A Woman for the People

by Marya Marines
ELEANOR AND FRANKLIN by Joseph P. LashNorton. $ 12.50
The clubhouse snorts and salon sniggers that followed in the wake of Eleanor Roosevelt’s rising power have long since faded into silence, even though her husband’s initials and the words “New Deal” can still shoot a twinge of hate through sclerotic veins.
Those who lived through those thirteen White House years knew the full measure of venom with which Americans who resisted change enveloped this couple: a President and his wife who recognized change as the only means of common salvation, who knew forty years ago that unless this country lived up to its stated aims of equal opportunity for all its people, depressions, wars, and racial and economic divisions would tear us apart.
Joseph Lash leaves no doubt that of the two, Eleanor was the major, more consistent, impassioned agent for change. The title alone is clue enough to her human ascendancy, stronger and stronger as her political education—mainly through Louis Howe and Harry Hopkins and the master, Franklin himself—changed her over the years from tireless “dogooder” to tough and subtle strategist. Rather than diminish her profound humanity, these acquired skills helped her to translate it— through her own actions and through the contiguous forces of her husband’s mind and will—into the climate of government itself.
How this happened is as much the story of Eleanor as it is of the nation in years of major crisis. Franklin is there, of course: mysterious complex of courage and expediency. Idealist
and pragmatist, extrovert charmer and enclosed loner, he is still susceptible to wildly diverse public judgment: great President; agent of socialism (traitor to his class); devious manipulator; would-be dictator. And, at the end—in Yalta and failing health—either heroic casualty of war and strain or a faltering mind that sold us out.
This wholly absorbing and richly documented book is subtitled “The story of their relationship based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s private papers” and is written by a man who in his twenties was virtually adopted by Mrs. Roosevelt as a fith son and knew her intimately from his young radical days as head of the American Student Union to the end of her life. And though, experienced journalist that he is, he presents this life with an objectivity almost as complete as that with which she viewed herself, the allegiance is clearly to her. His allegiance, it should be added, is shared by hundreds of Americans who knew her well, thousands who worked with her or for her or met her once, and the millions, here and throughout the world, who saw and heard her only on television or radio.
In contrast, Franklin the President, Franklin the man. Franklin the husband is seen mainly through the eyes of others: his closest advisers, his secretaries, his children, and. of course, his wife. Eleanor destroyed the letters he wrote her throughout their courtship, though he kept hers. The other woman who loved and was loved by him remained silent. And although some of his inner circle, his sons, and a number of distinguished historians, among them Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (who wrote the foreword to this book), have published memoirs, accounts, or interpretations of his politi-
cal life, the real Franklin D. Roosevelt eludes us here except in small flashes which illuminate the surface but seldom penetrate the heart. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, State Senator from New York’s Dutchess County, Undersecretary of the Navy, President of the United States for thirteen years, Commander-in-Chief through World War II, dominated the headlines of the world. But Eleanor Roosevelt, in this book at least, was center stage.
Nobody seemed less equipped for the role. Her own memoirs made it clear: and Lash fills out the story of the anguished childhood of a homely girl whose mother, Anna Hall, society beauty, called her “Granny” and died when she was eight, and whose father, Elliott Roosevelt, died when she was ten. Anna—cold, rigidly conventional, caste-obsessed—was no deprivation. The loss of a brilliant, dashing, outrageous father was devastating: he was the only one who really loved this child. His death from drink and waste and flight from reality left her with a dream relationship with him that somehow sustained her through a tortured adolescence. So too did her years at Elmswood, a school in Paris run by a remarkable Frenchwoman. Mile. Souvestre was not only an atheist (shock enough to the devout Eleanor), but her “uncompromising intolerance of pettiness and sham” set in clear focus the stifling environment of social convention to which her mother and grandmother had clung.
Souvestre’s unwavering purpose was to cultivate in her girls a lively sense of personality, curiosity, and intellectual independence without loss of the grace which she felt was “the charm and smile of life.” Elmswood played no small part in forming the woman Franklin chose for life.
In the meantime this serious, tall, ungainly girl with protruding teeth, a receding chin, unbecoming clothes, and a deep seriousness held her own among the enormous Roosevelt clans of Hyde Park and Sagamore (Uncle Teddy’s brood) only through a shining sweetness and quiet intelligence which the perceptive recognized and valued. Her few social swains (before Franklin), both younger and older, were drawn by two things: her large, blue, light-filled eyes, and her capacity for listening as well as responding.
