nearly half the population of the country to rely on the other half to sustain them.

In Obamaland, we must believe that our country can continue to borrow a trillion dollars every year, ad infinitum, with no consequences to our economy.

In Obamaland, we are expected to remain incurious as to why and how our Ambassador is murdered and who might be to blame.

Obama won with free stuff, slanderous character assasination, and propoganda, and everyone knows it.

Hail Obama, our Santa Claus!

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Brick1101 said...

Eleanor Roosevelt was such a class act who will inspire over the years. My mother had in her funeral instructions to be laid out as Eleanor originally wished: a simple coffin with only pine boughs for any decoration. Eleanor and my mom wanted no flowers or grand send off. Eleanor did not get her wish, but my mother did. It was December 1994 when my mother was laid out in the the inexpensive metal closed casket with only fresh pine branches to adorn the cover of the coffin. The memory of the pine fragrance and the simplicity of the entire event is something I'll carry for the rest of my life. I just have to smell fresh pine boughs and I now think of my mother and Eleanor. Their spirits live on....

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...


Thank you for those memories of Mrs. Roosevelt and your mother. It reminded me of an article that was posted last week in the Atlantic. Here's a link:

Eleanor Roosevelt's Anything-But-Private Funeral

All the best,

Tom Degan

At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Anon...Do you spend your entire waking hours and God only knows how many monikers apparently cutting and pasting your constant flow of mean-spirited, narrow-minded, incendiary bunch of bovine scatology (bullshit) meant to inflame and target all things "of the lower nature" of mankind? this how you get your jollies? What a sad and bitter person you must be. See ya...wouldn't want to be ya. Whatta monumental pinhead you are. I guess you're lucky Tom allows you to display your utter stupidity at The Rant for all of us to see. Not being as generous as Tom, I'd cut you out like the cancer you are. In some twisted way, I've become more and more curious over the past months reading the tripe you apparently pull out of your ass, wondering just what makes a mind like yours tick.

At 8:58 PM, Anonymous QED said...

Thanks, Tom. So much about Eleanor Roosevelt I did not know. It sounds like she was a true visionary... It is instructive how intensely and vocally many conservatives appear to despise strong, independent Democratic first ladies... Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, need I say more? There seems to be an extreme level of threat to the conservative ego for the first lady to stray from the passive, smiling, milquetoast, perfectly turned out Stepford wife helpmate model. Barbara and Laura Bush were received with much more kindness and respect by the Left, and even Nancy Reagan was never on the receiving end of the same level of vitriol that the Right has dished out for Hillary and Michelle... I guess it should not be surprising given the backwards looking paternalistic mindset of the GOP...

At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh...and by the way, my droid wouldn't allow me to post any other way than "anonymous" but I'm a follower of Tom's blog. I'm known to Tom as "Sal" and unlike yourself, I go by name. For some reason I've been reading your contributions to The Rant gor months and wonder why you hang around all us liberal/commie/lefties. Couldn't you be offering your point of view to all the sore losers, the tantrum throwing, blathering idiots whose line of thought fits right into your own hateful diatribe? One more angry little crybaby is always welcomed by what's left (no pun intended) of the smouldering ash heap of the GOP!

At 11:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Anon...Do you spend your entire waking hours and God only knows how many monikers apparently cutting and pasting your constant flow of mean-spirited, narrow-minded, incendiary bunch of bovine scatology (bullshit) meant to inflame and target all things "of the lower nature" of mankind? "

Are you talking to your self? Could call for a visit to the Headshrinker if you are.

Dear Anon, is this you going by a name? I'm really worried about your mental health. You seem overly concerned about cutting and pasting, but gee isnt that what Sal does for about a 1/3 of his post?

No, I'm not talking about my Anon, I'm talking about the other Anon. Try to stay focused, it doesn't surprise me one bit that you can't tell the difference between the me when I sign my real name and when you don't. It's so clear this is just a plot by the Tea Party to spread confusion amongst we smart progressives, so just stop it. We are on to you. We cant be fooled! (LOL)

At 11:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok Anon, I know who you really are, and cutting and pasting this truthful stuff is really busting up my buzz, man. If you cant cut and past great stories about Obama, please don't paste any at all. Just do like Sal does and focus on FDR and his wife, or the Beatles. Yah Yah Yah Yaaaah!

