“Women

Why Eleanor Roosevelt’s Example Matters More Than Ever

A new biography shows how decency, determination and generosity of heart can change the world

Eleanor Roosevelt talks to a child at the ceremonies inaugurating the slum clearance in Detroit, Michigan. (Bettmann / Getty Images)
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At 3 a.m. on December 10, 1948, after nearly three years of intense deliberation and maneuvering, the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt what Eleanor Roosevelt envisioned as a Magna Carta for a new age: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a U.S. delegate to the nascent international body, she had chaired the commission that drafted the declaration and led the effort to see it ratified in the wake of the most brutally destructive conflict the world had ever seen—a war her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had not lived to see concluded. Now at last, meeting in the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, representatives of the world’s nations had reached an agreement. She regarded its adoption as her greatest achievement.

“[Roosevelt] walked into the General Assembly, quietly dressed, wearing no makeup, briskly taking the podium,” author David Michaelis writes in his new biography, Eleanor. “The entire Assembly got to its feet. Her fellow delegates then accorded her something that had never been given before and would never be given again in the United Nations: an ovation for a single delegate by all nations.”

After 12 years of being America’s First Lady, she had become the world’s foremost champion of human rights, revered for her wisdom, compassion and firmness of purpose. On her 70th birthday in 1954, Michaelis writes, the Washington Post published a congratulatory cartoon by Herblock. In the drawing, a mother points out the Statue of Liberty to her very small son. “Sure, I know who that is, mom,” the boy says. “That’s Mrs. Roosevelt.”

For a generation of Americans who had endured the Great Depression and the Second World War, Eleanor Roosevelt was an especially beloved figure. She rewrote the rulebook for First Ladies; instead of pouring tea at the White House, she crisscrossed the country by car, often driving alone, to meet unannounced with her fellow citizens, hear their concerns and offer help. “Reporters loved to clock her mileage,” Michaelis writes: Between 1933 and 1937, she averaged 40,000 miles a year. She hosted hundreds of weekly radio shows, held regular press conferences, wrote a monthly magazine column, and filed a popular daily newspaper column, “My Day,” carried in 90 papers with a million readers, almost never missing a day until 1962, when she died at age 78.

“She was the systolic muscle in the national heart, in the soul of America, always this figure in motion across a continent,” Michaelis says in an interview from his garage that doubles as an office (“Eleanor Roosevelt world headquarters,” he calls it), where he has pinned to the wall a map of the United States. “In the obsessive-compulsive way that one does in these long projects, or at least I do, I had pinpointed every single place with a green pin where she either filed her ‘My Day’ syndicated column from, or was writing about, or was passing through and noted something. It's a forest of green covering the continent.”

Author David Michaelis stands before the map he created of Eleanor Roosevelt's travels (Henry Michaelis Photography)

Mrs. Roosevelt’s deep need to connect with the public was not for show, not calculated to score political points. When FDR served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson, she devoted herself to visiting the maimed and shell-shocked soldiers of the First World War who were festering in military hospitals and became an effective advocate for their care; no camera crews followed her on her rounds. Each day in the first spring after the armistice, she would bring flowers to the military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. “If no mourners appeared,” Michaelis writes, “she stood as lone witness to the descending casket, ensuring that no soldier was buried alone.”

Eleanor traces her often painful evolution from lonely, orphaned society girl—a so-called ugly duckling derisively nicknamed “Granny” as a young child by her emotionally distant mother—to become the most consequential and admired woman in American civic life: a mother of six, educator, feminist and civil rights activist, canny political operative, diplomat and humanitarian. By the end, she had become not just America’s grandmother, but an international emblem of hope. “In her gray early life she had seemed old; in her sunny, smiling old age she had youth,” Michaelis writes.

Michaelis himself has a personal connection to Mrs. Roosevelt: At the age of 4, he met her backstage at WBGH studios, where his mother, Diana, produced Mrs. Roosevelt’s public television program, “Prospects of Mankind”; he remembers asking her for a piece of Juicy Fruit gum. He would later hear stories about her phenomenal ability to recharge with six-second catnaps, among other tidbits. A half-century later, Michaelis, whose previous works include acclaimed biographies of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz and artist N.C. Wyeth, plunged into the 11-year biographical project that would culminate this week with the publication of the exhaustively researched, vividly rendered biography.

We caught up with David Michaelis by phone for a conversation about the personal journey of one of American history’s most remarkable figures, and why her example matters today as much as ever.

Successive biographers have given us an evolving portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, both the public figure and the intensely private one. How does your work reframe or add to the picture?

One of the first intimations I had that ER was a powerful subject was how people struggled to categorize her. Even Adlai Stevenson, a good friend, when he eulogized her, strained a bit trying to define the quality that would truly explain her. There was this sense of not knowing really who she was, except obviously, magnificently, herself.

