Before she died 50 years ago, the former first lady asked for a quiet, unassuming memorial. Instead, her death launched the modern era of A-list tributes and public mourning.
No one was going to tell Eleanor Roosevelt what to do, even after she was dead. In fact, she started orchestrating her funeral years before she passed away, on November 7, 1962. She wanted the service to be small, simple ("just a plain pine coffin covered with a blanket of pine boughs"), and private -- so private that she didn't want her death publicly announced until the funeral was over and it was too late for the world to mourn. "I had to tell her," said her friend William Turner Levy, "that she was being unrealistic."
But Eleanor Roosevelt was as defiant as she was unassuming, and on November 10, she got the funeral she wanted -- to a point. Keeping her death secret was out of the question, but the list of invitees was limited to about 250. The service was held in FDR's St. James' Church in Hyde Park. Even the weather -- cold, grey, and rainy -- was understated.
A few hours before the service, John Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor's sixth and youngest child, hosted a lunch at his home next door to his mother's Val-Kill Cottage. It was a typical family wake, and modest enough to have pleased his mother: sandwiches, coffee, chit-chat.
Typical, that is, if you didn't count the lady in the dark mink hat smoking a cigarette on the couch (Jackie Kennedy). Or the small group of men (Truman, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Johnson) who stopped talking shop in a corner only when they were interrupted by an urgent request, delivered by Jimmy Roosevelt's wife, Irene: "Mr. President, your wife would like to see you now." The men naturally had to ask: Which Mr. President? (It was Bess Truman, beckoning Harry.)
Fifty years later, it seems obvious that, despite her orders, 78-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt was fated to receive an A-list funeral. No president's wife accomplished what she did as a labor activist, civil rights foot soldier, syndicated columnist, and best-selling author. And that was just while she lived at the White House. Roosevelt ultimately became, in Truman's words, "First Lady of the World," following her time in the White House with a long career as a human-rights activist and United Nations delegate. Of course her funeral was bound to attract quite a turnout. Her life, as Whitman might have said, contained multitudes.
Except in those days, big lives didn't always receive big send-offs. Before Roosevelt's death, Americans rarely dissolved into communal tears as we do now with the passing of presidents (or of nearly any celebrity who dies before the age of 60). In 1962, only five presidents had been given state funerals (President Teddy Roosevelt, a Mt. Rushmore fixture and Eleanor's uncle, was not one them), and just over two dozen men had lain in state under the Capitol dome.