I was told this would happen if I voted for Romney!

A pair of foreign-owned solar companies that benefited from a combined $84 million in Energy Department tax credits have announced they will lay off employees.

One of the companies, German-owned SolarWorld, was integral in the fight for tariffs against the importation of Chinese photovoltaic solar panels. The other, Chinese company SunTech, blamed those tariffs for its own layoffs.

Both companies benefited from the Energy Department’s stimulus-funded Advanced Energy Manufacturing (48C) Tax Credit. The 48C credit is worth up to 30% of the cost of manufacturing qualifying green energy projects.

SolarWorld received a credit worth $82 million, while SunTech’s was worth $2.1 million.

At 3:13 PM, Anonymous diane said...

i would like to remind you as well of Helen Keller she too was a progressive who was vilified and threatened. Have you seen the Untold History of the United States produced by Stone? Just saw the first part, I had no idea about Wallace or what an utter worm Truman was? So much history so little time to hear the truth.ohbtw thanks for the link to the al gore thang.

At 3:48 PM, Anonymous Ron Baldwin said...

Diane wrote at 3:13 PM, “I had no idea about …… what an utter worm Truman was.”

If you are referring to President Harry S. Truman you have no idea who he was and what he stood for. As an old geezer I remember Truman’s Presidency well. Although he was not well respected while he was President, in retrospect he is considered a truly great American and a truly great President. I suggest you read Truman, a biography published in 1992, written by highly acclaimed author David McCullough.

One paragraph on page 991 of the Touchstone edition of McCullough’s biography sums up who Harry S Truman was, and reads as follows:

“Ambitious by nature. he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear. Yet he was not and had never been a simple, ordinary man. The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of his friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great American president.”

Another treasure is the book, Off the Record, by Robert H. Ferrell published in 1980. This book contains diary entries, memoranda, and letters by Truman dating from 1945 to November 1971 when, as Ferrell notes, “only a few months of life remained and the retired President’s days had become so constricted that he ran out of things to write about.”

At 3:51 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

I can still recall the very last sentence in the McCullough biography, Ron:

"He stands like a rock in history."

Indeed he does.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger Dave Dubya said...

Eleanor Roosevelt was a grand lady and honorable fellow "traitor to their class".

Americans are waking up. This past election saw the American people vote for Democrats to retain the White House and Senate. They voted for more Democratic Representatives too. In fact, more American voters wanted a Democratic rather than Republican Representative.

In that case, Republican gerrymandering foiled the will of the people again.

Other good news:

The L-word is quietly working its way back into the political lexicon. The number of voters identifying themselves as “liberal” jumped three points on Election Day, from 22 percent in 2008 to 25 percent this year. That’s the highest that number has been since at least 1976

Americans are waking up to the "con" in Republican conservativism.

At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great, with the L word coming back into use, we can now debate the question, what will liberals spend when they run out of other peoples money?

At 6:23 PM, Anonymous James said...

When we finish spending every body's money, we will kick your ass and take your money.

At 8:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks James, that's what I thought your answer would be.

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Krugman says the U.S. is not having a problem borrowing. Wow!!! The Federal Reserve is supplying cash non-stop to the tune of $3 trillion and counting with no possibility of dumping that debt as the U.S. adds a trillion/year MORE debt for the foreseeable future. If the U.S. had to borrow from the credit markets the interest rate would be 10%!! Krugman is deluded.

At 11:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as people like Krugman are considered legitimate spokesmen for the Democrats, I think the GOP is safe. Quite safe in fact after reading the latest Krugman article. To imply that the U.S. economy and the Federal Reserve are not in crisis mode is the pinnacle of ignorance.

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice tribute to Eleanor. I have her book - I bought it at a library sale. It's fun to read. I enjoyed her account of having the King and Queen of England come to Washington and Hyde Park. At the same time I read the 'official' bio of the Queen Mother that had the Queen's version of the same events. Special wool had been woven from Brit sheep and US sheep into fabric for the Queen and First Lady to wear. It was very hot and the Queen didn't wear hers but I think Eleanor did.
Thanks again. I love the photos. She was a beautiful woman. An admirable woman.
(Jamie in Alabama recommended your blog.)


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