I believe that her posthumous biographer Joseph P. Lash—who had both the demerits and merits of someone who had known her very well personally—pegged her a bit too much as a feminist victim of this ambitious, charmingly deceptive husband in FDR, who she had to transcend to become the Mrs. Roosevelt of history and legend.

And then Blanche Wiesen Cooks magnificent, Army Corps of Engineers–scale trilogy brought authentic passion, feeling and will to Eleanor Roosevelt, both as a politician and as a person. Yet the book was unfairly attacked by some of the mandarins of Roosevelt history and biography, saying that here was an outing of Mrs. Roosevelt, overemphasizing her sexuality and telling us that she was, excuse me, a lesbian? On the one hand, if you do go and examine the evidence of people who knew her, they consistently say, oh, Mrs. Roosevelt knew nothing about homosexuality. But then of course everybody would go back and read, in shocking and up-close detail, the now-legendary letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, which offer a very forthright record of two people figuring out how to have a loving relationship that admitted of great erotic passion and great, great love.

There have been literally dozens of Eleanor Roosevelt biographies, memoirs, monographs; on top of which, FDR’s biographers increasingly find themselves devoting more and more space to his ever-increasingly acknowledged political partner. For all that, plus children and grandchildren’s and nieces’ memoirs and scrapbooks, I wanted to write a narrative biography that gets inside who she really was as a human being, so that when you finish reading this life, all in one book, you will have the “Aha!” experience of “Now, I really know her.”

ER’s childhood was marked by tragedy, loneliness, rejection and anxiety. Yet in her adulthood she flowered into this extraordinarily adaptable and effective person. You write that her uncle Theodore Roosevelt and his Oyster Bay branch of the family were characterized by, “above all other impulses, the resolve to transform private misfortune into public well-being.” How did that play out for Eleanor?

A great example to Eleanor in her life was her Aunt Bamie [née Anna Roosevelt], who was the older sister of Eleanor’s father, Elliot, and her uncle Teddy. Bamie was a highly independent woman, of whom it was said that she would have been president had women been allowed in effect to seek the office.

As a young woman, Bamie contracted Pott’s disease, an infectious spinal disorder. Her father, Theodore Sr., responded to his daughter’s suffering by creating an entire hospital and medical program so that children less fortunate and children suffering from the same illness would have a place to go and be taken care of without worrying. There were in fact many hospitals and alms houses and places where people could get care and help that were funded or run by Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. So, his children and certain of his grandchildren became fully aware of an obligation that is characterized by the phrase noblesse oblige.

But Eleanor wasn’t just a privileged young woman going to help out in a hospital or volunteer in the Rivington Street Settlement House. She was herself an outsider, someone who had been cast by fate, by the deaths over a 19-month period of, first, her mother, then a baby brother, and then her beloved father, respectively, from diphtheria, scarlet fever and alcoholism mixed with drug addiction. Eleanor was effectively orphaned at age 10, becoming somebody who didn’t fit in any more, either within her larger family, her circle of friends, or the world that she had been prepared to enter, which was the world of a privileged young woman in brownstone New York.

She experienced that sense of exile to the point that when she found people suffering from the same apartness, the same alienation, the same lostness, she understood them, and she felt close. She developed an ability to feel, to see more than was being shown, and to hear more than what was being said. It came out of all the anguish of having been cut off so dramatically from the person she might have been had she continued as the charming, cheerful daughter of Elliot and Anna Roosevelt.

That was the psychological springboard that ultimately enabled her to become a champion for people afflicted by poverty, tyranny, disease, discrimination and dislocation throughout the world.

A pivotal experience for the younger Eleanor was her time at Allenswood, a private, bilingual secondary school near London headed by the charismatic French educator Marie Souvestre. You describe the school as joyously alive, with flowers throughout the day rooms in fall and spring. For all its lovely touches, however, this was no finishing school for debutantes. Mme. Souvestre was training young women to think independently and develop a social conscience. Those years left an imprint.

Absolutely. Women’s education for some time had been seen to be actually dangerous for women's health. For a period after that, it was more about telling young women what they should think and say, how to behave properly.

Allenswood was different. Eleanor blossomed there. She already had begun to think for herself—she just didn’t know it yet. And so Madame Souvestre was the person who opened Eleanor’s own mind to herself and said if you don’t get to know yourself, you’re not going to get to know anybody else, you’re not really going to be a grownup, you’re not really going to be a person of the world.