Among her other survival assets were a rugged constitution inherited from both Roosevelt strains and lasting throughout her life, an aversion to drink and the purely frivolous pursuits which fragmented her father, and a deep Christian ethic which sustained these disciplines of body and spirit. What pleasures of the flesh she enjoyed through life were closeness to nature and to children, and she was to know in time only too well how her basic puritanism failed the needs of the man she loved. Franklin, gregarious, loving good food and wine, needing—desperately, in times of stress—a certain frivolity of talk and lightness of touch, eventually turned to others for what she could not give.
This lack makes even more poignant the letters she wrote to the courting Franklin at Groton and Harvard: first so tentative, so guarded, so “correct”; later slowly blossoming into open admissions of love.
“Dear Franklin,” she wrote him at Harvard in October of 1903. “Many thanks for your note & the ‘token from the sea,”which I think you should have sent to someone else however, don’t you? . . .
“I am so anxious to hear what you have decided to do this year & also whether you can come here on the 16th. . . .
“Please don’t do anything you don’t want to do however as I shall quite understand if you decide to go to Hyde Park instead of coming here.”
Three months later she wrote: “Dearest Franklin, Though I only wrote last night I must write you just a line this morning to tell you that I miss you every moment & that you are never out of my thoughts. . . . Everything is changed for me now. I am so happy. Oh! so happy & I love you so dearly. . . .”
That this enormously attractive and bright young cousin had sought her out was miracle enough. That he was determined to marry her (an act of wisdom which even his harshest critics would concede, if only in terms of clairvoyant expedience) overwhelmed her. They both knew what they wanted: not only each other, but a life of public service which was part of the Roosevelt code of privilege. The fortunate must give to the less fortunate; the proud must care for the humble.
No better picture of how each Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor, interpreted this code can be found anywhere than in this book; Eleanor living it wholly in terms of specific human and social needs to be met by direct action and fundamental change, Franklin seeing it inexorably bound with political power and its complex manipulation toward gradual progress.
Franklin’s ambitions were personal in the sense that he knew his manifest political talents were the agents of the power he relished: his steady climb to a majority mandate for highest office was proof enough. There seems no question that he chose to use this power—sometimes deviously, sometimes reservedly—for the public good. Whether he would have gone as far as he did in his first and second terms without Eleanor’s constant prodding, however, is, on the accumulated evidence of this book, in serious doubt.
One thing is sure: the President needed his wife as much as she needed him. Not, ever, in the sense of dictation by her: this Eleanor was far too wise to impose. Too wise in the light of her love and admiration for him and in the knowledge of how their political opponents would use her “meddling” against him (and did). Her job was, through intimate knowledge and contact with fellow Americans and their urgent needs, to bring these needs tirelessly and specifically to the President’s attention.
Lash quotes Rexford Tugwell as saying, “No one who ever saw Eleanor Roosevelt sit down facing her husband, and, holding his eye firmly, say to him, ‘Franklin, I think you should . . or, ‘Franklin, surely you will not . . .’ will ever forget the experience. . . . And even after many years he obviously disliked to face that devastatingly simple honest look that Eleanor fixed him with when she was aware of an injustice amenable to Presidential action or a good deed that he could do. . . .”
Her ceaseless efforts to do this are here given evidence. There was no area of life, no human condition that Eleanor did not explore, know, and work with. These she made the President—often through others closer to him in government—both notice and react to, preferably through persuasion of Congress. Passionately she fought for the poor, the blacks, the dispossessed, the young, the refugees from Hitler’s war.
Of all these, the common and overriding priority for both President and wife was peace: an end to war through the League of Nations, through any supranational agency which a reluctant Congress could grow to accept in the name of world survival.
As the list of her involvement on all these fronts proliferated, Eleanor’s position as First Lady became, as time went on. First Woman in charge of humanity.
That this expansion engendered as much derision as admiration is no surprise. Even after the victorious fight for suffrage, even after Carrie Chapman Catt and the number of highly qualified women in the ranks of political action (to say nothing of the brilliant female cadre working with the President’s wife), the sight of the first lady being in twenty places a day, from coal mines to battlefields, from Negro conferences to hospitals, from schools to slums to farms to breadlines, generated a rash of jokes and cartoons as well as serious criticism.