Eleanor already spoke French fluently and was able to converse about adult subjects that were far beyond the reach of most of the girls there, and she came to be recognized as the school’s champion girl, the standout, the person who was going to carry Madame Souvestre's ideals into the 20th century. Eleanor was already worldly, but she was also, importantly, motherless and utterly willing to be devoted. And so she became the perfect second-in-command, the one who could translate between a body of international students and a complicated and touchy chief executive. She was working out how power and influence works through the job of second, through the job of a beta, through the job of a first lady. She learned to trust the way she thought, and to say it and speak it without fear and without shame.

Was shame a powerful factor in her development?

She did experience a great deal of shame in her childhood and in her young womanhood, for so many reasons. The main one—and it’s never understood clearly enough because it’s kind of lost in the story and in the archives—was about her adored father’s horrifying descent into mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction and ultimately suicide. The disintegration of Elliot Roosevelt was so profound, and so secretly kept from her by the adults, that Eleanor was a sitting duck when one of her extremely rivalrous and kooky aunts—the mean, vain and angry Aunt Pussie—turned on Eleanor one summer when she was 17 and said, I’m going to tell you the truth about your father—and then revealed a chain of horrors that would be a terrible blow for any young woman in any day or age, but in that time, just a nightmare. Knowing that she must now go through a world that pitied her as the orphaned daughter of the disgraced brother of [President] Theodore Roosevelt made her pivot immediately to realizing that the only hope for her was to represent a goodness of such sterling character that no one would ever question her father again.

The most public and well-known of all her relationships, of course, was with her fifth cousin, FDR, which evolved from youthful romance, marriage and betrayal to a mature, respectful and purposeful understanding that seemed to serve them both well. What would you say was the genius of that relationship and that marriage?

Both were able to adapt to the presence of others within their relationship, that they both were able to let go—with astonishing swiftness, actually—of the parts of themselves that they had hoped would satisfy the other, but which clearly were not going to. They moved right on, step by step, even side by side, asymptotically, going on to infinity in certain ways, because they were the power couple of all time, leading separate but parallel lives, with separate loves, separate helpers, separate people they could depend on. To me, they were an utterly modern couple who formed an utterly modern blended family. They formed a community, really, more than a family.

I think Eleanor is the lead there. She found a way to move forward through every stage, including finding her own relationship with, and love for, FDR’s assistant Missy LeHand, who became his closest companion and confidante from the 1920s into the ’40s. The primary ground zero of everything for them, was Franklin’s polio. Their ability to adapt to this life-altering illness, and to have a reasonably happy ever-after, was astonishing.

We tend to forget that the beloved Mrs. Roosevelt was the object of considerable vitriol in her day, as were Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and other avatars of peace, justice and social change. How did she handle it?

She was indeed subjected to endless misogyny and hatred, much of it generated by her championing of civil rights for African Americans. The attacks were brutal, vulgar, downright disgusting, and yet she just sailed right on. That was really quite characteristic of her, and of her leadership. It was simply a consciousness on her part, a practice, a sort of Buddhist enlightenment that she was not going to ever find anything but love for her enemies. She was sharp and cagey and extremely strategic, but she did manage to bring a humanistic view to the kinds of things that are grinding up politics into panic and chaos and all the rest today.

How would you explain Eleanor Roosevelt’s significance to those for whom she's just a name in a history book?

I would say she’s the one who wanted you to know that your government belongs to you. That it was furnished to you, it was invented for you, it was designed for you so that you could have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in your way. But in return—and this is the catch—you must do the people’s duty: It's up to you as a part of “we, the people” to show up for local, state, and federal elections, and put in your vote. That's it. That’s the contract with your country.

What you fundamentally keep seeing in Eleanor Roosevelt, is that she demanded civic responsibility of the individual and also demanded that we as a country to pay attention to the individual. She was always the intermediary, going between this group and that group, between the low and the high, the East and the West, the South and North.

Action was the key to everything she did. Words mattered—and she expressed herself in plain, simple, beautiful, clean language—but they were not finally as important as doing something. The phrase that Eleanor Roosevelt brought everywhere she went was, “What can be done?” The reactions were powerful. Off to the appropriate agency in Washington would go the message about so and so needing this.

She would say to people, pay attention to local politics, learn your community. Everything that's happening in the world of international affairs and on the national, federal level is happening in your community. And it’s in the small places close to home that we find human rights. It’s in every school, it’s in courtrooms, it’s in prisons, it's in hospitals, it's in every place where human beings are reaching out and trying to find a relationship between themselves and the world.

About Jamie Katz
Jamie Katz

Jamie Katz is a longtime Smithsonian contributor and has held senior editorial positions at People, Vibe, Latina and the award-winning alumni magazine Columbia College Today, which he edited for many years. He was a contributing writer to LIFE: World War II: History’s Greatest Conflict in Pictures, edited by Richard B. Stolley (Bulfinch Press, 2001).

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