She was a naive busybody; she was leading the President by the nose; she should stay in the White House where she belonged—or the kitchen, or nursery, or Woman’s Place. Of these, the charge of naïveté had some foundation. Even as she grew in political knowledge and techniques, she would expose herself needlessly to ridicule by mothering some hapless individual and finding jobs for which she or he was clearly unsuited. She would attend gatherings of young people, whose aims she generally approved and supported until she would find to her dismay that they would lie to her about their Communist affiliations. The Communists were then joining the isolationists while both she and Franklin felt strongly, even before Pearl Harbor, that this country would have to join the fight against Hitler’s Reich.
Her critics would also loudly decry her inadequacies as a mother, “No wonder those Roosevelt kids are no good: she’s never home!”
If this book proves one thing, it is that Eleanor was, if anything, too much a mother. Even before Franklin was stricken by polio and later overwhelmed with the President’s office, he was either absent from their various homes or merely a fun-loving, genial father who enjoyed their “high-jinks” and games but found it distasteful to discipline them, in spite of his wife’s pleas. It was not until they were fully grown that he achieved intimacy, especially with his daughter Anna, and with James and Franklin, Jr.
Eleanor, therefore, compensated by being with them in every crisis or need, even when she had to leave Franklin and her other multiple duties to do so: always available for counsel or succor. When they were fully grown with wives and families of their own, she would fly across country to perform acts of maternal devotion which the wives, at least, might have found superfluous.
Yet these, in any case, were not her burdens even when her younger sons gave her pain or displeasure as they failed to live up to her standards.
Nor, on that awful day in 1921 when Franklin lost the use of his legs, was he a burden. The descriptions of her tireless nursing, day and night, from a cot by his bed, trying to massage his legs back into life, are as deeply moving as his invincible courage throughout the endless ordeal.
No. Eleanor Roosevelt’s major burdens as a woman were two: the first was Sara Delano Roosevelt, her mother-in-law, oppressor, tyrant, selfappointed possessor of her son Franklin and every thing and person close to him. Eleanor was under her thumb: forced to live with her and Franklin in homes in Hyde Park and New York where Sara presided, managed, governed. It was part of the deal, and the stakes were Franklin. How she endured this servility and bondage with consummate tact and displayed affection for so long remains a mystery.
No mystery at all is her other burden of anguish borne through Franklin’s love affair with Lucy Mercer, a lovely young woman of impeccable background whom Eleanor had employed in 1913-1914 as a part-time social secretary and who soon thereafter became a household familiar.
During Eleanor’s many absences from Washington before Pearl Harbor (at that time she was a “‘double agent’—a spokesman inside the White House for the hopes of the peace movement, and her husband’s deputy within the peace movement arguing for realism”), Lucy’s familiarity with her husband became an open secret.
To Eleanor it was an open wound. “Here is a case,” she wrote in the last
years of her life, “where ... I cannot meet the need of someone whom I dearly love. . . . Either you must learn to allow someone else to meet the need, without bitterness or envy, and accept it; or somehow you must make yourself learn to meet it. . . .”
Her own intense need for that affectionate intimacy, that complete communication with the man she loved, had seldom been met. Now the lines were irrevocably cut. She was on her own. Her allegiance to Franklin the President and Franklin the husband would never waver. But Eleanor Roosevelt now could speak for herself as a human being, standing alone.
But that she had been long before: before she espoused the rights of women to live in parity with men (she came late to this cause), before she became a president’s wife. Outwardly Eleanor might defer, and often did, not only to her husband but to the fact and rituals of male dominance, learning humbly from the men in power the techniques of rule. Inwardly she never lowered her sights, never betrayed her passionate humanity, never played any role but her own.
Toward the end of FDR’s third term, men close to him and women close to her pleaded that she become vice president in the event of a fourth. Since Eleanor had never really wanted to be First Lady at any time (twelve years of unrelenting formal duties coupled with her multiple causes and responsibilities had been ordeal enough), her rejection was unequivocal. Her heart was always more with the governed than the governing.
Yet one cannot read Joe Lash’s book without seeing Eleanor, unique as she was, as the prototype of a new breed of women who will govern in equal partnership with men on the basis of human priorities.
With few exceptions. First Ladies have been little more than ceremonial accessories, super-housekeepers, and shadow-wives: the ever-smiling consorts on campaign platforms and Most-Admired Lists. Presumably it is the desired image.
But not, one hopes, much longer in a world which Eleanor knew must change or perish.
Her inheritors are preparing themselves for the leadership she charted. The path is clear.